Being Willing vs. Being Accepting
In a previous post (What Exactly do you Want? About Valued Living) I wrote about choosing valued behaviors, even when they aren’t fun, even when they are accompanied by painful emotions, negative thoughts, and urges to hide, shut down, or stay in bed. There are lots of tools for creating space for these feelings, thoughts, and urges but I think it is important to make a distinction between acceptance and willingness.
Let’s say that you want to reach out to your mother – you have a difficult history with her but you’d like to change that, you’d like a more authentic relationship with her. Your first thought is a phone call, followed by a feeling of dread and memories of painful fights and awkward conversations. Then perhaps you have the urge to just text her and send out a brief hello. Not very authentic but at least you’re trying, right?
Acceptance is not Resignation
Here’s where we get into the subtle differences between acceptance and willingness. First, I am not talking about accepting the situation with your mother as unfixable or unchangeable. Acceptance doesn’t equal resignation. You don’t have to “accept” the relationship as it is or as it has been.
What I’m suggesting is that you begin to try new behaviors that can move the relationship in a better direction. You cannot change your mother but you can change your behavior when you interact with her. So, acceptance means being willing to commit to a behavior that is valued while accepting all the difficult thoughts, feelings, etc. that come up for you. It doesn't mean accepting the situation as it is.
Just thinking about this can become overwhelming. The idea of having to actually move in the direction of something painful seems counterintuitive. If you can barely be in the presence of your mother, why would you pursue anything other than very safe small talk?
The trick to willingness is to choose something that you can be completely, not just partially, willing to do, and at the same time, choose something which is attainable. Meeting her for lunch and talking about the weather doesn’t count - that's partial willingness. Neither does keeping your views and beliefs to yourself in an effort to keep the peace (your value is an authentic relationship, remember?). But, maybe you aren’t yet willing to have lunch with her because you know you will be flooded with feelings and probably not behave in a way that you want.
What if you choose something more manageable? Perhaps a five-minute phone call with her where you are willing to be present to whatever comes up and at the same time be willing to have a real conversation? Or maybe meet for coffee in a public place where you know there will be a time limit. The important part of this is that you have to try out new behaviors that are based on your values. So, if you value authentic relationship this means having authentic conversation. Again, if this feels scary, consider five minutes of willingness on the phone rather than one hour of inauthentic lunch conversation.
Trying Out Valued Behaviors
The above example can be used for a variety of different situations where you would like to see change in your life. While you may have a great relationship with your mother, you may not have a great work life. Or perhaps you are numbing anxious feelings with alcohol, avoiding dating because you feel worthless, or want better friendships and feel stuck. I’ll write more in future posts about how to create space and be better able to sit with the difficult thoughts, feelings and urges that come up, but in the meantime, here’s how being willing to try out valued behavior works:
- Recall your value
- Identify a behavior that is in the direction of your value
- Determine what you are willing to do, completely and with acceptance
- Give it a try
- See what happens