January 2023 – Acceptance Comes Before Understanding

Happy 2023, and I hope the first few weeks of the year are starting off well for you. If not so much, then I wish for you to have enough support and inspiration to work with whatever is arising, especially the awareness that, “Even this will pass.”

In this article, I’m addressing what we often are confused on, the belief that understanding has to come before acceptance. The counterintuitive thing is that actually the two are decoupled, and acceptance requires no understanding, just acknowledgement of the reality of something, and letting that reality be true within ourselves. Which, although it is not easy (we have defenses against foreign stuff), works a lot better in the long run.

Some thoughts about the problem of putting understanding before acceptance.

There is a particular move our minds make when we are confronted with opinions and realities that are challenging, which essentially is to act as if understanding must precede acceptance. This typically sounds something like: “But I don’t get it!”; “Hold on, that makes no sense!” and, “I want to hear you, but I just can’t understand your point.” In contrast, my contention here is that you don’t actually have to understand something in order to accept it, and that us thinking the reverse is usually a way of blocking something that feels threatening.

That contention begs for a definition of acceptance, so I’ll give a technical one and then explain. “Acceptance is the condition in which a reality is acknowledged for what it is, without making that reality justify its existence via some third-party validation system.” That is, when you accept something, you’re acknowledging it is reality as it is, and adopting that reality into your sense of reality. This taps into the root of acceptance, which in Latin is, “to take something to oneself”.)

Here are some examples: “Tom often jokes about the weather, but when I looked out the window, I could then accept that it was indeed raining.” “Although I strenuously disagree with her political opinion, I accept her right to hold it.” “After scheming and cajoling, the boy finally accepted he wasn’t going to get the dessert.” And to the point of this article, “I totally don’t understand why you are so depressed, but I accept that the depression is real.”

This understanding–>acceptance is ubiquitous with us humans, sometimes from a naïve sense of their relationship, but mostly (in my experience) from an unwillingness to “take something to oneself.” Why? Because to accept something (which, by definition, was not already in your worldview) is to be changed by that thing (idea, emotion, relationship). We resist that for the same reason any structure (a building, a political system, a company) does not change easily: its ongoing survival depends on a consistency of structure. As sluggish as the American political system is around change, compare the value of that to a country whose constitution is rewritten every five years.

None of us do this on purpose; rather, it is wired into the defense system of our psyche: keep order (structure, consistency, coherency) and de-emphasize chaos (unstructuredness, capriciousness, fragmentation). To accept something is to introduce a bit of chaos, and insisting that understanding must come before acceptance is attempting to make the unknown fit the known. Our minds do that because it simply feels safer.

With depression, this plays out in two directions: the depressed person’s relationship to their own experience, and others’ relationship to the depressed person.

In the first case, it looks something like this:

Sara, struggling with depression, says, “I just don’t get it. I’ve got a good job, good friends, yes, some strife with family but not horrible. So why am I depressed? It just doesn’t make sense. I can’t believe this is my life.”

In working with it, exploring her depression with a therapist, she reaches a point where she says, “Look, the experience of depression is miserable, I wouldn’t wish it on an enemy. And the ins and outs of how it works are still a mystery, although I’ve got a clue now about some of the underpinnings for me. Regardless, I’ve learned—admittedly grumpily, but still…—to accept that the fact is I have depression, and that being baffled doesn’t change that. This depression is, like it or not.”

Then in the case of people relating to a depressed person, the situation is like this:

Sara’s husband Nathen says, “I do want to help Sara but I just don’t get her being depressed. We have a great life, aren’t living on the street, have money. I try not to be critical, but honestly, I think she must be doing something wrong, otherwise why would she feel like that? I mean, I’m not depressed and I’m living the same life.”

After him receiving some good consultation, as well as doing some introspection, he gets to a place where he says, “I really wish I could make her depression go away. It’s so hard on her, and it stresses us out too. I don’t have a history with depression, so it’s difficult to empathize from my own experience. But the difference now is that I accept that depression is valid on its own terms, that it’s happening whether I understand why it’s happening or not.”

Again, it is unsettling to let in realities that are not familiar, because it forces us (our opinions, beliefs, and worldview) to shift. To our “chaos monitoring system”, that does not feel safe. So we push it away to the other side of attaining “understanding”, and thereby resist accepting without acknowledging overtly the reality: I’m scared that I won’t be able to hold and integrate the reality and will fall apart. All of which is very natural.

This is not to say that understanding is not helpful in getting to acceptance, but that the placing of acceptance only after understanding is a delay tactic. The shorter route is to decouple them, and then effort to understand to magnify acceptance. Essentially this is, “Ok, I accept that your depression is real and as such, valid. I really don’t understand it, but I want to. Let’s talk about it so I can understand more deeply.”

The downside of not putting acceptance first is that we give a lot of energy to our defense mode, and remain closed, and in conflict with reality (which is a problem because reality itself is not going to change just because we don’t like it). With the depressed person, this plays out as an alienation from parts of ourselves, such that we both stall out in knowing ourselves, as well as are less effective in managing and dissolving the depression (i.e., you can’t play a game well whose rules you reject). With the non-depressed person, it means alienation from the other person, leading to the messiness of distance and/or judgement, which is not fun, or healing, for either party.

So, the thing to work with is noticing when we are demanding understanding first (here are two prior articles about “cherishing our bafflement”: here, and here), and work with whatever resistance we have to “taking into ourselves”. This will generally be some kind of fear or shame, but regardless, even just to run a possibly interesting exercise, try flipping understanding–>acceptance to acceptance–>understanding and then see what happens.

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