Accepting Acceptance and its Paradoxical Nature
Penny Tompkins and James Lawley
grant me the serenity to accept that things I cannot change,
to change the things I can,
the wisdom to know the difference.
we have noticed what happens when people say they
accept, and when they actually do accept the ‘current
reality’ of their lives. We have noticed what happens at the
moment of acceptance and tracked what happens over time. Having got
interested, we put on our constructivist, symbolic modelling filters
to investigate what acceptance is, how we do it, and how we do not.
We also wondered what difference it makes to the potential for change
and transformation when people truly accept their current reality
from an authentic, deep and cellular state of being.
the word ‘accept’ came from the Latin: ‘to take
(something to one’s self)’. More recently ‘accept’
or ‘acceptance’ (according to the Oxford
American Writer's Thesaurus)
refers to the act of:
- the acceptance of an award — receipt, receiving, taking, obtaining
- the acceptance of responsibility —
- acceptances of an invitation —
- her acceptance into the group —
favorable reception, adoption
acceptance of Bill's promise
— belief in, trust in, faith in, confidence in, credence in,
give credence to
acceptance of pain —
endurance, forbearance, sufferance
acceptance of the ruling —
acquiescence in, agreement with, consent to, concurrence with,
assent to, acknowledgment of, adherence to, deference to, surrender
to, submission to, respect for, adoption of, buy-in to.
there is some overlap with the dictionary definitions of acceptance,
at The Developing Group we will be investigating the state of
acceptance. While the state of acceptance is often seen as digital —
on/off or in/out — we will explore its analogue nature
(variable along a scale). We will model acceptance from the client’s
and the facilitator’s perspectives. And we will highlight the
apparent paradoxes in the notion of ‘complete acceptance’.
usually refers to a person experiencing a situation or condition as painful
or uncomfortable without protesting, leaving or attempting to change
it (e.g. accept the status quo). Equally it could be accepting
something as joyful or liberating. The situation or condition may be
an external event in the world; or it may be an internal
thought, feeling or memory. Similarly a group may collectively accept
a situation or condition.
as a ‘solution’ is often suggested when a situation is
both disliked and unchangeable, or when change may be possible only
at great cost or risk. A psychotherapist might foster a depressed or
anxious client to accept whatever personal circumstances give rise to
those feelings, or to accept the feelings themselves. Conversely, a
psychotherapist might foster lessening an individual's acceptance of
various situations when passivity is their issue.
person who comes to accept a reality contrary to the norms of a group
may be shunned or excluded. That person may be seen (unconsciously)
as a threat because their very presence may challenge the beliefs,
ideals and aims of the group. For example, we facilitated a
long-standing victim-support group in Belfast each of whom had lost a
loved one in ‘the troubles’. The group discovered that one
member had never disclosed that she had “moved on” from
the trauma of losing her son. She had not previously voiced her
acceptance of the tragedy because she knew she would be going against
the ‘victim support’ ethos which sustained the group. She
said she didn’t want to lose her friends and social life by
declaring she no longer felt a victim.
and Meditative Traditions
of acceptance are prominent in many faiths and meditation practices.
For example, Buddhism's first noble
truth, "All life is suffering” invites people to accept
suffering as a natural part of life:
teaches us is to learn to accept everything, both the very hot and
the very cold. It is pointing us to a very simple solution for
suffering, but one which can be very hard to do when we are burning.
We need to be still with an open and all-accepting heart and mind. By
pushing nothing away, no matter how frightening or unpleasant, we
learn that there is nothing that we need to fear, that our True heart
will not be damaged by the fires of suffering. We also do not need to
grasp after anything, no matter how desirable or joyful, for all
those pleasures are fleeting and do not provide a true refuge from
the storms of our suffering.
is a place within us that no suffering can touch, that fulfills our
heart's deepest needs no matter what external trials life takes us
through. It is a deep act of faith to sit still in the midst of
suffering and not run away, and it is that faith that unlocks our
hearts and allows us to open ourselves to the Unborn. We all need to
be willing to accept the "hot" and the "cold" and
have faith that nothing in our lives, or in the entire world, is
outside the Buddha.
