Acceptance Is Not The Same Thing As Enabling Unhealthy Behavior

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“When I accept myself as I am, then I can change.”
– Carl Rogers

We can apply the above quote to our attitude towards those we care about too. How to approach loved ones whose behaviors we find to be unhealthy is a fuzzy area for a lot of us. Discomfort stems from the idea that accepting them means complicity, means a sort of enabling, where we’re giving them the green light to keep going down a dark path.

But the therapeutic alliance, where unconditional positive regard is a vital prerequisite for any significant changes clients might decide to undertake, sheds light upon the above error in thinking. Acceptance is not the same thing as enabling unhealthy behavior. At least not the type of acceptance we have in mind here, which we might define as the unwavering belief in the potential of others to grow into their best Selves. With this unwavering belief set as the philosophical foundation it’s easy to take a non-judgmental, accepting attitude towards people in their current iterations since we know these iterations are not their final, set in stone versions but rather points along the growth continuum.

When we think about it, this sort of non-judgmental, accepting attitude makes change more likely not less likely since it naturally opens up a safe space for others to look closely at themselves without all the defensiveness and push back that always accompanies perceived attacks on identity. We all seek to maintain the integrity of our identities and when we sense they’re being threatened we dig all the more into our entrenched life positions.

Non-acceptance says “You have to change, I don’t like who you are.” Acceptance says “I believe you can change, I very much like who you are.” Which of these two underlying attitudes, attitudes that end up infecting every facet of how we behave towards our loved ones, is more likely to act as a springboard for positive change?

The major shift in perception is, like we’ve been talking about, that acceptance doesn’t have to mean complacency, surrender, apathy, enabling, etc. It’s a cognitive bias to fall victim to that automatic thinking. Acceptance can just mean acceptance, acceptance of the situation as it stands right now without any censure or judgment, while still holding out hope the situation can improve and while seeking to provide the most loving, encouraging, supportive environment possible for that to happen.