Have you ever wondered what it really means to accept something? Does such an attitude mean that we give up on the possibility of change for ourselves, other people, or our lives? Is this just an excuse to be a doormat?
Absolutely not. Acceptance, and in particular the term Radical Acceptance, one of the principles of Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT), is anything but passive. Radical acceptance is a conscious choice, and one that can actually put us in the best position to make necessary changes. As psychotherapist Carl Rogers said, “The curious paradox is when I accept myself just as I am, then I can change”.
DBT is a form of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy originally developed by psychologist Marsha Linehan to help people with Borderline Personality Disorder, who have intense emotional reactions and act out in impulsive and harmful ways. DBT has also been shown to be effective in the treatment of depression, binge eating, and ADHD. In addition, since many people without diagnosable conditions have strong feelings, principles of DBT such as radical acceptance can help all of us
Radical acceptance involves accepting oneself, other people, and life on life’s terms, with one’s mind, soul, and body – completely. No ifs, ands, or buts. No conditions. Without judgment. No holding your breath until you, another person, or this situation is “fixed”. Absolutely, totally, entirely accepting (and in fact embracing) reality. Radical acceptance can not only reduce your suffering but also help you to live a happier and more fulfilling life.
How does this work?
Let’s consider the opposite of acceptance, which is resistance. When we’re in resistance, our self-talk can look something like this:
“I can’t believe this is happening!”
“This isn’t fair.”
“It isn’t right.
“This can’t be true.”
“This shouldn’t be.”
When we take the pain which we feel when something doesn’t work out our way, and we add resistance, the result is suffering. With radical acceptance, we cannot change the situation that caused the pain, but we can minimize (or even avoid) the suffering.
With radical acceptance, we say “yes, and…” to life, rather than “no”. This approach significantly expands our options.
- Another word for acceptance is acknowledgement. With acceptance, you’re not condoning or agreeing with the situation, but you’re recognizing that it exists. You don’t put up with abusive or manipulative behavior, though. This is an example of the dialectic of acceptance and change – once you recognize what’s going on, rather than staying in denial, you’re more able to take action to change the situation. In the case of abuse, you might leave the relationship, for instance. Instead of spending time and energy telling yourself that this can’t be the case or shouldn’t be the case, you accept that this is in fact the case, whether or not you like it, and then move forward. Acceptance frees you up by allowing you to see more options.
- Acceptance also means that we let go of judgment and instead practice perceiving things as they actually are. Negative judgment of ourselves and others is a huge drain and keeps us from being mindful and in the present. Just imagine what a relief it would be, to no longer be spewing verbal or mental venom towards ourselves, other people, or a situation. Judgment generally leads to more emotional upset. All that energy can be better directed elsewhere, such as towards what is within our power to control – and, guess what? The past doesn’t fall into this category, nor does other people’s behavior or attitudes.
- Become aware of when you’re negatively judging or criticizing something. Keep a record (on a notepad or your phone) of your judgmental thoughts. It’s best to record your judgment as soon as possible after it occurs, so it’s fresh in your mind. Note where you were and when the judgment occurred, as you may begin to notice some patterns. For instance, you may notice that you’re judgmental more often at work than at home, or vice versa. The remedy is to use what’s called “beginner’s mind”, meaning that you look at things as if for the first time, and as an observer rather than a judge.
- Notice when you’re resisting reality. This can show up as chronic resentment, irritability, condemnation, using the word “should” a lot, trying to control other people’s behavior, or thinking that you’d be happy only if “X” would happen.
- Consider being willing to practice acceptance. Crossing over from resistance to acceptance generally doesn’t happen in one fell swoop. Willingness means doing what it takes to be effective in any given situation (not more, not less), and doing this without hesitation. Willfulness can look like (throwing up one’s hands in despair, refusing to do what’s effective, refusing to make needed changes, sulking, acting impulsively, trying to fix what isn’t within your control, refusing to accept reality, or a focus on only your needs (rather than considering other people and other factors).
