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What is Radical Acceptance?
How often in your life have you encountered a difficult situation? Whether it is huge and devastating like living through a global pandemic, being fired from your job, or losing a loved one, or a smaller nuisance like finding a hole in your favorite pair of pants or a thunderstorm disrupting your beach vacation. We all face difficult situations, and the next painful experience is often just around the corner. How have you generally reacted to such things?
Many of us get stuck in thoughts like “It shouldn’t be this way!” or “Why me? This is so unfair…”. Often, those thoughts can linger as bitter, resentful, and angry feelings. For some people, this leads to a lifetime of feeling dissatisfied, stuck, and ultimately miserable.
Radical acceptance is the intentional and energetic practice of accepting reality in order to be able to truly make meaningful changes in your life. The concept of radical acceptance comes from the framework of Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT), which teaches distress tolerance skills in order to help navigate difficult emotions and uncomfortable situations.
We can all benefit from honing these skills, especially in a time when pain and suffering are all around us. Many of us are only beginning to recover from the emotional toll that 2020 has wreaked – it may be useful to understand the concept of radical acceptance in order to continue to move forward in the face of ongoing challenges.
Radical Acceptance is NOT…
Now, if you are unfamiliar with the concept of radical acceptance, one of the assumptions you may have is that it means tacit acceptance. For example, if there is infidelity in your relationship, radical acceptance does not mean that you are excusing it or absolving the guilty party of responsibility. This can feel paralyzing, have a detrimental impact on self-worth, and lead to feeling hopeless or resentful.
Instead, it’s important to work on fully acknowledging what happened, why it happened, and what it means for your relationship. This will allow you to address it wholly and honestly, which can lead to some actual problem-solving and growth in the relationship and for yourself.
There are huge social inequalities in society and issues like the current pandemic, poverty and homelessness, and systemic racial discrimination are examples of things that we certainly should not be “okay” with. They significantly impact the mental, physical and emotional health of the most marginalized members of our society, and it is healthy and normal to feel angry, anxious, or depressed in response to them.
Where radical acceptance can help, is to keep from feeling suffocated or overwhelmed by these feelings. Acknowledging the stark reality of the injustices in our world, the danger of the coronavirus, or any other bad thing in front of you, can give you a mental leg up to being able to cope with these realities.
Radical acceptance can help to illuminate just what is in your control, what actions you can take to alleviate a situation, and what is entirely out of your control. You get to face the emotions that these difficult situations bring up, rather than resist, fight, and deny them.
Essentially, the practice of radical acceptance is when you work to take the blinders off and strip away your default defense mechanisms. You go through all the reactions and emotions that exist about a particular situation until you reach a point of honesty and acceptance. As a result, this gives you freedom, clarity, and a feeling of overall well-being.
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Radical Acceptance Takes Time
It’s definitely not easy to practice radical acceptance. As human beings, we experience emotions deeply and intensely and they can cause anxiety, depression, and other difficult physical and mental experiences. So, it makes sense that if we feel even a small sting of pain, we want to shut it off quickly, move past it, and be “done” with the difficult experience.
Our culture often encourages us to move quickly past pain, which is highlighted in situations like when employees are discouraged from taking too much time off work for illness. With many folks fighting to stay afloat financially and caring for others physically and emotionally, it’s often difficult to slow down and acknowledge the painful things going on in their own lives.
[For more on sitting with and processing big emotions see: It's Okay to Cry: How to Handle Big Emotions]
Practice Radical Acceptance In Small Doses
This desire to move past pain as quickly as possible is why I encourage people to think about the practice of radical acceptance as building a muscle. Practice in small doses consistently to make it easier to learn and build on this vital skill.
Often, it is helpful to have an outside perspective like a therapist or life coach help you notice the thoughts that are getting in the way of acceptance. The first step is to begin to notice “shoulds” and “shouldn’ts.”
“This shouldn’t be happening!”
“I should be doing more…”
and “She shouldn’t have said that to me!”
Notice that there is an underlying judgment in these thoughts.
All of those thoughts are directly rejecting a reality. Something bad is happening, you aren’t doing the thing you feel you should be doing, and she did say that thing to you.
Whether or not any of those things are okay or need addressing, the first step is to be more direct in your acceptance of them. Radical acceptance is all about moving away from ruminating about how things “should” be and focusing on how they actually are.
The next step in building the skill of radical acceptance is to open up some dialogue in your mind (or with another person!) about the difficult situation you’re facing. Rather than getting consumed in negative thoughts, try using questions like:
What events led up to this moment or event?
What are the physical sensations going on in my body right now?
What are the feelings that I’m experiencing right now?
What are the assumptions or narratives in my thoughts right now? (E.g. “I can’t do this”, “He must think X of me…”)
Where do my thoughts come from?
What emotions or physical sensations are these thoughts trying to avoid?
How would I act if I had already fully accepted this situation?
Radical acceptance is a skill that can be truly invaluable to build resilience, improve mental health, and grow as a person in every aspect.
Radical Acceptance for When Life Feels Out of Control
There’s a lot going on in the world right now, and a lot of it is out of your control. It’s normal and understandable to feel overwhelmed, scared, angry, and anxious. I hope that you can use some of these tips to practice making smaller mindset shifts in your everyday life and that ultimately this can give you a greater sense of control in how to navigate difficult times ahead.
I’d love to hear if you were able to practice Radical Acceptance in small ways. Leave a comment or reach out if you found this concept useful and are finding ways to incorporate it into your life.
Sharmishtha Gupta, Ed.M, M.A., LMHC, is a warm, validating counselor and coach who can help you uncover your strengths, get clear about who you are, heal your spirit, and attain the highest and best in yourself and your relationships.
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