What Does Acceptance Mean?

Acceptance can have different meanings. When difficult things happen in our lives, we are told we just have to accept them. We hear messages about just needing to accept things the way they are. Yet when we look around, and we see horrible things in the world, it can be hard to reconcile the need to accept things with our innate human desire to make the world a better place. When we see things that are not right, we think, that’s not acceptable. Or when people are treating us poorly we think, I don’t have to accept this.

How do we make sense of the need to make change with the need to accept things? Being accepted for who we are is a gift, but knowing that none of us are perfect, how do we both accept who we are andat the same time recognize that we might need to change? How do we reconcile the need to accept things as they are and at the same time, reject things that are not okay?

Acceptance can mean different things. One version of acceptance is to think about viewing reality accurately. Human nature may be ugly at times, but there is still an imperative to see human nature as it actually is. In this context, acceptance is really just about seeing things as they are, not as we wish them to be. It is about acknowledging and viewing the truth of the world around us as it is, free of our biases and beliefs. In this vein, acceptance simply means congruence between our beliefs and reality. Acceptance means letting the truth in.

This idea of seeing the world accurately is different than the idea that we have to be okay with the world as it is. We can still desire change. We can still work to make the world a better place. Seeing and accepting the world as it is does not mean that cannot strive for change. Acceptance, in this context, does not mean being okay with the way things are. Our internal emotional and moral sense of self does not have to condone (accept) the current state of affairs. However, if we want to make the world a better place, it helps to start with an accurate understanding of the way things are. It does not mean we have to morally condone the way things are.

A different way of conceptualizing acceptance is to think about it as the antonym for judgment or rejection. In this context, acceptance means without reservation. It means opening our hearts all of someone— warts and everything. This type of acceptance is often what we are hoping to find in our relationships— the ability to be our true, authentic selves. To be seen and heard for who we are, without fear. In this context, acceptance is not really about truth, but rather akin to love. It is about embracing a person unconditionally, rather than only being okay with certain parts of a person. It means letting go of the idea that we can only be ok with a person if…

But this concept of acceptance brings with it a challenge— how can we fully embrace someone if we (as humans) are not perfect, if we make mistakes, if we disappoint each other, and if we fall short of our ideal selves? If we accept all of someone unconditionally, how can we at the same time believe that change is needed?

F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote: “The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposing ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.” We can hold two, seemingly opposing ideas in our head at the same time. We can both fully accept someone unconditionally as as they are, and at the same time recognize a need to change. This is called dialectic, and it’s the basis for an entire type of therapy called dialectical behavioral therapy. At its core, it is the idea of acceptance of things as they are, and at the same time, the need to change. It is a powerful framework through which we can see other people in our lives, and through which we can view ourselves. I am accepting of who I am, and at the same time, I need to change.

Acceptance means different things. It can mean seeing things clearly, accurately, and as they are. It can mean acknowledging the reality of the world. Acceptance also means seeing each other without judgment or reservation— with love. But embracing acceptance does not mean closing our eyes to our moral views, our ability to think, or our sense of what is not working.

How can you think about building acceptance in your life? Which is harder for you— seeing the world as it is, or embracing people for who they are without reservation? How can you hold the dialectic of unconditional acceptance and the need to change?

-Dr. Justin