A Coaching Power Tool Created by Alberto López Mas
(Life Coach, VIETNAM)
Our lives are in constant transformation. The changes in our thoughts, feelings, goals or actions may be a response to external circumstances or a result of our own internal processes. In any case, the best possible outcome for ourselves will be determined by our ability to assess the situation and use our effort and resources in the most efficient way. This is where acceptance plays an essential part.
Acceptance is about understanding where we are, what we can change and what are our tools to do it. It is choosing the path of less resistance to achieve our goals. On the other hand, rejection is a negative reaction to these factors by denying or ignoring them. It makes us waste our energy by trying to change what we can’t or by using the wrong tools.
Example: Susie’s Saturday Tantrum
Susie is 7 years old and is looking forward to going to the zoo on Saturday morning, as her dad promised. However, when she wakes up she sees in dismay that it is raining heavily. Dad goes to her and in a sad tone says “I’m sorry, Susie, we can’t go to the zoo…but we can play later instead!” She hates that: she only wants to visit the animals and is sulky the rest of the day, muttering “It’s not fair” and looking through the window. That’s rejection: Susie rejects the weather, and wastes her time and energy wishing that it stops raining, which is obviously out of her control. Only by accepting that she will not go to the zoo she can turn her focus into having a good time indoors. It may not be the situation she had in mind, but it’s the best she has!
It’s easy to deem Susie’s behavior as ‘childish’, but as adults we have similar ones. We struggle with facts in our past, or reject the circumstances that brought us to our present situation, trying to live in an “alternate reality”. Sometimes we fight the conditions that we cannot change in our present; or deliberately ignore options that we dislike in our future. We expect other people to be the way we want or, even worse, we don’t accept ourselves, refusing what we consider “flaws” and aspiring to be someone else. All of these are forms of rejection.
When we are in rejection we feel frustrated and lacking control. Quite probably we don’t see a clear path of action or cannot set our goals. We may be unmotivated, unsecure and with low self-esteem. It’s like fighting against a wall. However, when we accept our situation and ourselves we immediately experience clarity and calmness. Suddenly new possibilities open up, we see new ways ahead and feel confidence on achieving our goals.
Acceptance provides a solid foundation, a clear starting point to reach our objectives. Furthermore, it helps us to decide if they are the objectives that we really want. And, during the process to achieve them, accepting every turning point will lead us through the best possible route. Using a sports metaphor, you cannot run a marathon if you don’t even know where it starts, where it ends, or the race course!
Isn’t there a conflict between our struggle for improvement (in ourselves and our clients) and assuming the worst of our situations? The simple, straight answer is ‘no’. As we will see, acceptance is the bedrock for change, and we must practice in our lives before we can inspire it in our clients. Acceptance is a skill to be honed in daily that shines through our behavior.
Accepting the Situation
You are now here (wherever that is) reading these pages. That’s a fact. There was a sequence of moments and decisions during the day that brought you here. That is also a fact. And, after reading this you will do other things, there will be other moments and other decisions. That is another fact. There is no question on accepting these simple things. They are straightforward and you don’t have to think too much. However, on a bigger scale you may stop seeing this simplicity.
How many times have you pondered about your past? Blaming yourself or others for things that happened time ago, regretting that ‘turning point’ in your life, dreaming on how things would be different, wanting to erase the bad moments…In summary, trying the impossible: changing the past. It is something very common that we all suffer, but it does not make it less delusional.
We cannot change our past, no matter how hard we try, but we waste endless time and energy rejecting it. If we accept it instead, we can use that time and energy to move forward. It is not about forgetting or ignoring, but about realizing that all the moments in our life (good, bad or indifferent) are equally valid experiences. We cannot take some and leave others, and fighting them will bring only more bad moments. On the other hand, if we embrace our past we will come to understand that all those experiences are part of our owns: they have contributed to our uniqueness and to the things that we like in ourselves.
Just like you cannot move your past, you cannot change your present situation. Maybe you would like being richer or healthier, having different relationships or any other circumstance in your life. The easy “solution” is blaming our past, others or ourselves for all that we don’t like about our life. These are all forms of rejection that, of course, do not change those circumstances. The reality is that we are where we are and that is the starting point to any path we want to take. Unless we know and accept this starting point, we won’t be able to make any changes in our lives.
The last area of acceptance in our lifelines is the most difficult to grasp: the acceptance of our future. The constant changes in our lives mean that we will lose some things we love, and dislike others to come. Rejection here takes the form of clinging and fear: clinging to youth and fear of old age, clinging to health and fear of disease, clinging to relationships and fear of solitude….The biggest, ultimate fear is the fear to death which, of course, is the most unavoidable of things. However, by accepting whatever our future brings we can use every change as an opportunity, and by accepting that the things we cannot avoid are as part of life as those we want to last, we can release ourselves from fear and live a more plentiful life.
