Updated: Jul 9
I’m thinking about the recent Fourth of July holiday and the state of freedom in the world today and such. Generally, I try to keep in mind that I can only do the things I can do, and I try to bring some of these big concepts down to a level that makes sense in real life, for me.
So in thinking about freedom, I’ve reflected often on my gratitude for my own freedom from destructive addictive substances.
But there are a lot of different ways to define freedom, and that’s something that’s changed and expanded for me over time. I used to define it solely in terms of freedom to do what I wanted, without much regard for anyone else. Feeling good felt like freedom to me for a long time, and anything that infringed on that was an obstacle and a problem. I felt people were trying to violate my right to live as I pleased. And there’s some truth to that.
I’ve broadened my thinking on that over the years, though. I’ve come to realize that I live in a world with other people, that I don’t want to fight all the time, and that other people want to do their own thing, too. I also find that my attitude towards the world influences how the world reacts to me. Not all the time, but enough to make it worthwhile. Most of all, I’ve learned that if I’m not fighting with myself or denying the things about me that are factual, I can make peace with that, while still working to improve. It can be hard to find those lines of peaceful existence with ourselves, and then beyond.
Acceptance in Psychology
In Albert Ellis’s branch of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT), Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy (REBT), the concept of acceptance of ourselves, others, and the world we live in is a foundation for healthy thinking and living.
From there, we can figure out what we can and can’t do in any variety of contexts, without getting ourselves overly upset about things we can’t do anything about.
Acceptance is recognizing and acknowledging the reality of a situation, without trying to deny, change or fix it. Accepting that this is reality at this point in time.
Dr. Ellis breaks these out into:
Unconditional Self Acceptance (USA)
Unconditional Acceptance of Others (UOA), and
Unconditional Life Acceptance (ULA)
We can accept ourselves, even with all our flaws. We can strive to accept others, even though they are imperfect and don’t think like us, and we can accept the world, although it often does not operate the way we would like it to.
But how can acceptance be the cornerstone for putting together a happier life if freedom matters? Isn’t that giving up? Our whole country in the US is founded on ideals of freedom. And shouldn’t we be free to do what we want? As long as it’s not hurting anyone else?
On a personal level, isn’t that just accepting that we can’t change? That it’s okay if we’re screwed up? Unconditional acceptance sounds like it means I’m okay with things being a mess. With me being a mess. Where’s the incentive to change if I accept myself as I am? Or other people, for that matter? We have to be held accountable, no?
We often think of acceptance as giving up and giving in. Accepting defeat. We equate it with being unable to change something. But that’s not it! It’s the ability to see clearly and acknowledge where we’re standing and what is going on right now, without judgment, in the real world, so we can move towards our next steps.
Unconditional Self Acceptance
Unconditional self acceptance is accepting all parts of ourselves, even those we don’t like, just because there’s no real alternative. We don’t have to love everything about ourselves. But we don’t have to hate those parts of ourselves either. They are there, like it or not. We can work to shift them -- be less greedy or less self-indulgent, for instance -- but we don’t have to fear them so desperately or pretend these tendencies don’t exist.
If we wall off the parts of ourselves that we deem unacceptable, our anger, our vulnerabilities, our weaknesses, if we believe that the “real” us is fundamentally different (and bad) from who we present to the world, we are nurturing a highly exaggerated negative view of ourselves. We are ALL fallible, flawed and imperfect. We’re all just people doing the best we can.
And the same for addiction. That doesn’t define us at our core. It’s a challenge. An issue. Something to address. We can grow and change past that. Maybe we get high too much, but that’s just one thing in our lives at a particular time. It doesn’t mean we’re doomed, and it doesn’t mean we’re terrible.
When we don’t acknowledge what we’re working with, how can we make meaningful changes? It’s hard to look at ourselves and extend ourselves some grace. It’s easier to believe that either we’re great and everyone else is a problem, or that we’re worthless, and we deserve to wallow in our misery. But neither of those is true.
We are not defined by any one behavior or characteristic. We have many, many facets to us and our lives. No one of these sums up who we are as people, as human beings. We do not have to label and reject ourselves in this way.
As people, we can be “nice” in many ways then at other times act in ways that are not so nice. Everyone is like this. No one is perfect at “niceness,” or any other trait. We also sometimes have mean thoughts. We are down on ourselves. We get angry. We say something sharp. We do things we regret. AND we are kind and generous and helpful and thoughtful. Perfection is an impossibility in either direction.
