Accepting Acceptance

And its paradoxical nature
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The Serenity Prayer:
God, grant me the serenity to accept that things I cannot change,
Courage to change the things I can,
And the wisdom to know the difference.


Recently we have noticed what happens when clients say they accept, and when they actually do accept the ‘current reality’ of their lives. We’ve observed what happens at the moment of acceptance and tracked what happens over time. Having got interested, we put on our constructivist, symbolic modelling filters to investigate what acceptance is, how we do it, and how we do not. We also wondered what difference it makes to the potential for change and transformation when people truly accept their current reality from an authentic, deep and cellular state of being.


Originally the word ‘accept’ came from the Latin: ‘to take (something to one’s self)’. More recently ‘accept’ or ‘acceptance’ (according to the Oxford American Writer’s Thesaurus) refers to the act of:

  • the acceptance of an award — receipt, receiving, taking, obtaining
  • the acceptance of responsibility — undertaking, assumption
  • acceptances of an invitation — yes, affirmative reply, confirmation
  • her acceptance into the group — favorable reception, adoption
  • his acceptance of Bill’s promise — belief in, trust in, faith in, confidence in, credence in, give credence to
  • the acceptance of pain — toleration, endurance, forbearance, sufferance
  • their acceptance of the ruling — compliance with, acquiescence in, agreement with, consent to, concurrence with, assent to, acknowledgment of, adherence to, deference to, surrender to, submission to, respect for, adoption of, buy-in to.

While there is some overlap with the dictionary definitions of acceptance, we will be investigating the state of acceptance. While the state of acceptance is often seen as digital — on/off or in/out — we will explore its analogue nature (variable along a scale). We will model acceptance from the client’s and the facilitator’s perspectives. And we will highlight the apparent paradoxes in the notion of ‘complete acceptance’.

States of Acceptance

‘Acceptance’ usually refers to a person experiencing a situation or condition as painful or uncomfortable without protesting, leaving or attempting to change it (e.g. accept the status quo). Equally it could be accepting something as joyful or liberating. The situation or condition may be an external event in the world; or it may be an internal thought, feeling or memory. Similarly a group may collectively accept a situation or condition.

Acceptance as a ‘solution’ is often suggested when a situation is both disliked and unchangeable, or when change may be possible only at great cost or risk. A psychotherapist might foster a depressed or anxious client to accept whatever personal circumstances give rise to those feelings, or to accept the feelings themselves. Conversely, a psychotherapist might foster lessening an individual’s acceptance of various situations when passivity is their issue.

A person who accepts a reality contrary to the norms of a group may be shunned or excluded. That person may be seen (unconsciously) as a threat because their very presence may challenge the beliefs, ideals and aims of the group. For example, we facilitated a long-standing victim-support group in Belfast each of whom had lost a loved one in ‘the troubles’. The group discovered that one member had never disclosed that she had “moved on” from the trauma of losing her son. She had not previously voiced her acceptance of the tragedy because she knew she would be going against the ‘victim support’ ethos which sustained the group. She said she didn’t want to lose her friends and social life by declaring she no longer felt a victim.

Spiritual and Meditative Traditions

Notions of acceptance are prominent in many faiths and meditation practices. For example, Buddhism’s first noble truth, “All life is suffering” invites people to accept suffering as a natural part of life:

Buddhism teaches us is to learn to accept everything, both the very hot and the very cold. It is pointing us to a very simple solution for suffering, but one which can be very hard to do when we are burning. We need to be still with an open and all-accepting heart and mind. By pushing nothing away, no matter how frightening or unpleasant, we learn that there is nothing that we need to fear, that our True heart will not be damaged by the fires of suffering. We also do not need to grasp after anything, no matter how desirable or joyful, for all those pleasures are fleeting and do not provide a true refuge from the storms of our suffering.

There is a place within us that no suffering can touch, that fulfills our heart’s deepest needs no matter what external trials life takes us through. It is a deep act of faith to sit still in the midst of suffering and not run away, and it is that faith that unlocks our hearts and allows us to open ourselves to the Unborn. We all need to be willing to accept the “hot” and the “cold” and have faith that nothing in our lives, or in the entire world, is outside the Buddha.

When It is Hot, Be Completely Hot. When It is Cold, Be Completely Cold, Rev. Kinrei Bassis, SantaBarbara Buddhist Priory Newsletter, July-August 1997

A transformative type of acceptance can happen in a conversion experience or in a single moment of grace. And it can be slowly developed through years of meditation. The aim of many contemplative practices is to make this state permanent and pervasive.

Models involving acceptance

Acceptance is integral to a number of models. Below we review a few:

Alcoholics Anonymous (AA)

Acceptance is inherent in the first two steps of the Alcoholics Anonymous 12-Step Program:

Step 1: I am powerless over alcohol – my life has become unmanageable.

Step 2: I came to believe that a power greater than myself could restore me to sanity.

The Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions explain the importance of acceptance as a prelude to recovery from alcoholism:

Who cares to admit defeat? Practically no one, of course. Every natural instinct cries out against the idea of personal powerlessness. It is truly awful to admit that, glass in hand, we have warped our minds to such an obsession for destructive drinking that only an act of Providence can remove it from us.

No other kind of bankruptcy is like this one. Alcohol, now become the rapacious creditor, bleeds us of all self-sufficiency and all will to resist its demands. Once this stark fact is accepted, our bankruptcy as going human concerns is complete.

But upon entering AA we soon take quite another view of this absolute humiliation. We perceive that only through utter defeat are we able to take our first steps towards liberation and strength. Our admissions of personal powerlessness finally turn out to be the firm bedrock on which happy and purposeful lives may be built. [p. 21]

In Steps to An Ecology of Mind, Gregory Bateson comments:

Implicit in the combination of these two steps is an extraordinary — and I believe correct — idea: the experience of defeat not only serves to convince the alcoholic that change is necessary; it is the first step in that change. To be defeated by the bottle and to know it is the first ‘spiritual experience.’ The myth of self-power is therefore broken by the demonstration of a greater power.

Philosophically viewed, this first step is not a surrender; it is simply a change in epistemology, a change in how to know about the personality-in-the-world. And, notably, the change is from an incorrect to a more correct epistemology. [p.313]

Cybernetics would go somewhat further [than AA’s second step] and recognize that the “self” as ordinarily understood is only a small part of a much larger trial-and-error system which does the thinking, acting and deciding. This system includes all the informational pathways which are relevant at any given moment to the given decision. The “self” is a false reification of an improperly delimited part of this much larger field of interlocking processes. [p. 331]

We wonder if Bateson’s conscious “self”, with the illusion of self-power, accepts at a surface level. On the other hand, when we resonate with the larger system that includes more of the complexity, unpredictability and incomprehensibility of life, does that make possible a deeper, more inclusive and encompassing state of acceptance?

Stages of Grieving

Acceptance was originally the fifth stage in the Kübler-Ross “Stages of Grieving”, outlined in her 1969 book On Death and Dying. The model was later expanded into a Seven-Stage Grief Cycle (where ‘grief’ can be a reaction to any kind of loss, not just bereavement). In both the five and the seven stage versions, acceptance is the last stage:

1 (Shock), 2 Denial, 3 Anger, 4 Bargaining, 5 Depression, 6 (Testing), 7 Acceptance

This contrasts with the 12-Step Program where acceptance is the first step. We don’t think there is necessarily any conflict between the two models. Someone may well need to go through the Grief Cycle before they are ready to accept that they need to embark on the first step of the 12 Step Program.

Current Reality

One of the most valuable models of acceptance we have encountered is Robert Fritz’s idea of ‘current reality’. He uses this term in relation to the creative process:

Once you know what end result you want, or your vision, what is the next step? Most people think the answer is to find out how to get there. This is not the best next step. The best next step is to describe what you currently have in relationship to the result you want. This is a step that is conspicuously absent in many systems designed specifically to help you attain what you want.

