The therapist’s unconditional acceptance helps clients feel safe enough to take emotional risks and be honest about how they really feel. Without this security of being accepted no matter what you say or do, therapy can’t get off the ground. In short-term therapy especially, there isn’t time for therapists to teach social skills or problem solving before getting at emotional issues. Therapists have to concentrate on just one thing creating a secure base from which clients can explore troubling emotions and life problems. Acceptance is a key element of short term therapy, but it’s often not enough to make real changes in the client’s life.
In order for clients to make changes they have to do more than understand their feelings. They need to take new actions that influence how they feel in the future. This means making commitments about what you need to do differently and sticking with them over time. It’s one thing to feel loving, but something else entirely to behave lovingly. It’s one thing to feel angry, and another to act angrily.
Even though therapists often tell their clients that the only way out is through action, people frequently resist doing things differently than before. Change can be hard work and leave you feeling exposed and vulnerable. For example, discussing your feelings with someone rather than keeping them bottled up inside feels risky at first because it opens the door for that person to criticize or reject you. Of course you don’t want him/her to do that – it hurts – so if someone questions anything you say about yourself, your immediate reaction may be defensive: “What I meant was…”; “That’s not true—” and so on.
Even when you know that something’s not working or that it’s causing problems, people often avoid doing anything different because of how they’ll be perceived by others, especially when they’re risking rejection. A single mother with an unruly teenager may realize she needs to set firmer limits with her daughter. But instead of confronting her about this , she simply keeps saying: “I’m tired,” and avoids time alone with her in order to avoid a potential argument. Her daughter takes advantage of the mother and both feel resentful.
Or consider a man who knows he comes across as too harsh to his wife, but instead of speaking more softly, he tries to get her to change by making statements like: “I don’t want to tell you how to run your life,” and ends up feeling unheard and uncared about. If she did listen, she’d have even less respect for him because he can’t stand up for himself. Therapy with these clients is difficult in part because they’re not willing to take any risks with their actions. They keep coming back with feelings rather than new behaviors—the same old problems in new guises.
Acceptance alone won’t reduce the amount of work it takes to make lasting changes in your life. Action is required and that means consciously making commitments and sticking with them over time.