It is Hot, Be Completely Hot. When It is Cold, Be Completely Cold”,
Rev. Kinrei Bassis,
SantaBarbara Buddhist Priory Newsletter, July-August 1997
transformative type of acceptance can happen in a conversion
experience or in a single moment of grace. And it can be slowly
developed through years of meditation. The aim of many contemplative
practices is to make this state permanent and pervasive.
Models involving acceptance
is integral to a number of models. Below we review a few:
is inherent in the first two steps of the Alcoholics Anonymous 12
1: I am powerless over alcohol – my life has become unmanageable.
2: I came to believe that a power greater than myself could restore me to sanity.
Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions explain the importance of
acceptance as a prelude to recovery from alcoholism:
cares to admit defeat? Practically no one, of course. Every natural
instinct cries out against the idea of personal powerlessness. It is
truly awful to admit that, glass in hand, we have warped our minds to
such an obsession for destructive drinking that only an act of
Providence can remove it from us.
other kind of bankruptcy is like this one. Alcohol, now become the
rapacious creditor, bleeds us of all self-sufficiency and all will to
resist its demands. Once this stark fact is accepted, our bankruptcy
as going human concerns is complete.
upon entering AA we soon take quite another view of this absolute
humiliation. We perceive that only through utter defeat are we able
to take our first steps towards liberation and strength. Our
admissions of personal powerlessness finally turn out to be the firm
bedrock on which happy and purposeful lives may be built. [p. 21]
Steps to An Ecology of Mind, Gregory Bateson comments:
in the combination of these two steps is an extraordinary — and
I believe correct — idea: the experience of defeat not only
serves to convince the alcoholic that change is necessary; it is
the first step in that change. To be defeated by the bottle and to
know it is the first ‘spiritual experience.’ The myth of
self-power is therefore broken by the demonstration of a greater
viewed, this first step is not a surrender; it is simply a
change in epistemology, a change in how to know about the
personality-in-the-world. And, notably, the change is from an
incorrect to a more correct epistemology. [p.313]
would go somewhat further [than AA’s second step] and recognize
that the “self” as ordinarily understood is only a small
part of a much larger trial-and-error system which does the thinking,
acting and deciding. This system includes all the informational
pathways which are relevant at any given moment to the given
decision. The “self” is a false reification of an
improperly delimited part of this much larger field of interlocking
processes. [p. 331]
wonder if Bateson’s conscious “self”, with the
illusion of self-power, accepts at a surface level. On the other hand,
when we resonate with the larger system that includes more of the
complexity, unpredictability and incomprehensibility of life, does
that make possible a deeper, more inclusive and encompassing state of
is the fifth stage in the Kübler-Ross "Stages of Grieving",
outlined in her 1969 book On Death and Dying. The
model was later expanded into a Seven-Stage Grief Cycle (where
‘grief’ can be a reaction to any kind of loss, not just
bereavement). In both the five and the seven stage versions,
acceptance is the last stage:
1 (Shock), 2 Denial, 3
Anger, 4 Bargaining, 5 Depression, 6 (Testing), 7 Acceptance
contrasts with the 12 Step Program where acceptance is the first
step. We don’t think there is necessarily any conflict between
the two models. Someone may well need to go through the Grief Cycle
before they are ready to accept that they need to embark on the first
step of the 12 Step Program.
of the most valuable models of acceptance we have encountered is
Robert Fritz’s idea of current reality. He uses this term in
relation to the creative process:
you know what end result you want, or your vision, what is the next
step? Most people think the answer is to find out how to get there.
This is not the best next step. The best next step is to
describe what you currently have in relationship to the result you
want. This is a step that is conspicuously absent in many systems
designed specifically to help you attain what you want.
reality, as a stage, begins after the vision has been formed. It is
also an ongoing stage in the creative process in the sense that you
should always be aware of the current state of the creation while it
develops. In the beginning of the creative process there will be a
discrepancy between what you want and what you have. This discrepancy
forms a tension. Tension seeks resolution. The tension is a wonderful
force because, as it moves toward resolution, it generates energy
that is useful in creating. [Path of Least Resistance, pp.
have adopted Fritz’s term, 'current reality' and have widened its
meaning to: a person’s current experience as they are aware
of it, moment by moment.
points out that just having ‘a want’ produces a tension
because of the gap between the desired outcome and current reality.
