Why Acceptance Is Unconscious

While on vacation with my parents, I learned first-hand the difference between acceptance and tolerance. True acceptance is unconscious.

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Blue flowers and butterflies.

Over the past few years, I’ve had the chance to travel with my parents, which I know is rare as an adult. We’ve enjoyed vacations in Australia, India, Italy, the UK and recently, spent a week together in New York and Miami. Whenever I’d return from one of these trips, I would joke with my friends that traveling with your parents is a wonderful opportunity to practice acceptance.

After this most recent trip, I realized I had been fooling myself all this while. I was not practicing acceptance. I was practicing tolerance.

Tolerance is a conscious and deliberate action. I see someone or something different than what I expect or imagine and then make the conscious choice to be okay with it. Lifestyle choices my parents might make about eating less nutrition food, buying stuff that was clearly not needed or spending more time on their phones than one should are some examples of what I was tolerating, perhaps poorly at times.

It requires willpower and discipline to tolerate someone or something. My experience has been that the simple thought pattern of ‘I see you as different than I what I expect and I am choosing to be okay with it’ can drain mental and emotional energy. There are other symptoms as well. Suppressing emotions, feelings and thoughts inside and bundling them up over time starts to leak out in the form of anxiety, stress, frustration or even anger.

I can forget about empathy when I am tolerating someone or something. My judgement blinds me and I get closed. I am not able to see, understand or feel for anything or anyone other than myself in that moment. Tolerance in its nature makes it impossible to be authentic. I am building many tiny facades around me.

Now tolerance does help me function in society and is often needed in normal day-to-day interactions. Like taking the subway, standing in-line to order lunch or someone asking for directions on the street. My message is not to stop tolerating, but to start accepting.

After this most recent trip with my parents, I felt different. I did not feel the symptoms of tolerating that I once did. I felt empathetic and authentic with them, and we were all vulnerable with each other. And that’s when I realized I had started to accept them.

Over dinner on our last night together, I shared with my parents that ‘I think I’ve learned to accept you’, to which my dad responded with a smile, ‘so you feel we’ve become more acceptable people’. I responded with ‘no, you haven’t changed, you both are yourselves, I have changed’.

Reality is all right. If something appears to me to be not all right, then it is me who can change.

Acceptance paves the way for a deeper connection to the people and experiences around me. I am able to find meaning in what is, versus focusing on what is not.

How do I go about practicing acceptance? I cannot. The moment I try to consciously accept someone or something, I am no longer accepting and am instead tolerating.

The process to learn acceptance starts with focusing on awareness of what I may be tolerating, and becoming curious about it. It is unpleasant to study what I am tolerating and when faced with a situation I don’t like, the tendency could be to run away from it or distract myself with something else. To be fearless is to look at it closely and understand what’s actually happening. What am I fearful of? What am I attached to?

As I keep digging, I then start to change. Acceptance is a symptom of a deeper exercise to understand myself. Awareness automatically results in unconscious change. Fears begin to crumble. Attachments begin to loosen. And an openness to the world begins to grow inside of me.

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