Learning the Art of Radical Acceptance

Radical acceptance is about saying yes to life, just as it is, with all of its pain, beauty, and reality.

Radical acceptance is an important skill from Dialectical Behavioral Therapy (DBT) developed by Dr. Marsha Linehan. It is the process of accepting life as it comes.

We’ve all struggled with events that we don’t want to experience, which is when radical acceptance may be one of the most powerful skills that you can implement.

These unwanted experiences range in intensity of emotional pain, from events such as losing a job, the death of a loved one, divorce to working with colleagues we don’t like and experiencing a frustrating traffic jam.

In these types of situations, we often respond with a rejection of the reality that these events are actually occurring. We don’t want to suffer, so our initial response is often to deny the suffering and we get stuck in a trance of nonacceptance.

Acceptance is incredibly difficult. It is hard because it also requires us to notice the existence of pain, disappointment, sadness, loss, anger, the “negative” emotions. We refuse to accept reality through messages that we strongly believe, such as “This isn’t really happening”, “This can’t be true”, or “This isn’t fair.”

“Radical acceptance is about saying yes to life, just as it is, with all of its pain, beauty, and reality.”

To illustrate, a friend recently lost his job after years of being employed with the same company. Because he was a hard worker with positive performance reviews, his initial reactions were “this isn’t fair, I can’t believe this is happening.” 

Naturally, he was angry and afraid for his professional future and did not want to be unemployed. We deeply believe “if, then” results. 

For example, if we work hard enough, then we shouldn’t lose our jobs. If we pray hard enough, then bad things shouldn’t happen. Yet difficult events are a part of each person’s life.

When we fight for control of situations in which we cannot facilitate change, we suffer. A simple formula to explain this concept is that:

Pain + Non-Acceptance = Suffering

Radical acceptance is an important skill from Dialectical Behavioral Therapy (DBT) developed by Dr. Marsha Linehan. It is rooted in Buddhist beliefs and an important step in your process of healing and moving forward. 

Radical Acceptance Definition

It is the process of accepting life as it comes, on life’s terms. It is about resisting the urge to change or control the moment. Radical acceptance is about saying yes to life, just as it is, with all of its pain, beauty, and reality.

You don’t have to like what is happening. In fact, you can absolutely hate what is occurring while employing this skill of gently responding to difficult emotions with mindfulness.

Radical Acceptance IS NOT…

It is not resignation. A misconception is that if we simply accept ourselves in our current state, then we will lose motivation to change. 

However, radical acceptance is quite the paradox in that when we do accept ourselves in the moment, we can take the first steps for change.

It is not an excuse to withdraw, nor is it defining ourselves by our limitations. Based on past experiences or perceived flaws, we do not engage in things we want, like that dream job or engaging in intimate relationships.

A response with kindness without giving into our fears helps us move throughout life in a courageous and free manner.

Self-indulgence and radical acceptance are not related. If we have an urge to engage in an unhelpful behavior or submit to a craving, this is not a way to indulge that desire. 

If someone who successfully quit smoking cigarettes has the urge to smoke, radical acceptance is not giving into the urge. It is observing that the urge is there, simply noticing and accepting that the urge is present without judgment.

How to Practice Radical Acceptance:

  • Acceptance of things as they are. Do not fight the reality of what is occurring. This requires mindfulness of emotions, thoughts, and behaviors without judgment. We are acknowledging the present moment with unconditional expectations.

  • Identify what you can and cannot control in your life. Check the facts of the moment. Put energy into things that you can control, such as effecting change, engaging in self-care, using social supports. Let go of the effort of controlling things that are unattainable. 

  • Lean into fear. This does not mean allowing our fear to consume us, but rather to notice the sensations associated with fear. To ask ourselves questions with open curiosity, such as: “what is happening right now”; “what is asking for attention?”; or “what is asking for acceptance?” With open curiosity of the fear, we notice sensations of fear: trembling, shaking, pressing, tightness, jitteriness.

  • Hold ourselves with compassion. Have you noticed that when someone truly sees our pain and slows down to hug us or ask how we are in a genuine and intimate way, that is when the emotion flows? Yet we seldom respond to ourselves in this way. The Buddhist monk, Thich Nhat Hanh offers a kind response to oneself “I care about your suffering”.

If you have a problem that is you can solvable, then approach it head on! However, if you cannot solve the problem, then radical acceptance is a powerful skill that you can employ.

This skill in Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT) encourages you to actively choose to turn your mind and commit to the path of acceptance. You can start by noticing your breath, without a need to change it; just breath with mindfulness. 

Observe your thoughts and let them pass without attachment. Give yourself the opportunity to say “yes” to any of your experiences, especially when they are painful. 

Provide yourself with the words: “I am here for me” or “May I love and accept myself just as I am.” Life presents us with many opportunities to practice this skill, so continue practicing often and with loving kindness.

For further reading on the topic, I highly recommend Tara Brach’s book “Radical Acceptance: Embracing Your Life with the Heart of a Buddha.”.

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