Acceptance in therapy

Acceptance has become all the rage in the psychotherapy community. Mindfulness therapies focus on accepting whatever passes through the mind and body in this moment. We have acceptance and commitment therapy, a new version of CBT. But, judging from the questions I receive from therapists, I sense a lot of confusion about acceptance.

Acceptance doesn’t mean taking a passive, helpless position. It doesn’t mean that you give up your agency, waiting until a crisis passes. Nor does it mean just accepting that someone is a “problem”, while remaining a “noble” victim. Nor does it mean that we “accept” pain as if you are some enlightened, detached observer, who somehow is no longer touched by life.

Nor does acceptance mean detachment, where you say, “I accept it” and mean, “I’m over it.” Nor does acceptance mean that you give up, waiting for others, life, the government, or the stars to change.

When I take a helpless position, I don’t accept responsibility for what I can offer. When I give up my agency, I don’t accept what I can do. When I “accept” that someone is a “problem” under whom I must suffer, I don’t accept my choice to suffer. When I “accept” pain as a detached observer in others, I refuse to accept my capacity to co-suffer with the other.

This pseudo-acceptance is just a closeted rejection of others and our capacity to respond. We make the other person someone or something else. We relate to our image or idea of that person, and then we react to that image and reject it. These reactions to our projections are so fast and habitual, they can masquerade as intelligence.

But our reactivity reveals that we are the slaves of our projections (“He’s a problem.” She doesn’t respect me.” “He just can’t listen.” As a result, we suffer the painful feelings that arise from the internal soap opera known as our fantasy life. We react to our fantasies, we accuse others of “crimes” based on our fantasies, and it all feels so incredibly real and powerful.

Then there’s this thing called reality.

When we accept this moment, we realize we have absolutely no idea what that other person thinks or feels about us at this moment. No idea. They are on the other side of town or in another country. Yet, we cook up these fantastic fantasies and live within them. Believing others don’t accept us; we don’t accept them. We are not accepting them as mysteries; we are accepting our fantasies.

Our task shifts: can we let go of our fantasies so we can accept the reality of the other person, someone whose thoughts and feelings we do not really know in this moment? Can we accept that other person as unknowable? Can we accept ourselves as really great story-tellers? We must be great, since we convince ourselves of these stories that are all made up!

Accepting this moment, you as story teller and the other person as unknown is accepting that reality has been here all along while we were busy cooking up stories about loved ones. If we can accept this reality, this is the place from which change could happen. Accepting reality is the place from which answers can arise. After all, realistic answers can never arise from our fantasies, but only from reality. It can seem boring and still without those stories, as if you are doing nothing.

That’s true. Before you were creating stories and reacting to them. Now you’re not. By contrast, it feels as if you are doing nothing. It’s not really the end of doing anything; it’s just the end of reacting to your stories. Instead of jumping to the ten top favorite fantasies about others, you receive the reality of the other. Instead of reacting to your stories, you respond to the real person before you.

One of the Zen patriarchs said that if you want to find the truth, first let go of cherished opinions. Why? Truth is everywhere. It’s all around us. Our cherished opinions are the veils preventing us from seeing the truth. We don’t have to seek it. It’s here.

Can we accept that we cherish our projections? Can we accept that we have been accepting our projections instead of reality? When we react to our projections, we don’t need to be curious about others because we “know” what they think and feel. We don’t have to be present because we know where we are “trying to go.” Without our projections, everything slows down. We need to find out who is this person? What does she think and feel? I have to be present in order find out who she is. I don’t have to go anywhere, because we are right here, right now.

This begins the three-way acceptance. I accept where I am in this moment. I accept that I cannot change the past. It is over. I also accept that I cannot fully control the future.

Acceptance in this moment means letting go of cherished opinions so we can relate to what is, now. Strange to say, reality has already accepted us. We are here: you and I. By accepting our oneness, our mutually shared humanity, we accept each other as mirrors, disguised reflections of ourselves.


Does Love Melt Defenses?

If it did, no one would have defenses anymore. Writers from Bruno Bettelheim to Aaron Beck have pointed out that “love is not enough.” Why does this myth persist? It was our childhood strategy: “If I love mom or dad enough, they will love me back.”

But it doesn’t always work. Love is powerful. But people have to let love in for it to work its power. And we have to be open to our own capacity to love, so that our act of loving will change us. When defenses are in the way, love can neither go in nor out.

The child believes that if there is a problem in the relationship with mom or dad, the child is at fault and must compensate by being a “better” girl or boy, more loving. Due to centration, the child assumes he or she is at fault. And then the child hopes to gain omnipotent control over the relationship through loving.

When we start as therapists, we sometimes still cherish that wish, if not consciously, often unconsciously. This manifests in therapy models that claim the therapist’s love will “melt” defenses. Unfortunately, that works in only a tiny minority of patients. One model of therapy years ago involved patients dressing up in diapers, sitting in the therapist’s lap while sucking the nipple of a baby bottle. The idea was that the patient needed to be “re-parented” to make up for failures in the past. This is not psychotherapy. It is magic. Why?

We can’t “make up” for the past. We can’t un-ring the bell. What we lost in the past is gone. It is dead. We can’t rewind the tape of life and re-record it. But we can help the patient see and let go of his defenses against loving and being loved in the here and now. Then he can have the love that is possible today while mourning the lost love of the past.

Trying to “melt” defenses with love is like trying to light a fire while someone  throws water on it. Trying to light a fire under those circumstances might seem loving, even heroic. But it’s denial.

This “heroic love” is the defense of omnipotence. “I will keep loving you while ignoring how you push away my love.” It’s a refusal to love the patient in all of his complexity: aggressive feelings, grief, guilt, anxiety, and defenses. It’s cheap love, the easy kind. “I love my patient who wants to have a loving connection. But I will ignore and fail to love my patient’s defenses, resistances, rage, guilt, and grief that drive his resistances. I will pretend I can make him love me if I love him enough.”

Defenses prevent love from getting in. We wish that our love would be enough to heal. But therapy takes two people. If defenses prevent love from entering, no healing can begin. But once patients let down their walls, love can walk in.

Our love does not melt defenses. The patient’s awakened inner longings for life and healing, the unconscious therapeutic alliance, melts the defenses. The healing force does not come from us; it is awakened and rises from within the patient. We are just the servants of that force.