Accepting Yourself and Others
When you think about it, it is amazing how many of our inner troubles come from rejecting ourselves (aspects we dislike or deem as flaws), and how many of our conflicts with other people come from rejecting them (their behaviors, personalities, appearance…). In many cases there is a ‘game’ we all tend to play: Idealization.
Idealization is having a mental image of how we or others should be…and rejecting what does not fit in it. In essence it creates expectations that, when not met, provoke unhappiness, anger, unsatisfaction… Although an ideal is usually associated with an image of perception, it also can be understood as something that does not fit reality and triggers judgement. Actually, some people would argue that they don’t have ideals, they don’t expect ‘anything out of ordinary’. But, if that ‘something not out of the ordinary’ is unattainable, out of their control or unrealistic, it is an ideal that elicits unmet expectations.
Example: John’s Role Model
John is a hard-working engineer who has been recently promoted to team manager in his company. He is very analytic and detailed-oriented and has always preferred working alone or in very small teams rather than in large groups. He has always felt shy at big meetings and usually punishes himself for his perceived lack of the skills he admires: charisma, sociability, easy networking…His role model, both as a manager and an engineer, is Steve Jobs, and he secretly dreams of performing someday magnetic speeches in front of a raptured audience. When he is promoted he gets anxious for not being what he thinks is a good leader, buy sees it as an opportunity to fill that gap and create a highly motivated, high-performing team. During the first six months he strives to increase the results of the team and become the kind of energetic manager he wants to be.
After that time John meets his manager and is shocked to learn that the performance of the team is in decline. Even worse, during a routine internal assessment, John’s team’s motivation proved alarmingly low and most members blamed him for that. The general conclusion was that, as a partner, John had been considered as reliable, hard-working, honest and helpful; but, as a manager, those same people could not understand him and were afraid of talking with him. During the meetings they felt he was rehearsing, playing a role, and could not get his changing messages; on their daily tasks he was inflexible and rejected anything that was not done the way he wanted, thus crushing their creativity.
What could had possibly gone wrong? John was good at work, had a good model and put all his effort on his new position, but he was trapped by his own ideals. On one hand, he wanted to be Steve Jobs, not John. He had an image from speeches, public performances and books of the person he HAD to be. Anything short than that perfect image was a failure, so John tried to impersonate an unreal character, instead of being himself. As an engineer and as a manager, John had his unique set of skills to build on (skills that Steve Jobs didn’t have). But, as he didn’t accept himself, he could not see them, and at the same time was not aware of the areas where he could really improve. Beyond that, he had his idea of how a high-performing team should behave: they wanted his employees to produce their work exactly as he would have done, and could not understand when they did it in a different way. He was losing the opportunity of improving the team’s results by trusting its members’ individual work and skills.
If acceptance is the bedrock for change in our lives, it is most important to start by accepting ourselves. In this case, rejection takes the form of shame, hatred or despise of our ‘flaws’ and ‘limitations’. Over time, it will cloud our self-perception, not letting us see our strengths and resources. How can we achieve our goals and live better lives if we are not aware of the tools that we can use, if we only focus on our ‘failures’?
This is why accepting ourselves is crucial. We all have strengths and limitations that made us the individuals that we are. The path to success involves making the best use of those strengths, improving the limitations that we can and working around those that we cannot. However, when we practice rejection we see only those things that we don’t like (regardless they are real or not) and forget about the good ones. The direct consequence is that we feel unable to reach our goals, or even forget about them.
The antidotes are love and equanimity. By loving our own beings, treating us as the unique individuals that we are we will discover our possibilities and unravel our power. By treating us with equanimity and fairness we will perceive our limitations as characteristics that contribute to the way we are, and we will discern which ones we can (and want) to change.
The acceptance of our individuality opens the door to accepting anyone else’s. Many of our conflicts with other people come from our unmet expediencies (we want them to behave in a certain way), and our desire to change them (we want them to be the way we want). The direct outcomes are misunderstandings, frustration and damaged relationships. However, if we embrace their individuality and release judgement, if we understand deeply that they deal with their strengths and limitations the same as we do, our perception will shift. On one hand, we will treat them as equals and value their aptitudes; on the other, we will see clearly the behaviors that we cannot accept, not because they go against our expectations, but because they are against our core values.
In summary, if we accept and love ourselves we have more clarity about our goals and make a better use of our resources. If we accept and embrace others, we see their qualities and, if rejection persist, we can ask ourselves if it is because of our unmet ideals or due to a conflict with our inner principles.
Coaching is a journey through self-discovery in order to achieve goals and live a more fulfilling life. Like in every journey (think of the marathon metaphor at the beginning) it is basic to know the starting and finishing points as well as the best route. As we have seen, acceptance is essential for that.
