by Christine LaCerva
In my last blog entry, I wrote about new ways of thinking, seeing, and creating possibility in our lives and the broader world. A key aspect of this kind of growth and development is an activity — a revolutionary idea, in fact — that Fred Newman called "radical acceptance." The transcript below of a social therapy group led by Dr. Hugh Polk will give us an opportunity to explore and discuss this idea further.
Dr. Polk, my longtime colleague at the Social Therapy Group, will be teaching a class on the foundations of social therapy in late February. I urge you to sign up — especially if you want to be challenged to think and see in new ways. Dr. Polk is a progressive psychiatrist (an unusual combination!), a terrific teacher and a very talented therapist. I’d love for you to know him better and to learn from him.
Here’s Dr. Polk:
I lead social therapy groups in Manhattan and Brooklyn. The people in my groups are struggling with all the issues Christine wrote about in January. How do we deal with all these difficulties in social therapy groups?
We start by helping group members to become "radically accepting" of the conditions of our lives. And by this we don't mean being passive. After all, social therapists are activists committed to changing these conditions. What we mean by radical acceptance is taking an honest, straightforward look at what's going on in our lives rather than wishing that it weren't. If you don't know what you're dealing with — what you have to work with — you can't grow or change anything. Radical acceptance is how you start the hard work of changing things.
The following is a rough transcript of a recent session of one of my social therapy groups as they worked on this. The group, which has been meeting for several years, is — like all social therapy groups — very diverse; it’s made up of women and men, young and not-so-young, from a variety of ethnic backgrounds and walks of life. I’ve changed their names to protect people’s privacy (but I’m still “Hugh”).
Jane: I’d like to start off tonight because I’m in real trouble and I need help badly. Andrew [Jane’s husband] still hasn’t found work and we’re broke. He’s getting more angry every day, always mad at me and the kids for something. Life at home is chaotic, frantic – the house is a mess, someone is always yelling or crying, the kids don’t get up when they should, so it’s a daily struggle to get them to school on time…I’m starting to get down on myself even though you all keep telling me it’s not my fault.
Tina: Whew! That sounds really hard…I feel for you. We’ve done a lot of work in here on you being the leader of your family, organizing them to work with you on how you all act toward one another. How’s that been going?
Jane: Honestly, I’ve mostly forgotten it. I’m too busy thinking that I’m to blame, somehow…that I’m just not a good wife and mother. Maybe it’s irrational, but that’s what I think.
John: Are you and Andrew talking about this?
Jane: Not much lately. We’ve been staying away from each other a lot. He feels bad about himself for not having a job, and I don’t know what to say to him…whenever I’ve tried to talk to him, it seems to make things worse. Then I think there’s really something wrong with me…I can’t even talk to my own husband. I don’t know…I’m a mess.
Cassandra: Jane, I’m getting a little frustrated, to tell you the truth. You keep saying the same thing, no matter what any of us says…We don’t seem to be able to get through to you.
Greg: Hugh, could you help us here? I’m not sure where we should go with this conversation.
Hugh: It seems to me that Jane and the group are having a hard time accepting the facts of Jane’s life. How come?
Greg: What do you mean? I don’t want her to accept her life! What she’s been telling us is that it sucks…Not everything about it, maybe, but it’s pretty bad. She’s got to change it.
Luke: Hugh, you mean she should just sit back and let things play themselves out?
Hugh: No, far from it…I’m not suggesting that Jane should be passive. I’m saying that Jane is refusing to acknowledge that her life isn’t going the way she wants it to. Blaming herself is an alternative to accepting that this is where things are, which would make it more likely that Jane would honestly ask for, and take, our help in figuring out what to do. Instead, she insists on blaming herself no matter what we say, the group responds by being frustrated and distant from her…and that makes it pretty unlikely that we can give her much help.
Sue: What you’re saying makes me wonder if the way Jane is with her family is the way I am in my dating life. I go out with guys, things don’t go well, and I blame myself and them. When I talk about it, to my friends and in here, that’s what I’m doing.
Georgina: I think that’s right, Sue. When you do that, you're covering over the fact that you don’t know how to organize your social life, which is hard to accept. Being mad at these guys, or at yourself, lets you avoid dealing with it.
Hugh: I think what Georgina is saying is really helpful. What’s so hard about “radically accepting” your lives?
Jake: It still feels like accepting your life means you’re being passive about it.
Kate: It’s like the only choices are to be furious with what’s going on in your life or to just sit back and let it happen.
Joan: I don’t want to accept what’s going on in Jane’s life — or in mine, for that matter. It’s too painful and ugly. I don’t want to look at it. It makes me feel hopeless.
Hugh: Yes, a lot of people feel that way about their lives. But I think that learning to take a hard, honest look at what’s going on — the uncertainties, the difficulties, the ways that we don’t, and can’t, control everyone and everything — is the first step in figuring out what we can do. And I think it’s easier — not easy, but easier — to do it together. How do you all feel about working on this with me?
Greg: I find this conversation very upsetting. Things in our lives are painful and difficult. But I can see that it doesn’t help to pretend they aren’t there, and that blaming is a kind of pretending. So I’m with you. What do the rest of you think?...
Kate: I don’t want to stay away from Jane or anyone else in the group, so I’m down for it. I mean, I hear a little more of what you’re saying about accepting our lives as a first step in making changes. What about everyone else?
I’m engaging the group on the ways that it’s leaving Jane alone. We’re beginning to discover some of the pulls — strong and understandable — that draw people away from the painful uncertainties in their lives. And we’re working on this as a social, rather than an individual, problem. I’m trying to lead the group in a collective enterprise of reorganizing how we all “do” uncertainty, difficulties, and pain. We can learn together how to radically accept the difficult realities of our lives, as a condition for doing something about them.
Radically accepting the difficult realities of our lives requires that we change how we see. That's not a small task! Nor is it something you ”get,” like riding a bike, and then you’ve “got” it for good. Rather, this new way of seeing is something that requires practice, every day, or we’re likely to fall back into the old ways of seeing, and the old ways of thinking and speaking that accompany it.
As children we all learn to see any and every difficulty as a problem to be solved, as well as the assumptions that everything can be solved if we just try hard enough, and that if we don’t come up with a solution then it’s someone’s fault — usually ours. Think about the way we talk: “Nothing is impossible if you put your mind to it,” “Just say ‘No’ to drugs,” “You would if you really wanted to.” But real life is much more complicated and difficult than such language implies. There are many things in our lives and in the lives of the people we love that we don’t and can’t control. We have to become more sophisticated in understanding how the worldworks — including what we can and can’t change about it — and learn how to deal with it, given how it works. “Radical acceptance,” in other words, is the opposite of being passive. It’s the ongoing activity of creating a whole new way of relating to and being in the world as it is.
We’ll be talking about this and more at my upcoming class at the East Side Institute. Please join me in this ongoing conversation of how we can work together to build our lives. I hope to see you there!
Hugh Polk, M.D.
“Let’s Develop! An Introduction to the Practice of Social Therapy,” will be held on three successive Saturdays, February 23, March 2 and March 9, from 1:30 – 3:00 pm, at 99 Madison Avenue, Fifth floor (between 29th and 30th Streets).