Accepting Others Without Aster*sks
The greatest relationships are built on acceptance, without caveats.
Vision and acceptance are strange bedfellows, in one’s psyche. The first of these requires us to venture into the unknown — the future — to project our will onto the present, in the name of re-forging it into something that we hope, or are convinced, will be better.
Vision is, in my view, what separates animals from humankind. Yeah, yeah: self-awareness, too; but it’s vision and vision alone that has fed us with a bottomless wellspring of ideas, from which we have manifested a world of our own creation.
So while vision represents the apex of human capacity when it comes to changing things, it is, by contrast, a death sentence when it comes to being seized by the burning desire to change a person. That is, while a ‘fixer-upper’ is a great home-building project, it is a lousy friend, or spouse. It may be virtuous to approach sticky problems with ideas and vision — like purifying water or harnessing the sun’s energy — but it is patently unwise to foist our lofty ideals upon a mate. In relationships, sentences that begin with, “If only he…” or “This is okay, but…” or “So and so just needs to…” or “Things would be better if…” or “I know how to fix…” are all signs that the person thinking (or worse, saying) them is focused on the wrong things.
People are not fixer-uppers. They are completely formed psychological ecosystems of incredible complexity, and the only path I know of that leads to healthy change from what a person is, does or thinks, is the path that she chooses for herself, on her own time, speed, and scope. To attempt to ‘fix’ or ‘improve’ or ‘help’ or ‘nudge’ or ‘transform’ or ‘make’ a person is to foist one’s own ego onto another human. It is a hostile takeover, projecting all the complexity of one’s own experiences and judgements onto the body (and mind) of another. It is, effectively, to think or say, “I can see things you cannot, and therefore I’m going to make parts of you more to my liking — that is, more in my image.” I seem to recall a piece of liturgical writing about fashioning humans in one’s image.
You’re not God.
There are several ways our presence in someone’s life can be of benefit to them, and all of the healthy ones begin in the same place: accepting others as they are, on their own terms, without asterisks, caveats, or exceptions. There are no healthy relationships whose end goal — whose vision — is to change them. Even in transactional relationships like those of a therapist and patient, the therapist (a good one, anyway) doesn’t seek to change the patient; they seek to understand them, so that the two of them can collaborate on whatever it is that the patient came to seek help with, from the standpoint of solicited subject matter expertise. The key difference here is, we asked for help; and the person we asked is focused on meeting that need — no more. Therapists are (conceptually) there to help dislodge our own blockages — at our request; even then, we take their advice to the degree that we wish, or can, at our own speed; and if we don’t, that, too, is accepted. So unless we are paying someone to coach us in some way — whether it’s to learn a skill or some form of self-awareness — and they’re delivering on the transaction, hierarchy and ‘asterisks’ have no place in our interactions.
In unpaid relationships, we are not therapists — or stylists, or life coaches, or trainers — to one another. We are equals. So while each of us is forged by our own personal life experiences — events that drive us to perceive the world in a particular way, and reach conclusions about ourselves; and while admittedly, not every conclusion we draw is helpful, or perfect; and while in relationships, there will likely be one party who is better or more knowledgeable about some things than the other; and while the more broadly we understand something, the richer our interpretations become; change cannot be the pretext — or even a part — of any relationship, if it is to have any chance of being healthy.
When it comes to changing something about ourselves, we must ‘get there’ on our own terms, as captains of our own psychological ships, sharing the adventure with others who accept us as we are — as simple co-travelers who enjoy the odyssey together, as it is.
We generally enter relationships with one another bonding over common ground, whether that’s something we mutually recognize in one another, or that represents desirable complementary qualities. Maybe the basis of the relationship is as shallow as being fans of the same sports team; or sharing a religion. Maybe it’s deeper — we see the world the same way, and so we enjoy delving into substantive conversations about our respective journeys, and enjoy reminiscing about the parts of it we have shared. Maybe it’s a supply and demand relationship, in which one of us is a successful assh*le and the other is a penniless angel, thus we trade ego-stroking for credit card-swiping. Maybe we share ‘life goals’ about children or lifestyle, and so are willing to abide by the parts we don’t love about one another, because “we know what’s important.” Or maybe it’s the opposite: we just click without effort, and have an amazing time together in the present, but diverge on how we see our futures, or others in it; and so we just take one day at a time. Whatever the hook(s) may be, we are incredibly complex beings, and there is no possible way that we feel or see the same way about most things in life, let alone all of it.
Because of this, relationships invariably become exercises in bridging over differences. The moment we discover divergent viewpoints about anything or bump up against something we don’t love about the other person, we are met with choice. We can accept that the quality or attitude in question is ‘part of the package’, and that we entered a relationship with a whole person, not just the parts of one that we like; or we can reject this-or-that quality, and decide that it needs changing, by which we are setting up an unhealthy confrontation. Even in the event that we want to fix something about someone else that they, too, want fixed, the hierarchy that develops between a ‘fixer’ and a ‘fixee’ is unhealthy. Moreover, there is no greater psychological comfort than in feeling accepted by another human, warts and all, even if there are parts of ourselves that we don’t love. Because the moment we are aware that someone is trying to change a part of us — again, even if we don’t like that part of ourselves, either — doing so conspires more than anything else to make us feel less than whole, and sets up a disunion between us — an unevenness — that puts one person in a position of power over the other. The moment that happens, the relationship is no longer healthy.
