Archive for Relationships

Acceptance vs. improvement: are they contradictory?

At some point in our lives, most of us have grappled with the dilemma between accepting ourselves and wanting to improve ourselves. Those of us in intimate relationships can extend this to the dilemma between accepting our partner and also wanting to improve the relationship. We have probably been told that the two are not contradictory – that it is possible to fully accept ourselves whilst still doing our best to improve. However, in practice, this truth is not easy to see, and it is difficult to reconcile the two goals.

When someone tells us to stop criticising ourselves (or our partner), we naturally resist. After all, how can we improve if we do not point out the problems? The notion that being more accepting might actually encourage change seems hard to believe. Yet it is true. Whenever we criticise ourselves or our partner, we create a conflict. This is the exact opposite of the cooperative attitude that we need. Rightly or wrongly, criticism is nearly always viewed as an attack, including the case of self-criticism. Thus, the response is nearly always defensiveness, even stubbornness, and the recipient is actually encouraged not to change in order to resist the perceived attack. Instead of achieving the desired change, criticism and lack of acceptance make behaviours more engrained.

So can we be accepting and still improve? Robert Najemy, author of The Psychology of Happiness: Understanding Our Selves and Others, gives some good examples of this being true in everyday life. He remarks that a first grader is not ashamed to be in the first grade, and is not self-critical for not being in a higher grade. However, nor would he accept remaining in that first grade year after year. Thus, we can naturally progress in life whilst still being happy with our present status. The second example is that of an unfinished painting. There is nothing wrong with seeing our lives as a work in progress, like the unfinished painting, but without being agitated or frustrated that things are not yet done. The message is that we can be accepting and still make things better, and indeed our own natures will force us to do so. This reminds me of a Greg Anderson quote: “I am complete but not finished”.

In addition to being accepting, what else should we be doing? The most important thing is to understand ourselves and others. Understand in a compassionate and accepting way. This is extremely powerful because, by understanding ourselves and others, we are naturally increasing acceptance. After all, everyone is doing their best to be happy, and so sufficient understanding will always generate positive emotions. Furthermore, this understanding encourages improvement. When we can see the cause of a problem, we naturally act in a way that reduces these causes. So we get the best of both worlds: improving ourselves and being more accepting simultaneously.

It also helps to focus on little improvements, one step at a time. When we set modest goals that are quickly achievable, we feel our life getting better. In contrast, a far-off unrealistic goal risks constantly reminding us of our inadequacies. We spend too much time comparing our life as it is to the way that it “should be”. It is important to see life as being good right now. That way, any change or improvement just makes it even better. If we think we need to change because life is bad, then we risk feeling even worse if we fail to change.

The easiest way to judge whether we are doing this right is to ask if our quest for improvement is making us feel better or worse. Are our attempts to improve ourselves and our relationships making us feel happier or unhappier? If we find that our desire to improve is only increasing existing insecurities, magnifying existing problems, and making the present state seem even more unacceptable, then we are doing it wrong. Instead, we need to focus more on accepting ourselves, and on understanding ourselves. When we have done this, we will find that improvements come naturally to us, and that such improvements will only enhance our good feelings.

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Obsessive relationships

Intimate relationships can be one of the greatest sources of joy in our lives. However, as with most enjoyable things, it is easy to become attached. This occurs when we start to seek too much from the relationship, when we start to see it as integral to our happiness. It is dangerous to seek too much from anything in life. We are each responsible for our own happiness and it is foolish to deny this responsibility. We should avoid being addicted to spending time with our partner, becoming attached to sexual gratification from our partner, or any other situation in which we rely on our partner for our own happiness.

The problems of obsession with a loved one are the same as those of an obsession with anything else. However, in the case of relationships, the seriousness is often downplayed. While everyone knows the harm caused by a gambling addiction, many are not so concerned about a “love addiction”. It is considered normal, maybe even romantic. The crux of the problem lies in the use of the word “love”: people take an obsession or an attachment and they call it love. This leads them to assume that it is a good thing.

Clearly, love is a good thing, but attachment is not. Often we want our partner to be attached to us because it provides reassurance. Many songs contain supposedly romantic lyrics about how much someone “needs” another. In practice however, love most easily arises in the absence of need. Love is an unselfish and open state, which is quite the opposite of need (see Love and need). When a relationship is based on attachment, we have problems such as selfishness, possessiveness, insecurity, and disappointment. A relationship based on love has no such issues.

Therefore, we should avoid attachment in a relationship just as we should avoid attachment in other areas of life. Instead of needing something external for our happiness, we must take responsibility for our own happiness. This does not mean being any less committed to the relationship. On the other hand, it will result in a relationship that is more lasting and stable. We can make the most of the good things in life, giving all that we have, but we should never forget that happiness is from within.

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