I was recently in a conversation about microagressions and the impact they have on sexuality. When I think of microagressions, I think of someone getting poked in the same spot over and over. Each one doesn’t seem like much, but they add up to cause a deep bruise and a flinch reaction. While there’s no denying the pain caused by a single hard punch, it’s a lot easier to ignore or discount the cumulative effects of microagressions because each one seems so minor. But not only do they build up, they set an overall tone that can be even more painful to live with than a single traumatic event.
The flip side to that is that a consistent practice of offering small moments of acceptance goes much further than a single big moment. One of the most important things you can do for the people you love is to give them microacceptances on a regular basis.
A microacceptance tells your partner, your child, or your friend that you care about them. It demonstrates your positive regard for them, and shows that you value them as they are. It’s a gentle trickle of love that washes away shame much more effectively that a blast from a hose. Microacceptances create a foundation for a happy, healthy relationship.
Of course, microacceptances only work when you really mean them. If you’re holding anger, resentment, or judgement, that will get in the way of a genuine expression of acceptance. Learning to work through those difficult feelings and rebuild the interpersonal bridge takes effort, but it’s an investment that pays off.
It’s amazing how often people say things like, “My child/partner/friend knows that I love them.” I always want to ask how they can be so sure of that. Love and acceptance require attention and tending in order to thrive. And entropy increases everywhere, including in our relationships. When we don’t give them our attention, they start to fall apart.
In his book The Science of Trust, John Gottman observes that when we hold difficult emotions like anger or shame, we think about the situation that brought it up because we want to find a way to resolve it. It’s like a pebble in your shoe that you can’t ignore. But when a situation is positive, the memory often begins to fade because there’s been completion and closure. That’s why it’s much easier to remember the birthday party that ended in disaster than the one that was super fun.
That means that we need to keep offering microacceptances because we need to remind the people we love (and ourselves) that we value them. We need to refresh their memories and make sure that they don’t fade. It’s not that they take us for granted- it’s just how human beings process experiences. Plus, when our loved ones have a moment of shame, it’s a lot easier for them to trust that we still care for them when they’ve been getting regular reminders.
I was once part of a community work group that ended each meeting by going around the circle and having each of us tell the next person one thing that we appreciated about them. It could be something they said that night, or the amazing outfit they had on, or acknowledging something they wrote on the email list, or anything else. The only rules were that it had to be genuine and that the proper response was “thank you.”
When I first joined the group, this was the hardest part of the night for me. It was difficult for me to receive appreciation without immediately reciprocating. But it got easier and over time, these microacceptances helped me become more comfortable in my skin and in that community. And when conflict did occasionally happen, it was a lot easier to work through it because we knew that our baseline was positive. It’s a simple practice, and it’s an easy one to implement.
If microacceptances seem too difficult to do or if you don’t think they’ll make a difference, give them a shot. Tell your child that they did a great job with their chores. Thank your partner for doing the dishes. Let your friend know that you see how hard they work to care for their parents. If they’re surprised at first, share this article with them and let them know that this is something you want to start doing. You’ll be amazed at how quickly it improves your relationships. And when they start offering you microacceptances, you’ll discover how good it feels to know that someone feels that way about you.
Part of my sex coaching work is assisting people make microacceptance part of their sexual and romantic relationships. If you’re struggling with this and want some support to make it easier, get in touch and let’s talk about how I can help.
Many thanks to the delightful Nadine Thornhill for coming up with this idea with me.