- Relax your body. This will facilitate an attitude of acceptance, whereas tensing your muscles is often associated with resistance. Practice “willing hands”, placing your open hands palms-up in your lap. You can also try a gentle half-smile. Studies have shown that the simple act of smiling can lighten our mood and decrease our anxiety.
- Act as if. Pretend that you’re accepting reality. A change in our actions can often precede a change in our attitudes. In other words, practice what’s known in DBT as “opposite action”. Write down the ways in which you would act if you were no longer resisting the facts. Then practice these behaviors.
- Consider all of the decisions and events that have taken place up until now. Given this chain of events, it’s inevitable that the situation is as it is. Some of these events were influenced by you, and others weren’t. In other words, you were not in charge, but you had a part to play. There’s no use in assigning blame, anyhow. The question is, what now?
- Know what you can and cannot control. One reason we war against reality is the common human wish to be in control. To accept our situation is to acknowledge that we’re not always in control. And this can be painful. You may have to accept that the object of your affection will never return your sentiments. Or that you’ll never achieve a dream of yours. However, it’s a truth that we try to ignore at our own peril.
- Examine your expectations. Were (or are) they realistic? Or did they set you up for disappointment or lead you to be in unreasonable fear?
- Practice watching your breath. This will help to ground you to the present moment, as well as train you to detach from the thoughts that will inevitably crop up. The goal is not to beat thoughts away with a proverbial stick, but to simply notice them, as you might notice a car driving by, and then let them go (as opposed to grabbing on to the car door and being dragged down the street). Radical acceptance means choosing to focus your attention on making decisions that will improve your well-being, rather than throwing blame around. The more adept you become in being able to focus your thoughts without being distracted (something meditation can teach you), the better you’ll be able to practice radical acceptance.
- If you are tempted to engage in a destructive behavior, accept that you feel a certain way, but don’t give in to the urge. Sure, succumbing to the wish to eat a hot fudge sundae, drink a bottle of wine, or tell off your boss might give you some temporary satisfaction, but in the longer run doing so is likely to lead to even bigger problems.
- Keep in mind that acceptance is usually a choice we make again and again over time. This is not a one-and-for-all decision. Acceptance is a conscious stance we take numerous times during the day, as we are confronted with a variety of circumstances and options. It’s probable that on occasion you’ll find yourself back in resistance – and that’s okay. Just notice what’s happening, and see if you can consciously choose (or consider choosing) acceptance in this moment. It’s a great way to practice mindfulness.
- Live in the present moment. We expend so much needless energy when we agonize about the past, worry about the future, or retreat into fantasy land.
- Note that appropriate action has to do with our own attitudes and actions, not those of other people. For instance, if a coworker consistently loads part of their work on us, we can refuse to take on more than our share of the workload. What our coworker chooses to do about this is up to them. They may leave the work undone, they may try to foist it upon someone else, or they may actually do the work themselves. All we can control is the degree to which we set and maintain boundaries and our attitude. We can choose not to glare at our coworker or think nasty thoughts about him or her. We can do our own work diligently and act in a kind and respectful way.
- Keep some coping statements handy where you’ll be able to see them during difficult moments:
It is what it is.
I can’t change what’s happened.
I can accept things the way they are.
I can get through this.
This feels painful, but I will survive this and the feeling will pass.
Fighting with the past is futile.
This is difficult, but it’s temporary.
I can feel anxious and still deal with this situation effectively.
Resisting reality only blocks me from seeing my options.
I can accept this situation and still be happy.
I can feel bad and still choose to take a new and healthy direction.
I can only control my present responses.
There was a cause (or causes) for this. I do not have to know what the causes are, but I can accept that they exist.
When I stay in the present moment, I can problem-solve.
Rather than blaming and judging myself, I need to take appropriate action.
Stay focused on the moment. What do I need to do right now?
Believe that life is worth living, even with the painful moments. Doing so is the epitome of radical acceptance.