My general MO is taking principles very seriously and only lightening up when I’ve seen them break for myself. And then sharing the story on this blog. Please enjoy the latest dispatch.
I got into radical acceptance around the time I got sick 4 years ago. The idea of not needing to resist the reality of the moment is still very powerful to me, but my implementation of this insight very quickly got perverse. I had built myself an acceptance trap.
A comfort trap is when seeking comfort causes you to be miserable, usually because you’re avoiding temporary pain required for greater well-being. A happiness trap is when seeking happiness causes you to be miserable, usually because you avoid negative feelings that come with doing what is meaningful to you. I’m defining an acceptance trap as when accepting yourself or requiring acceptance from others leads you to in fact accept yourself less and be accepted by others less, usually because you’re allergic to anything resembling rejection.
My acceptance trap completely conflated feedback on my behavior with evaluation of my innate worthiness. Being less than fully endorsed on any level was being rejected on the deepest level.* I was basically insisting to myself and those closest to me that I was incapable of change or improvement. In a shallow way, that was “accepting” myself, but at the price of actually liking or believing in myself. In reality, what I was practicing was radical resignation to a diminished version of who I could be. Requiring complete upfront acceptance meant that I couldn’t be held accountable for my behavior, like coldness or moodiness, because criticizing my conduct was criticizing me. If you didn’t accept me at my moodiest, you would never accept me at all, so what was the point? Push to leave the acceptance zone deflected; +1 misery.
Feelings, desires, and beliefs that were at odds with full self-acceptance were, ironically, suppressed. The only thing I could do to avoid misery is try to think the right way about my unchangeable self and situation– to have unconditional self-acceptance. I wasn’t allowed to dislike things that I did or impose higher standards, because that wouldn’t be accepting myself. I also had to accept bad behavior from others (as long as I didn’t see it as a threat to my health) because otherwise I would be a hypocrite and indirectly rejecting myself, who also behaved badly sometimes. Similarly, ambition became a form of self-rejection to be avoided, because aspiring to be more meant finding the person I was then lacking, which would not be accepting myself.
Ultimately, my acceptance trap became a hideyhole— a reason to avoid the world. There was no point, because hardly anyone fully accepted the way I was, and if they didn’t accept me now, then changing could at best get me conditional acceptance. If I changed to be accepted, I wouldn’t be accepting myself. Treating myself like I needed complete acceptance from others made me feel less than those who didn’t need as much understanding, and I had to avoid the risk of accepting myself less that came from exposing myself to those feelings of inferiority. Bit by bit I withdrew myself from the kinds of activities and relationships that would help me grow and give me something to enthusiastically accept (embrace!) about life. The only way I was allowed to feel better was to accept my current feelings more, but the more I “accepted” myself, the more trapped I got.
The problem with my acceptance trap reasoning is that we don’t embrace ourselves or anyone else the way I longed for for free. There’s a kind of general acceptance that I offer other human beings unconditionally, but that’s not the kind of acceptance and regard I want for myself. I don’t think the “you’re a human being with fundamental goodness” that I can extend to others sight unseen is substantial enough to satisfy a human being’s need to belong. So even though I think we’re all fundamentally worthy of acceptance, it doesn’t follow from that that we are owed all the enthusiastic social acceptance that we need to thrive. Not only is it okay to want acceptance that has to be earned– I don’t think we really want unconditional acceptance. We want a unique, personal acceptance, not of humanity in general, but of us as individuals. We want to be seen, and a blanket acceptance that has nothing to do with who we are or what we’ve done, i.e. that we would recieve regardless, unconditionally, isn’t going to cut it.
More importantly, I wanted myself to see not just who I was– with the stomach to take in the good, the bad, and the ugly– but who I could be. I wanted to grow!** I was not content with things as they are– I wanted to change the world and myself. I got out of my acceptance trap by daring to hope, and act, for more.
*As usual, I’m writing about my own experience here, and it may not generalize. A big reinforcer of my acceptance trap was a OCD-like conviction that I was doing metaphysical harm if I rejected myself and that there was a mystical healing power to acceptance. On some level, I believed that something would click into place and my whole relationship to the world would change if only I could fully accept myself. While I certainly know others with this misapprehension (especially Western Buddhists), I think I am particularly prone to this kind of superstitious mental bargaining.
**I could frame my realizations in the language of healthy acceptance if I wanted to be charitable. For example, I could say I accepted the part of me that wants to grow and change. But I chose not to because I don’t like the ring of the word “acceptance” anymore.
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