Many people’s initial reaction to this tension is a desire to
remove the tension (a Remedy in the P.R.O. model). This
produces another gap with current reality (that they are
experiencing a tension) and hence a further tension occurs. It is
easy to see how this can become an infinite regress. Instead of
accepting that tension is a natural part of creating anything; is
essential to long-term motivation; and can’t be gotten rid of, a common tendency is to attempt to change the goal or distort current
the Brutal Facts
Collins exhorts managers who want to turn their companies from Good
to Great to “confront the brutal facts of reality.”
This is because the good-to-great companies he studied displayed a
consistent pattern of behaviour — they infused the entire
management process with the brutal facts of reality:
is nothing wrong with pursuing a vision for greatness. After all, the
good-to-great companies also set out to create greatness. But, unlike
the comparison companies, the good-to-great companies continually
refined the path to greatness with the brutal facts of reality. [p.
the potential for violence in the "brutal" metaphor, his message is the same as the
other approaches described: reality is
your friend, so accept it as it is.
Metaphors in Mind we focussed on the value of the client (and
facilitator) accepting the current reality of the unresolvable nature
of a binding pattern, as the client experiences it:
a client learns about the organisation of their Metaphor Landscape,
usually they either accept their existing organisation as is,
or a translatory change satisfies them. Changes of this nature
account for most of what people wish to achieve through
psychotherapy. In some cases however, neither the status quo nor a
translatory change is acceptable. Then the system needs to
find a new way of being. [p.38]
a single bind is relatively easy. The client simply
reformulates (reframes) the problem and moves on, or they accept
its unsolvable nature and stop fighting, or they randomly decide
between alternatives, or they choose a different route altogether, or
they ignore the paradox, or a thousand other solutions. [p. 183]
if, for some reason or other, resolving the bind is
unachievable or unacceptable? What if the potential for
transformation is itself bound? Then another pattern—a
double bind—must be operating to preserve a larger
organisation. [p. 184]
many clients, truly acknowledging ‘this is the way it is’
and accepting ‘current reality’ is the first step
on the road to transformation. ... Accepting current reality sounds
simple, yet clients rarely face the unresolvability of their double
bind without a struggle. Instead they experience frustration, angst,
grief, anger or depression as they come to terms with and accept
the fact that even their most tried and tested technique, their most
successful method, their cleverest trick, their most beloved reframe,
will never resolve this particular conundrum. In fact they
often come to realise that these techniques, methods, tricks and
reframes are part of the bind. [p. 185]
Depth of acceptance
now it should be clear that acceptance takes several forms, and these
are part of a continuum that runs from a surface or more superficial
knowing to a deeper and more encompassing state. We
borrow the ‘deep’ metaphor from recent usage such as
‘deep ecology’ [Arne Naess cited in Fritjof Capra’s
The Web of Life] and ‘deep democracy’ [Arnie
Mindell] which distinguish more ‘surface’ and everyday
experiences from their more cellular, spiritual and
Catherine Tate school of acceptance — “Wot-ev-ah” —
epitomises the most superficial degree of acceptance.
a behavioural level someone may decide to take no action and yet be
far from fully accepting of their circumstance. This may be an
inability to accept one’s needs or desires, or it may be the
safest course of action when living under a repressive regime.
a deeper level, it is possible to accept a situation intellectually
and still remain emotionally attached. The result is often an
internal conflict with incongruent behaviour when the emotion ‘leaks
out’. We have noticed this often happens when people say
they have accepted that they can’t have what they want. In Transactional Analysis (TA)
terms the Adult might accept, but the Child certainly doesn’t.
In such cases we test a person’s acceptance by asking them:
when you can’t have what you want, what happens to your want?”
