What does acceptance mean, to a person-centred counsellor?
Self-acceptance is no easy task, right?
If it was; there would be no reason for comfort food, alcohol or mental health professionals, to exist.
One, mind-stretching concept; I have come to realise, throughout my training and practice, is something I aim to simplify in this blog. It is not easy to get one’s own head around certain processes, let alone convey that to the non-psychology trained public. So allow me to take a few deep breaths, and I shall begin.
In order to understand what acceptance feels like, it helps to think about what non-acceptance is, and why that is a problem. Individuals often present for counselling in what is termed a state of incongruence. Incongruence means that our thoughts, feelings and behaviours are in conflict with each other. This may manifest in the following ways:
- Thinking one thing but doing another
- Doing something, but feeling shame, anger, fear or sadness as a result
- Feeling something but not expressing it
You may notice the ‘but’ in the middle of each sentence. ‘But’ is an unhelpful word when we are trying to accept something. It brings a sense of failure, disappointment and frustration, which may also lead to a sense of helplessness. I can actually feel my body responding to that sense of helplessness, when I say or hear the word ‘but’. Did you notice it too? The word ‘but’ can also be used to compensate for a perceived negative. This then places a value judgment on a thought, feeling or action. When we place a negative value on something we think, feel or do; it can lead to feelings of toxic shame. This shame becomes our nemesis as it blocks self-compassion and self-acceptance. We might find ourselves constantly justifying our decisions and behaviours to others if we believe there is something unacceptable about who we are.
Responses to shame
Uncomfortable feelings of shame, can lead to behaviours which harm ourselves or others, as we try to avoid them. Shame can also cause us to disconnect from our own feelings and prevent us from relating on an emotional level with others. We may even withdraw from social activities altogether, or avoid pursuing a career ambition, if our feelings of not being ‘good enough’ are very severe.
What can we do about it?
If we look at those three statements again, and replace the word ‘but’ with ‘and’, you may feel a shift, just as I do. This is what it looks like now:
- Thinking one thing and doing another
- Doing something, and feeling shame, anger, fear or sadness as a result
- Feeling something and not expressing it
By changing one three-letter word, we can experience a feeling of personal empowerment. We can own all of the thoughts, feelings and behaviours as they are all part of who we are. Once we realise that we are choosing all of these inconsistencies, we can identify the internal struggle as being the one we need to focus on, rather than the external conflicts we may be having with others. Where we used to feel helpless, we can begin to accept greater personal responsibility and realise that we do have a choice.