Current reality, as a stage, begins after the vision has been formed. It is also an ongoing stage in the creative process in the sense that you should always be aware of the current state of the creation while it develops. In the beginning of the creative process there will be a discrepancy between what you want and what you have. This discrepancy forms a tension. Tension seeks resolution. The tension is a wonderful force because, as it moves toward resolution, it generates energy that is useful in creating. [Path of Least Resistance, pp. 26-27]

We have adopted Fritz’s term, ‘current reality’ and have widened its meaning to: a person’s current experience as they are aware of it, moment by moment.

Fritz points out that just having ‘a want’ produces a tension because of the gap between the desired outcome and current reality. Many people’s initial reaction to this tension is a desire to remove the tension (a Remedy in our P.R.O. model). This produces another gap with current reality (that they are experiencing a tension) and hence a further tension occurs. It is easy to see how this can become an infinite regress. Instead of accepting that tension is a natural part of creating anything; is essential to long-term motivation; and can’t be gotten rid of, a common tendency is to attempt to change the goal or distort current reality.

Confront the Brutal Facts

Jim Collins exhorts managers who want to turn their companies from Good to Great to “confront the brutal facts of reality.” This is because the good-to-great companies he studied displayed a consistent pattern of behaviour — they infused the entire management process with the brutal facts of reality:

There is nothing wrong with pursuing a vision for greatness. After all, the good-to-great companies also set out to create greatness. But, unlike the comparison companies, the good-to-great companies continually refined the path to greatness with the brutal facts of reality. [p. 71]

Despite the potential for violence in the “brutal” metaphor, his message is the same as the other approaches described: reality is your friend, so accept it as it is.

Self-Binding Patterns

In Metaphors in Mind we focussed on the value of the client (and facilitator) accepting the current reality of the unresolvable nature of a binding pattern, as the client experiences it:

As a client learns about the organisation of their Metaphor Landscape, usually they either accept their existing organisation as is, or a translatory change satisfies them. Changes of this nature account for most of what people wish to achieve through psychotherapy. In some cases however, neither the status quo nor a translatory change is acceptable. Then the system needs to find a new way of being. [p.38]

Resolving a single bind is relatively easy. The client simply reformulates (reframes) the problem and moves on, or they accept its unsolvable nature and stop fighting, or they randomly decide between alternatives, or they choose a different route altogether, or they ignore the paradox, or a thousand other solutions. [p. 183]

What if, for some reason or other, resolving the bind is unachievable or unacceptable? What if the potential for transformation is itself bound? Then another pattern—a double bind—must be operating to preserve a larger organisation. [p. 184]

For many clients, truly acknowledging ‘this is the way it is’ and accepting ‘current reality’ is the first step on the road to transformation. … Accepting current reality sounds simple, yet clients rarely face the unresolvability of their double bind without a struggle. Instead they experience frustration, angst, grief, anger or depression as they come to terms with and accept the fact that even their most tried and tested technique, their most successful method, their cleverest trick, their most beloved reframe, will never resolve this particular conundrum. In fact they often come to realise that these techniques, methods, tricks and reframes are part of the bind. [p. 185]

Depth of acceptance

By now it should be clear that acceptance takes several forms, and these are part of a continuum that runs from a surface or more superficial knowing to a deeper and more encompassing state. We borrow the ‘deep’ metaphor from recent usage such as ‘deep ecology’ [Arne Naess cited in Fritjof Capra’s The Web of Life] and ‘deep democracy’ [Arnie Mindell] which distinguish more ‘surface’ and everyday experiences from their more cellular, spiritual and out-of-the-ordinary versions.

The Catherine Tate school of acceptance – “Wot-ev-ah” – epitomises the most superficial degree of acceptance.

At a behavioural level someone may decide to take no action and yet be far from fully accepting of their circumstance. This may be an inability to accept one’s needs or desires, or it may be the safest course of action when living under a repressive regime.

At a deeper level, it is possible to accept a situation intellectually and still remain emotionally attached. The result is often an internal conflict with incongruent behaviour when the emotion ‘leaks out’. We have noticed this often happens when people say they have accepted that they can’t have what they want. In Transactional Analysis (TA) terms the Adult might accept, but the Child certainly doesn’t. In such cases we test a person’s acceptance by asking them:

“And when you can’t have what you want, what happens to your want?”

Usually they find their want is merely pausing to plan its next strategy.

We asked this question of a couple who were forever bickering, this time over the colour to paint their wardrobes. The woman turned bright red, then a big smile filled her face and she said, “Actually, it never happens”. “What never happens?”, we enquired. “I always get my own way … eventually.”

At a deeper level still, acceptance is a behavioural, cognitive and emotional state of acknowledging current reality — you accept it is the way it is. While you may not like a situation, this type of acceptance is marked by a minimal emotional response to the situation. As an example, a Catholic marries a Protestant, accepts that they will not convert, and stops hoping they will.

We use ‘deep acceptance’ to point to a phenomenon that operates at a cellular (more fundamental) or spiritual (more significant) levels. Deep acceptance is not a behaviour, it is not an intellectual understanding, it is not an emotion — it is a state of mind-body-spirit knowing.

At any moment deep acceptance can seem like you have it or you don’t. Sometimes it can arrive rapidly, without warning or request. Sometimes it comes as a shock, in an ‘Oh my God, now I see’ moment that often follows the lifting of the veil of self-deception, self-delusion or self-denial.[Link available soon] There is a clarity when the blindingly obvious is recognised, and every cell in your body ‘just knows’. This is such an unusual and all-encompassing state that it is often accompanied by strong emotions. The euphoria, grief or anger that follows is not the acceptance. It is a reaction to the acceptance. The accompanying emotion passes, while the acceptance remains.

It is also possible to notice subtle differences over a period of time as each accessing of the state of acceptance deepens and enriches. Then people say ‘I thought I had accepted it, but now I really do’. This deepening process can be repeated many times.

Whether quick or slow, once a deep state of acceptance has been integrated ‘things can never be the same again’ and a defining moment has occurred.

Radical acceptance

‘Radical acceptance’ is a cornerstone of Dr. Marsha Linehan’s Dialectical Behavioral Therapy. DBT combines cognitive-behavioral techniques for emotion regulation with eastern practices for mindfulness, distress tolerance and acceptance. It draws from the Buddhist tradition that suffering is a meta-state, i.e. it is pain about pain. Linehan is particularly known for her success in the treatment of those diagnosed with Borderline Personality Disorder. In her Dialectical Skills Training Manual, Linehan outlines the following:

Freedom from suffering requires ACCEPTANCE from deep within of what is.

Let yourself go completely with what is

Let go of fighting reality.

ACCEPTANCE is the only way out of hell.

Pain creates suffering only when you refuse to ACCEPT the pain.

Deciding to tolerate the moment is ACCEPTANCE.

ACCEPTANCE is acknowledging what is.

To ACCEPT something is not the same as judging it good.

So what is ‘Radical Acceptance’? Linehan explains:

What do I mean by the word ‘radical’? Radical means complete and total. It’s when you accept something from the depths of your soul. When you accept it in your mind, in your heart, and even with your body. It’s total and complete. When you’ve radically accepted something, you’re not fighting it. It’s when you stop fighting reality. That’s what radical acceptance is.

There are three parts to radical acceptance:

The first part is accepting that reality is what it is.

The second part is accepting that the event or situation causing you pain has a cause.

The third part is accepting life can be worth living even with painful events in it.

The problem is, telling you what it is and telling you how to do it are two different things. Radical acceptance can’t really be completely explained. Why not? Because it’s something that is interior – it’s something that goes on inside yourself. But all of us have experienced radical acceptance, so what I want you to do right now is to try to focus in on sometime in your life when you’ve actually accepted something, radically – completely and totally.

dbtselfhelp.com [Link to “part 14” post no longer available]

Radical or Deep?

Radical Acceptance is close to our notion of deep acceptance; and by exploring the differences we get to know more about our own perspective:

a. Linehan says “acceptance is the only way out of hell.”

— We think, maybe, maybe not, and are open to other exit strategies.

b. The second part of Radical Acceptance is “accepting that the event or situation causing you pain has a cause”.

— In our opinion, this belief is not a necessary condition for deep acceptance.

