Acceptance vs. Understanding
I have only recently considered the subtle nuances between acceptance and understanding. Prior to these realizations, I made little distinction between the two. Then, a friend told me his story about when he came out to his father, and I realized that there is a crucial distinction.
He told me that when he came out as gay, his father responded with, “Okay and my favorite color is blue.” His father was rather proud of his response, with the intention of communicating his level of effortless acceptance. He also meant to normalize his son’s sexual orientation by making it as simple as his own preference of color.
But my friend shared that this response from his father felt dismissive and hurtful. My friend explained how his experience of being gay wasn’t at all the same as another’s admission of a favorite color. It was deeper and held much more significance. My friend had experienced hurt from the stigma and cultural attitudes towards gay men and his father’s glib response offered no sense of the connection that comes from a deeper, meaningful understanding.
It was then I realized that if we give acceptance without any attempt to understand, we miss the opportunity to connect.
At times, it is easy to get caught up in being an accepting person and basking in such a feeling. It feels good to be open-minded, right? However, if we jump quickly to acceptance, we can miss the chance to be curious, ask questions, and really reach a level of understanding.
Ram Dass refers to basking in our own spiritual giftedness as “spiritual materialism.” We see traces of spiritual materialism in the current anti-racism movement when people identify themselves as “colorblind,” failing to recognize what life is like for people of color. We can understand that blindly accepting someone and their story doesn’t create a feeling of safety.
In a sense, bestowing acceptance becomes about you and your ego, while truly understanding the other nurtures and deepens the relationship between two people. I am not suggesting that we should withhold our acceptance until we have a full understanding of the Other, but rather that our acceptance is the foundation and starting point for a conversation to pursue understanding, connection, and an effort to hear another’s experience.
I am reminded of a quote by Gabor Mate, “Safety is not the absence of threat, it is the presence of connection.” This suggests that it is not merely acceptance that is needed when someone comes to us with some self-disclosure. Holding others in love and genuine understanding offers them the experience of being seen, heard, or held by the other.
Depth psychology teaches us that the soul tells us about itself firstly through pain. Perhaps this is why the strongest communication tool an infant has is its cry. Laughter comes later. If we pass over the pain and jump into an emphasis on our acceptance we are neglecting an important exploration into the felt experience of the Other.
I have learned that understanding is what many people are searching for when they come to therapy. At Evoke Therapy Intensives I have seen participants and therapists offer this experience to others. We encourage clients to resist the urge to solve and “be helpful” long enough to connect through understanding. I think this is why so many participants report that an unexpected outcome of their work comes as others have listened to understand, rather than to fix.
May we not get caught up in the nobility of acceptance, so that we forego the chance to deeply know the Other. Be curious, ask questions, try to understand what it is like for those we love. Life is full of pain and loss and sometimes the only thing we have to offer others is our presence. Offering people the experience of our presence is learning to sit with others in their unsolvable problems. The ability to sit with others in their fears, their pain, and their sorrow requires great capacity and energy. Aptly, offering others this experience can simply be defined as love and it is also the most powerful balm to those suffering with mental illness or addiction issues.