“The curious paradox is that when I accept myself just as I am, then I can change.” –Carl Rogers
In Dialectical Behavioral Therapy (DBT), the word “dialectic” refers to a synthesis or integration of opposites. In simpler terms, it means that two opposing things can be true at the same time (e.g., the sun and the moon, the seasons, feeling alone at the same time you are surrounded by people). In DBT, this balance is between change and acceptance.
Having originated long before Western psychology discovered it, acceptance has long been a cornerstone of many Eastern religions. Buddhism in particular teaches us that when we accept things as they are—including the pain in life—instead of wishing they were different, we experience much less suffering. In DBT, we call this Radical Acceptance—a practice first developed by Marsha Linehan of the University of Washington.
What Is Radical Acceptance?
It is difficult to accept many things that happen in life—losing loved ones, the way our family members, coworkers or even stranger treat us, illness, car accidents and other tragedies, etc. The mind does not want to allow painful thoughts into consciousness, so it avoids these thoughts—ultimately leading to denial. Unfortunately, until the pain is appropriately dealt with, it will turn into suffering.
Pain can be almost impossible to bear, but suffering is even more difficult. When you refuse to accept pain, you will suffer. A common formula that is often discussed in relation to the concept of Radical Acceptance is the idea that, “pain + non-acceptance= suffering” (suffering occurs when pain is denied, avoided or renounced). In her DBT skills manual, Marsha Linehan outlines the following:
“Freedom from suffering requires acceptance from deep within of what is. Let yourself go completely with what is. Let go of fighting reality. Acceptance is the only way out of hell.”
When we experience pain, if we allow ourselves to fully feel it and accept the reality of it, we can move on to embrace our new reality. If we refuse to accept what is, we become stuck in a persistent state of suffering. Pain and non-acceptance combine to create this suffering. Until we can break through to reality, the suffering will continue.
Radical Acceptance Is
- Complete and total acceptance of things, just as they are.
- Knowing where your control lies and where it doesn’t (think of the Serenity Prayer).
- Tolerating the moment, even when it is painful or uncomfortable.
- Looking at “just the facts” of the situation.
- Being non-judgmental.
- Shifting your focus away from what “should be” and towards how they are.
- Not fighting reality or trying to change it into something that it’s not.
- Mindfulness of our emotions and allowing ourselves to lean into the discomfort of painful emotions.
What Radical Acceptance Is Not
- Judging an event or situation as “good” or “bad”.
- Throwing our hands up in the air or waiving a white flag.
- Approving or condoning behaviors.
- Giving up your needs.
- Embracing a person who hurt you as if nothing happened.
- Ignoring or denying a situation.
- Never asserting your thoughts/feelings.
- Acceptance does not equal agreement.
An Example of Radical Acceptance
The other day I was driving on the expressway and ended up stuck in heavy traffic. I was already running behind for an important meeting—and with the traffic jam I was facing, there was no way I was going to make it on time. As I sat there, unable to move, I began to feel anxious and frustrated. Why did this have to happen to me today? It shouldn’t be this way! How unfair!
I realized quickly that these thoughts were not effective. They would do nothing to improve the situation or my mindset. I then shifted to radically accepting that there was traffic and I was going to be late. Was I happy about being late? Did I not care about it? Nope! I simply accepted that there was traffic, I was going to be late and that life would move forward with this as my reality.
Applying Radical Acceptance
What are you currently resisting? How can you actively apply Radical Acceptance toward the difficulties you are experiencing? Acceptance of your personal experience has the power to radically change the way you approach almost every aspect of your life and ultimately allow you to engage the world in a more positive, peaceful and productive way.
If you are struggling with this skill, a mental health professional can offer support and guidance. I wish you the best in your pursuit.