Here’s why:

Firstly this statement presupposes that events or situations can ‘cause’ pain. If we accept that an event causes pain, then as long as the event continues, so must the pain. And by that logic acceptance would not have any effect. While we know changing the pain is not the function of acceptance, time and again people report that when they deeply accept, something happens to their primary pain, and not just their suffering.

Secondly, what difference does it make that the event or situation has a cause? How does believing this make it easier to access the state of acceptance? To us this is similar to the “There must be a reason for it” thinking. There well may be, but so what?

Thirdly, the belief “the event causing you pain” is a conflation of logical levels, and undervalues the role of the mind and nervous system in the creation of pain. In The Brain that Changes Itself, Norman Doidge shows how pain is an emergent property of the relationships between mind, nervous system, culture and physical environment.

Fourthly, and perhaps most tellingly, focussing on ‘a cause’ shifts attention from the current experience, and in that respect is not accepting the reality of the moment.

If a person believes that their pain has a cause, fine. That is their current reality. And we have seen many clients spend a lot of time, effort and angst looking for a ‘root cause’. Even when they find a satisfying cause they may have no idea how this knowledge will actually change anything. As they say at the Findhorn Spiritual Community, “Information is not transformation”. Or they never finds a root cause and then worry what that means about them (“I’m not trying hard enough”, “I’m a failure”, “I’m stuck with the pain — poor me”). Either way the search for a cause can itself be an avoidance of the reality of their current situation. (This reality includes that they would like a ‘root cause’ which, once found, would solve everything — wouldn’t we all? — and the reality is, so far, despite all their searching, they haven’t found one. And, of course, they might.)

From a Symbolic Modelling viewpoint all we have to work with is what a person is experiencing right now. Therefore ‘causes’ (at least those that happened in the past) are either current memories or a current pattern that resembles the past. We are not saying there are no causes or that identifying a cause is not valuable. We are saying that in the realm of human experience: (i) most ‘causes’ are metaphorical and are better thought of as explanations rather than provable cause-effect relationships; (ii) finding a cause doesn’t necessarily change anything; and (iii) searching for a past cause can be a convenient diversion from accepting current reality.

c. “DBT emphasizes learning to bear pain skillfully”.

— For us, acceptance is also learning to experience joy in the moment. Marianne Williamson wasn’t joking when she said “Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure.” For many people deeply accepting how joyful or how privileged they are is a tall order. Mary Pipher says:

If we are lucky, occasionally we experience a sparkling moment when we break out of our trance of self and we are fully present. Sometimes these lead to epiphanies, which present us with aha moments of new understanding. Or our thoughts simply may be “Isn’t this wonderful?” or even, “Doesn’t this look beautiful or taste delicious?” What makes these moments distinct is that we are celebrating what actually is. Psychologists Abraham Maslow called moments “peak experiences” and argued that they were often transformative.
[‘Shopping for Joshua Bell’ Psychotherapy Networker Magazine, March/April 2009, p. 51]

Ways not to accept

By what means do we not accept current reality? How do we do that? Especially when it doesn’t seem to be in our own interest? The antonyms of ‘accept’ (i.e. metaphors of not accepting) give clues. Apparently we can: resist, doubt, refuse, reject, turn down, go against, and defy reality.

Paul Watzlawick and his colleagues noticed how attempting to apply a solution to a problem can often perpetuate or exacerbate that problem, or create a new one. When The remedy is the problem a person usually needs to accept the evidence that their striving to enact a solution is not working — even if it has ‘always worked in the past’, or seems to be the obvious or only thing to do.

Similarly not accepting is always a fundamental characteristic in self-deception, self-delusion and self-denial. [Link availabe soon] This type of bind demands a double dose of not accepting — a person will have discovered ways to (almost) convince themselves that ‘what they know to be true’ is not true; and that their ‘misleading representation’ is not misleading! Should they come to deeply accept what they know to be true, then they would no longer be able to live out of their misleading representation — and that takes some doing.

Robert Fritz in The Path of Least Resistance explains how ‘reasons’ can be used to avoid accepting reality:

Not describing reality accurately often becomes self-propaganda. You may be late for an appointment and on your way over think up the most plausible excuse. By the time you arrive, not only are you ready to recite it, but you almost believe it yourself. Avoiding describing reality accurately is often a strategy to overcome the negative consequences of your actions. Our society puts a high premium on reasons and excuses. Most people learn that if they have a good reason for not succeeding, they can sometimes avoid negative consequences. Many people mis-represent reality through a smokescreen of plausible-sounding reasons that are designed to distract themselves and others from the truth.

Some people learn that others put less pressure on them when they are sick. So they often get sick to have a legitimate excuse to not live up to expectations. Some people use being in a state of emotional upheaval as an excuse: “If I’m upset, do not ask me to be responsible.” Being a “victim of circumstances” is a common reason some people use to explain their actions.

Sometimes knowing the reasons for failure can help you adjust the actions you take to shape your final creation. But this is quite different from using reasons to justify failure. Discovering the effect of the actions you take is designed to be a learning experience, rather than a justification for not succeeding.

Knowing [the causes] has at least two functions. One is to correct the error in the future. Knowing what happened also helps to ease the pain sometimes evoked by reality. Those who learn to know reality, without holding on to the past, are in the best position to truly live their lives. This is anything but amnesia. This is not forgetting the past, but remembering that the past is over. The past is not the present. Whether the past has been filled with loss or failure or filled with success and victory, the past is not the present. And the present is not the past. [pp. 142-145]

In Creating, Robert Fritz describes how ideal-reality conflicts limit our ability to accept ourselves as we are:

People often have an ideal for themselves to which they hope to aspire. Personal ideals are extremely easy to form, given the abundance of notions in the world about how to be a perfect or proper human being. But when you compare your ideal with reality, a discrepancy arises. If you have an ideal that you should be pretty, and one day you look in the mirror and you do not deem yourself to be pretty, you have an ideal-reality conflict. Reality contradicts the ideal. What is to be done about it? You take actions to end the discrepancy to favor the ideal: a trip to the beauty parlor, a new mirror, a pep talk about inner beauty. Why do you have to be pretty?

These ideal-reality conflicts mostly arise from personal concerns; they are laden with concerns about identity. In most cases what is at issue is you, in that you have not lived up to an ideal you have set for yourself. In fact, the ideal you form actually may be in opposition to many of your real opinions of yourself. When you impose desirable qualities, admirable attributes, and high standards of accomplishment on yourself, and then attempt to force yourself into living up to these characteristics, you are implying through the act of forcing yourself that you are not fine just the way you are. The further implication is that there is something wrong with how you are. [pp. 93-95]

Provocatively Fritz asks you to consider:

Why do you have to be smart?
What is wrong with having an opinion that you are bad, or unworthy, or insignificant?
What is wrong with you the way you are?

He goes on to ask an interesting question:

If you don’t have to be any particular way, and you don’t have to behave any particular way, and you don’t have to justify your existence, and you don’t have to live up to preset standards, and you don’t have to accomplish anything in particular, how would you spend your time? [p. 232]

Acceptance and wisdom

Acceptance in its basic form has no moral compass. It does not make a distinction between good and bad, right and wrong. It is simply an acceptance of our own subjective reality. In this respect it is a form of faith because the reality of our own private interior world can never be proven nor unproven — it can only be compared to other people’s subjective reality.

We believe it is vital to acknowledge that when ‘completely accepting’ goes beyond faith to fundamentalism it can lead to terrible actions. The Jamestown mass suicide and ‘ethnic cleansing’ come to mind. Complete acceptance without feedback becomes a closed system — for good or ill.

From our observations, like the Serenity Prayer quoted at the start of these notes, deep acceptance requires a supervisory level that brings wisdom to the system.

3 levels of supervising acceptance

The supervisory level is required to ensure external views are incorporated and to provide a moral compass. In other words, the supervisory level operates out of the frame of: ‘Having accepted the reality of my experience and taken into account other perspectives and external views of my current reality, and considered the morality of my intended actions, I will … .’

The acceptance paradox

Through this journey into acceptance we kept coming across apparent paradoxes; so much so that we realised they are inherent. Now we think about it, because acceptance is a multi-level phenomenon, paradox must be an ever-present possibility. Some of the apparent paradoxes we have identified are summarised below:

  1. If we “completely accept” then we would not lift a finger to help ourselves or others. If we completely accept everything ‘as is’, we would soon starve to death: “I am hungry … I am starving … I am dying … I …”.

