Acceptance, twelve-step groups…


A friend of mine attends a twelve-step support group, and recently I have been reading some of the literature that was given to her and talking with her about her experiences with the group. It seems to me that the group’s effectiveness is largely due to two main factors– the recognition of and surrender to a higher power (which if one is completely areligious can be anything that is greater than one’s individual self/ego; for instance it can be the sum of the other participants in the group itself), and the spirit of acceptance that one finds in participating in the group.

I recently was browsing through a Jack Kornfield title, The Wise Heart. At one point he mentions how one of Freud’s greatest and most enduring discoveries involved finding that when people were given the opportunity to talk about themselves and their lives in a completely non-judgmental environment and encouraged not to censor themselves whatsoever, such an opportunity to express one’s self was oftentimes in and of itself profoundly healing. One can imagine how in Freud’s time such an opportunity could yield especially dramatic results, as during that era people were particularly straitjacketed by the hangover of repressive Victorian-era mores. Frank talk about one’s sexuality or admissions regarding one’s shadow material was taboo.

I believe that, although we are not living under that sort of oppressive culture in this particular time and place, it is still potentially extraordinarily healing to be able to express one’s self with complete freedom and be met with total acceptance of one’s self, just as one is, warts and all. This helps to explain why the tradition of confessing sins in the Catholic church continues to endure; this helps explain much of what people find so valuable about attending sessions with a psychotherapist, etc. Even though we share love and intimacy with our immediate friends, partners, family, etc., we are not always able to speak completely freely with them. There is too much reciprocal emotional investment involved with people who play these roles in our lives for us to be able to explore difficult things in an atmosphere of dispassion and non-judgment.

I am reminded of a Caveh Zahedi film, I Am A Sex Addict. Zahedi narrates the film, which dramatizes his real-life struggle with his addiction to seeking out prostitutes for sex. At one point he begins dating a woman with whom he finds he can be completely open and honest about his sexual compulsions and acting out. She is willing to simply listen with a non-judgmental ear and to be accepting of his desires and behavior without condemning him or ridiculing him. Zahedi talks about how profoundly healing this non-judgmentalness and acceptance was, and we see as the film progresses how such interactions greatly aided in the process of his abandoning what were self-limiting, if not self-destructive, patterns of behavior.

I am also reminded of a passage in Harold Kushner’s book How Good do We Have to Be? Kushner is a rabbi perhaps best known for his book Why Bad Things Happen to Good People, written after the tragic death of his teenage son. Here is the relevant passage:
A few years ago, when I was traveling around the country discussing my book Who Needs God, dealing with what we gain from being religious, I began to notice something very interesting. In virtually every radio and television studio I visited, after I had spoken about the benefits of being religious, someone– an interviewer, a producer, a cameraman– would take me aside and tell me privately that the most inspiring religious experience he or she had undergone happened not in the church sanctuary on Sunday morning, but in the church basement at an Alcoholics Anonymous gathering or a meeting of some other twelve-step program. There was something authentically religious about what happened to them there. I asked them if they could identify for me exactly what it was that was so helpful, and the word they kept coming up with was “acceptance”. The message they heard at the Sunday morning service was that everything they did wrong separated them from God, and only God’s grace and generosity could keep them out of hell. The message they got from the Wednesday night twelve-step meeting was “I’m not OK and you’re not OK but that’s OK.” Nothing they did could separate them from God.

Anyhow, I have enormous respect for twelve-step groups; for that matter, I have enormous respect for any person or situation which encourages an atmosphere of acceptance and non-judgment of others. I understand that some people have issues with twelve-step groups– considering them cultic, ineffective, or as simply replacing one addiction with another. My own take is that many people have definitely benefited from and continue to benefit from these groups. Perhaps they are not for everyone, but then again, what form of therapy is? In order for deep healing to take place within someone‘s life, it is essential for each individual person to find and discover what truly speaks to him or her. In many instances, like much else in life, this process may involve feeling one’s way and perhaps trying a combination of things, while guided in part by an open mind which is responsive to and respectful of our deepest intuitions.

One saying I remember reading which twelve-steppers sometimes quote is that “insanity is doing the same thing over and over but expecting different results”. Many of us have engaged in constant judgment of others as well as ourselves throughout our lives. This habit of judgment has failed to bring us happiness, no matter how often we engage in it. Perhaps we are insane for holding on to this practice of judging while imagining that it presents some sort of viable strategy for attaining happiness. Even if only as an intermittent experiment performed out of curiosity, it might be worthwhile to let go of this habit, and to see what happens when we approach ourselves and others in a spirit of unqualified openness and acceptance.

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