Usually they find their want is merely pausing to plan its next strategy.
asked this question of a couple who were forever bickering, this time
over the colour to paint their wardrobes. The woman turned bright
red, then a big smile filled her face and she said, “Actually,
it never happens”. “What never happens?”, we
enquired. “I always get my own way ... eventually.”
a deeper level still, acceptance is a behavioural, cognitive and
emotional state of acknowledging current reality — you accept
it is the way it is. While you may not like a situation, this
type of acceptance is marked by a minimal emotional response to the
situation. As an example, a Catholic marries a Protestant, accepts
that they will not convert, and stops hoping they will.
use ‘deep acceptance’ to point to a phenomenon that
operates at a cellular (more fundamental) or spiritual (more
significant) levels. Deep acceptance is not a behaviour, it is not an
intellectual understanding, it is not an emotion — it is a
state of mind-body-spirit knowing.
any moment deep acceptance can seem like you have it or you don’t.
Sometimes it can arrive rapidly, without warning or request.
Sometimes it comes as a shock, in an ‘Oh my God, now I
see’ moment that often follows the lifting of the veil of
self-deception, self-delusion or self-denial. There is a
clarity when the blindingly obvious is recognised, and every cell in
your body ‘just knows’. This is such an unusual and
all-encompassing state that it is often accompanied by strong
emotions. The euphoria, grief or anger that follows is not the
acceptance. It is a reaction to the acceptance. The accompanying
emotion passes, while the acceptance remains.
is also possible to notice subtle differences over a period of time
as each accessing of the state of acceptance deepens and enriches.
Then people say ‘I thought I had accepted it, but now I really
do’. This deepening process can be repeated many times.
quick or slow, once a deep state of acceptance has been integrated
‘things can never be the same again’ and a defining
moment has occurred.
acceptance is a cornerstone of Dr. Marsha Linehan's Dialectical
Behavioral Therapy. DBT combines cognitive-behavioral techniques for
emotion regulation with eastern practices for mindfulness, distress
tolerance and acceptance. It draws from the Buddhist tradition that
suffering is a meta-state, i.e. it is pain about pain. Linehan is
particularly known for her success in the treatment of those
diagnosed with Borderline Personality Disorder. In her Dialectical
Skills Training Manual, Linehan outlines the following:
from suffering requires ACCEPTANCE from deep within of what is.
yourself go completely with what is.
go of fighting reality.
is the only way out of hell.
creates suffering only when you refuse to ACCEPT the pain.
to tolerate the moment is ACCEPTANCE.
is acknowledging what is.
ACCEPT something is not the same as judging it good.
what is Radical Acceptance? Linehan explains:
do I mean by the word 'radical'? Radical means complete and total.
It's when you accept something from the depths of your soul. When you
accept it in your mind, in your heart, and even with your body. It's
total and complete. When you've radically accepted something, you're
not fighting it. It's when you stop fighting reality. That's what
radical acceptance is.
are three parts to radical acceptance:
first part is accepting that reality is what it is.
second part is accepting that the event or situation causing you pain
has a cause.
third part is accepting life can be worth living even with painful
events in it.
problem is, telling you what it is and telling you how to do it are
two different things. Radical acceptance can't really be completely
explained. Why not? Because it's something that is interior - it's
something that goes on inside yourself. But all of us have
experienced radical acceptance, so what I want you to do right now is
to try to focus in on sometime in your life when you've actually
accepted something, radically - completely and totally.
Acceptance is close to our notion of deep acceptance; and by
exploring the differences we get to know more about our own
says “acceptance is the only way out of hell”.
We think, 'maybe, maybe not'. We are open to other exit strategies.
second part of Radical Acceptance is “accepting that the event
or situation causing you pain has a cause”. In our
opinion, this belief is not a necessary condition for deep
acceptance. Here’s why:
this statement presupposes that events or situations can ‘cause’
pain. If we accept that an event causes pain, then as long as
the event continues, so must the pain. And by that logic acceptance
would not have any effect. While we know changing the pain is not the
function of acceptance, time and again people report that when they
deeply accept, something happens to their primary pain, and not just
what difference does it make that the event or situation has a cause?