  1. Accepting how things are without the desire to change them often opens us up, or prepares us for change. If you desire something to change you are not accepting it as it is. The paradox is: If you are going to accept, you can’t want to change that which you want to change.

  1. AA says that you can’t really change your life until you accept how bad it is. And if you haven’t accepted how bad it is, it will get get worse — until you “hit bottom”. Then you will really accept your “life has become unmanageable”.

  1. Some of the worst atrocities in history have occurred when people have completely accepted their reality as the Truth. Acceptance without feedback becomes a potentially dangerous self-reinforcing system.

  1. A person experiencing surface acceptance is unlikely to act, whereas a person in a state of deep acceptance is very likely to act. For example, the Dali Lama seems to deeply accept the reality of the invasion of Tibet, and he has campaigned tirelessly for decades to change the situation — but always within his principle of loving kindness. This is an important point. Deep acceptance seems to ‘bring out the best’ in a person. They ‘rise to the occasion’ even if they have fears or doubts.

  1. As facilitators we can deeply accept a client’s description as true for them at that moment, and remember that as, Viktor Frankel has written, the self does not yield to total self-reflection.

The facilitator’s perspective

Clean facilitators are faced with several dilemmas when it comes to acceptance of what a client says. On the one hand, as we say in Metaphors in Mind:

Although some linguists dismiss metaphors as ‘merely figurative’, we accept them as a highly accurate description of experience (p.11)

Analysis and interpretation of the meaning of symbols by the facilitator is counterproductive because it distracts the client’s attention from their own perceptions. Instead you can accept clients’ metaphoric expressions as perfect examples of their patterns manifesting in the moment. (p. 47)

The combination of matching clients’ voice qualities, asking clean questions with a tonality of implicit acceptance, curiosity and wonder, while using a slow delivery and a poetic rhythm, is a potent mixture. (p.80)

On the other hand, clients are consciously aware of their internal world to varying degrees and no matter how aware they are, any description of an experience can only describe a fraction of their whole system. While we accept all verbal and nonverbal expressions explicitly, we cannot privilege any one of them. This is particularly the case when:

  1. A client is stating an initial desired outcome.

  2. A client’s not-accepting-their-current-reality contributes to them not achieving what they want.

  3. The client’s proposed remedy is a problem.

  4. The client is holding back vital information (maybe due to embarrassment or shame).

  5. The client is deliberately attempting to mislead the facilitator (e.g. offenders who need to be seen to change in order to get parole).

  6. Self Delusion, self-deception, self-denial is involved.

  7. ‘Actual’ delusion is involved.

We worked unsuccessfully for a long time with a client who wanted to lose weight. We were presenting him with evidence of his own ineffective behaviour and strategies when he turned red and said angrily, “Look, I just want to be thin. I don’t want to have to lose weight.” And there it was; despite him stating dozens of times that he wanted to lose weight, not only did he not want to change his eating habits — he wasn’t going to. Once he accepted this he stopped therapy.

To Cleanly Doubt

As a clean facilitator we need to be aware of the above possibilities – and more. We have to both accept the client’s description, and at the same time not fully accept what they say. Penny calls this “having one foot in (the client’s world), and keeping one foot out”. One way to do this is to hold in mind that we do not, and cannot, have access to the full picture. We are always working in the dark. As Nicholas Nassim Taleb says in The Black Swan, all the “silent evidence” that we cannot know, will continually dwarf everything we do know.

This lack of knowledge also applies to the client, so if a facilitator completely accepts a client’s description they may undervalue patterns that are out of the client’s awareness.

Facilitators need to be able to calibrate a client’s state of accepting. An experienced facilitator will recognise the difference between the state of acceptance, the process of accepting, and any accompanying emotion. They will not be seduced by the drama of the outward display of emotion. They will honour the emotion and then direct attention to the original state of acceptance.

Facilitators also need to notice that if a client says “Yes I accept the situation, now what do I do?” they may have touched a state of acceptance for less than a second. That is hardly long enough for the client to get to know that state, let alone deepen it into an out-of-the-ordinary experience. Our approach would be to direct their attention to the knowing (e.g. the acceptance that what they are doing isn’t working) and hold them there. Why? Because, staying with acceptance will, if nothing else, teach them about themselves, and if they are lucky it will be a prelude to a creative emergence.

[There follows a short example of working with acceptance, followed by an annotated transcript of a full client session.]

Short example

The following transcript illustrates a number of ways in which the client’s description is accepted as a perfectly accurate, in-the-moment metaphor for their experience — with no intention to change it. The facilitator’s questions establish a feedback loop between the client and (the logic of) their Landscape. As a result the whole system starts to shift in a dynamic, self-reinforcing way:

I want the big scary monster to go away.



And when you want big scary monster to go away, where is that big scary monster?

The facilitator accepts the client’s current reality by (a) acknowledging their desire for a remedy to their problem – symbolised by “big scary monster”, and (b) asking a question about its location.


Over there [points].


And when that big scary monster is over there, what would that monster like to have happen?This further accepts the logic of the client’s reality. If the client wants the monster to go away, we can presuppose that the monster is not going away and wonder what its intention is.


It wants to destroy me.



And can it destroy you?

Taking the client’s description at face value by attending to the capabilities of the monster.




And it can destroy you, and has it destroyed you?

Maybe the monster has
destroyed the client in the past and they have recovered from
that. Or maybe the monster has the capability to destroy the
client, but has not yet done so. Either way this question
accepts the client’s logic and aims to find out.


Well, no.


And how long has that big scary monster that wants to destroy you, not destroyed you for?

This is an interesting
question. It has two aims: (a) to find out if the monster is a
recent phenomenon or not, and (b) to put attention on the apparent
paradox – if the monster wants to and can destroy the client, it’s
strange that it hasn’t.


A long time.


And when a big scary monster that wants to destroy you and can destroy you hasn’t for a long time, where could that not destroy you come from?

This makes explicit the apparent paradox and cleanly asks for the source of whatever has prevented the monster carrying out its intention.


I was wondering that myself.

The client has shifted from a state of ‘scare’ to a state of ‘wonder’ – who knows what might happen next.


Symbolic Modelling facilitates a form of self-modelling that automatically leads to an increased self-awareness, and a knowing and accepting of one’s own experience, and that itself is a profoundly important place to start any change.

Verbatim transcript

An annotated transcript of a full session where acceptance was a key motif follows. It is a  5- minute Symbolic Modelling session facilitated by Penny Tompkins and James Lawley in front of a group in January 2009.

It is followed by the client’s report six months after the session.

Summary of main features of the session:

  • This session has an unusually high number of exchanges – perhaps twice as many as might be expected. This may be due to both the going-back-and-forth-over-the-same-ground nature of the session, and that (wisely) the client keeps out of the details of the family dynamic.

  • The client does not experience any dramatic insight, shift or catharsis. This is common when reality wont budge and the client cannot accept that. Instead, this session demonstrates the more common slow, repetitive and partial realisations which may accumulate into a significant effect over time.

  • Apart from standard facilitator vectors (such as developing a Metaphor Landscape of the structure of client’s desired Outcomes, proposed Remedies and current Problems), the main vector followed by the facilitators in this session is to keep foregrounding ‘current reality’ as defined by the client – even if it is painful. The client says, they have to “Live with the reality that it is what it is”; sometimes, as in this case, that’s easier said than done.

  • When current reality is in the foreground of the client’s awareness, we repeatedly ask variations of: ‘And what would you like to have happen, when that’s how it is?‘ This question encourages the client to not only accept their current reality but also to take the next step and ask themselves: ‘given current reality isn’t going to change in the near future, if ever, then how would I like to respond to the situation?’ Of course, this is not an easy question to answer, especially if you really do not want to accept the consequences. Our aim is for the client to consider the question enough times that they:

    • Notice the effect on their system of considering this question
    • Discover the multiple ways they avoid considering the question
    • Get used to staying in the state required to consider the question – and to start wondering about their answer.
  • Another feature of this way of working is persistence – to hold the client’s attention in one place. Since this is not ordinarily socially acceptable the facilitator needs to be aware that they may have a reaction and tendency to back away from this approach. Also, as a facilitator it might seem like you are going round in circles, but each circuit reveals the current pattern more and more clearly. That makes each circuit part of an iterative feedback process where the client embodies the bind and their Metaphor Landscape learns from itself. As a result the client is likely to experience subtle shifts, and the facilitator’s job is to notice them and invite the client to attend to the shifts.

