I was on my way to an appointment, carpooling with my newfound friend, Karen. Today was my turn to drive and I was suddenly terribly nervous. I always play music when I drive and I usually just leave my iPhone on shuffle. What if one of those weird international songs comes on? What if it plays an old lame song? What if she’s offended by a religious song?
In other words, my music selection reveals a part of me and I was afraid of being seen, of letting her have a glimpse into a part of me that I typically keep carefully locked into headphones.
I was afraid of being me.
Tentatively i decided to let her in, but as I put my music on the car stereo, I made a disparaging remark about how she probably won’t like it and we can skip any songs she hates.
“I don’t mind,” she says. “You do you, girl!”
As she utters that simple phrase, I felt a wave of freedom and love wash over me. In that one non-judgmental sentence, Karen gave me simple acceptance of who I am, without fully knowing me. She didn’t even know me that well at the time. She accepted me fully simply because I am a person worthy of acceptance, rather than waiting until she saw me to deem me acceptable.
You do you.
Only three words. But three words that reveal what it means to be truly accepting of oneself and others. As I got to know Karen more, I realized that she says that phrase often. It’s a life mantra for her.
Because of her acceptance, I feel that I can be myself around her. She accepts all of me: upbeat, depressed, outdoorsy, religious, sincere, tired, and more. She cheers my accomplishments and doesn’t judge my failures. We do life. Sometimes we do something glamorous together but other times we get together for Netflix, laundry, and crocheting.
I have been on a journey to learn to better accept myself and others for several years now. I thought I knew what it meant. I was wrong. Karen demonstrates acceptance and inspired me to acceptance as well. I want to live that way too. And I choose to. As a result, there are no secrets and no judgments between us.
Yet, despite our unconditional acceptance and non-judgmental attitudes, there are still some behaviors we do not accept of each other. I have major depression. Karen has bipolar. We do not accept certain behaviors associated with the illness. When I am severely depressed or suicidal, Karen doesn’t simply stand by. Instead she actively makes sure I am staying safe and getting well, even if that means she herself has to call a professional to help me. I do the same for her. When she vastly overspent at Target during a mini manic episode, I didn’t shy away from kindly telling her that she needs to return most, if not all, of the items.
We accept each other completely, and we even accept the illness, but we do not accept all behaviors associated with being sick. There are boundaries. Things we don’t accept because it’s for each other’s good. The only reason we, as two people who both have fairly severe mental illness, are able to have a healthy relationship is that we have discussed and utilized such boundaries.
Although I am lucky to have been loved and accepted by many people, I have never felt so unconditionally accepted as I did by Karen. I knew I wanted to adopt “You do you, girl” as part of my life mantra. I began to practice accepting people for who they are, no strings attached. And I have found incredible freedom in being less judgmental of those around me.
Girl with purple hair? No problem. Guy who likes to paint his nails? Do your thing. You plan to circumnavigate the world? By all means, have at it! You think un-schooling is the best thing for your kid? Whatever floats your boat. I like to listen to Caribbean twists on reggae and pop? Yep. I am who I am.
I felt free. It was, and is, beautiful.
It took me nine months to write this blog after I originally asked Karen’s permission. It wasn’t primarily due to writer’s block or dealing with depression, although those were factors. No, it took me that long because I am a Christian and I couldn’t figure out how to make sense of acceptance and being non-judgmental within that paradigm. How can I fully accept myself and others if I believe that people sin? How can a loving God tell me what I can and cannot do? I couldn’t figure out how to have both faith and non-judgment, and for awhile I thought I would have to choose. I almost left the faith over it.
Why am I telling you this when not all of you are Christians? Because some of you are. And as you read this, some of you may be having those same questions I did.
It finally made sense in the context of boundaries and illness. God created people and when he looked at them he pronounced them good. When they sinned, he didn’t recant that statement, but there were additional boundaries given to them as a result. God says throughout scripture that he delights in us, loves us, and accepts us as he created us. Yet he also provides wisdom about how to live well. In the same way that Karen fully accepts who I am while still forcing me to a hospital if I’m suicidal, God also fully loves me and accepts who I am while still putting boundaries on some of my behaviors resulting from sin. (Not that I am in ANY way saying that depression is sin in this analogy.)
Part of being in a friendship with Karen, or in any community, is that I allow her to speak into my life and give her permission to help me live well, even when I’m so depressed I don’t think I want to. Acceptance and boundaries are not opposing forces but rather go hand in hand with real community. I’ve found this often gets confusing in Christian circles because too much emphasis is placed on one or the other, when both are equally necessary.
Karen has taught me a lot about friendship and the joy of letting people be who they are. She also taught me a lot about God and my faith. I have a theology degree and Karen is not actively religious, so neither of us expected that! There is great wisdom in everyone. Both God and Karen love and accept me completely as I am. Yet they both don’t accept certain unhealthy behaviors because they love me enough to want me to be well in addition to being me.
In this journey I have learned to better accept myself, always accept others, and to understand that I don’t have to give up my faith to do so. But that isn’t easy, so what about you? Is accepting yourself the hardest part or is it fully accepting others? Or is the hardest part accepting the boundaries that someone, maybe even yourself, puts upon your life? Are you able to make sense of acceptance with your faith, if you have one?