The Healing Power of Radical Acceptance

Help yourself to accept what is.

Key points

  • Acceptance doesn’t mean resignation, that the circumstance goes away, or that we feel better about it.
  • Radical acceptance is letting go of the need to control, judge, and wish things were different than they are.
  • Fighting against negative emotions leads to our suffering.
Marcos Paulo Prado, Unsplash

The idea of accepting what is becomes so disconcerting, especially when there’s deep pain attached to an event or circumstance. Acceptance doesn’t mean resignation, that the circumstance goes away, or that we necessarily feel better about it. The impact and emotions it evokes is present irrespective of whether we accept it or not. The question is whether we’re layering on the pain and further intensifying and exacerbating what already exists.

Marsha Linehan discussed the practice of radical acceptance in her dialectical behavior therapy (DBT) and letting go of what isn’t possible. She stated, “Radical acceptance rests on letting go of the illusion of control and a willingness to notice and accept things as they are right now, without judging.”[i] She breaks it up into three parts: (1) accepting the reality is what it is, (2) accepting that the event or situation causing pain has a cause, and (3) accepting life can be worth living even with painful events.

Tara Brach popularized the notion of radical acceptance regarding mindfulness and Buddhist traditions and practices in her enlightening book Radical Acceptance. She defines radical acceptance as “clearly recognizing what we are feeling in the present moment and regarding that experience with compassion.”[ii] She sees the power of radical acceptance of all our human emotions, which will bring greater peace, connection, and agency into our lives, our relationships, and our communities. Her lessons focus on practicing mindfulness and compassion, befriending ourselves, and offering forgiveness. She highlights “pain + non-acceptance = suffering” and the relationship of the reality of what is and “recognizing” and “allowing.”

Carl Rogers, the founder of the humanistic or client-centered approach to psychology, astutely wrote, “The curious paradox is that when I accept myself just as I am, then I can change.”[iii] Carl Jung, founder of analytical psychology, wrote, “What you resist not only persists, but will grow in size,”[iv] generally abbreviated to “What you resist persists.”

The common underlying precept is the idea that when an emotion gets evoked, fighting against it (i.e., nonacceptance) often leads to suffering. When a reality is painful, it’s natural to try to push it away, fight against it, or numb ourselves through unhealthy coping mechanisms (e.g., drinking, overeating, engaging in unhealthy relationships). These strategies might cause a temporary sense of “relief.” However, they bury the underlying issue and likely cause you to feel even worse in the long term.

What Is Radical Acceptance?

  • Catching your “shoulds,” “ought tos,” and “musts” embedded in thoughts and feelings that counter acceptance, such as “It’s not fair”; “It shouldn’t be this way”; and “I wish it were different.” But, rather, have acceptance of things as they are.
  • Understanding what you can and cannot control in life.
  • Internalizing that thoughts and feelings can’t be controlled no matter how hard we try to change, modify, or adjust them. Even if they can be temporarily contained, they eventually return.
  • Taking a nonjudgmental stance. Notice your judgments because we all have them based on who we fundamentally are (e.g., race, religion, identity, family of origin). Challenge them and decide to act from a place of mindfulness and thoughtfulness.
  • Avoiding labeling and quantifying people, situations, or emotions as “good,” “bad,” “right,” “wrong,” etc.
  • Looking at “just the facts” of the situation (i.e., sifting out the add-ons derived from your thoughts, feelings, and experiences).
  • Acknowledging your situation and the thoughts and feelings attached to them (for better or worse).
  • Letting go, and not fighting against reality (i.e., thus leading to distress).
  • Being willing to be in the present moment, even if painful or uncomfortable.
  • Having openness and space for all your emotions-allowing yourself to lean into the discomfort of painful and uncomfortable ones, remembering no feeling lasts forever. If you sit with them, they’ll eventually rise and fall, and come and go, much like a hill or ocean waves.
  • Developing a keen awareness of your needs and what is important, then actively and consciously moving toward asserting your thoughts and feelings, meeting your needs, and living in accordance with your values and worth.

An Example of Radical Acceptance

Imagine you’re driving to an important holiday dinner with your son, and you’re stuck in bumper-to-bumper traffic. You can choose to get saturated in your anger and frustration: “This can only happen to me!”; “I’m such an idiot; I shouldn’t have left so late”; etc.

This spirals to judging your thoughts, feelings, and reaction to the situation, causing escalated stress and discomfort: “These things always happen to me” or “I knew better. I’m incredibly weak because I can’t speak or stand up for myself.” In a situation like this, you can work to “radically accept” the situation-to realize that, given the circumstances, there is no way to change it. It’s expected you would have frustrated thoughts and feelings because of how much you value independence, asserting your needs, punctuality, and your family’s company.

You could choose to sit with the disappointment and frustration, accepting all that comes along with it. You reframe your situation to include acceptance and self-compassion: “I’m going to be late”; “I’m disappointed at what is”; and “I can’t change it, so I might as well expand my thinking to include how I might make the best use of my time.” You can decide to have a compelling conversation with your son in the car or listen to an inspiring podcast. Radical acceptance in this situation helps you to shift focus from unproductive ruminating to thinking about what a better use of your time and energy might be.

Practicing Acceptance

Radical acceptance skill requires practice. When you accept, you experience all thoughts and feelings. Without judgment, you’re allowing yourself to be frustrated, disappointed, sad, fearful, or whatever other feeling develops. Practicing acceptance every day fortifies self-compassion and prepares you when life’s most difficult experiences occur.

Pain is inevitable. Resisting reality delays healing and adds suffering to your pain. Because life is so precarious, we never know what may come our way, but we can create habits and coping skills predicated on radical acceptance to compassionately heal.

Here’s a Self-Love and Self-Compassion Guided Meditation led by me. Please subscribe to my YouTube channel for more interviews and guided meditations.

Originally published at https://www.psychologytoday.com.

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Michelle P. Maidenberg, Ph.D., MPH, LCSW-R works with children age 8 and above, adolescents, teens, and adults. Michelle is the Co-Founder of “Thru My Eyes”

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Dr. Michelle Maidenberg

Dr. Michelle Maidenberg

Michelle P. Maidenberg, Ph.D., MPH, LCSW-R works with children age 8 and above, adolescents, teens, and adults. Michelle is the Co-Founder of “Thru My Eyes”

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