Accepting that I have an issue with drinking, for example, allows me to figure out, as objectively as possible, what some of my options might be. Seeing ways in which I haven’t been kind and accepting that, indeed, sometimes I’m not, allows me to do better the next time.
Accepting that I am not and never will be perfect allows me to figure out how I can best improve the things I can, that are of most value, to me.
We can improve on any dimension. And we can be kind to ourselves when our improvement isn’t as quick as we’d like. We can also accept that some things just aren’t worth it to us. I would have made a terrible 1950’s housewife. I will never be a perfect housekeeper. I don’t even want to be. I can set and maintain a reasonable baseline, and I work at that, but this is not an arena that I care about that much.
That’s the real beauty of this outlook in psychology. We can accept ourselves, just because we are human beings on this planet with all our potential, flaws, weaknesses, and amazingly diverse strengths. We are uniquely joined by this humanness, in all its messiness. We can’t be less of a human for making a mistake, a terrible choice, or doing the wrong thing. And we can’t be more of a human by living a righteous life. We’re still just people. Each of us. All of us.
And that’s the key to acceptance. If we can accept ourselves as messy, flawed, complicated, irrational human beings, we don’t ever have to doubt our basic worth. We’re worthy, because here we are! We don’t have to base that on anything else. And then the same goes for everyone and everything around us. Whether we approve of them or understand things or like them, there they are.
And from there, we can figure out the best ways to go about changing the things we care about (and have some agency over), and working around or with those we can’t, according to our own personal values and priorities.
Unconditional Acceptance of Others
What about with other people. What does that mean that I have to accept them? What if I don’t like them? Or they’re toxic? Or they have qualities or viewpoints I can’t stand? Other people will go ahead and be themselves whether I accept them or not. Oh yes. Very true. You don’t have to embrace them in order to feel that they have ever right to exist It’s more about not fighting against reality, in spheres where we can’t effect direct change.
There aren’t that many articles about these corollaries to Unconditional Self-Acceptance -- acceptance of others or of life/the world. I found an excellent short video the other day by Windy Dryden, an early practitioner of Ellis’s methods. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kUFrL0rvfQo
There’s a sort of fairness or balance doctrine at work, that if we want things, then we also have to extend them to others by informal mutual agreement.
But I think we get so invested in how we want things to be that we forget that the other person has their very own viewpoints, flaws, limitations, level of self-awareness, and desire to feel good about themselves, just like us. Or maybe not at all like us. Their journey may be completely incomprehensible to us, but it’s nonetheless there, a fact, like it or not. Whether we approve or not.
So what to do with that?
We can rage against these differences and flaws. We can try to coerce, nudge, persuade, and get them to change. And we are flexible as humans, we can adjust to lots of things.
Example - Lateness
If someone is late frequently, and I get mad and demand that they be on time, I am already mad, and I will likely be disappointed, if not this time, sometime soon. I am arguing against the reality that this person is frequently late. I am demanding they be on time. Watching them fail repeatedly. And then being indignant, angry and surprised. It is predictable that they were late.
Now, what does that mean? Does that mean I have to let them derail plans and inconvenience me like that?
Oh, no. Not at all.
There are lots of other options.
I could let them know this bothers me and see if they try to make some changes.
I could give them an earlier time for meeting up.
I could let them know that I'll wait X number of minutes and then go on myself.
I may decide that I don’t want to meet up with this person for any time-sensitive events.
I might decide that I don't want to socialize with this person at all, because it’s a hassle.
But getting upset -- angry, frustrated -- does not have to be a part of those scenarios.
We can voice what we want. We can often influence others with our own actions, but we can’t control what they think, feel or do. We can never get another person to think like us or read our minds or come from the exact same place as us, or act in our best interests in the way we want them to, no matter how close we are or how well we understand each other -- because they’re not us.
And the same in reverse. We cannot understand fully why someone else reacts the way they do because we haven’t had their experiences and we don’t live in their mind.
We can try to understand and work with the values we share and be sensitive to our different reactions and associations. We can choose how much contact and what type we want with various people, based on how well they’ll likely provide what we want in a given situation.
We can include other people, or not, to whatever degree we choose in our lives, according to how well they fit for us, the strength of our ties, and our own personal boundaries.
