How comfortable are you with being different? How comfortable are you with other people’s differences?
Take a moment and pause to think of the people you are closest with.
Do you find these people are like you in terms of beliefs? Political, personal, and otherwise? Do your friends have a wide range of perspectives and approaches to life? Or do you find your relationships center around a shared outlook and belief in life and how the world works?
Often when people come to counseling, the sessions are relationship focused, namely on relationship problems. As you can probably guess, differences lead to conflict rather than sameness in relational dynamics. I see clients time and time again not being able to wrap their mind around how a partner, friend, or family member acts or thinks as they do.
Yet the OTHER person is not the problem. It is the orientation towards differences that is likely at the heart of the issue.
Differences are part of being human. It does not make you unhuman because you are different. We have sameness and we have difference. As do all the people we meet and interact with. As does all our family, friends, colleagues, etc.
From a family system perspective, we have togetherness and separateness. We have individuation and connectedness. The goal of becoming self-differentiated is learning to balance these forces to manage our self and our relationships. The aim of counseling is to find a way to be more at peace with ourselves and others.
At the cornerstone of many relationship issues tends to be an inability to tolerate differences and manage our responses. Too much togetherness can lead to problems. Too much distance can equally lead to problems. A healthy balance leads to a stable life with healthy relationships.
Some people are afraid to be themselves because of the fear of how others will respond. They have grown up in a family where differences are not valued. Often not tolerated.
Often in dysfunctional families, we see the mindset of we should all think and feel the same way i.e., “group think.” Differences are not very well accepted if you did not hold the party line. There is a great value in sameness.
The truth is if you are self-aware, self-defined, and self-regulated you are going to be different from other people. AND THAT IS A GOOD THING. That is a human thing.
And if someone else is going to be self-aware, self-defined, and self-regulated they are going to be different from me. That is a good thing too.
Acceptance means we respect that other have a right to be their own unique persons. Our world becomes a lot more interesting when we learn to accept other people’s differences.
We can have differences while also being connected. Although for many people it is hard for them to connect with someone who is different from them because again their existence is based on sameness. So, if you are not the same as me then I need to exclude you, or we are not going to connect because we are not the same.
In counseling, I often point out to clients I will not believe everything everyone else believes. I will not feel everything else feels. This is a certitude that holds true for us all.
Accepting differences is a part of maturity and growing up. Accepting that not everybody is me. Developmentally, that is what teenagers look for me when they reach adolescence. Teens want to fit in and be around like-minded people which during that specific developmental stage is appropriate. It is not a permanent state to live in as we mature into adults.
Weaknesses or limitations that we all possess make it hard to make peace with differences in ourselves and others. Accepting differences means accepting others’ strengths without feeling inferior, meaning you do not feel less than the other person because they have a strength. Just like you do not feel more than the other person because you have a strength.
It is understanding that other people’s strengths mean nothing about my strengths. Their differences mean nothing about my differences.
That is where I think the therapeutic value comes in and can be helpful. Counseling can help you accept that they can be different and think different, I can be me and think differently. Many people in sessions struggle with worrying about what another person in their life thinks of them.
Accepting differences mean coming to accept other people are entitled to think as they will and for us to be unaffected by it. To accept we do not need to fight to change people’s perceptions of us. Thus, if they have a negative view of me, I am LETTING them have that negative view of me and I am not absorbing it. I do not think I am bad or stupid or worthless. YOU may think that. That is your right to do so. Those are your thoughts. In turn it gives me a greater amount of detachment and neutrality because I accept their differences. And their differences can be ludicrous especially in dysfunctional people. But that is okay. Those are their beliefs for whatever reason, but they are not my beliefs. We can observe rather than absorb them.
It is healthy to realize I am not you and you are not me. It is a helpful notion to have with other people. And it such a common struggle for people of all ages and from all walks of life.
If you are not comfortable with differences is leads to hiding, lying, keeping secrets in our relationships. Those are the difficulties that arise when we need sameness to feel comfortable.
I think part of maturing and getting older is accepting people think differently than I do, and they will. And that is okay.
A common way you know you struggle with accepting differences is when you try to change someone. We are not respecting differences if we are trying to fix others. It is not accepting the principle of we are all not the same.
The thing you must remember is accepting differences is not accepting the behavior.
If someone thinks harshly or badly about you, if I accept their differences, it does not mean I will stay in for the abuse. It means I now must make choices about how I am going to relate to this person. I cannot change them, and I have probably tried to many times. But I can’t—now what to do I do to position myself with them that has the least toxic effect? In turn you are accepting their differences by adjusting yourself to that reality. Then we care for ourselves more while respecting their differences.
We must remember there are not only differences in beliefs, but differences in how we react and respond. If you really want to get a reaction from someone, feel differently than they feel.
Feeling neutral can be seen as a bad thing as some. Because being neutral can be unsettling. People often feel more comfortable in emotional reactions because even if they are not healthy, they are familiar.
People may not like or accept this response. Reactivity may be what they are comfortable with. Remember, reactivity is lack of being okay with difference. Because if you are okay with difference, why would you be reactive to the other person? If you are okay with being neutral and with differences, you do not need to be reactive.
If I am okay with my position, I do not need to react to the positions of others.
They may not in turn have everything they want, but I do not have everything I want. Such is life.
Being okay with differences reduces the reactivity in our relationships. It leads to less conflict and more harmony.
Others can believe what they choose but I must then act accordingly. Oftentimes, we do not like the options of acting accordingly—it may mean boundaries, it may mean loss of the relationship, it may mean loss of finances, it may mean lots of things.
In counseling, people often ask how they can CHANGE the other person. Or struggle with accepting the other person WILL NOT CHANGE. Yet one of the best ways we can change a belief in others is not to be reactive to it. It is often counterintuitive and surprises the other. Thus, them having that belief is totally on them—they need to take responsibility for that belief and its repercussions.
It is also accepting that other people may not believe what you believe. People may challenge your beliefs and values. Yet I am not going to defend myself out of that belief—often when you are defending yourself, you already loss.
Defending yourself does not fix the true issue at play.
How much does defending oneself truly work? Often the belief comes from an irrational position, an emotional position, or a systems position. It is not coming from a LOGICAL position so giving all the facts is not going to change anything about what you believe, or the other person believes. We see this at play in the political arena daily.
This principle is not about forcing or changing differences, it is about RESPECTING differences. Even if those differences are illogical or irrational, we then just must decide how we will respond in turn. That is true emotional maturity.
As I frequently share with my clients, I cannot change others irrational beliefs. Thus, I respect that—those are their beliefs. I may not believe them to be true at all but that is okay. That is my belief. Now, what am I going to do?
Accepting differences can be both liberating and scary. Both emotions will come up the more you differentiate. You understand you are truly alone. When you experience the difference of where you end and the other person begins, it can get scary. But also, profound.
The person I have is me. Therefore, inner bonding work can be so important. Because really the only person you have is you. Yet this is true for us all.
There are other people we connect with. But we do have to learn to stand alone. That is a part of emotional maturity.
Counseling can be a way to develop the ability to cultivate respect for differences in our self and others. This can help all the relationships we have in our life including our relationship with self.