NOTE: All Facilitator-generated words are embolden to distinguish them from the Client’s words, and to make it easier to see the syntax of each question.

F0And what would you like to have happen? 
C1I’d like to have some resolution to the problem that’s going on in the family. Even if it simply means that I understand it better. Because it’s possible I can’t do anything physically or emotionally to other people. And that I have to change my attitude. So if that’s the case then that’s what I would like. What I’d really like to do is bang their heads together [laughter], but I can’t do that. I’ve already been banging my head against a wall for nine months. [Pause] I’d like to just calm down, I’m shaking. [Pause] I’d like to better understand so that I can live with it.Lots of desires for change:
1. “Resolution to problem in family”
2. (If not #1 then) “Change attitude”
3. “Bang heads together” (solution to #1?)
4. “Calm down” (here and now)
5. “Better understand”
6. “Live with it”
NOTE: Although these may look like desired Outcomes, we’d classify the first five as Remedies (see Coaching for P.R.O.’s).
The client’s Problem is that she “can’t do anything” about the situation.
F1Better understand so I can live with it. And is there anything else when you would like to have some kind of resolution to the problem going on in your family?Directing client’s attention to the first mentioned desire — the one she would “really like”.
C2Well it might sound paradoxical, but I’d like it to come from within. Not from within me, but within them. But clearly by having this session I’ve been trying to think of ways in which I can engineer it, so it’s dishonest I suppose in this way. But a resolution is a resolution – I’d be happy with that. Ah, the old chestnut: I want them to want to do what I want!
F2And when you have a resolution, how would you know you have a resolution?Attending to the evidence for how the client will know it would happen.
C3Oh I’ll know! Because my children will talk to each other, they’ll be able to be in the same room together, they’ll be able to have dinner together at home, and not check to see if the other one’s coming over. It will be very obvious.  Just as it’s very obvious that they’re not talking now.That’s clear sensory-based evidence.
F3And that’s obvious, your children will be talking to each other. And it’s possible you’ll have to change your attitude.Now on to the client’s second desire – a seemingly ‘reluctant’ (our metaphor) “have to”.
C4Yes, it’s possible. 
F4And how would you know if you had to change your attitude?Attending to the client’s evidence. Unusually this Clean Language Question (CLQ) asks “if” – rather than “when” as in F2 – because that’s what the client said in C1.
C5I don’t think it’s my attitude that’s creating the problem. But I do have an attitude towards the problem. It’s not doing me any good. So how would I know? I have to change my attitude to it because I’m so uncomfortable with it the way it is. And they’re not making any move in that direction. So it seems like it’s not going to happen any time soon. But I need more peace of mind about it. That’s p-e-a-c-e!“not doing me any good” and “so uncomfortable” are the effects of the client’s Problem.7. “Peace of mind” is a desired Outcome (for a meta-state “about it” – see our notes on Levels and Michael Hall’s Meta-states and Symbolic Modelling. [Links available soon])
F5And you need more peace of mind about it, and that would be a change of attitude.Staying with the latest desired Outcome.
C6Yes, I suppose because I’m full of angst about it now and if I got peace of mind that would be a change of attitude.More on the client’s Problem “so uncomfortable” (C5) and “full of angst”.
F6And what kind of peace of mind is that peace of mind?Starting to facilitate the client to develop a richer description (more attributes, more distinctions) of her desired Outcome.
C7I need to be able to stop caring so much. Be more nonchalant about it. You know, if they don’t want to see each other, speak to each other, have dinner together [shrugs shoulders], so I don’t know, I suppose I need to be more of a father and less of a mother, if I can use stereotypes.8. “Stop caring so much” is another Remedy.
9. “Be more nonchanlant, more of a father” is more description of the desired Outcome.
F7Is there anything else when you need to be more of a father and less of a mother and stop caring so much and be nonchalant?Continuing to develop the desired Outcome.
C8Well what I’m trying to say is there seems to be nothing I can do to bring them together, but I need to feel better about it because I feel dreadful about it. So I need to develop the ability to not care so much. I don’t know how you do that. That’s what I mean by if I can’t resolve the problem, get some resolution in my head – just go more Buddhist, I don’t know, accept it. Convince myself that these are choices they are making, that only they have the power to change and yadiyadiyadi. There’s nothing I can do.

10. “I need to feel better because …” is a Remedy11. “Develop ability to not care so much” seems like a proposed means of achieving the desired Outcome which includes (12) “go more Buddhist; accept it”.

“Convince myself” is another indication of what we called ‘reluctance’ in F3.

“Nothing I can do”, repeated twice, is both the client’s Problem and the client’s current reality – the truth of her situation (see also C1 & C5).

