What's Acceptable?

I believe the root of all human discord can be traced to contrary opinions about “What’s acceptable?”  This question, composed of two words, does more to cause personal misery and divides people, nations and organizations.

The personal level

Our life is full of self-talk that includes “shoulds “and “outghts.” We tell ourselves we should look better, weight less, be smarter, read more, work harder, and hundreds of other things that imply that we are not acceptable as we are. It’s a subtle form of self-loathing disguised as self-improvement. It’s one thing to work at improving ourselves, and another to believe that we must improve because we are not acceptable. Defeating self-talk always includes the notion that we’ll be better if we only do such-and-such. Guilt, shame and blame are always rooted in negative self acceptance.

Interpersonal Struggles

And then there are additional problems that arise when two or more people begin to fight about “What’s acceptable?.” So many marital conflicts are based upon little more than poorly reflected upon beliefs of what’s acceptable. The hidden assumption here is that one partner can become acceptable if they would just do what the other wishes them to do. One person feels respected when their partner behaves in a particular way while another feels respected by other actions. Not so long ago Gary Chapman wrote a book about The Five Languages of Love. It was a bestseller—and I bought a copy as well. The thesis of the book is that if we want to make another person feel loved we must discover what their particular style of loving is like–then do things their way so that they will feel loved. There is wisdom in that for sure; but at a more profound level the hidden message would seem to be, “If you want to have a happy relationship (i.e. be acceptable), you can’t be yourself–you have to do it on their terms.” It is my belief that relationships that are so based cannot last–that is, when acceptance is based upon how well one partner performs for the other. It’s one thing to perform loving actions and another to judge those actions on how well it meets our expectations.

Trouble at Work

It should go without saying that the workplace is filled with all kinds of ideas about what is acceptable behavior. There are dress policies, civility policies, workplace expectations, and cultural attitudes about the nature of work. Even when a person does all of the things stated in their job description, it is very possible to be fired for not meeting the expectations of a supervisor or someone who has their own unique ideas about what is acceptable in the workplace.

What It Comes Down To

What I’m trying to say here is that the idea of “what’s acceptable” is a highly fluid and debatable notion that is often premised on somebody else’s beliefs about what is right, wrong, good, and bad. It’s based upon cultural ideas as well. It’s based upon the way your parents raised you as well of all kinds of potentially weird religious beliefs that may include outright condemnation of those who don’t do things the way you do. None of us can live up to our own system of beliefs (fantasies) about what is right and acceptable for us. We keep very few of our new year’s resolutions and act on very few of our epiphanies. If we cannot live up to our own ideas of what is acceptable, how can we ever hope to measure up to someone else’s?

Let’s try this instead

Though it’s very hard, my conclusion is that we need to question very carefully our ideas about what makes ourselves and others acceptable. As much as possible we need to drop most of the judgements and things we have been thinking and saying. Instead, we need to be affirming of ourselves and others. We need to chill. Most of the ideas we have about ourselves are based on programming that’s never been examined very carefully. The same is true about others. In the end, very few matters rise to such a level that require us to punish ourselves or another.