“We cannot change, we cannot move away from what we are, until we thoroughly accept what we are. Then change seems to come about almost unnoticed.” – Carl Rogers
The idea of approaching people with acceptance has roots in the work of humanistic psychologist Carl Rogers. The belief that people will change if they just feel bad enough is not well supported in the literature. Paradoxically, it is when people experience acceptance that they are able to change.
Acceptance doesn’t necessarily mean you approve of the person’s actions. You might behave differently in a similar situation. You may disagree completely with how someone chooses to cope with challenges. Yet, if we approach others with judgment and disapproval, it tends to draw out defensiveness and can get in the way of positive steps.
Acceptance is the ability to see and respect another person for who they are – without trying to make them into something else or withholding our approval until they become the person we think they should be. It means that we prize each person’s absolute worth as a fellow human, acknowledge their freedom to make their own choices, show compassion for their fears and suffering, and affirm the person’s strengths rather than focusing on their deficits. It means supporting someone without conditions. Acceptance builds safety and helps people change.
I recently read about an example of acceptance in a prison yard in Washington, where a group of rabbits had showed up. When the bunnies arrived (and decided to stay), the inmates took notice.
Bunnies were seen at every turn. One man named each of them and was nicknamed “the rabbit ambassador.” Some bunnies would eat out of the men’s hands. Others would sit near them on the grass.
The men recognized these expressions of acceptance. One man said, “When a rabbit comes up to me, it touches a deep part of my soul. It lets me know I’m worth something, you know?” He continued, “…all my life, I’ve heard animals are a good judge of character. If that’s true, then maybe I’m worth a lot more than I give myself credit for. I mean, they see something in me.”
It’s a relief to be ourselves – even when people know us at our worst and see our failings – and discover that we are accepted. Nonjudgmental acceptance, whether by humans or bunnies, is healing. It allows people to see the hope and goodness inside themselves.