F8So convince yourself. So when you convince yourself, resolve it in your head, more nonchalant, and less caring, more like a father than a mother and you have that peace of mind, what happens to your want them to talk to each other?This recaps the attributes of the client’s desired Outcome, and then enquires about the effect on her “really” want (C1). Our aim is to acknowledge all of her experience, and as they say in NLP, to check the ecology of the desired Outcome.
C9It diminishes. 
F9Whereabouts is that want when it diminishes?Starting to get the symbols located in the client’s perceptual space.
C10Well it’s in here [points to chest]. 
F10Whereabouts in there? 
C11In which ventricle? 
C12In my heart. 
F12And what kind of want is that want when it’s in your heart? 
C13What kind of want? [Long pause] It’s a loving parent’s want. 
F13And it’s a loving parent’s want that wants children to talk to each other. 
C14Children to care about each other. I think they care, they just don’t talk. 
F14And that’s what you want in your heart? 
F15And they’re not talking and it doesn’t seem like in the near future  …First example of foregrounding the client’s current reality.
F16So that [point to heart] would diminish … 
C17The angst would diminish.Client corrects facilitator.
F17The want for them to talk would diminish, the angst would diminish, and you’d be more nonchalant, you’d be more at peace and there’d be a resolution. So what kind of peace is that peace?Recapping the effects of the desired Outcome happening and then returning to the desired Outcome itself.
C18It’s an acceptance that I can’t make things happen the way I want to them to happen.“Acceptance” reappears (see C8).
F18It’s an acceptance you can’t make things happen. 
C19That things will happen in their own time. 
F19And when you accept that things happen in their own time, whereabouts is that acceptance? 
C20That acceptance will sit right next to the want [touches chest]. 
F20In the heart, right next to the want. 
C21Yes, it’s a big heart..
F21So right next to it. Anything else about that sitting right next to it? 
C22Well, the pain will go, or diminish. As I lower my expectations.A cause-effect belief.
F22The pain will go as you lower your expectations when that acceptance sits next to that want in that heart [points to heart]. Is there anything else about that acceptance sitting next to that want in that big heart? 
C23Well there’s fear in there too.New symbol “fear”.
F23Whereabouts is that fear? 
C24It’s wrapped up there with the pain of the want and the acceptance – failure, lack of acceptance.Presumably the “pain of the want” is actually the pain of the want not being satisfied.
F24And the fear is wrapped up with the pain and lack of acceptance.  So whereabouts is that? 
C25It’s hovering over the other things. 
F25Inside the heart. 
C26Um hum. 
F26It’s hovering over. What kind of hovering? 
C27It’s like a pollution cloud. 
F27Anything else about that pollution cloud that’s hovering over? 
C28It’s not going to stay over forever. It’s eventually going to go. Unless it goes away it’s going to rain down on everything.Two possible effects of the current situation.
F28So unless it goes away it will rain down. 
F29Anything else about that pollution cloud? 
C30[Long pause, and then whispers] I don’t think so.Given the ease of providing information about “fear” to the last four questions, this response seemed strange but we decided to accept the client’s statement – for the time being.
F30And so when there’s a pollution cloud hovering over a want and next to that is an acceptance, what would you like to have happen?Having located and developed “fear” into a metaphor “pollution cloud”, what would she like when that’s how it is?
C31[Wiping tear from eye] I would like the conflict between the two sorted. I’d like them to see each other.Back to her first, apparently unattainable, desire.
F31That’s the want [points to heart]? 
C32That’s the want. 
F32And the acceptance is: that it looks like it’s not going to happen in the short term and then there’s a pollution cloud over the top and that’s how it is.I should have said “seems like” and “anytime soon” (C5) but I couldn’t remember the exact words, so used words with the same sentiment to reiterate her current reality.
F33So what would you like to have happen when that’s how it is?Repeat of F30.
C34I suppose I need to do something about my want. 
F34You suppose. What kind of something do you need to do about your want?“You suppose” acknowledges the ‘reluctance’ (F3, C8). Then moves on to develop the “need to”.
C35Change it.  Live with the reality that it is what it is. [Wipes another tear.]Repeats metaphor of “live with” (C1).
F35Live with that reality, even if you don’t want it.“Even if you don’t want it” are not the client’s words but are inferred.
F36And you’ve been banging your head against that wall and it is what it is.Foregrounding the client’s current reality (as in F15, F32).
C37Yes, but it doesn’t change. It just gets worse.“It gets worse” implies the situation is ‘escalating'(our metaphor) – which will usually motivate someone to try something different.
F37So is there anything else about that living with the reality even though you don’t want it?Continuing to attend to the desired Outcome and current reality but now at the same time.
C38Only I suppose the urgency of it.A new temporal factor “urgency” that may be contributing to ”gets worse” or vice versa.
F38The urgency. 
F39So where does the urgency come from?Directing client’s attention to the source of “urgency”.
C40I would like it to be resolved before I die, and I don’t know how long I’ve got. And [shrugs shoulders and long pause] … 
F40And you’d like it to be resolved before you die. And to better understand it so that you can live with it.Since client is processing deeply our aim is just to keep that going, bringing in her original desired Outcome, and see what happens.
C41I think I understand it. I mean I think I understand it. I think I can see their individual perceptions and how entrenched they are. It’s just that I don’t want to die before I’ve resolved it, or they’ve resolved it, or it’s resolved. 
F41And where is that want when you want not to die before it’s resolved? 
C42That’s in there with the other wants [wipes tear from eye]. Like little Russian dolls [gestures with hands]. 
F42Wants within wants, little Russian dolls. And you don’t know how long you’ve got. And where did the pollution of that cloud come from?Decide to see if there is anymore about “pollution cloud” last mentioned C27-C30.
C43[Big sigh, looks up high for the first time] I think it’s been building up over the years. Building up over the years. It hasn’t been dealt with in a timely fashion. Not that I haven’t tried. And so it’s just built up and built up until it’s on the point of exploding.“Building up” is client’s metaphor for what we have temporarily referred to as ‘escalation’ (C37-C38).
“point of exploding” is a threshold.
F43And when pollution cloud has been building up over the years, and it’s on the point of exploding, what would that pollution cloud like to have happen?Same question as in F30 & F33 but this time it is asked of “pollution cloud” rather than “you”.
C44What would the cloud like? It depends whose side the cloud is on. If the cloud is on my side it would like to float away and just not be there anymore. If the cloud is on their side, I don’t know what they want anymore. And if the cloud is just an aspect of a malevolent universe then it will do what it wants to do.Interesting response but it doesn’t answer the question. Presumably “cloud” knows which “side” it is on (if clouds have sides that is!)
F44It depends whose side the cloud is on. And if on your side, which side is your side?Hoping for a spatial answer to keep the client’s Metaphor Landscape embodied.
C45My side is in the reconciliation.No luck but interestingly “reconcile” originally meant in Latin ‘bring back together’ which is spatial.
F45Your side is in the reconciliation. And there’s your side and their side. And malevolent universe. 
C46Possibly. I’m not going to close the books on that. Well I say there’s their side, as if they’re united.  They are united in the sense that they tell me to stay out of it.Ah, so they are “united” (‘joined together‘) about something. Also an example of the ‘mirror principle’: they are not doing what she wants, and she is not doing what they want.
F46They tell you to stay out of it. So they’re united in telling you to stay out of it. 
C47They’ve got that in common. 
F47Otherwise they’re not talking. And so then what happens when they tell you to stay out of it?  And they’re united on their side about that.Aiming attention at the effects of them being “united”.
C48They don’t tell me that at the same time. It’s when I have a conversation with them separately. Well I argue, and say it’s not in my nature to stay out of these things, things that matter to me. I’m an interventionist by character. I can’t just sit by and watch things happen. And unless a conversation begins – even if the beginning is going to be awkward – unless a conversation begins there’s no way to build.  And they say, well one of them says it will happen in it’s own time. It might take 5 years, 10 years, 20 years. And the other one says it will happen when I’m ready but I’m not ready.  It won’t happen before I’m ready.“build” again (C43) but in a positive sense this time.Lots more indication that the client knows her “really want”) is unlikely to happen in her timescale.
F48And then what happens?Continuing with effects.
C49Well, it goes on. 
F>49So you’ve been interventionist. 
C50To no avail 
F50To no avail. 
C51Yes, that’s why I said at the beginning, I want to to resolve it. I want something to resolve it. But in the fact of the fact that it doesn’t look like that’s happening, I want it resolved inside me. [Touches chest] I want to stop living with it.“Stop living with” the inner “angst, and start to “live with” the outer unresolvable situation.
F51 So what is inside you there [points to there]?A non-standard CLQ to identify “it”.
C52That’s what’s inside me – the conflict [touches chest with right fist].More evidence of the inside (internal “conflict”) mirroring the outside (children in conflict).
F52The conflict is inside you. What kind of conflict is it there? 
C53It’s a heaviness. 
F53Anything else about the heaviness? 
C54A sense of failure, I suppose. My failure. 
F54A sense of failure, your failure, a sense of heaviness, a conflict. Does that heaviness have a size or a shape? 
C55[Long pause, looks out the window]  It weighs about a kilo. I don’t know about it’s size or shape. 
F55It weighs about a kilo. Anything else about it when it weighs about a kilo? 
C56It’s there all the time. 
F56So when there’s a heaviness that weighs about a kilo and it’s there all the time and that’s the conflict in there, after you’ve tried all those interventions, you’ve banged your head against that brick wall, and it is how it is, and there’s that [points] about a kilo of heaviness, what would you like to have happen?

Recapping client’s reality before asking what she would like – given “it is how it is”. (Same formulation as F30, F33 & F43.)

Not sure where that “brick” came from!

C57I want to take the kilo out [touches chest with right fist].A Remedy.
F57You want to take the kilo out. 
C58Give it to them. [laughs] No, not really give it to them. I think they feel
bad about it in regard to me, but not so bad as to try to resolve it.
F58So when you take that kilo out, then what’s there?A non-standard CLQ that uses the client’s logic to aim for a desired outcome statement
C59[Wipes tear away] I suppose the kilo is made up of the pain and want and what’s left is acceptance.“Acceptance” again (see C8 & C18-C24).
F59So taking the kilo out takes the pain and the want, and what’s left is acceptance. 
C60That’s how I see it at the moment. 
F60And then what happens when acceptance is left when the kilo has been taken out?Seeking for the client to attend to the effects of her desired Outcome happening.
C61Well I imagine I stop thinking about it, worrying about it, wanting it to be different.  I stop being their mother, I suppose, in one way. Repeat of “less of a mother” (C7).
F61What kind of way is that way?Developing the effects.
C62The way that a mother can know what’s right and know what’s best in the long run, not in the short run, in the long run. And want the best for her children. That part. 
F62And that’s the part you’ll have to stop. 
C63Well, so long as I keep wanting it, the kilo is still there. So if I want to get the kilo out, if acceptance relies on the removal of the kilo, then yes, my mothering is going to have to change shape, I suppose.

Client spontaneously identifies some conditions necessary for change.

