By Kelsey Harper, PsyD, Clinical Psychologist and Program Director at Promises Malibu Anyone who has ever been caught in an undertow learns that there’s no sense in swimming against it because it only pulls us in deeper. However, going with the natural flow of the ocean will usually bring us back to shore safely on a wave. Life is like that, too. Many things are out of our control. One of the most important aspects of dialectical behavior therapy (DBT) ― one of the therapies I use at Promises and practice in my own life — is consciously deciding to accept reality rather than push against it. With so many things in our lives and world that upset us, how is this possible? Through the practice of radical acceptance, or owning and accepting what is and living our life despite the fact things do not always go in the direction we want. What makes acceptance “radical”? Regular acceptance is about the day-to-day things we must accept, like Starbucks getting our order wrong or being stuck in traffic. These are frustrating moments but they pass. Radical acceptance, on the other hand, is about extraordinary acceptance. It’s a leap with our whole self ― mind, body, heart and soul ― regardless of what we may or may not know about the other side. It’s a process that can develop and change over time and be used for major experiences that shift our lives, such as traumas, losses, relationship limits and character traits in others that we cannot change. In DBT, and all of life, we do our best and try as much as possible to pull our lives and circumstances in our chosen direction. But it doesn’t always work out. Since there is no way to avoid pain and disappointment, we must look for ways to embrace it. Here are some of the ways radical acceptance can help.
- Creates a new We may not be able to do it 100% of the time but we can strive to keep exercising our acceptance muscles. Practice can make acceptance a default response, creating a new mindset that helps us embrace the things we cannot change. A mantra that may help: I may not be happy about this result, but I accept it.
- Helps us know when to let go. It’s human nature to struggle against circumstances, but there is a time to let it go. Fighting against the tides can have more of a negative effect than the problem itself. We’ve all had experiences where we’ve tried everything possible to change the outcome, yet it didn’t change anything. We can do our best and be purposeful in our actions, but life is easier when we admit that outcomes rely heavily on many factors outside of ourselves. We tend to try to comfort ourselves with the myth that we have control over most things, but we really don’t.
- Teaches us how to adapt. Many people have histories of trauma, invalidation or relationships going awry. Radical acceptance can help us accept and move on from our history. We have to acknowledge that people have let us down and hurt us, and how we feel about it. But we also have to move on from self-talk like That shouldn’t have happened, because it keeps us stuck.
- Allows us to grieve. Accepting loss and disappointment doesn’t mean we escape pain. In fact, it can open the door to necessary mourning because when we resist reality we prolong grief. Sometimes we simply need to grieve the fantasy of what we thought life should be: I couldn’t stop my father from drinking or change my mother’s codependence and will never be able to reverse their divorce. Accepting reality gives us space to grieve and work through our feelings effectively.
- Cuts down on drama. As part of our arsenal of crisis management skills, radical acceptance allows us to throw up our hands — instead of put up our emotional fists or become aggressive — in moments when we are triggered by words, actions or experiences. If someone says something hurtful, a usual response may be to cry or address the remarks with a negative response. But when practicing acceptance, we sooth ourselves with: I hate this. I don’t like it. It makes me so upset. And … I’m accepting that this did happen. It doesn’t mean we are not mad, but we can move past an incident with less emotional turmoil or acting out.
- Improves family dynamics. Through the practice of radical acceptance, we can finally accept family members for who they are and how they’ve acted. Most of us did not get the perfect parents we felt we deserved. We carry their dysfunction into every part of life. As part of natural development we must come to terms with what happened in childhood and in our families rather than hang on to what should’ve happened. When we accept even the most difficult facts about family, we come closer to accepting ourselves and the traumatic life experiences that have helped define us.
- Creates a new reality. We have to accept something as it is before we can change it. Accepting a situation frees emotional energy and helps us see the things we can change, such as how we feel about it, think about it and respond to it. Ultimately, we may find a solution and change the situation. For example, when we radically accept unhappiness at work, and the fact that the boss is not going to change things, we can choose to move on, readjust expectations, or look for ways in which we can make our own improvements. Radical acceptance leads to new choices in all areas of life.
There’s a great quote from psychiatrist Victor Frankl that to my mind sums up radical acceptance: Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms—to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way. When we are no longer able to change a situation, we are challenged to change ourselves. Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.