“It’s aaalllllllllll about acceptance, baby,” she croons. Tears run from my eyes down my temples to my hair. I already know, but it feel good to hear her say it.
I’m lying on the floor of my yoga room. Beneath me is my great-grandmother’s quilt and a beat-up old yoga mat. She’s had her hands on me for over half an hour, giving me Reiki and guidance, calling on past-life memories and spirit guides. It’s weird to some, but it works for me. It feels supportive and clarifying. I cry to release sadness. I tell her things I’ve only told a few close friends. Things I was ashamed to say out loud.
Acceptance is the mantra. She has me say over and over again, “I love and accept myself.” Self-acceptance, acceptance of reality, accept, accept, accept. The word comes up over and over again.
“That’s your theme,” she says. “That’s where your work is.”
She has no idea how right she is.
The word “acceptance” gets thrown around a lot in spiritual and yogic communities. We are taught to accept our circumstances. Our limitations. Our strengths. The people around us. That which we can control. That which we can’t. And most importantly, ourselves, as the perfectly imperfect selves that we are.
I’ve always struggled with acceptance because I am, fundamentally, a fighter. I fight for what I believe in. I fight for those I love to be their best and most authentic selves. I fight to improve my circumstances and myself. On some level, I think I’ve rejected acceptance because it felt like giving into the status quo. I don’t want to be okay with the now. I want to work for something bigger and better.
Acceptance has always been a troubling concept for me. So earlier this year, I sought an opportunity to confront my beliefs around acceptance.
I signed up for Improv classes.
Improv wasn’t wildly out of my comfort zone. I’ve been an improv fan since I was a teenager and often go to shows. I did theater in high school and danced into my early twenties, so being on stage was nothing new. I was a little anxious about trying something different that I might not be “good” at right away, but I was mostly in it for the fun. I had no idea that it would challenge my some of my deepest-held beliefs.
The first two rules of improv are “Acceptance” and “Agreement.” Basically, anything anyone says to you on stage, you accept as fact and build on. This drives the scene forward. So, if your scene partner says to you, “Doctor, the patient is here to see you,” you would say, “Wonderful, he’s here to have to new head sewn on,” rather than, “I’m not a doctor; I’m a farmer!” Disagreement and rejection kill the momentum of the scene. Agreement and acceptance allow two or more people to tell a story together.
The application to life is obvious. In work settings, when a co-worker suggests an idea, rather than reject it right away, accept and add to it to foster feelings of support, teamwork, and brainstorming. In personal relationships, acceptance and agreement help your partner feel heard and create a sense of working together. In nearly every interaction you have with people, if you accept and agree, it will build the relationship and move things forward.
But wait, thought my poor, confused, therapy-filled brain. What about no? What about boundaries?
Sigh. And there I hit a wall.
So much of my personal work has been about learning to set boundaries. Having grown up in a household with few boundaries, I benefitted as an adult from 12 Step-inspired phrases like “‘No’ is a complete sentence” and “Appropriate boundaries create integrity.” Boundaries help me feel empowered and in control. They give my life structure. They’re hard sometimes, but they feel good.
And yet, I understand the principles of Acceptance and Agreement, too. Saying yes can lead to more excitement and adventure. Bigger and better projects. Deeper understanding and connection. And of course, saying yes to yourself–fully accepting and agreeing with the person that you are–is the essence of self-love.
So how does all this fit together? Can we agree and have boundaries at the same time? Can yes and no co-exist?
Carl Rogers said, “The curious paradox is that when I accept myself just as I am, then I can change.” Bingo. Yes and no aren’t opposites. Paradoxically, they work together. And when they do, profound change occurs.
No without yes is just rejection. It’s often ego driven. It’s saying, “I don’t like this because I think it’s wrong/it hurts me/I deserve better.” It’s reactive. It shuts down and creates more hurt.
But no can have a yes in front of it. “I see you for who you are, and I accept you for you and all that you are.”
But here’s the key… You can still say no after you accept.
“I accept you for who you are… and having you in my life isn’t going to work for me right now.”
“I accept that this job stressful and toxic… and I’m going to seek out something better for me.”
“I accept that you need my help right now and value what I offer… and I’d love to help you some other time when it’s a better fit for me.”
Adding acceptance into boundaries, saying yes before saying no, makes communication more loving. It changes the dynamic on both sides. By accepting the situation and the person first, it also ensures that the boundary is well thought out, not reactive.
Yes and no can live together. And indeed, they must.
“You’ve done a lot of work,” she says, almost in awe. “Like, really. Your spirit guides are telling me you’ve worked so hard. And it’s okay now. You don’t have to fight anymore. You can let your guard down.” She keeps her hand on my back, so gentle and loving.
She can’t know how deeply the words “fight” and “guard” resonate with me. I’ve been fighting my whole adult life, setting up walls to protect me, to claim the space that’s mine. It’s felt good. It’s felt protective. It was the right thing at the time.
“You can be unguarded now,” she says.
I’m protected enough. And even if I’m not, I’ll be okay. Maybe it’s finally time to give up the fight. To let the guards down. To trust.
Maybe it’s time to just say yes.