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Radical Acceptance- Can it Help with Recovery?

There is much talk about 'acceptance-based' psychological therapies around today. Therapies such as Acceptance & Commitment Therapy (ACT) & Dialectical Behavioral Therapy (DBT), which have gained traction for the treatment of many mental health conditions, have core components relating to acceptance. Many spiritual philosophies, such as Buddhism, also identify acceptance as a key to relief from emotional suffering. But what do we mean when we talk about 'acceptance', & can it really help with recovery from mental illness?

I like to use the term 'radical acceptance' when I talk to clients about acceptance skills. This is in part because I work from a dialectical behavioral therapy (DBT) framework, & this is the terminology we use within DBT. But also I think the term 'radical acceptance' captures the idea that we are perhaps trying to accept things that may be unacceptable. Radical acceptance suggests more than simply 'accepting' something- it is a radical act of acceptance that goes against our (sometimes natural) instinct to resist.

What does 'radical acceptance' mean?

Acceptance is not so much an event, as it is development of skills to continually commit to accepting what is. We can learn & develop reality acceptance skills to help us accept our lives as they are, in the present moment.

Radical acceptance does not mean approving, agreeing, liking, or enjoying something. It does not mean giving up or passively accepting something. It is a choice to give up the fight against something we can't change. It is a choice towards more individual freedom & less suffering.

Radical acceptance is accepting all the way- mind, body & heart. It means opening ourselves up to the full experience of reality as it is in this moment. Radical acceptance is when we stop fighting reality & stop throwing tantrums because reality is not the way we want it!

When might radical acceptance skills be helpful?

Radical acceptance skills may be useful if we are living a life that is currently not the one we want. They may also be helpful if we cannot keep painful events or emotions from coming our way. If we have tried to change a situation, person or emotion without any success, perhaps we need to change tactics & look at acceptance as an option.

Why accept reality?

Rejecting or denying reality doesn't change it. Sometimes emotional pain cannot be avoided, even though we don't want to feel it. Pain is an experience all humans have, & we have it for a reason- it's designed to help us protect ourselves. If we didn't experience pain we would not be vigilant against things that can hurt us.

But rejecting reality turns pain into suffering. We could phrase it as:

Pain+ Non-Acceptance= Suffering

In other words, we cannot always get rid of the pain in the short-term, but if we refuse to accept we are in pain at this present moment, we actually suffer more. Radical acceptance turns unbearable suffering into bearable pain.

Accepting reality can bring freedom. The drive to stop pain, no matter what the cost, is the opposite to freedom.

We know that experiencing, tolerating & accepting emotional pain is the way to reduce pain. Change often requires a level of acceptance first- we need to get really familiar with what is before we can consider how to change it.

What gets in the way of radical acceptance?

There are several common barriers to radical acceptance. Firstly, lack of skills. Radical acceptance is a skill we need to learn & practice- over & over again- we get better at it with practice.

Sometimes we might think that accepting reality minimizes or approves of it. We need to challenge these ideas, & remind ourselves that we can choose to accept what is without liking it. Choosing to radically accept is something we do to ease our own suffering & promote individual freedom- it's simply doing what works.

Strong emotions can also get in the way of radical acceptance. The way we might deal with this is by giving ourselves time & space to process those emotions so they reduce in intensity before we practice trying to accept. That may mean talking to a friend, family member or health professional about things first, or journalling, drawing, painting, making music, or any other way that helps process emotions. When we first start to practice radical acceptance skills we might want to start with some 'easy' situations first- as we build skill we can then move onto trying to bring acceptance to more difficult & emotional aspects of our lives.

Wilfulness Vs Willingness

In DBT therapy we talk a lot about concept of wilfulness & willingness, & these concepts relate strongly with practicing radical acceptance.

Willingness is accepting what is & responding appropriately. It means doing what works & participating whole-heartedly in life, including our challenges.

Wilfulness is the opposite- it means trying to control events or people around us. Wilfulness is giving up, sitting on our hands when action is needed or refusing to be a part of things. It is imposing our will on reality, focusing on our ego & the 'me, me, me'. It is holding onto grudges & bitterness.

In order to move from wilfulness to willingness we first need to identify the wilfulness- observe it & describe it. We need to them make a choice towards radical acceptance- physically & mentally.

We could notice how our face is scowling & relax it- perhaps even a half-smile could emerge. We could uncross our arms, open our hands, relax our shoulders, or make other physical changes to take on a posture of willingness.

We could remind ourselves that we have nothing to fear by being willing. Often we imagine there could be dire consequences if we let down our guard, but this not a helpful or realistic thought. Challenging catastrophic & unrealistic thoughts & beliefs about what might happen if we stop being willful can help move us towards a more willing attitude.

Balancing acceptance & change

It's not all about acceptance however- change is often necessary also. If we find ourselves, like so many, struggling with anxiety, depression, or other mental health issues, finding a balance between acceptance & change can lead us towards stable, long-term recovery.

We may need to change aspects of our lifestyle. We may need to change how we interact with our thoughts & how we speak to ourselves. We may need to learn new ways of managing strong emotions, particularly distress. We may need to change the way we interact with others & conduct our relationships.

However, we must also be willing to try to accept things & experiences that we cannot change, & become aware of when refusal to accept things as they are is causing us to suffer.

The goal may be to find a 'middle ground' between being change- focused & radically accepting.

So what's the takeaway?

None of us are saints, & having the expectation of ourselves to just magically 'accept' painful experiences in our lives is probably a big ask. However, if we can think of acceptance more in terms of 'radically' accepting what often seems unacceptable, & that accepting is actually a practice that we do repeatedly every day or several times a day, perhaps it seems more attainable.

Most importantly, if we can adopt an attitude of willingness we can take small steps towards radically accepting different experiences, people, & challenges.

The ability to practice letting go of the fight with things we can't change opens us up to much greater freedom in our lives. It also frees up space for other stuff- like love, friendship & joy.

Walking a middle path between acceptance & change, & having the insight to recognize where our efforts are best placed, can equip us with important skills for the quality of life we want.


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