There is quite a lot of talk around self-acceptance in counselling, whether that be in conversations with clients or in determining the theoretical underpinnings of the therapy itself. This is often regarded as an “easier said than done” sort of idea. My intention here is both to affirm how true that is, maybe give some insight into why and put forward an idea that has been helpful to me in understanding how to envision a part of the journey forward.

First, I would like to think of acceptance as a process, an adaptive one and therefore, a slow-moving from one way to the other, not something that needs to be, or in fact, can be “done.” This journey travels through unknown territory, as unfamiliar to any counsellor as it is to the client. With only the client’s intuition as a guide, the benefit of a counsellor is simply to have someone there who is unafraid of where it might lead. For me, this lack of fear is not bravado but a real belief that the client’s way of being in the world is directed towards growth, whether this feels successful or not.

There is one idea that I have found useful in learning to see things this way which is often so obscure and hard to follow, both in theory as well as in practice. It may also be able to shed some light, I think, on why this process of acceptance is so difficult to begin. 

In addiction work, we often talk about the drama triangle. This a simple diagram showing the roles we sometimes adopt in order to ensure that our needs are met. Rescuing, persecuting and seeing ourselves as the victim are three ways we might do this and we may cycle through them in a day, an hour or often in a single conversation. They are often quite challenging to see in ourselves and they are often behaviours which we transform into derogatory titles; victim, failure or fool, for example.

I feel these often mask something which is often difficult to accept in itself, namely our own needs.  Seen solely from a negative perspective these often elicit only shame and condemnation in ourselves. We find these needs difficult or impossible to accept, what is more, we find little desire in ourselves to accept them and find we quite rightly would like to do away with them altogether. We then learn to distrust that others may be able to accept and sometimes, even fulfil them freely and gladly.

The drama triangle is a way of looking at each of these roles in a way that highlights what we may be getting out of being that way. In seeing ourselves as victims we may be able to elicit pity and receive some of the care we may crave but are not receiving; by rescuing we may be generating imaginary credit and ensuring that we will be cared for, by persecuting we may shield ourselves from further attempts and with that from future disappointment. These are moves to protect ourselves from the real pain and far from condemning them, this can help start an exploration of what stands between us and what we really want from ourselves and others.

Each of us has various sides to our personality which can be of help to us or already are in ways which we have never recognised. Many of them have simply served to protect us since childhood in very valuable ways; some may continue to do so and others may be holding us back out of fear that we may get hurt. As these are behaviours we have learned over time I have found it to be helpful to begin to converse with them and once we can, look to how these needs in us can be addressed, how our strengths and weaknesses may both be of benefit to us now and to ask them to do so.

Each of the names we use for ourselves has a role to play in our journey through life. Accepting that they exist in us can be very challenging and yet it can also help us to get out of a two-dimensional role and begin to trust ourselves to find mature ways of meeting our needs. For that to happen we must learn to see what it is these roles have offered and acknowledge how much we need and crave it.

Written by Brennan Holt