What It Is and Why You Should Learn How To Practice It
Radical acceptance is one of the 4 foundations of DBT (Dialectical Behavioral Therapy) but the concept predates creator Dr. Marsha Linehan’s inclusion of it in the therapy. Radical acceptance is exactly what it sounds like. Radical means total, complete, absolute. Acceptance is taking a person or situation as it is. So “radical acceptance” essentially means taking a situation or person exactly as it is, completely and totally. It sounds simple but the practice itself is completely foreign to most of us. Karyn Hall, PhD describes: “It’s difficult to accept what you don’t want to be true. And it’s more difficult to not accept. Not accepting pain brings suffering.”
What Is Radical Acceptance?
Radical acceptance in practice means accepting ourselves, the people around us, the world around us, and the situations we are in exactly as they are. The reasoning behind radical acceptance is that when we attempt to change reality it leads to suffering. Because there is very little we can actually change, accepting things totally allows us to stop suffering.
If we insist on refusing to accept reality, we will be in emotional pain. Because DBT is about learning to control our emotions and emotionally fueled actions and reactions, radical acceptance is an essential part.
“We are uncomfortable because everything in our life keeps changing — our inner moods, our bodies, our work, the people we love, the world we live in. We can’t hold on to anything because all things come and go. Lacking any permanent satisfaction, we continuously need another injection of fuel, stimulation, reassurance from loved ones, medicine, exercise, and meditation. We are continually driven to become something more, to experience something else.”
-Tara Brach, Radical Acceptance
Examples of Things We Cannot Change
You have probably heard the Serenity prayer before. It is most often used in addiction recovery and goes:
“God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.”
In therapy, I have many clients who want to change other people. They do not like the things that their family, friends, boss, or other people in their lives do and say. They desperately want to make those people act in a way that they want them to. Some people go so far as to manipulate, attempt to bully, or withhold their affection until the person they want to control acts in the way they think they should. Because we cannot control other people, no matter how hard we try, these people are suffering. They think that their suffering is caused by the other person. If he did what I wanted I wouldn’t be hurt, right? But in truth they are causing their own suffering and this is actually a positive thing! If our thoughts and actions are causing us pain that is the one thing we actually can change. In my practice and experience, nearly everything people want to change relates to other people somehow.
We also want to control (and sometimes change) the world around us. Many of the things we want to change in the world we can attempt to change. There are countless examples throughout history of people working for social and political change. However if we want to attempt social and political change we first need radical acceptance. We can’t just say for example: “It isn’t fair that everyone in society isn’t equal. It should not be that way. Homelessness should not exist. I hate that it is like this.” We must first accept that inequality is a reality before we can change it. There is however, no guarantee that the changes we wish to happen will happen; many factors are out of our control and all we can do is attempt to affect change.
Radical Acceptance in Simpler Terms
If this is hard to grasp, let me give you an example. If you are in the United States and are over 18 you can vote for the president. No matter who is elected, some people will be unhappy with the choice. Say you vote and your preferred candidate doesn’t win – you will likely be unhappy. For four years, you can choose to be miserable and say that it is wrong, or you can accept that the person you did not support is now the president. Being miserable doesn’t change who is president. Accepting it doesn’t change anything accept how much pain you are in. You will of course think “this sucks but what can I do?” Radical acceptance doesn’t mean you like the reality or you’re happy about the situation it just means you accept that is the way that it is right now. Now 3 years later you may decide you want to campaign for the candidate of your choice to run against the president you don’t like. You may make calls, knock on doors, get people to donate to the campaign, and write opinion pieces for the local news. Then you can volunteer to drive people who can’t get there any other way to the polls. You can work to affect change. Whether or not this succeeds in your chosen candidate being elected, you did what you could and you then have to accept whatever the outcome is.
I hope that example helps the concept to make more sense!
How to Practice Radical Acceptance
- Accept your shortcomings and the shortcomings of others – no one is perfect.
- Ask yourself whether or not YOU can control the situation or make it change.
- Acknowledge that by not accepting the situation, you are causing yourself pain and suffering.
- Do not blame other people or the situation for the pain, accept responsibility for your part in your suffering.
- Commit to doing what you need to do in order to stop the pain and suffering (radically accept.)
- Practice reminding yourself that you are accepting the person/situation every time you are tempted to try to change it or do not want to accept it.
- Decide whether or not you need to make a change in order to be more happy and healthy (or physically safe if it is a dangerous situation.)
Not Everything Can Be Accepted
There are some situations where you cannot accept the behaviors of another person. We can still practice Radical acceptance while protecting ourselves. For example, let’s say you are in an emotionally and physically abusive relationship. Radical acceptance does not say you must stay in the relationship and be abused. You accept that your partner is abusive but you must still do what you need to do to protect yourself. Radical acceptance means saying he or she is abusive, they may never change, actions speak louder than words, and you deserve to be safe.
Maybe you are out for a girl’s night and your friend has had too much to drink but insists on driving. You should not just accept she will be driving drunk and put yourself in harm’s way. You should intervene and attempt to stop her from driving and putting herself and others in danger. If you cannot get her keys or convince her to take an Uber with you, maybe you call one of her family members or even threaten to contact the authorities. If she refuses to give in no matter what, you still have to take an Uber rather than riding with her. You’re accepting that you cannot control her actions but you are not accepting you must put yourself in danger as well.
If you are being sexually harassed at work, radical acceptance does not mean staying at that job and being harassed. Radical acceptance says to accept that it’s happening and that it isn’t right or fair but to find a new job. You may choose to file a complaint or consult an attorney. Radical acceptance is not passivity! We accept the things we cannot change but if we cannot change them we still need to do what must be done to keep ourselves emotionally, physically, and psychologically safe.
All Change Is Difficult
Going into it, know that this is a practice. We must do it over and over, consciously retraining ourselves to accept the things we cannot change. It is not going to be easy and it most likely will not come naturally to you, especially at first, but remember that you are practicing radical acceptance to end your own emotional pain and suffering. It is good to tell the people around you about your new frame of mind as well. Your loved ones can help support you in making positive changes and may even be interested in learning some new skills for themselves.
- PsychCentral What it really means to practice Radical Acceptance by Margarita Tartakovsky, M.S. (Margarita is one of my favorite PsychCentral authors)
- TheMighty Radical Acceptance Distress Tolerance Handout 11 from DBT Skills Training Manual by Marsha Linehan, PhD
- Borderliner Notes on YouTube Marsha Linehan – How She Learned Radical Acceptance (video)
- DBT Self Help Radical Acceptance Part 1: Introduction to Radical Acceptance
“Realize you can be happy this moment for no reason. Otherwise, you eternally depend conditions for happiness. Unconscious of this moment, you remain a victim of circumstances.” – Arthur D. Saftlas (Swami Prem Nirvan)
Stacey Aldridge, LCSW
Stacey is a therapist in private practice and the owner of Inspired Happiness Therapy and Wellness in Ridgeland, MS. If you are in the state of Mississippi and are interested in seeing Stacey for therapy, please visit the Appointments page.
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