But whether or not they listen to or change doesn’t mean there’s anything wrong with US or that we should be upset about it. They are just who they are, where they are. We can accept that, even if we don't like it.
Unconditional Life Acceptance
How can we accept the world we find ourselves in when it’s so messed up? And why does it matter if we do or not? Does acceptance mean we don’t get upset about injustices or things that are clearly wrong or could be fixed in our lives, neighborhoods, societies?
No, not at all. It accepts that where we are is our starting point and this is the environment we’re faced with. It’s going to depend on whether we’re approaching something that can be changed or not. There are things in life we cannot change, pure and simple. The weather. Someone else’s behavior. The past.
However, there are all kinds of things that we can change, mostly centered around our own behavior, thinking and beliefs, aspirations and goals. And from there, the world shifts just a little bit. And the funny thing is, that when we start pursuing things from the inside out like that, we find all kinds of interesting new ways we can interact with the world around us, too.
So What About Freedom?
So why doesn’t this sound more fun and … FREE? Are you saying that being free is not really about being free!? I can’t just do whatever I want?
Well, actually you can. You can live and choose to believe and act in whatever way you want. You can blame people and yell at them and assert yourself as much as you want to.
Example - Freedom and Acceptance
Let’s ask something as an example. So freedom is a value, an ideal. It means something specific to each of us.
If you believed when you were 10 that being free meant being able to drive and drink and kiss girls or boys and spend money, how has that vision changed for you?
I think we want that to evolve some, but often it really hasn’t! Sometimes it’s time to take a look at what we want from more grown-up eyes, especially if what we’re doing isn’t working well for us.
But what about that feeling of being free? What does that mean to you?
Not having to account to anybody for anything!?
Being able to do whatever we want (like what)?
Does this sound realistic in life? What would that look like for you in practice? How long can a lifestyle like that work, if we are going to have relationships with other people?
We can have moments or maybe periods of time where we feel completely free and unencumbered, but I’m not sure how that translates to everyday living long-term, or to living a life we will truly enjoy and find fulfillment in.
I really did think at one time that freedom came in a bottle and in escaping reality. But I found that what tasted like freedom for a moment never satisfied me. I always felt like I was right on the edge of bliss with getting drunk -- escaping, or numbing all the pressures of the world. Some people isolate from others in fear and spiral into depression and anxiety. Some people assert themselves aggressively with all kinds of consequences.
I think that finding true personal freedom, as with most everything else, comes from within. If I have a sense of freedom to claim agency in my own life, to accept myself as I am, an imperfect person, striving to do the best I can, given my limitations and those of the world around me, along all kinds of life dimensions, that seems like an idea of freedom I can work with and keep working towards. I can be okay, and free, no matter what doubts I might have, how others treat me, or how my luck plays out in the world, with acceptance.
How to carve out our own little space that perhaps widens over time, where we can live in a way that works for us in the context of our values?
We live in a complex system where many people do not act the way we think they should (including us). Given that, how can we make things fairer, work better, focus on the things that will better address our human problems?
Does getting upset help that? Arguable. It can provide some motivation. It can rally others to our cause. But does upsetting ourselves help us, on balance? Does it help to hurt ourselves with anger and sacrifice ourselves to a cause? There are limits built into that, like longevity and continued influence. So let’s choose that judiciously -- pick your battles, as we used to say. Are there better ways to focus our energies to make changes? I would say yes.
And then what of addictive behaviors? How do these interact with acceptance? They tend to be pretty rough on our ability to feel okay about ourselves. They can certainly affect our relationships with others and our ability to see them objectively, trust what they are telling us. And then life … Well, those haven’t helped me much with being able to cope with life on life’s terms.
So where to start?
I’d say start with exploring self-acceptance, and then move slowly and steadily towards accepting others and then life acceptance, the world as it is, so you can see what you want to do with that. It won’t flow in a straight order, and of course, we can’t be perfect in these either. I tend to swing between doing better with one or the other, and I often have to self-correct, but starting with self is usually a good bet.
I picture this process of embracing unconditional acceptance as widening circles, ripples spreading out on a pond. If we start with ourselves, and make self-acceptance our core, then we can gradually start to spread out to embrace the reality of other people as they are, and the world around us, in whatever ponds we choose in the world.
References on REBT: