On Becoming a Person, Chapter 1 – What does acceptance mean?

When hearing people argue for ‘acceptance’ and ‘accepting others’ I’ve usually gotten the sense that they’re supporting a lazy relativism – all viewpoints are equally valid, all opinions have merit, all practices and beliefs are beyond reproach. I’ve rejected this idea of acceptance because it falls flat in the face of reality. In some situations you can disagree with people while seeing the merits in their argument, or accept that they have their own tastes and way of life. Other times this kind of ‘acceptance’ stems from laziness, dishonesty and indifference, and can lead to terrible problems if people use it to excuse or ignore destructive practices.

I’ve started reading On Becoming a Person by Carl Rogers, an influential psychotherapist who broke away from both Freudian psychoanalysis and behaviorist approaches to psychotherapy. In Chapter 1 of this book, which was published in the early 1960s, he brings up acceptance:

I believe that it is an increasingly common pattern in our culture for each one of us to believe, “Every other person must feel and think and believe the same as I do.”

And a few sentences later he writes…

Each person is an island unto himself, in a very real sense; and he can only build bridges to other islands if he is first of all willing to be himself and permitted to be himself. So I find that when I can accept another person, which means specifically accepting the feelings and attitudes and beliefs that he has as a real and vital part of him, then I am assisting him to become a person: and there seems to me great value in this.

Shifting away from the lazy relativism discussed earlier, the acceptance described here seems to focus on acknowledging that people’s beliefs/feelings/etc. are a real and valid part of them. It matters to them in some way. Maybe we completely disagree with what it is they’re expressing or we find it abhorrent, but we accept that it’s real to them.

We have a strong tendency to invalidate other people by pretending that what they think or feel isn’t real (“You can’t be serious,” we say, or “no one thinks that way” or “you’re lying”); we can even make up explanations to override them (“you don’t really feel like that, you’re just tired” or “you’re hysterical/emotional/unstable…”). Rogers writes that when he’s more “open to the realities in me and in the other person” he’s much more likely to listen and try to understand, instead of immediately leaping in to “fix things” or bend people to his own way of viewing the world.

I think this kind of acceptance is generally a good approach; it reduces the chances that we’ll steamroll someone with our own thoughts, manipulate them and tell them exactly what it is they’re thinking/feeling. It also resonates with some of my readings on mindfulness training and accepting the present moment as it is, with all of its positive and negative qualities (instead of avoiding reality or warping it with our own thoughts of what it should be like).

Then again, what do we do when we want to change ourselves or when other people’s thoughts, feelings and behaviors are destructive to themselves and to others? We can accept that what they’re doing is real and serves some important psychological need… but if they want to change and ask for help, how can we help them? Does the kind of acceptance described by Rogers in this chapter easily slide into the lazy relativism mentioned earlier in the post? I’ll keep reading more of this book (and more about mindfulness) to better understand (hopefully) how these ideas of acceptance interact with personal development and change. At least for now, Rogers writes that it’s a paradox:

Yet the paradoxical aspect of my experience is that the more I am simply willing to be myself, in all this complexity of life and the more I am willing to understand and accept the realities in myself and in the other person, the more change seems to be stirred up.