I’m writing an article for Psych Central about practicing radical acceptance, a key component of dialectical behavior therapy (DBT), created by psychologist Marsha Linehan, Ph.D. Radical acceptance is about accepting reality as it is, instead of fighting it or thinking, “why me?” or “this isn’t fair!”
It’s about not adding to our pain by trying to undo what happened or denying that it happened. Because pain is part of our reality. But suffering is optional. When we can’t accept a painful or frustrating situation, we unwittingly create suffering for ourselves.
Here are a few everyday examples of practicing acceptance from this piece:
You need to rush home, but you’re catching every red light. Instead of getting frustrated, you take a deep breath and tell yourself: “It is what it is. I’ll get home when I get there.”
You need to fill up your car, but gas prices have skyrocketed. Again, you breathe deeply, and say to yourself: “There’s nothing I can do about it. I need gas. Getting angry isn’t going to help.”
You have to walk to work because your car is in the shop. It’s not far, but it’s pouring. You take a deep breath and say: “It’s just rain. I’ll bring a towel, and I’ll dry off when I get to work.”
The concept of radical acceptance made me think about the concept of self-acceptance. Because I think we can apply accepting reality to accepting ourselves. For starters, we can acknowledge our qualities without trying to fight them.
I used to do this all the time. I used to fight my natural tendencies (and sometimes still do).
My thoughts would sound something like this: I can’t believe I get so anxious so easily! I’m too short. I’m too sensitive! Why am I so easily startled? By everything? This isn’t fair! Why am I so slow? I should be more adventurous! I should be fearless! I should be more like that person and this person and that other one!
Do you fight yourself, too? Do you fight your natural tendencies? Your temperament? Do you shout about what’s wrong with you and create all sorts of “shoulds”?
What might happen if you loosen your grip, and stop fighting and stop shouting, and accept who you are?
For instance, you might accept that yes, you get anxious easily. Yes, you’re short. Yes, you like to take your time while working, while doing chores, while speaking, while thinking. Yes, you’re highly sensitive.
Then you can reflect on what you’d like to do about it. Because acceptance doesn’t mean inaction; it simply means that you accept that this is how things are. Right now.
For instance, after accepting that you get anxious easily, you explore how your anxiety is serving and not serving you. You seek out books about helpful coping strategies and start practicing these strategies. You delve deeper into your anxiety, exploring where it’s coming from (e.g., maybe you’re partly anxious because you’re letting toxic people into your life; or your self-care is non-existent). And you schedule an appointment with a therapist.
If you’re a highly sensitive person, instead of fighting it, you decide to make changes that respect your natural tendency. You start wearing ear plugs to bed, add calming activities to your week, take more breaks and stop eating out during peak hours.
When it comes to accepting ourselves and who and how we are, it’s also important to make sure we aren’t buying into false stories. That is, being a highly sensitive person is an innate quality. However, believing you’re not smart enough to try X or Y is a false story. False stories might revolve around the things we believe we can’t do, because we’re somehow broken or inadequate or wrong.
Most false stories are basically limiting beliefs. They might’ve evolved from past experiences, from others’ mean remarks, from your inner critic trying to protect you from failure, disappointment or rejection. Either way, wherever these stories come from, we can rewrite them. (You might start here and here.)
Applying radical acceptance to self-acceptance is a framework I’m currently exploring and examining. Because I think it’s important to explore ways that we can be less combative with ourselves and more compassionate.
When you accept something, you feel lighter. You feel like the weights have been removed from your shoulders and ankles. You feel like you can relax, unwind, take a deep breath.
And the reality is that we don’t need to fight ourselves or our natural tendencies. I’ll never be someone who lives for roller-coasters and big crowds, watches scary movies and thrives on jam-packing her schedule. And that’s OK.
Instead of wishing I were a certain way, instead of battling my qualities, instead of feeling shame, I can focus my energy on embracing and honoring them. I can incorporate strategies that respect my highly sensitive self. I can work on reducing any anxiety that disrupts my life. I can give myself more time to finish projects, when possible, since I like to work slowly. I can create days that honor how I like to work and be.
And, if this feels right to you, you can, too. You can work on accepting the way you are. You can work on honoring your tendencies and temperament. You can tweak what doesn’t serve you. You can stop viewing parts of yourself as the enemy, as an adversary to vanquish. And instead practice acceptance. Radical acceptance.