How does believing this make it easier to access the state of
acceptance? To us this is similar to the “There must be a
reason for it” thinking. There well may be, but so what?
the belief “the event causing you pain” is a conflation
of logical levels, and undervalues the role of the mind and nervous
system in the creation of pain. In The Brain that Changes Itself,
Norman Doidge shows how pain is a systemic, emergent property of the
relationships between mind, nervous system, culture and physical
environment – there is no simple linear relationship.
and perhaps most tellingly, focussing on ‘a cause’ may shift
attention from the current experience to the (past) cause, and in that respect is not
accepting the reality of the moment.
a person believes that their pain has a cause, fine. That is their
current reality. And we have seen many clients spend a lot of time,
effort and angst looking for a ‘root cause’. Even when
they find a satisfying cause they may have no idea how this knowledge
will actually change anything. As they say at the Findhorn Spiritual
Community, “Information is not transformation”. Or they
never find a root cause and then worry what that means about them
(“I’m not trying hard enough”, “I’m a
failure”, “I’m stuck with the pain — poor
me”). Either way the search for a cause can itself be an
avoidance of the reality of their current situation. (This reality
includes that they would like a ‘root cause’
which, once found, would solve everything — wouldn’t we
all? — and the reality is, so far, despite all their searching,
they haven’t found one. And, of course, they might.)
a Symbolic Modelling viewpoint all we have to work with is what a
person is experiencing right now. Therefore ‘causes’ (at
least those that happened in the past) are considered to be either current memories or
a current pattern that resembles the past. We are not saying there
are no causes or that identifying a cause is not valuable. We are
saying that in the realm of human experience: (i) most ‘causes’
are metaphorical and are better thought of as explanations rather
than provable cause-effect relationships; (ii) finding a cause
doesn’t necessarily change anything; and (iii) searching for a
past cause can be a convenient diversion from accepting current
emphasizes learning to bear pain skillfully”. For us,
acceptance is also learning to experience joy in the moment.
Marianne Williamson wasn’t joking when she said “Our
deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that
we are powerful beyond measure.” For many people deeply
accepting how joyful or how privileged they are is a tall order.
Mary Pipher says:
we are lucky, occasionally we experience a sparkling moment when we
break out of our trance of self and we are fully present. Sometimes
these lead to epiphanies, which present us with aha moments of new
understanding. Or our thoughts simply may be “Isn’t this
wonderful?” or even, “Doesn’t this look beautiful
or taste delicious?” What makes these moments distinct is that
we are celebrating what actually is. Psychologists Abraham
Maslow called these moments “peak experiences” and argued that
they were often transformative.
for Joshua Bell’ Psychotherapy Networker Magazine,
March/April 2009, p. 51]
Ways to not accept
what means do we not accept current reality? How do we do
that? Especially when it doesn’t seem to be in our own
interest? The antonyms of ‘accept’ (i.e. metaphors of not
accepting) give clues. Apparently we can: resist, doubt,
refuse, reject, turn down, go against, and defy reality.
Watzlawick and his colleagues noticed how attempting to apply a
solution to a problem can often perpetuate or exacerbate that
problem, or create a new one. “When The Remedy is the
Problem” [see The Developing Group notes, Dec 2005] a person
usually needs to accept the evidence that their striving to enact a
solution is not working — even if it has ‘always worked
in the past’, or seems to be the obvious or only thing to do.
not accepting is always a fundamental characteristic in
This type of bind demands a double dose of not accepting — a
person will have discovered ways to (almost) convince themselves that
‘what they know to be true’ is not true; and
that their ‘misleading representation’ is not
misleading! When they come to deeply accept what they know to be
true, they can no longer live out of their
misleading representation — whatever the consequences.
Fritz in The Path of Least Resistance explains how ‘reasons’
can be used to avoid accepting reality:
describing reality accurately often becomes self-propaganda. You may
be late for an appointment and on your way over think up the most
plausible excuse. By the time you arrive, not only are you ready to
recite it, but you almost believe it yourself. Avoiding describing
reality accurately is often a strategy to overcome the negative
consequences of your actions. Our society puts a high premium on
reasons and excuses. Most people learn that if they have a good
reason for not succeeding, they can sometimes avoid negative
consequences. Many people mis-represent reality through a smokescreen
of plausible-sounding reasons that are designed to distract
themselves and others from the truth.
people learn that others put less pressure on them when they are
sick. So they often get sick to have a legitimate excuse to not live
up to expectations. Some people use being in a state of emotional
upheaval as an excuse: “If I’m upset, do not ask me to be
responsible.” Being a “victim of circumstances” is
a common reason some people use to explain their actions.
knowing the reasons for failure can help you adjust the actions you
take to shape your final creation. But this is quite different from
using reasons to justify failure. Discovering the effect of the
actions you take is designed to be a learning experience, rather than
a justification for not succeeding.
