It’s Passover. Springtime. Time for renewal, change… and celebrating freedom. One of the ways that we get rid of our “spiritual chametz” and free ourselves, is by shedding old assumptions, patterns, and “schemes” that are no longer working for us.
I am a clinician at Machon Dvir, a consortium of mental health experts who utilize Dialectical Behavior Therapy, or DBT, to treat patients. DBT is a methodology based on the “dialectic” of acceptance and change. At first glance, these two concepts present a complete contradiction; however, it is possible for two competing concepts, or a dialectic, to both be true. And learning to accept – and change — is a critical way to move forward into shedding old truths and finding new personal freedom.
Acceptance means the acknowledgment of truth or agreeing to the truth of an idea, or reality. I accept that by consensus, this is called a blog in English and therefore “accept” that it is a blog. Change, on the other hand, is a lack of acceptance of the status quo and an intention or action to make something different. I either accept that this is a blog post, or I “change” it into an infographic, for example.
The central driving principle of DBT is that one can truly be accepting of reality while working actively to change it at the same time.
There is one specific area that often serves as an impediment to acceptance. Abraham Maslow, the American psychologist best known for his theory of self-actualization, stated that all human beings possess a hierarchy of five general universal needs; physiological, safety, love and belongingness, esteem, and self-actualization. In order to progress from a “lower” need to a “higher” need, the lower need must first be sufficiently satisfied. Practically speaking, if a person is starving to death, living in a community with a police force — safety — won’t be of immediate concern given the dominant experience of starvation.
Only after an individual’s physiological needs are cared for will there be an opportunity to focus on safety issues. In his hierarchy, Maslow referred to needs one through four as “deficiency needs.” This means that when we are deficient in any one of those needs, it will preoccupy our thoughts and emotions until we are satiated. Perhaps, this is where acceptance sometimes gets “stuck;” perhaps our desire for consistency and predictability lies within our need for safety. In other words, when life is predictable, I feel that I have control; I feel safe.
How do we facilitate consistency? We develop something French developmental psychologist Jean Piaget referred to as “schemes.” This is essentially a template in the mind that allows us to rapidly interpret data. For instance, you may notice a type of bird you’ve never seen before as you stroll through the park. Despite never having seen it before, you will still be able to identify it as a bird due to its distinguishing bird-like features.
We also develop schemes as perceptions of self, others, and the world. The function of a scheme lies in its ability to allow for consistency and convenience and frees the mind to invest its energy in the pursuit of conscious goals. Without schemes, our minds would have to analyze each unit of data anew, and we would be left with little time and energy for more meaningful pursuits. It is schemes that allow us to categorize our experiences, personalities, and interactions into something familiar — and therefore safe. Schemes provide us with a sense of order and predictability in the world.
The natural consequence of the mind working via schemes is that they are by definition quite resistant to both challenge and change. We like what we know; we feel safe with what is familiar. The disorientation accompanied by “accommodation” (Piaget’s term for making room for a new scheme) is feared and, naturally, resisted. But life does not always fit neatly into our personal schematic system. Sometimes it would benefit us to relinquish our automatic, subjective perception of reality to make room for a reality that is more objective and accurate. In order to do that, we must let go of old schemes, old interpretive patterns, and see life as it is objectively, in this moment. Making room for the reality that is without projecting old schemes is challenging – but sometimes necessary.
It is precisely when we are confronted with the unknown, the undesirable, and the disappointing, that embracing a truth that feels “unsafe” serves, paradoxically, to allow for an eventual return to equilibrium. Acceptance is not synonymous with happiness, contentment, or even forgiveness. It simply means we have chosen not to refuse the facts of life, past and present.
This teaches us that every one of us can live within — and learn from – the dialectic of acceptance and change. To return to my oversimplified example, if I can accept truly that this is a blog post and not need to tell myself it is anything else, I am in the best possible position to be honest with myself that what I really need to convey my message is an infographic and that it isn’t what I have created.
Acceptance is a tool that allows us to metabolize our emotional experience of the present while recognizing the objective facts of life. This enables us to move forward in an effective direction, unencumbered by repressed effect or delusional thinking. Marrying that with a willingness to change allows us to break ineffective patterns of relating to ourselves, others, and the world.
I can use my embrace of what is — regardless of whether this is what I want to hear, see, or experience — to generate an adaptive and measured response in line with my values. Only when we let go of the safety of our expectations (perhaps even demands) can we make room to build new, more accurate schemes and strategies to confront any challenges that come up in our lives.
The more one can accept, the more room there is for change.