It’s normal to wish that others were different than they are—usually we want them to be more like us. And, it is fine to try to influence them in kind, positive ways. Problems surface when we become self-righteous, angry, fault-finding, nagging, or otherwise try to pressure them to change rather than accepting other people’s differences.
This topic is especially relevant for those of us who have been controlling of others, and therefore abusive in a relationship. As we dig into why we’ve reacted to certain situations so strongly, we often discover it was because we struggled with someone who is different. These interactions don’t have to cause us stress, and in fact, can be one of life’s great experiences.
Benefits of accepting other people’s differences
Diversity is a good thing as it makes the world a much more fascinating place. Mixing with those that are different from us means we get a sense of connection with them. We learn more about the world and ourselves in the process, which helps us grow intellectually and spiritually.
I had an Uber driver in Miami last year who was an immigrant from Venezuela. I learned about his native country, its political turmoil, and the challenges its economy faces during my ride. In fact, I learned more about Venezuela in that 30-minute trip than I ever did in school.
Respecting both similarities and differences in others opens doors to many opportunities.
Respecting both similarities and differences in others opens doors to many opportunities. You’ll learn new things and make better decisions, which in turn will help your career and improve your self-confidence. Others notice our openness, which can lead to new friendships,exciting travel opportunities, or simply makes us more interesting because of our broader worldview.
In intimate relationships, differences are often a source of conflict, but they can just as easily be a blessing. Each partner’s unique perspective helps eliminate blind spots for the other one; their distinct skills can compliment weakness of the other. I lean on my wife for advice when I need to be diplomatic; she counts on me to navigate when we travel together.
What gets in our way of accepting other people’s differences?
We are all raised differently with unique experiences, so it’s natural that we’ll have differences in opinions on a wide range of issues. Growing up in a place where people are very similar or being taught to be careful of people who are different can make us prejudiced. On the other hand, growing up in a diverse locality with parents who encouraged us to mingle with everyone usually has the opposite effect.
I grew up in a rural area of the Midwest where there was not much diversity of race, religion, ethnic groups, or even ideas. When I attended college and later moved to a bigger, more diverse city, I was exposed to a broader range of people and ideas. Our past does not have to limit us—I’ve experienced the benefit of new ideas and diverse people despite my sheltered beginnings.
To feel comfortable with people who are different from us means that we must accept ourselves for who we are. Unfortunately, we often put up guards to protect ourselves instead of being open to those differences. Our mistrust of others is really fear, and then acting from that wariness only fuels suspicion back.
Our mistrust of others is really fear.
Sometimes what’s behind this fear is an uncertainty about how to interact with them. None of us like to look stupid or feel incompetent. To avoid this discomfort, we subconsciously create a negative story about the other person so we can mentally justify dodging them or seeking conformity.
A deeper source of fear comes from the false belief that other’s viewpoints somehow might make our own opinions worthless. This is simply not true. Those who are different from us have their own experiences and beliefs, but that does not compromise our own identity and positions.
When I met my wife, I worried she would not like me because of the ways that we are different. What I found, however, is I could authentically be who I am and share what I thought and she still likes me! Of course, I have to take the same attitude of accepting her as she is for our relationship to work.
Acceptance does not mean agreement
Let’s clear something up: accepting other people’s differences does not mean agreement. It means you do your thing and I’ll do mine. Or you think about it your way, and I’m going to continue to think about it my way, without feeling any need to change your mind.
My friend Tom is really into fishing, which seems to me like a total waste of time. Still, he loyally encourages me in my work, which I really appreciate. My neighbor won’t set foot inside a church, which is so different than me because I really value my faith. She did, however, invite me over for some amazing Brazilian food last summer. My daughter does not vote like I do, which makes for some lively discussions, but I still love and respect her immensely.
Acceptance does not mean we accept bad behavior from others.
Acceptance also does not mean we accept bad behavior from others. We have to choose who we allow into our life, and it’s appropriate to set boundaries for those who cause us harm. If they are not hurting us, however, suspending our judgments about them gives us peace of mind and access to the benefits of our differences.
How to become more tolerant of others
If accepting other people’s differences is an area of growth you’ve identified, here are some ways to help you accomplish that goal. First, being aware of your fears will help you see how you may be projecting your insecurities and judgments onto others. Challenge these fears to clear your mind and heart so you can understand and appreciate any differences you have with them.
Take time to get to know the other person by really listening to them rather than relying on a quick judgment. Assume the role of an explorer and be fascinated by their unique personal traits, background, culture, schooling, and life experiences. See the differences in others as an expression of their exoticness and beauty.
Consider how much you like it when you feel accepted. Acceptance is a gift that gives back. Imagine how it might improve your relationship with someone if that person felt you accepted him or her fully. Decide to treat them with the same degree of respect that you would like to be treated—it’s just good karma.
Accepting other people’s differences may require a journey into our own psyche, but it is a journey worth taking.
Everybody is entitled to a viewpoint. Our lives improve when we respect that right, even if we don’t agree with it. Accepting other people’s differences may require a journey into our own psyche, but it is a journey worth taking.