Acceptance and Self-Acceptance
Acceptance comes in two types: acceptance of the world as it is and, more specifically, acceptance of who we are as individuals.
Acceptance is one of the “big ideas” in recovery. This is one of the great challenges we face: accepting that life is what it is. When we struggle with addiction, we struggle with the idea that we are powerless not just over our capacity to use or not use some substance; we struggle with our powerlessness over everything around us too. Much of our work in recovery, and in achieving emotional sobriety, involves letting go of our crazy-making desire to control things. We have to accept the world on its own terms. For now, I want to focus on self-acceptance.
Self-acceptance is a special flavor of acceptance. It is about understanding who we are at our truest moments, accepting all that we are—the good, the bad, and the ugly. It is about understanding our strengths and weaknesses and acting in accord with both. This is a tough job! Admitting our powerlessness is the start of self-acceptance because it forces us to accept that we can’t control our addictive behaviors and that our lives have become unmanageable.
Accepting that our lives have become unmanageable reaches far beyond the impact of our addiction. It speaks to the fact that we have created a foundation for our lives that doesn’t work. A foundation that is fragile and creates an unmanageable life. A foundation built upon emotional dependence.
When we accept that our problems are of our own making and that we have built our lives upon a shaky foundation we can begin the process of real change.
So, self-acceptance is the foundation for solid recovery. Without self-acceptance there can be no change, no honesty, no physical sobriety, and no emotional sobriety. Self-acceptance is the basis for having a nourishing relationship with ourselves. When we accept ourselves, we become our own ally! We are on “our side” of the struggle because we accept ourselves as we are, not as our false self tells us we should be. Self-acceptance means we can shed the extra pressures of the shoulds that constitute our false self. If we lack self-acceptance—if we are not on “our side,” then it will be hard to support our recovery. It will be easy to give in to the addict self when it pressures us to drink again. But when we are on our own side, we protect ourselves, and we honor our integrity.
Dr. Nathaniel Branden, to whom I’ve referred many times in this book, thought of self-acceptance as simply “being for ourselves.” He went on to define self-acceptance as the “refusal to be in an adversarial relationship to myself”.
If we refuse to be in an adversarial relationship with ourselves, then it becomes quite evident that self-acceptance requires self-support. We support ourselves, our growth, and our maturity. We support ourselves so we can learn from our mistakes rather than judge, criticize or shame ourselves for not being perfect. We ultimately support ourselves by having faith in our ability to grow, to become what we can be, to become whole.
Self-acceptance gradually wears down the prison of our false self. It erodes the shoulds from which we build our own prison walls. Self-acceptance is rooted in authenticity, integrity, and honesty. These elements combine to form a sort of “kryptonite” that weakens the control of our false self. Remember, our false self is built of expectations we swallowed whole, thinking that if we met them, we would keep ourselves lovable. We cannot be authentic and honest and still fulfill the demands of our false self; fulfilling those demands is essentially dishonest and requires that we be manipulative.
In many ways, self-acceptance is outrageous. It challenges the rules imposed by the tyranny of the shoulds. It creates a revolution. It is the means by which we dethrone the false self and recover our lost, true self. It is a step towards our emotional freedom.
I like to think that self-acceptance operates like a calibrating mechanism. It brings us into alignment with who we really are. Dr. Fritz Perls understood the importance of acceptance in addressing a personal problem. He spelled it out this way: “As long as you fight a symptom it will become worse. If you take responsibility for what you are doing to yourself, how you produce your symptoms, how you produce your illness, how you produce your existence—the very moment you get in touch with yourself—growth begins, integration begins”.
When Perls says, “take responsibility for what you are doing to yourself,” he is referring to a kind of acceptance. He invites us to accept that we have been the builders of our own prison. This is radical self-acceptance.
Recall that in Stage I Recovery, we achieve sobriety. Stage I required us to admit our powerlessness over alcohol, over our addiction (or if you like, over our addict self) so we could achieve physical sobriety. Self-acceptance is born at the moment we truly admit that we are powerless and that our lives have become unmanageable. It was at this moment that we began, even slowly, to embrace who we truly are! The admission of powerlessness in turn helped us find a healthier source of power to achieve physical sobriety. The admission that our lives have become unmanageable created an experience of humility which is necessary if we are going to do the psychological work we need to do to achieve emotional sobriety.
Please don’t think of self-acceptance as something that just happens. It is something we do. We won’t admit or own a problem if we don’t first accept we have it. Self-acceptance helps us begin to align ourselves with reality, with recovery.
Being aligned with the reality of our fatal condition (addiction) is a critical step in all recovery. As Bill Wilson stated, “Little good can come to any alcoholic who joins A.A. unless he has first accepted his devastating weakness [alcoholism or addiction] and all its consequences” (BB p21). But this isn’t as easy as it sounds. We don’t like to admit we are powerless.
There are many forces at work that make it hard for us to accept ourselves as we are. As Bill W. stated, our natural instincts cry out against the admission of powerlessness. We developed our false self to gain power over our environment so we wouldn’t be rejected, be unacceptable, or be unloved. We wanted to control and manipulate people to get them to respond to us as we want them to. Admitting powerlessness threatens the very nature or construct of the false self. It means we don’t have the power to control. That’s a crisis for us!”
There’s a reason we resist self-acceptance; it threatens who we think we should be. “Who we think we should be” is our false self, and we mistakenly believe that our false self will make us feel safe in the world.
Resistance to self-acceptance must be addressed if we are to achieve any permanent change in our lives—especially if we are ever to achieve emotional sobriety. What a paradox! We need to accept our resistance to self-acceptance in order to begin the process of accepting ourselves as we really are!
In Stage II Recovery, we need to accept that our emotional dependency has caused serious problems in how we function in relationships. We need to accept that we are immature and need to grow up. This is where our false pride can enter and object to such an admission. We must learn that “our ego is not our amigo,” as I heard in a meeting. Our false pride is not acting on our behalf—it is protecting the false self.
Bill Wilson recognized the importance of self-acceptance in the letter he wrote on emotional sobriety. In it, he discussed his failure to grow up, emotionally and spiritually. He realized that he had the cart before the horse, that he expected life to conform to his expectations. The turning point for Bill in achieving emotional sobriety occurred when he accepted that “my basic flaw had always been dependence—almost absolute dependence—on people or circumstances to supply me with prestige, security, and the like”.
Bill W. accepted that he needed to grow up. He accepted what he was doing that produced his immaturity. He accepted that he was emotionally reactive. He accepted his basic flaw of dependency on people or circumstances for his security.
Bill W. also accepted the responsibility to grow up. He realized that he needed to surrender the hobbling idea that people should behave according to his “perfectionist dreams and specifications”. He needed to unhook people and things from his perfectionistic specifications. Another way of saying this is that Bill needed to surrender his crippling expectations.
Self-acceptance is grounded in humility. We realize that no one is here on earth to live up to our expectations. Neither are we here to live up to the expectations of others or to the expectations of our false self. We see ourselves as we are, not according to the specifications of our false self. We are free to own who we are because we are no longer being controlled by false pride. When we accept ourselves, our life will no longer be dictated by should demands. We begin to experience true emotional freedom.