Not for the first time the client “supposes” (see C2, C6, C7, C34, C38, C54, C59, C61).

F63What kind of shape does it have to change to? 
C64Or have a big chunk of it cut off.  And change in temperature. 
F64Shape and temperature.  Any other ways does it have to change? 
C65If it changes shape it will probably change weight too.  Be less heavy. 
F65So shape, less heavy and temperature. 
C66And it will then move back. 
F66Move back to … ?Non-standard CLQ to identify location and keep Landscape embodied.
C67Not so close. 
F67Not so close to … ?And again.
C68The children 
F68So not so close to them, move back. And move back to where?And again.
C69To my corner. 
F69And whereabouts is your corner? 
C70It’s over the other side. 
F70The other side of … ?And again – the fifth location question in a row.
C71I don’t know.  The parenting room. 
F71Move back to your corner of the parenting room. 
C72Closer to the corner. 
F72And then what happens?F61-F71 developed the effects. Now we return to following the sequence of the effects of achieving the desired Outcome (started at F60).
C73And then we die [claps hands once] – happily. I suppose.  And then it’s different. 
F73And so what needs to happen for you to take that kilo out?Given the client has started specifing necessary conditions (C63) we continue here.
C74They need to resolve it and reconcile.Client returns again to her “really want” (as in C31).
F74Which they’re going to do in their own time. Which may not be before you die.Recapping her current reality again (see F15 & F32).
C75Yes. So that makes me dependent on them. And I don’t want that. I want to reclaim my own agency. I want not to care so much.New desired outcome (13) “reclaim my own agency”. and repeat of “not care’ Remedy of C8.
F75So where is it at the moment when you want to reclaim it?Locating new symbol
C76[Sigh] I don’t know. It’s gone. 
F76Where was it before it went?Ok, the client doesn’t know where “agency” is now, maybe she knows where it was when she had it.
C77In here [right fist to chest again]. It’s in here with all the other things.Interesting how much of client’s experience is located in the same area.
F77In the heart. 
C78Yes [laughs] 
F78So it was in there and then what happened, just before it went?Asking client to attend to how her “agency” went.
C79They chose to be this way with each other. And chose to resist my attempted interventions. Chose to ignore all of that so I had no impact on them.  I had no powers of persuasion.

Ah, so when they “chose to be this way” (their agency) she lost her “powers of persuasion” (her agency).

And is the client ‘resisting’ her own attempts to intervene and change her inner conflict? [You might think she is ‘resisting’ our attempts to intervene – except we are not trying to change anything.]

F79So no impact, no powers of persuasion. And what happened to your agency? 
C80It left. It went. 
F80What happened just before it went? 
C81I kept speaking to them separately to try to reconcile them. 
F81And that didn’t work.Recapping her current reality.
C82[Shakes head] 
F82So what kind of agency is an agency that leaves when they won’t reconcile?This a very direct question as it potentially reveals the deficiency that means the client is unable to handle the situation (i.e. unable to persuade her children to do what she wants).
C83It’s an agency that’s been rendered powerless. It’s lost, it’s run out of fuel, lost its engine, nose dived into the sea. It’s gone.A stream of metaphors indicates the significance of this to the client.
F83Lost its power to intervene with your children. And when I want to reclaim my own agency, what kind of I is an I that wants to reclaim it?This question directs attention to the Pereciver. If her agency has gone, how come she still has a “want to reclaim it”?
C84A mature, intelligent, self-directed individual who has the right to have agency. It’s the me that I was before this happened. 
F84A mature, intelligent with the right to have agency that you were before this happened.  And so what needs to happen for that I to claim that agency? 
C85[Looks right, out the window]. In the absence of them being reconciled?Now the client is keeping current reality in the foreground.
C86It’s my own acceptance of the fact that they are who they are, it is what it is, and I will reclaim my agency by not trying to make them do what they’re not ready to do. — But I don’t believe that.A clear bind. She doesn’t believe the logic of the conditions necessary for her desired outcome to happen. And hence the unlikelihood of “convincing” herself “there’s nothing I can do”. (C8).
F86You don’t believe it. 
C87I say it but I don’t believe it. Not down here [touches heart with left fist]. 
F87What don’t you believe? 
C88That that can be called agency. In other words, not changing what’s out there, but changing my own reaction to it [left fist to heart]. [Pause] Well, yes, that would be agency, but I can’t imagine being able to do it. That’s like saying to me, from this time forth there will be no more oxygen or water available to you.Ah, she doesn’t believe it because she “can’t imagine being able to do it”.
F88So you can’t believe that you can reclaim that agency.It would have been better to have put attention on the more embodied “imagine” rather than the conceptual “belief”.
F89So when you don’t believe that you can reclaim that agency, unless they resolve it, and that doesn’t look like it’s going to happen, what would you like to have happen?Summerising the bind and asking what she would like when that’s the way things are (same as F30, F33, F43, F56).
C90[Pause] Ask me that again.A common reaction to this question when asked in the context of a bind.
F90And when you don’t believe you can reclaim the agency, in there, what would you like to have happen when you don’t believe you can reclaim the agency, and you need to reclaim that agency to have that peace of mind and to take that kilo out?Bringing current reality of the bind into the foreground and putting the ball firmly in the client’s court (i.e. back with her agency!).
C91Well I have to shift my attitude about agency.A subtle shift in desired Outcome and still couched in “have to” terms.
F91Shift your attitude about agency.  What kind of shift would that shift be? 
C92Well, stop having it matter so much.Another subtle shift from “not care” (C8) to not “matter so much” about her lost agency.
F92So the shift would be to stop having it matter so much.  Anything else about that shift? 
C93[Shakes head]A similar reaction to C30 but …
F93No? So whereabouts is the attitude that needs to be shifted?… this time we are going to stay put and embody, embody, embody!
C94The attitude is in here [right fist touches heart].  
F94So the attitude is in there! Whereabouts in relation to the wants and the cloud and the acceptance that’s all in that heart.  Whereabouts is the attitude?With so much in the same place, how does the client distinguish these emotions, beliefs, attitudes – we wonder?
C95Maybe it’s all wrapped in attitude [right hand encloses left fist].“Wrapped” again (see C24), like “Russian dolls”? (C42)
F95So what kind of wrapped is the wrapped of that attitude. 
C96Bubble wrap. So it’s light, but it’s protective. 
F96So the attitude is protecting all of that. And bubble wrap, anything else about that bubble wrap that’s protective and light and wrapping all of that up? 
C97I suppose it’s protecting it because it’s invested in my identity. It’s who I am. I need for my kids to have a good relationship.  If they don’t I’m no longer who I am. So the shift would have to be that I change who I am. Change who I see I am. Feels a bit long in the tooth to make those changes. Much easier if they just reconciled. [Laughs]Back to where we started (see C1, C31 & C74)
F97Much easier! Much much easier, as you’ve been telling them, no doubt! And intervening for all this time, and it’s been getting worse.Reitterating current reality.
C98I’ve stopped trying, really. How many times can you be told to mind your own business mum? 
F98Quite a lot it seems.And again (said playfully).
C99[Laughs]  I said 9 months, not 9 years! 
F99So the wrapping of all of this is protective and it’s because your identify is invested in them reconciling. And if they don’t reconcile then you’d have to see yourself – who would you see yourself as?Non-standard CLQ that uses logic of C97, “Change who I see I am” to identify the new identity.
C100I’d have to change my truth.This would explain the apparent ‘reluctance’ (see F3, C8, F34)
F100So whereabouts is that truth? 
C101[Laughs] It’s in there, in there with the others [points to heart]. 
F101Is it inside the wrapping?Cleaner to ask: “Is it inside or outside the wrapping?”
C102The truth is in there. 
F102What kind of truth is that truth that’s in there? Your truth? 
C103Some things you know to be true. 
F103And this is a know to be true. 
C104Yes, I know this to be true.  Not negotiable. Some things are not negotiable. This is one of them.  
F104So it’s not negotiable from your side. And they’re telling you to stay out of it from their side.  In fact they’re unified on that. So when that’s your truth, and it’s not negotiable, what would you like to have happen?Recap current reality and then put the ball once again back in the client’s court (see F30, F33, F43, F56, F89, F90).
C105I’d like them to reconcile.Back to square 1 for the forth time (see C31, C74, C97).
F105I know that’s the like you’d want, the want inside the wrapping, inside the heart, and the fact is you want that, that’s what you’d like, that’s what your identity is invested in, and who I would see myself as … [interrupted]James shows a bit of frustration and uncleanly brings in his own “I”. (Is this an example of ‘parallel processing’ with James’ emotional reaction to the session reflecting the client’s reaction to her situation?)
C106A failure.Ouch. The frustration turns to compassion as the client bears her pain.
F106So you’d see yourself as a failure. So whereabouts is the self
you’d see as a failure? How far away or close is that self?
C107The longer it goes on the harder it gets and that self gets closer.An escalating feedback loop.
F107Hence the urgency. 
C108Hence the urgency. 
F108And that self is getting closer. 
C109The failed self. 
F109So how close is that self at the moment?‘Going live’.
C110The failed self? 
C111Not very far. 
F111Whereabouts is not very far? 
C112Do you mean in meters? 
F112I’ll take any measurement. 
C113It’s just hovering over there [head points over left shoulder].For the first time, a symbol is not in the heart but outside the body. Note it is “hovering” like the “cloud” (C25).
F113Hovering over there [head points] and it’s been getting closer.  Anything else about the hovering of that failed self? 
C114It just follows me around. 
F114It follows you around and gets closer. 
F115And is there anything else when that failed self is hovering and getting
closer and following you around. Is there anything about all of that?
C116I think that about covers it. 
F116And when that failed self is hovering, and getting closer and following you around, what would you like to have happen?Same approach as F30, F33, F43, F56, F89, F90, F104.
F117I know you’d like them to reconcile …:o)
C118I wouldn’t dare say that again! I would like to stop caring about it.Same Remedy as C8 and C75.
C119About my sense of their need to reconcile. 
F119You’d like not to care about it.  And what would that self [points
over her left shoulder] like to have happen when it’s hovering and following you around?
Does the client know what the other self would like? As David Grove said, we should be ‘equal information employers’.
C120That self? [pause, body shifts and rocks] I don’t know. 
F120What just happened? Another way to ‘go live’. (see F109)
C121What just happened? [Smile] What makes you think something just happened? [Pause]  I have a sense of that self being about to pounce. [Turns whole body left and points behind her] If I don’t keep my eye on it. It’s just waiting. Waiting for the axe to fall.In answer to the client’s question James just smiled. It is best not to answer a question like this because of the possibility of being diverted away from something important.
F121So there’s an axe.  And it’s waiting for the axe to fall. 
C122[Laughs] It adds new meaning to ad nauseam.This meta-comment went over our heads at the time! But maybe she is learning from her own repetition – “ad nauseam”
F122So it’s about to pounce. 
C123I have a sense of urgency. Unless this gets resolved, the failed self will wrap itself around me and that will be the new me. I suppose that’s what I’m resisting. That sense of failure. It’s just all about telling myself that they can do whatever they want to do and that’s their choice.  That’s the path that they choose and if they live to regret it then – everyone makes his own experience. I don’t believe that.