[the causes] has at least two functions. One is to correct the error
in the future. Knowing what happened also helps to ease the pain
sometimes evoked by reality. Those who learn to know reality, without
holding on to the past, are in the best position to truly live their
lives. This is anything but amnesia. This is not forgetting the past,
but remembering that the past is over. The past is not the present.
Whether the past has been filled with loss or failure or filled with
success and victory, the past is not the present. And the present is
not the past. [pp. 142-145]
Creating, Robert Fritz describes how ideal-reality
conflicts limit our ability to accept ourselves as we are:
often have an ideal for themselves to which they hope to aspire.
Personal ideals are extremely easy to form, given the abundance of
notions in the world about how to be a perfect or proper human being.
But when you compare your ideal with reality, a discrepancy arises.
If you have an ideal that you should be pretty, and one day you look
in the mirror and you do not deem yourself to be pretty, you have an
ideal-reality conflict. Reality contradicts the ideal. What is to be
done about it? You take actions to end the discrepancy to favor the
ideal: a trip to the beauty parlor, a new mirror, a pep talk about
inner beauty. Why do you have to be pretty?
ideal-reality conflicts mostly arise from personal concerns; they are
laden with concerns about identity. In most cases what is at issue is
you, in that you have not lived up to an ideal you have
set for yourself. In fact, the ideal you form actually may be in
opposition to many of your real opinions of yourself. When you impose
desirable qualities, admirable attributes, and high standards of
accomplishment on yourself, and then attempt to force yourself into
living up to these characteristics, you are implying through the act
of forcing yourself that you are not fine just the way you are. The
further implication is that there is something wrong with how you
are. [pp. 93-95]
Fritz asks you to consider:
do you have to be smart?
is wrong with having an opinion that you are bad, or unworthy, or
is wrong with you the way you are?
goes on to ask an interesting question:
you don’t have to be any particular way, and you don’t
have to behave any particular way, and you don’t have to
justify your existence, and you don’t have to live up to preset
standards, and you don’t have to accomplish anything in
particular, how would you spend your time? [p. 232]
Acceptance and wisdom
in its basic form has no moral compass. It does not make a
distinction between good and bad, right and wrong. It is simply an
acceptance of our own subjective reality. In this respect it is a
form of faith because the reality of our own private interior world
can never be proven nor unproven — it can only be compared to
other people’s subjective reality.
believe it is vital to acknowledge that when ‘completely
accepting’ goes beyond faith to fundamentalism it can lead to
terrible actions. The Jamestown mass suicide and ‘ethnic
cleansing’ come to mind. Complete acceptance without feedback
becomes a closed system — for good or ill.
our observations, like the Serenity Prayer quoted at the start of
these notes, deep acceptance requires a supervisory level that brings
wisdom to the system.
supervisory level is required to ensure external views are
incorporated and to provide a moral compass. In other words, the
Supervisory Level operates out of the frame of: ‘Having
accepted the reality of my experience and taken into account other
perspectives and external views of my current reality, and considered
the morality of my intended actions, I will ... .’