All healthy relationships are non-hierarchical.
We need to ask ourselves what it is we think we are trying to achieve by being in a relationship with someone else. Often, we are looking for others to ‘fill a hole’ in us — like feeling less lonely or providing a quality or capacity that we lack. Maybe it’s economic or professional success to which we want to attach ourselves; or we fashion ourselves a Mother Theresa and need someone we can help, with our ‘gifts’. These are not great bases for relationships, because on some level, the ‘service’ of hole-filling is transactional: ‘you will provide me with this service/lifestyle/image, and I will give you something in return, of your choosing.’ That’s not to say that complementary qualities aren’t good. They are! Relationships in which the two parties complement one another are often — usually — more successful than those in which both parties are similar, and as a result, butt heads, constantly. Great relationships are partnerships, and in any successful partnership there is some form of ‘division of labor’ that works for both parties, and/or complementary skillsets and qualities, so that all needs are met through equitable contribution and collaboration.
My misgivings about hierarchy and ‘hole-filling’ are about the emotional state we bring to how we see one another. Do we accept everything about our friend/partner as they are, even if they never change one single thing about themselves as long as we know them? Will we still be there if the money dries up; or the party is over; or our life circumstances change; or one of us gets sick, or needs an enormous favor that will cost the other person significant time and energy? What happens when the sh*t hits the fan? How deep, or broad, is the basis of the relationship? Is it enough to weather the storm? Or was it fun while it lasted, but now that it’s a buzzkill, time to move on?
Thanks for the memories…
A good way to think about the difference between acceptance and non-acceptance is that when we truly accept someone as they are, we are free to focus on the qualities that we love about them; whereas when we don’t, we are generally focused on what we don’t like, and wish to change.
Simply put, in relationships, we either focus on the good, or the bad. As we all know, when we look hard enough, eventually we find what we seek. While people are not plastic surgery, it’s a reasonable corollary to the point about acceptance. If we are constantly looking at the parts of our bodies and faces that we don’t like, we will eventually come to hate those parts of ourselves, and become desperate to fix them, and moreover, despondent as long as they remain unaltered. Once we start scratching that itch, it’s a slippery slope. Eyes, nose, chin, skin, breasts, butt, lips, eyebrows, hair… we are an endless landscape, and project; and the more we indulge in that behavior, the more severely we will begin to scrutinize ourselves, until things we never even noticed about ourselves, but now obsess over in the search for psychological relief from our imperfections, will drive us nuts. This mole; that bump; the exact curve of our cheek… If, by contrast, we don’t love feature ‘x’ but learn to appreciate that A: we are more than any single feature; and B: we have all these other special qualities — physical or otherwise — then we have a fighting chance of finding beauty in our imperfection, rather than seeking flawlessness on the outside, while dying of ugliness on the inside.
Where we find ourselves on this spectrum is primarily the result of our mindset, which betrays the state of our psychological health.
How we approach our relationships is no different. To accept a person as they are, without asterisks, is to free ourselves to focus on their unique beauty, rather than pick them over, like a carcass, for things to nibble on. Said another way, it is to find happiness where we are, rather than pine for what could be. Eckhart Tolle forever looms in the back of my mind. In The Power of Now, he reminds us that when we focus on the future, we miss the present. Well, we also miss the person in front of us when we are focused on what they are not, but could be. When we fall into that particular trap, we are no longer in a relationship with a real person, but an imaginary one we hope to craft. There is no greater insult to the person being overlooked — who gets in the way of this ‘ideal being’.
There is no ideal, but for the one you create in your head, just as there is no perfect relationship, but for the one you create together. What’s there, instead, is a real human with qualities, talents, emotions and dreams, who deserves to be loved as they are.
Elizabeth Gilbert, whose own journey to self-rediscovery was captured in her book Eat, Pray, Love, said, “To be fully seen by somebody, then, and be loved anyhow — this is a human offering that can border on miraculous.”
The prolific poet, author, memoirist and activist Maya Angelou said it another way: “The ache for home lives in all of us. The safe place where we can go as we are and not be questioned.”
To be fully seen by someone, and be loved anyhow — safe, and unquestioned — is the greatest gift we can receive that we do not give ourselves. I add this last point because to love ourselves unconditionally precludes our need to find it externally — a need that is impossible for someone else to fulfill for us, anyhow. But notwithstanding our internal state, to find another human who is capable and willing to give us their love — romantic or platonic — without asterisks of any kind, and to be able to reciprocate the gift, is to find a partner — or partners — in our odyssey.
At our cores, we are social creatures: there to bond, and bridge; not only to find meaning for ourselves, but to find one or more people with whom to share the privilege of the journey — in order to enrich it.