Balancing acceptance and change

This post also appears on the Student Health and Wellbeing Blog that I manage as part of my day job.

I sit in the wellbeing and mental health space. 

This means I spend the bulk of my work time learning about how to enhance one’s wellbeing and mental health and then trying to teach what I learn to others. 

Occasionally I encounter what seems to be a contradiction in the advice given around wellbeing/mental health. 

One of those seeming contradictions is how we talk about acceptance and change at the same time. 

It can feel like on the one hand we are advised to be more accepting and less judgemental about who we are, but also at the same time encouraged to improve and better ourselves, whether that be in our work, relationships, community contribution etc.

How do we reconcile these seemingly contradictory goals? Am I OK or do I need to be better?

The juxtaposition of acceptance and change isn’t as contradictory as it might seem and it is possible to hold both at the same time without being confused as to how to do it. The key is to get some clarity around what it is that you are ‘accepting’ and what it is you are ‘changing’. 

Here are a few ways to hold both at the same time. 

Beliefs/values vs behaviour

Sometimes it is possible to find our behaviour inconsistent with our beliefs and values. We might pride ourselves on being a kind and compassionate person, but then find ourselves treating others poorly. We might value health and wellbeing, but be regularly engaging in behaviours detrimental to our health (e.g. excessive drinking, poor nutrition choices).

This can arise because there are many contributors to our behaviour, not just our values and beliefs. For example, our food choices are influenced by the foods available to us (i.e. food environment). How we act around other people can be influenced by the number of demands on us (e.g. work pressures). 

In this scenario, it’s important to connect to and embrace our core beliefs/values, accept that we don’t have full control over our behaviours and then seek out changes to bring our behaviours better in line with our beliefs. We accept that the two aren’t always aligned, but seek to make changes to improve their alignment. 

Who I am versus how I am

Sometimes we might experience a disconnect between who we think we are as a person and how we are doing in the different domains of life. 

For example, I might feel like I am a decent person, but find myself consistently struggling in a particular domain of life (e.g. work, study, relationships).  

Again, this may reflect that our outcomes in life aren’t dependent entirely on our own choices/decisions. There are other forces that are out of our control. 

Change in this case is about adaptation in order to improve one’s circumstances, rather than changing who you feel you are as a person. Here, the goal is accepting that one’s intentions (no matter how good) don’t always translate into real-world impacts and that some adaptation is required along the way.  

Who I am now versus who I want to be

Who you are now is a product of many interacting forces, many of which you didn’t choose. You didn’t choose your genetics. You didn’t choose your upbringing. You didn’t choose many of the things that have happened to you over the course of your life. 

Acceptance is a powerful stance to take in relation to being OK with who you are right now, recognising the limited control you’ve had over who you are.  

But, as an adult you do have some degree of control/choice in relation to your future self. You can put some things in place that will create a better outcome for your future self. You could save more money. You could make better dietary choices. You could exercise more often, take up meditating. You don’t have infinite choices available to you, but you have some that can send your future self on a positive trajectory or some that can send them on a difficult trajectory. 

Here we accept that we only have limited control, but seek to wield that control as best we can for our future selves.

Experience vs choice

We regularly fall into the trap of thinking that our internal experience (thoughts, feelings, sensations, memories) is under our control. 

Don’t get me wrong, we do have some input into the system. For example, we can use breathing exercises to adjust our arousal levels. We can place ourselves in environments that elicit certain emotions (e.g. spending time in nature to elicit a sense of calm). We can develop habits to reliably trigger certain ways of thinking. 

But much of our internal experience is being driven by factors outside of our immediate control.  

 Acceptance in this context is about a willingness to have whatever shows up and an ability to make room for difficult internal experiences whilst not seeking to alter those experiences using strategies that lead to poor medium- to long-term outcomes. It is about resisting the urge to have that second glass of wine to delete a stressful day and instead make choices to reduce the stress of the days through deliberate changes. 

We can’t always control our experience, but we can clarify our values and make choices consistent with those values, rather than reacting automatically to our internal world. 

These ideas are central to a model of therapy known as Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) if you find them interesting. 

Disconnect between my beliefs/values and those of others, my culture

A challenging scenario for a person is where their individual beliefs/values are in contradiction to those within their community (e.g. family, friends, colleagues, culture). 

An example might be someone raised within a strict faith who doesn’t believe what their faith requires them to. 

This person has quite an acceptance job ahead of themselves. Accept their own views. Accept the discrepancy between those views and the views of people they care about. Accept that the views of those they care about might not change. Accept the potential for conflict and rupture because of those differences. 

They also have a challenging change job ahead of themselves as well. To change their primary support group. To seek out those with similar views to themselves. To change their circumstances in order to put themselves in contact with people with similar beliefs/values. 

Takeaway message

There are other ways to think about the acceptance/change combination, but these are a few to get you started. 

The takeaway idea here is that it is possible to embrace both acceptance and change at the same time, as long as we are more precise in what it is we are accepting and what it is we are changing. 

In many cases, acceptance can be a precursor to change. Starting from a stance of acceptance and honest self-appraisal means one’s change efforts are built on a better foundation. If I am caught in a constant battle with my internal world, or my circumstances or the actions of others, unwilling to work with the situation I find myself in, then my coping strategies and change efforts might be directed at the wrong thing. Acceptance is the quiet self-honest moment before setting off to build a better life. 

Have you found a way to hold acceptance and change together at the same time?

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