I admit it: I wish some people were different. Depending on who they are, I wish they’d stop doing things like leaving cabinet doors open in our kitchen, sending me spam emails, or turning a blind eye to global warming. And I wish they’d start doing things like being friendlier and more helpful. Even if it doesn’t affect me directly, for their own sake I do wish that some people I care about were more energetic, less anxious, or less self-critical.
In what ways do you wish that people were different? Think about the people close to you as well as coworkers, neighbors, and drivers on the highway. It’s normal to wish that others were different, just as it’s normal to wish that you, yourself, were different (say, richer or wiser).
It’s fine to try to influence others in skillful, ethical ways. But problems come when we tip into fault-finding, badgering, contempt, or any other kind of struggle.
Instead, we could accept them for who they are, and for who they are not. Acceptance means you “give up” to the truth—the facts, reality—no matter what it is. You may not like it, for understandable reasons. For example, I don’t like the facts that many children go hungry each day, that my mother and father are no longer here, and that I’ve hurt people by losing my temper. But things are what they are, and we can accept them while still trying to make them better, when that’s possible. Acceptance grounds us in what is true, which is where we have to start for any lasting effectiveness, happiness, or healing.
Accepting people does not itself mean agreeing with them, liking them, or downplaying their impact on you. You can still take appropriate actions. You’re simply accepting the reality of the other person. You may not like it, you may not prefer it, you may feel sad or angry about it, but, at a deeper level, you are at peace with it. That alone is a blessing. And, sometimes, your shift to acceptance can open a kind of space in which a relationship can improve.
To have a clear experience of acceptance, start with a simple, direct, undeniable experience, such as accepting the sensations of breathing. For a few breaths, focus on the sense of letting the breath be whatever it is. Try saying softly in your mind things like these: I accept this rising of the chest . . . I accept this falling . . . this flowing in and flowing out. I accept that there is breathing now . . . I accept the fact of breathing now . . . Try taking it a little further: I accept the fact that this body needs air . . . I accept that I need to breathe.
What does acceptance feel like? What is enjoyable or meaningful about it?
Accepting what’s hard to accept . Now try something that is hard to accept, starting with a small to medium issue. Some examples might be: I can’t believe that some people don’t use their turning signals while driving . . . I don’t like how my roommate does the dishes . . . I wish my partner were less hyper-rational and more in touch with their feelings.
Then, just as you did for breathing, try to hold this fact in a context of acceptance. Fill in the blank with the fact, and say things to yourself like these: It’s true that _______ . . . I see that _______ . . . I surrender to the fact that _______ . . . I wish with all my heart that _______ weren’t the case, but it is . . . I give up about _______ . . . I accept _______. See if you can soften around the truth of things, if you can open out to the way things are.
Understanding blocks to acceptance. As you try to be more accepting of others, you might bump into two common blocks.
The first block is avoiding the disappointment or even despair you could feel if you really got that someone was just that certain way, and likely to stay that way. Remind yourself that you can tolerate these painful feelings as they pass through awareness while finding a deeper acceptance of the reality of the other person.
The second block is pushing to make something happen that just won’t. For example, while it may be sad to face it, it might simply be true that someone will never admit what they did or give you the love you long for. Our strengths, not just our weaknesses, can get us in trouble, such as being so determined that you keep searching too long inside tunnels that truly have no cheese. After you’ve let yourself feel understandable frustration and regret, imagine putting your energy where there is more support and possibility.
Fully accepting someone. Pick a person who is important to you. (You can do this practice with multiple people.) In your mind, out loud, or in writing, say things like these and see how you feel: I accept you completely . . . Countless causes, large and small, have led you to think, speak, and act the way you do . . . You are who you are . . . I let it be . . . You are a fact and I accept the facts in my life . . . You and I are part of a larger whole that is what it is, and I accept that, too.
If you like, be more specific, naming aspects of this person that particularly bother you, such as: I accept that you snore . . . are always late . . . leave your clothes on the floor . . . are still angry at me . . . have little natural interest in sex . . . are fighting me tooth-and-nail in this divorce . . . don’t really understand me.
Consider how you may have gotten tangled up with this other person, struggling to change them. When I reflect on this myself, I become aware of my own pushiness, irritability, and hurts. See if you can let go of some, even all, of your own entanglements. Open to the easing and peace that can come when you do.
Consider how much you like it when you feel that another person accepts you completely. It’s a beautiful gift—and we can give it ourselves to others when we accept them. Imagine how it might improve your relationship with someone if that person felt you accepted them fully. Acceptance is a gift that gives back.
It’s easy to accept beautiful sunsets, golden prizes, and warm smiles. It’s the hard things that are hard to accept. So, it’s important to appreciate the peace that comes from giving up the fight with the way it is.
You can still do whatever you can—which might be nothing, unfortunately—while facing what is actually true. This often eases conflicts with others. And at some point, an easing can come into your heart, a softening and a clarity. With a hard-won, honest freedom.
Excerpted from Making Great Relationships by Rick Hanson. Copyright © 2023 by Rick Hanson. Used by permission of Harmony Books, an imprint of Random House, a division of Penguin Random House LLC, New York. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.