The acceptance paradox
this journey into acceptance we kept coming across apparent
paradoxes; so much so that we realised they are inherent. Now we
think about it, because acceptance is a multi-level phenomenon,
paradox must be an ever-present possibility. Some of the apparent
paradoxes we have identified are summarised below:
we “completely accept” then we would not lift a finger
to help ourselves or others. If we completely accept everything ‘as
is’, we would soon starve to death: “I am hungry ... I
am starving ... I am dying ... I ...”.
how things are without the desire to change them often opens us up,
or prepares us for change. If you desire something to change you are
not accepting it as it is. The paradox is: If you are going to
accept, you can’t want to change that which you want to
says that you can’t really change your life until you accept
how bad it is. And if you haven’t accepted how bad it is, it
will get get worse — until you "hit bottom". Then you
will really accept your “life has become unmanageable”.
of the worst atrocities in history have occurred when people have
completely accepted their reality as the Truth. Acceptance without
feedback becomes a potentially dangerous self-reinforcing system.
person experiencing surface acceptance is unlikely to act, whereas a
person in a state of deep acceptance is very likely to act. For
example, the Dali Lama seems to deeply accept the reality of the
invasion of Tibet, and he has campaigned tirelessly for
decades to change the situation — but always within his
principle of loving kindness. This is an important point. Deep
acceptance seems to ‘bring out the best’ in a person.
They ‘rise to the occasion’ even if they have fears or
facilitators we can deeply accept a client’s description as
true for them at that moment, and remember that as, Viktor
Frankel has written, the self does not yield to total
The facilitator's perspective
facilitators are faced with several dilemmas when it comes to
acceptance of what a client says. On the one hand, as we say in
Metaphors in Mind:
some linguists dismiss metaphors as ‘merely figurative’,
we accept them as a highly accurate description of experience
and interpretation of the meaning of symbols by the facilitator
is counterproductive because it distracts the client’s
attention from their own perceptions. Instead you can accept
clients’ metaphoric expressions as perfect examples of their
patterns manifesting in the moment. (p. 47)
combination of matching clients’ voice qualities, asking clean
questions with a tonality of implicit acceptance,
curiosity and wonder, while using a slow delivery and a poetic
rhythm, is a potent mixture. (p.80)
the other hand, clients are consciously aware of their internal world
to varying degrees and no matter how aware they are, any description
of an experience can only describe a fraction of their whole system.
While we accept all verbal and nonverbal expressions explicitly, we
cannot privilege any one of them. This is particularly the case when:
client is stating an initial desired outcome.
client’s not-accepting-their-current-reality contributes to
them not achieving what they want.
client’s proposed remedy is a problem.
client is holding back vital information (maybe due to embarrassment
client is deliberately attempting to mislead the facilitator (e.g.
offenders who need to be seen to change in order to get parole).
Delusion, self-deception, self-denial is involved.
delusion is involved.
worked unsuccessfully for a long time with a client who wanted to
lose weight. We were presenting him with evidence of his own
ineffective behaviour and strategies when he turned red and said
angrily, “Look, I just want to be thin. I don’t want to
have to lose weight.” And there it was; despite him stating
dozens of times that he wanted to lose weight, not only did he not
want to change his eating habits — he wasn’t going to.
Once he accepted this he stopped therapy.
a clean facilitator we need to be aware of the above possibilities
– and more. We have to both accept the client’s
description, and at the same time not fully accept what they
say. Penny calls this “having one foot in (the client’s
world), and keeping one foot out”. One way to do this is to
hold in mind that we do not, and cannot, have access to the full
picture. We are always working in the dark. As Nicholas Nassim Taleb
says in The Black Swan, all the “silent evidence”
that we cannot know, will continually dwarf everything we do know.
lack of knowledge also applies to the client, so if a facilitator
completely accepts a client’s description they may undervalue
patterns that are out of the client’s awareness.
need to be able to calibrate a client’s state of accepting. An
experienced facilitator will recognise the difference between the
state of acceptance, the process of accepting, and any
accompanying emotion. They will not be seduced by the drama of the
outward display of emotion. They will honour the emotion and then
direct attention to the original state of acceptance.
also need to notice that if a client says “Yes I accept the
situation, now what do I do?” they may have touched a state of
acceptance for less than a second. That is hardly long enough for the
client to get to know that state, let alone deepen it into an
out-of-the-ordinary experience. Our approach would be to direct their
attention to the knowing (e.g. the acceptance that what they are
doing isn’t working) and hold them there. Why? Because, staying
with acceptance will, if nothing else, teach them about themselves,
and if they are lucky it will be a prelude to a creative emergence.
[There follows a short example of working with acceptance, followed by an annotated transcript of a full client session.]