The Key to Authentic Change: Choosing Acceptance Over Resistance

You cannot change what you do not understand.  

At one time or another, most of us have wished something about ourselves was different. We know this from experience, but we also can look at the vast personal transformation industry if we doubt how universal the urge is. The ideas and opinions professed by “experts” range from bizarre to fairly well-evidenced and researched. That methodological diversity is useful when considering that works for you may not work for your best friend or neighbor. One thing is certain, though. If you stop resisting the current reality and begin the journey with acceptance, change can be real and lasting.

Authentic change happens when we learn first to accept ourselves and the world as they are: Total acceptance. 

In this context, acceptance means to acknowledge something as it is. It is not approval of an unjust outcome. It is not deeming some part of who you are (or the world) as inevitable or unmalleable (although that is almost certainly true of some aspects). It is the opposite of denial, blame, and judgment. It is not your opinion but your willingness to perceive as objectively as you are able. Your ability to see the difference between your opinions and what is happening gets more adept and dependable with practice.

The yearning to change can come from an internal motivator: a desire to change a behavior or get better at something. Or, it can come first from external pressure: losing or hurting someone you love, or perhaps getting into legal or ethical trouble. Regardless of its origin, starting with an honest, compassionate inventory is paramount to success. Acceptance is the door we open to see what we need to know to get where we want to go (or be who we want to be). Acceptance is not the endpoint, but it is the only place we can begin if we’re going to reach our aim of creating change.

This isn’t as easy as it sounds. 

There was a time in my life during an addiction when I made consequential mistakes as a mother. I was mentally absent; thoroughly unavailable even when I was in the same room. Quite often, I was physically absent. I was sometimes unkind and usually irresponsible. I exposed my son to people with no moral orientation who were predatory and dangerous (I did not see that at the time). I did not do my main job of protecting him. These are facts, not my or someone else’s opinion about the mother I was at the time. To change this, I first had to accept it. Seeing clearly my failings as a mother required I be truthful and mourn the impact of my mistakes.

I saw too how my trauma contributed to the mess in which we found ourselves. Had I denied the reality of that trauma or the influence of my choices on my son because I told myself—it was too painful (resist) or shameful (resist) or impossible because that’s not who I am (resist) or blamed my parents (resist)…the list can go on indefinitely—I would not have been able to change at the most fundamental level.

Fundamental here means having no fear of making the same mistakes again. I am not that person. I was, and I learned from her, but I do not fear making the same choices again. I might (will?) do other stupid things, but I will not do the same stupid things.

Some of the same misunderstandings that make total acceptance difficult are the same issues that make forgiveness a challenge.

  • We conflate acceptance with indifference or inaction; injustice
  • We are taught that we should have certainty about ourselves & what we believe
  • Most cultures today expect individuals to avoid or deny emotional pain
  • Believing that admitting mistakes (or being hurt by others) is a sign of weakness

  We might not be accustomed to the work required to get to acceptance. We live in a time when a Tweet is considered philosophically relevant. While the essence of truth is simple, comprehending it takes more effort than the fifteen seconds needed to read a five-word aphorism. We hear something we like, assume we grasp it, and slap it on a bumper sticker. This level of effort will not get us where we want to go.

Compassionate acceptance allows us to see the root issues that lead to trouble. 

Take a closer look and you may find emotional or spiritual pain to be behind much of the tragedy we create and observe around us. Seeing the connection between trauma and the coping mechanisms we adopt to deal with its impact (addiction, alexithymia, intentionally harming others…) facilitates empathy and self-compassion. Once you make that connection, the path forward becomes more evident.

Hold loosely

The intention in these reflections is not to unearth an objective truth and replace old unwavering beliefs with new ones. Keep in mind the human inclination to Know.

Know here (capital K) means to define well enough to mentally package and store what you have learned in a cognitive data file that does not require and resists ongoing analysis. “That’s that!” so to speak.

When it comes to the stories we tell and the meaning we make, little Knowing holds through time. Define to the extent needed to create space for forward momentum and be open to the possibility that as you evolve, so will your Knowledge. There is no space for transformation in a reductive view of the human condition.

Getting from here to there is a windy road.

Imagine you need to plan a trip. Let’s say you’re in New York and you want to go to Phoenix. Would you look at a map, or would you go outside and stand facing southwest to start planning? You’d look at a map because you know you need more information than your perspective provides.

The same is true when fostering acceptance. The point of view taken when reading a map is one of a witness. Relative to the map, we can see broadly and take in the accessible information. We plan based on what we learn about the available pathways.

One difference is that you are not only the reader of the map. You are also a part of the map—you are the observer and the observed. Standing back this way and allows you to plan a route forward that looks like it might get you where you want to go.

The analogy further fails when we consider how the journey changes over time. On a path of personal transformation, you’re going to have to look at the map many times and revise your plans using the new insights gained along the way. You will probably need different maps as you grow.

Your ability to step back in this way is partly contingent on how well you have processed our emotional injuries. Whether mourning loss or forgiving yourself or others, at some point, you may find that unresolved suffering limits your ability to create distance. This, too, is just another road to follow and need not be resisted. Keep your eye on the goal and, if required, tend patiently to healing your emotional wounds.

Looking back at the beginning of my transformation (as if there is only one!), at some point, it became clear that I had to deal with my addiction to make progress. I needed to take that step before being able to see the rest of the path forward. But, in truth, this was not the first step. I spent months—maybe a year or more—developing my ability to see clearly before I was able to break free. Eventually, even in the haze and insanity of a life-threatening illness, I became present enough to move forward. With enough data, self-awareness, and compassion to make the need to interrupt my addiction undeniable, I was able to be honest enough to make changes I had struggled and failed at for years. And, while it was still difficult, I knew it was possible for the first time.

Finding acceptance in the present moment (presence)—a deep connection to the here and now—is only possible in the absence of resistance. Yielding to what is first allows us to see we have everything we need to move toward wholeness and authenticity (if that’s where you want to be).

Today, I love the mother I am. I think my son does too. I cannot change the mistakes I made, but I can ensure they don’t happen again by continuing to be honest with myself and making adjustments as I go. Every day is a journey anew.