“wrap” again (C24, C95, C96). “resisting” confirms our intuition (at F3, C8, F34, C100) – and now we have the client’s metaphor for it.

Back to square 1 yet again.

F123That everyone makes their own experience. 
C124Yes, I do believe that.We could have asked ‘How do you know you believe that?’ since “I don’t believe that” has been emphasised before (C86 & C123).
F124Which bit don’t you believe? 
C125That intervention isn’t a better way. I’ve confessed that I was interventionist by nature. 
F125And they’ve asked you not to be. They’re united in that respect. And they’re resisting.Not too clean here, projecting her “resisting” on to the children in an attempt to reiterate current reality yet again.
C126They don’t know what I know. They’re young.  They haven’t had the life experience. They don’t know how important this is. They think it’s just [shakes head and shrugs] how it is 2008 and 2009? 
F126No, they don’t know. Even though you’ve intervened.Keeping current reality in the forground.
C127I’ve tried. 
F127They still don’t know …And again.
C128That’s right 
F128So what’s happening to that self over there now?Keeping it live and in-the-moment.
C129She’s hovering. She’ll pounce as soon as I say ‘Ah, what the hell. It’s their lives, let them get on with it.’  [Pause] Unless I accept it. Truly accept it. And change my sense of who I am.Another part of the bind: If she let’s them get on with it, failure will pounce and wrap her up. Unless she truly accepts – which she can’t imagine doing (C88)!
F129And then what will happen?Identifying the effects of her potential change.
C130Well, then she’ll back off. Because I will have revised myself to realise that I’ve learned that some things you can’t change. Some things are as they are – and I’m not there yet. [Laughs] No. 
F130So either she’ll pounce or you’ll revise yourself and accept that some things are the way they are.Acknowledging current reality.
F131But you’re not there yet.And again.
C132But I’m closer. Closer than I was three months ago.Ah, so there has been a change, but the more the client accepts “things are as they are” the more she has to face that her children might not resolve it before she dies.
F132How do you know you’re closer? 
C133Because it doesn’t occupy my every thought.  Because I don’t try with them anymore. Or I curb my desire to try. Because I avoid the subject. Because I pretend it doesn’t matter. I can pretend that now. How are you mum?  I’m fine, I’m great. I couldn’t act it out three months ago. That’s an improvement. If that’s the path you’re going down. If you look at it from the perspective of – a different perspective – from what good mothering is, and then you can say it’s a deterioration  It just depends where you stand. 
F133And that’s your choice.Realisng it is time to stop, James attempts to bring the session to a close by suggesting the client also has a choice. But that’s not clean …
C134My choice?… and the client rightly objects.
F134About which path to take or which perspective to take. 
C135Well it’s my choice insofar as I’m already shaped and molded by my biography to be who I am.  Not to say I’m not still shifting, but [pause] I don’t feel I have that much choice. I am who I am [shrugs] – that’s what they say.  So there we are.  We’re all in our own corners being who we are – ripping the family apart.We have been round the loops and binds
several times and it seems the client will have got whatever they are going to get from this session by now. Also we were running out of time, otherwise we might have followed the “corners” metaphor.

We need to complete this.

[Gave assignments to draw her Metaphor Landscape and look up the meaning and etymology (root) of a few words.]

To finish, what’s been the most valuable thing about our time together?

C136I suppose being forced to summarise it and reify it. Because most of the time it lives in here [right fist to heart]. It’s an emotion thing. Having to explain it while you [points to James] drag it out of me reifies it and I suppose makes it more amenable to change. Because it’s out there and not in me. I suppose. I’ll let you know. 

Extra Notes:

Based on the client’s opening metaphor of “banging my head against a wall” we might have expected the session to take the general form that it did. As a rule, an early metaphor for how the client has been approaching their problem is a reliable indicator of how the session will unfold – and, when the client operates out of a different metaphor, and indicator of the significance of that change. (See our article Meta-comments for more on these kinds of indicators)

With hindsight we might have started by developing that opening metaphor but we were attempting to demonstrate to the group how we usually start by working with a desired Outcome. Our guess is, given the nature of the client’s binds, wherever we had started we would have arrived at a similar place.

Six months later the client said:

“In regard to where I am, 6 months later:

Less blaming of myself.

More separated off from my son and daughter in law – not in loving feelings, but in terms of autonomy – I can’t influence them any which way. That’s how it is. They’re adults, forging their own life. At their age I would not have wanted my mother’s interference in my life!

In regard to my daughter: I see my role now more in supporting her growth towards maturity, independence, positive self-regard. It’s  a backseat role, and I’m comfortable in it. That’s something new for me, being historically very interventionist by nature.

Acceptance:  I suppose you could say I’ve moved closer to acceptance in the “serenity prayer” sense:  I  recognize that this is not something I can change. All I can do is change my attitude to it. That’s not an overnight thing, of course. But I feel it’s happening. I’m not filled with the kind of angst that I was when you interviewed me. There’s sadness, a bit of withdrawal, but the anger, the frustration,  has largely gone.

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