What is Radical Acceptance?
According to DBT, radical acceptance occurs when we stop fighting (or “tantruming” about) reality. Even in pain and in difficult times, we can come to a place of complete and total acceptance of what is happening – accepting in our minds, bodies, hearts, and souls – by practicing radical acceptance. While radical acceptance does not mean we like or approve of what is happening, it does mean that we acknowledge and accept it.
All of us have are tasked with accepting certain realities: painful events (past and present), as well as the idea that there are realistic limitations to our lives. For instance, despite our fantasies, most of us have to accept that we’ll never star on Broadway, be drafted onto a professional sports team, or win the lottery and live to travel the world.
We also have to accept that everything has a cause. Even the most painful of events is a result of a cause or a series of causes. Causes can be physical, psychological, or spiritual. We might not know the cause of a particular event, but we are challenged to accept that there is a cause.
And yet, despite all the pain we experience in life, most of us realize that life can still be worth living, pain and all. Practicing radical acceptance can help us realize this truth.
Why Accept Reality?
There are number of reasons for practicing radical acceptance. First, refusing to accept reality doesn’t change it. In fact, in order to change something, we must first accept that it is happening. Denial doesn’t lead to problem solving.
The reality is that life brings us pain (physical and emotional). We’re biologically programmed to experience both physical and emotional pain to alert us that something is wrong. But, if we reject reality, this pain becomes suffering.
Pain + non-acceptance = suffering
Rejecting pain can get us stuck in a cycle of bitterness, sadness, shame, or other difficult emotions. When we start to accept reality, it’s likely that we’ll experience sadness or grief as we come to terms with painful events and experiences. While it might be challenging to feel this way, the feeling is temporary. On the other side of practicing radical acceptance is typically an experience of calm or peace, a serenity incompatible with rejecting reality.
Practicing Radical Acceptance
Below are the steps for practicing radical acceptance, adapted from the DBT Skills Training Handouts and Worksheets book. To demonstrate these steps, let’s use the current coronavirus pandemic as an example. Here’s what radical acceptance might look like now:
- Observe that you are questioning or fighting reality. I notice that I am wanting this pandemic not to be. I notice I’m fighting against it, thinking, “This shouldn’t be happening.” I don’t want people to be dying, losing their jobs and homes, and for our world to be grieving all of this.”
- Remind yourself that there are causes for the reality. There are a number of coronaviruses. A novel strand seems to have broken out at the end of 2019. It was a significantly more contagious and fatal strand than other viruses we know, and this led to an epidemic in the east that quickly spread around the world. Each case of the virus is a direct result of exposure. There is cause and effect to illness, economic strain, and every consequence in my life.
- Practice radical acceptance with the whole self (mind, body, soul). I accept that this pandemic is happening. I radically accept that my life has been radically altered. I accept that my income is impacted. I accept I can’t go to parks or access nature as I like. I accept that my children are out of school and I am now their teacher. I breathe into this acceptance. I soften my body, relaxing my facial muscles and opening my hands to this reality. I imagine myself continuing to accept how the virus has changed my life as the days go on. I don’t like or approve of what is happening, but I do recognize it, acknowledge it, and accept it.
- Practice opposite action. Aloud I say, “I accept that this is happening.” I write a list of everything I would do if I were accepting all the facts associated with coronavirus. For instance, if I were to accept that quarantining was going to last for the next few months, I’d create a daily routine for myself. I’d take up a new hobby if I had the space and energy. I’d let the kids know that they aren’t going back to school this year. I’d stop searching for news items alerting me to when this will end.
- Cope ahead with events that seem unacceptable. I picture myself coping with this crisis in the future. I mentally practice what I’ll do down the road if restrictions aren’t removed, if I have to cancel important events, travel, if I or my friends/family are infected. While I don’t live in the future or what-ifs, I do prepare mentally for what realistically could be.
- Attend to body sensations as you think about what you need to accept. I notice my breathing as I think about my current situation. I sometimes notice a lump in my throat and tightness in my chest. Sometimes, it’s hard to breathe. I recognize tension in my neck and shoulders. I notice these sensations as I think about the damage this virus is causing to me and to others.
- Allow disappointment, sadness, or grief to arise within. I am sad that so many things that bring me joy have been taken away. I am grieving in-person connections, travel plans, my life as I knew it. I am worried about my health (and others’), my finances, and how things will all pan out. This is so hard right now. I try not to suppress these feelings. If they become unbearable, I access my other DBT skills, particularly those that help with crisis survival.
- Acknowledge that life can be worth living even when there is pain. Despite my grief and fear, I am still able to find comfort in certain things. Life has thrown all of us a curveball, and it’s really tough to handle. At times, it feels unbearable. And I know that everyone struggles in some way; everyone has pain. I say to myself, “Whatever happens, I will handle this.”And I also know that life offers beauty and joy and connection. It’s worth hanging around for these.
- Do pros and cons if you find yourself resisting practicing radical acceptance. I write down a list of pros/cons of accepting what’s happening. Cons of accepting: If I don’t accept what’s happening, I don’t have to think about it. I can avoid and deny and just focus on continuing the parts of my life that I knew before the virus. But I stay stuck and frustrated and resentful of what has changed. Pros of accepting: If I do accept it, I grieve what’s changed and then come to a more peaceful, resigned state. I stop bumping up against the virus count I see on the news, the restrictions on living, the damage to our economy. I settle in. I do what I need to do.