radical acceptance

One of my favorite therapy modalities is dialectical behavior therapy, or DBT. One of my favorite concepts in DBT is radical acceptance. What is radical acceptance? There are a lot of great definitions out there, all of them wonderful.

Here’s one definition: “Radical acceptance is when you stop fighting reality, stop responding with impulsive or destructive behaviors when things aren’t going the way you want them to, and let go of bitterness that may be keeping you trapped in a cycle of suffering.”

And here’s another: “Radical acceptance is based on the notion that suffering comes not directly from pain, but from one’s attachment to the pain.”

Radical acceptance essentially means accepting the things you cannot change. Like the serenity prayer, it’s about making peace with the uncontrollable and detaching, as best you can, from it so that it doesn’t have power over you. It’s so easy to let our problems, hurts, and trauma overwhelm and overtake us. That’s the nature of it, and it’s part of our nature, too. We are driven to find the source or cause of pain so that we can fix it and make it never happen or hurt us again.

The brain responds to stress and trauma in instinctive ways, designed to help us survive and keep going.

The problem is, many times we just can’t fix it. We can’t even distance ourselves from it. The dissonance that comes from knowing something is hurting us and being unable to do anything about it is devastating. Having to drive past a place filled with bad memories on the way to work is an example. Running into someone who mistreated you at the grocery store is another. The painful, intrusive thoughts that make you doubt your worth because of something that happened to you is another way the brain tries to make something awful serve a purpose.

Radical acceptance says:

  • “That happened to me, but it doesn’t control me.”
  • “It doesn’t have power over how I see myself.”
  • “These thoughts are a natural result of what happened, but they don’t define me.”

You might think of radical acceptance as a way to step outside yourself. Once you learn about why you have the reactions and thoughts you do, you can put some distance between yourself and them. Once you know that being stuck in that place where you are continually reacting to pain is unhealthy, you can make different choices. You learn to separate what you can control from what you can’t, and begin to take your thoughts and your actions in a different direction.

You may be wondering, do I need radical acceptance? Maybe you don’t have any significant trauma, so its value to you is less clear. Or maybe it just seems hopeless and pointless, because you’ve worked at healing for so long and it just isn’t paying off. Radical acceptance is an abstract concept, so you may also have trouble imagining how a skill like this pays off.

So, here we have a list of possible reasons to practice radical acceptance. Some are very general, and some only apply to one type of situation. Some reflect on the source of pain, others the consequences (or lack thereof, in both cases). Take which ones apply to you, and start thinking about what your life may look like if you take this idea and run like hell with it.

You can also use these as mantras or affirmations! They’re a great way to practice taking care of yourself.

You need radical acceptance because…

  • You have better things to do with your time than ponder “what ifs.”
  • You have already worried enough.
  • You can find, or have found, meaning in what you went through (another DBT skill).
  • You could be putting all that energy into healing.
  • You are safe.
  • You have more support now than you did then.
  • You have better coping skills than you did then.
  • You are not/were not in any true physical danger.
  • You are a survivor.
  • You’ve already done everything you can.
  • You’ve been through seriously hard shit. Go easy on yourself.
  • You deserve to rest.
  • What happened was not your fault.
  • You’ve suffered enough.
  • You have the strength you need to heal.
  • You’re capable of difficult things.
  • You are loved.
  • New pain won’t erase the old pain.

What do I do next?

It’s all easier said than done, of course. But that’s the nature of psychological healing. There’s no medicine you can take or bandage you can wear until it’s gone. Healing comes through your thoughts, feelings, and actions. You need to use whatever tools are at your disposal to change them. Sometimes, all you need is to repeat healing words to yourself over and over and over, and just like we do with negative messages, eventually you’ll start believing them.

And here’s the great thing about the power of beliefs: you act in accordance with them. What you believe is how you act and what you become. If you believe you’re a badass, you’ll act like one, and your actions then become the new foundation on which you base other thoughts. You establish a whole new cycle of building yourself up instead of tearing yourself down.

I encourage you to choose one or a few of the bulleted statements above and journal about them. What do they mean to you? How might your life look different if you believed them? If you radically accepted your pain, what else could you let go of? Are there bad habits you could finally free yourself of, including how you talk to yourself? What new habits could you create?

If you’re comfortable, let me know what how you answer some of these questions. Best of luck to you on your healing journey.



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