As coaches we must work with our clients to promote acceptance of their past and present in order to produce a better future. Acceptance will help them to:
- Assess realistically their situation and goals.
- Be aware of rejection and idealization issues.
- Realize what can and cannot be changed at any moment and work with it.
- Take responsibility of their acts and lives (stopping the ‘blaming game’).
- Shift the focus to the real problems at hand.
- Stop wasting time and energy on things that cannot be changed.
- Understand what they can improve and how.
These points will bring clarity on their journey, where they start, where they want to end and how to track the route. There are other aspects where acceptance is of the utmost importance: helping our clients to accept their and others’ individuality will bring to the surface their strengths and shed light on their limitations. These are the tools (the vehicle) they will use in their journey.
The first problem that may arise when working with them is that they may be willing to accept their strengths, but reluctant to do the same with what they perceive as ‘flaws’. The same happens when accepting others: easy to get along with what they like, and judgmental on the rest. This is when understanding individuality is of great help: as individuals we and our clients are uniquely composed of many physical, emotional, intellectual and spiritual aspects, and one cannot be understood without the others. Those supposed ‘flaws’ are also part of us and give sense to who we are. Acceptance does not mean conformism, but seeing every aspect in a balanced way on relation to the others. It helps our clients to decide on what to change.
Example: As Beautiful As the Mona Lisa
La Gioconda (or Mona Lisa) is Leonardo da Vinci’s most famous work. A true masterpiece, it is one of the most important paintings of all time, and occupies a central position at the Louvre Museum in Paris (and not because of lack of masterpieces, by the way). The influence of this portrait in the history of art is beyond doubt. Everybody recognizes it, and there are thousands of written pages (from the academic to the mundane) analyzing every bit of it, most famously its mysterious, charming smile. It is a beautiful work of art. Although, actually, she doesn’t have eyebrows. Nor eyelashes, if you look carefully.
What a BIG flaw, right? The most famous portrait in the world does not have eyebrows nor eyelashes. But everybody agrees it’s a beautiful painting, how is that possible? Now, think of the Mona Lisa WITH eyebrows, how different she’d look, how the attention would shift from her smile…You can even think of her with Groucho Marx’s eyebrows to have a laugh.
The truth is that the Mona Lisa is famous and beautiful, a fascinating piece of art, just as it is: with its secretive smile and without eyebrows. And, no matter how you think of ‘fixing that flaw’, you come up with a different painting. Accepting the beauty of the Mona Lisa is accepting it as it is.
Common Resistances to Acceptance
There are some common misunderstandings about acceptance that may make our clients reluctant to it, or make them confuse it with negative behaviors.
Acceptance vs. Injustice: “If I accept an unfair situation, then I am accepting injustice.” This could be a very valid argument from a client that is living this kind of difficult moment. Ultimately, it leads to the conclusion “I am not doing anything against injustice or to improve the situation”.
Of course, accepting a situation does not mean accepting injustice. On the contrary, it is the first step to fight it. In the face of unfairness, inequality, discrimination…no matter how much the client relives the situation in his mind, it will not get any better. And anger, frustration or blame, although natural reactions, will not improve that condition by themselves. Accepting a situation means being aware of what has happened, what can be changed and how. It is the first step to refocus the client’s energy towards practical actions that will revert (or, at least alleviate) the damage. It is a shift from “I hate this happened!” to “Now that this happened, how can I change it?”
Acceptance vs. Conformism: Coaching is a means for improvement, but misinterpreted acceptance would bring the opposite when change is difficult or inconvenient. It is easy to use ‘acceptance’ as an excuse not to do anything. Of course, the client is the one who must decide what to change and what not, however he must ask himself the question “Am I accepting this because I embrace it as part of my own, or am I actually rejecting a difficult change?”
On the other hand, acceptance may be disregarded by clients who perceive it as a form of “mediocrity”. On that view, accepting what you are implies conforming to it and not improving. This rationale forgets that acceptance is the first step to meaningful change, and is usually based on some form of idealization: “If I cannot be like the perfect image I have, then I must be ok with the second-rate I am”.
Acceptance vs. Irresponsibility: Another wrong view of acceptance is used as an excuse to keep negative behaviors that are harmful to oneself or others. For example: “I know I am hot-tempered, so people should understand if I shout at times” or “I must accept that I live an stressful life and cannot quit smoking”. These sentences take the form of “I know and accept how I am/live”, but the underlying message is “I do not want to change and I take no accountability for my actions”. In the first example, the client uses ‘acceptance’ to avoid the consequences of his behavior to others, and in the second, the client puts the responsibility of his decision (keep smoking) on external factors (the circumstances in his life). True acceptance involve a deep knowledge of one’s own acts and behaviors, their effects on oneself and others and the responsibility for that.