One of my oldest, strongest longings is the desire to be deeply known. This might surprise people who knew me as a child, because I was very reserved in most settings and rarely offered up information about myself. In fact, the thought of drawing people’s attention terrified me. I read once that the reason public speaking is such a harrowing experience is that, when all the eyes in the room are on us, we feel the echo of a prehistoric past in which we are surrounded by hungry predators. This image strongly resonates with one of my earliest public speaking experiences, which stirred up my anxiety to the point that I puked on the front row of my first-grade audience. There is something about being truly seen that feels unsafe.
There is something about being truly seen that feels unsafe.
And so these two desires feel at odds with one another – I want to be known, but I also want to be safe. I want to be seen, but I fear it above almost anything else. I remember an assignment in Kindergarten where each week a different student would bring in a poster with family photos and “get to know you” facts. When my week came, my mom wanted to include, as a seminal piece of information about myself, the fact that I had been born at home. I was mortified. Normal kids aren’t born at home, they’re born in hospitals. This was something that made me different, and different was bad because it could be misunderstood and rejected.
Many of us have had that childhood experience of rejection, some of us more times than bear recounting. And with each time, it feels harder and harder to let people see our true selves. We cross our arms to guard our bodies, we cloak ourselves in humor (or silence, or braggadocious claims) to protect our hearts.
So is our desire to be seen and known (and accepted, and loved) completely futile? I can’t accept that, because those things feel absolutely essential to true life. What, then, is the path to acceptance? Let me posit that we begin by considering how to extend acceptance rather than trying to figure out how to attain it. If we are able to offer acceptance in the communities we inhabit, it will begin to take root and grow into something that we too can receive.
Not Looking Away
I want to take a moment to define what I mean by “acceptance,” what it is and what it isn’t. To accept someone is to say, “I see you, exactly as you are in the present moment, and I’m not looking away.” Acceptance is the front line in the army of love. It’s presence (or absence) is the first thing that a person will intuitively experience about you. In this way, it is a prerequisite to the kind of love our souls most desperately need.
Acceptance is the front line in the army of love. It’s presence (or absence) is the first thing that a person will intuitively experience about you.
Accepting someone doesn’t mean you agree with all their choices, but it does mean laying down your need to fix or change them. When we try to fix someone, we’re communicating that the other person is broken. When we try to change them, we’re saying we’re not ok with them as they are. Even if we’re not intending to communicate those things, that is often how it feels to the other person. There’s something wrong with me, they think. I won’t be accepted until I change who I am. If you’ve ever been on the other side of this kind of relationship, you know how damaging it can be.
I could tell you of experiences like this, when others have rebuked, corrected, or worried about me. (All of these being forms of rejection, in their own way.) But since that is such a common experience, I want to share about the less common experience of being accepted – truly accepted, in a way that leads to healing and transformation. I had the privilege of being on the receiving end of this kind of acceptance on my first Faithwalking retreat in 2013. As I shared in my small group about the painful memories that had come up for me in the solitude time, I felt completely broken and exposed. I shared about making the meaning throughout my life that my very presence makes people uncomfortable, that being my true self leads to rejection. With all eyes on me, my sense of shame deepened. How would this authenticity be received? I almost wanted my small group leader to scold me or tell me what I needed to do better. I was so entrapped by a culture of merit-based acceptance that, without a task to achieve, I felt at a loss as to how to earn love. What my small group leader taught me that day was that real love is not earned, but given without reserve. He didn’t try to fix me – either by telling me what to do better, or by assuring me that there’s nothing wrong with me. Instead, he just listened, sitting with me in the pain of my experience. He acknowledged the courage it took for me to share so vulnerably. He saw me in my shame and didn’t look away.
He saw me in my shame and didn’t look away.
The next season of my life became a time of deep transformation for me, and I credit this to the love shown to me on retreat that weekend. If my vulnerability had been met with suggestions of what I should do differently, I would have retreated back into the shelter of my performance-oriented false self. I would have been all too happy to comply, but at the expense of burying my true self. If my vulnerability had been met with reassurances – “There’s nothing wrong with you, you don’t make people uncomfortable.” – I would have felt misunderstood and alone and retreated back into the safety of my hiding self, the self that tells the world “I’m ok” even when I don’t feel ok. Instead, I was met with presence. And more powerfully than any words, this loving presence communicated to me that it was ok to be exactly where I was in that moment. I was safe.
More powerfully than any words, this loving presence communicated to me that it was ok to be exactly where I was in that moment. I was safe.
The Road to Transformation
And this is why acceptance must come first, before any change or even intention of change has come about. This is how real transformation happens – by accepting someone as they are with no agenda to change them. This is because a person who is accepted feels safe, and it’s only when we’re safe that we’re able to take the risks necessary to change.
A person who is accepted feels safe, and it’s only when we’re safe that we’re able to take the risks necessary to change.
The path to a loving, accepting community involves something of a catch-22. The best way to cultivate an environment of acceptance is to extend it to others, but often we must receive true acceptance before we are capable of extending it. Where to begin? My suggestion is to look for the invitations on both sides. If you feel unable to extend acceptance because you’ve never received it, consider who in your life might be a safe person who would sit with you in your pain without trying to fix, correct, or reassure you. Maybe this person isn’t someone in your immediate circle of acquaintances. Maybe this person is a professional counselor whose literal job it is to accept you. No shame. Get it where you can.
But my encouragement would be to also look for opportunities to be that safe person for someone else. The next time someone shares something vulnerable with you, consider what it would look like to simply sit with them in their pain. Often in those situations we want to offer advice about what they could do differently, or we feel uncomfortable and change the subject. Sometimes we tell them why they shouldn’t feel what they’re feeling (e.g. “You seem angry, but you should really be grateful because…”) But all of these responses create an unsafe environment where people begin to shut down. Instead, when someone shares something vulnerable about themselves or their situation, look them in the eye and let them know that you see them. Let them know that you are not looking away, that you accept and love them exactly as they are in the present moment. As you extend this gift of acceptance to others, you will start to notice a change in yourself and the communities you inhabit. You and those around you will begin to experience real healing and transformation.
- What do these ideas stir up in you? What resonates with your experience? Where do you feel resistance?
- Have you ever shared something about yourself with someone and been hurt by their response? Describe the experience and what it was about their response that was hurtful.
- Do you have any relationships where you feel completely safe to be yourself and to disclose anything about yourself? Describe those relationships and what about them leads you to feel safe.
- What sort of people do you have a hard time accepting exactly as they are? Why do you think this is?
[This post is adapted from our facilitated conversation guide, “Acceptance & Vulnerability,” which can be found here. If there is a context where you’d like to use this resource, please feel free to do so! If you feel stuck in any way or would like to explore how to share these ideas, send me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org. I would love to support you in any way I can!]