Accepting Difference

Carved wooden monument from Madagascar – Acceptance of Difference

Carved Wooden Monument from Madagascar – Acceptance of Difference

Difference in Counselling and Psychotherapy

One of the big themes we see in Counselling and Psychotherapy with both couples and individuals is a difficulty in accepting and dealing with difference, and the conflicts associated with this.

This post is a short meditation on difference.

Sometimes Masked in Counselling

Here are some examples from Counselling that could be signs of underlying difficulties in accepting difference:

  • Someone describes their situation as “I’m feeling disconnected”
  • A couple reports “We have communication issues”
  • A couple wonders “Are we the right match for each other?”.

Usually difference itself is not the problem.

Difference is what creates attraction, but it also creates tension. It can be what makes us complementary or the thing that tears us apart.

Usually difference itself is not the problem. The problem is that we struggle with how to handle difference. We become uncomfortable with it.

Generally, to deal with our discomfort around difference, we try to:

  • Make ourselves like the other, or
  • Make the other more like us, or
  • Get rid of or emotionally annihilate the other.

When we change ourselves we lose our authenticity and sense of meaning.

When we try to change another to be like us we are not seeing the other wholly. We may feel threatened by their different way of thinking or being.

Not only do we see these attempted solutions playing out in personal relationships, but we see it in business and even global political situations. And countries are very ready to go to war over political/religious difference.

The Image

The image we’ve chosen above is of a carved wooden monument set in a place of honour near the house of a clan elder in Madagascar. The idea is that it becomes a focal point for acceptance of changes – important events in village life where acceptance is required of changes such as puberty. (The monument is in the Met Museum, Fifth Avenue, NYC.)

As the description says:

Set side by side, these figures engage the viewer with their intense expressions and deeply recessed eyes. Their subtle stylization simultaneously unifies them and amplifies what makes them different, producing an eloquent statement on the fundamental complementarity of man and woman. As the centerpiece of circumcision rights performed to promote the virility of each generation, the couple emphasizes the importance of the male-female partnership in assuring the community’s future. The figures’ nudity, striking in a region where textiles are a fundamental element of identity, serves to further underscore these timeless and universal themes of fertility and regeneration.

The quote suggests complimentarity is an important aspect of the life of the community. (The italics on “different” above are ours.)

The View of Chuang Tzu

Moving to a Taoist viewpoint (and continuing our recent theme on the Tao), here’s Chuang Tzu on difference:

Fish can live in water quite contentedly, but if people try it, they die, for different beings need different contexts which are right and proper for them. This is why the ancient sages never expected just one response from the rest of the creatures nor tried to make them conform. Titles should not be over-stretched in trying to capture reality and ideas should be only applied when appropriate…
(Chapter 18, Perfect Happiness, in The Book of Chuang Tzu.)

Chuang Tzu was interested in the issue of difference in 300 BC, and even then referred to “the ancient sages”. We are dealing with a very old concern!


The paradox is that connection can only be felt with a space for distance. There needs to be an ability to come together and to pull apart (without breaking), to feel the full range that is a healthy interaction.

Imagine there are two wholes – nothing missing: these can meet and connect and not have to merge. There can be an experience of sharing without losing anything. To know another in this way, as different from you and whole in themselves, is a powerful experience.

To know another as different from you and whole in themselves is a powerful experience.

It is enriching to learn and grow through difference. It means interactions stay fresh and exciting because the other is not like you. There is a possibility for some new insight or experience.

When there is a merging there is a loss of identity, loss of needs, and often loss of passion. Many of us like the idea of merging and feeling completed by another but the reality is that we lose sight of the other and lose our own boundaries and sense of self if we do this for too long. There can be no real connection without the ability to see another as whole and from a distance.


Disconnection happens when we move too far away. Here are examples of when this may happen:

  • We’ve been merged for too long and need space (which is natural) but have gone into reaction
  • We have trust issues
  • We’ve never learned to connect
  • We fight instead of staying to learn about the other.


In any experience or emotion it is though contrast that we know it exists. As Gestalt Psychotherapy says, experience is at the boundary between self and other.

For example, if you put your hand in a bowl of water that is exactly blood temperature then you do not know it is in water. There is no difference between hand and world (water).

And human connection is felt through our experience of the opposite. We understand joy because we have experienced sadness or sorrow.

If we can allow ourselves to understand another wholly, not diminishing their difference, and not trying to change them, we can feel connected, whole and invigorated by our relationships.

The Madagascar Couple is at the The Met Museum. The quote from Chuang Tzu is from The Book of Chuang Tzu, tr. Martin Palmer, Penguin Books.