What Is Radical Acceptance?

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Radical acceptance is based on the notion that suffering comes not directly from pain, but from one’s attachment to the pain. It has its roots in Buddhism and the psychological paradigm put forth by Carl Rogers that acceptance is the first step towards change.

What Is Radical Acceptance?

Radical acceptance can be defined as the ability to accept situations that are outside of your control without judging them, which in turn reduces the suffering that is caused by them.

Rather than being attached to a painful past, radical acceptance suggests that non-attachment is the key to overcoming suffering. Non-attachment does not mean not feeling emotions. Rather, it refers to an intention of not allowing pain to turn into suffering. This means watching your thoughts and feelings to identify when you are allowing yourself to feel worse than is necessary.

The lack of judgment that is an important part of radical acceptance does not involve approval of the situation. Instead, it involves accepting reality for what it is and not getting caught up in an emotional reaction to that reality.

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What Radical Acceptance Looks Like

Radical acceptance is not an easy practice at all. In fact, it can require a lifetime of practice in order to truly get a handle on it.

Radical acceptance is most often applied in situations when you are unable to fix or change what has happened or when something has happened that feels unfair, like the loss of a loved one or losing one’s job.

While grief and disappointment are normal emotions, suffering results when the initial pain is prolonged due to a lack of acceptance. 

Radical acceptance does not mean that you agree with what is happening or what has happened to you. Rather, it signals a chance for hope because you are accepting things as they are and not fighting against reality. 

While this can be hard to practice when things are going very badly, letting your emotions run wild will only add to your suffering and the pain you are experiencing. It’s true that you can cause more misery to yourself when you avoid or dwell. 

Some people might think that forgiveness and radical acceptance are the same thing. In fact, they are very different. Forgiveness involves extending an act of kindness to the other person whereas radical acceptance is the extension of an act of kindness to yourself.

Origins of Radical Acceptance

The concept of radical acceptance has its origins in dialectical behavior therapy (DBT), proposed by psychologist Marsha Linehan in 1993. This type of therapy was designed to help those diagnosed with borderline personality disorder who experience intense emotions. However, it is also helpful for other issues such as depression and eating disorders.

During DBT, clients are taught how to practice distress tolerance which enables them to stop turning painful situations into longer-term suffering.

Although pain is an inevitable part of life, radical acceptance involves moving away from emotional reactions and helplessness toward calm and logical thought. While you may not be able to change the facts of a situation, you can choose how you view it.

Rather than signaling approval of a situation, distress tolerance signals acceptance and emotional detachment. It involves a focus on what you can control and a freeing of resources to allow you to practice self-care.

This means letting go of bitterness and releasing unhelpful emotions. Once these emotions are managed it is possible to find solutions and make plans for change (where possible).

In fact, the word dialectical refers to the duality of the emotional mind and logical mind that must be balanced through what is called the wise mind in DBT. This refers to taking thoughtful action after removing the overly emotional part of how you handle a problem in your life. In this way, acceptance does not refer to judging or evaluating, but rather taking reality for what it is so that you can move on with your life.

Signs of Lack of Acceptance

While it’s normal to react to negative situations with emotions such as sadness or anger, blaming yourself or other people, or wishing that things could be different will keep you stuck.

Here are some thought patterns or actual thoughts that signal you might need to practice radical acceptance:

  • I can’t deal with this.
  • This is not fair.
  • Things shouldn’t be like this.
  • I can’t believe this is happening.
  • It’s not right.
  • Things should be different.
  • Why is this happening to me?
  • Why is this happening now?
  • This is horrible.
  • Why did this happen to me now?
  • What did I do to deserve this?
  • Everything is working against me.
  • I can never catch a break.
  • Bad things always happen to me.
  • Nobody else has to deal with this.
  • I wish things were different.
  • I can’t accept this happened.
  • I’m never going to feel OK about this.
  • People shouldn’t act the way they do.
  • I can’t get past what happened.
  • This is terrible and I’ll never get over it.
  • I shouldn’t have to deal with this.

Reasons for Lack of Acceptance

Some people have a hard time accepting situations because they feel as though acceptance is the same thing as being in agreement with what happened or saying that it is OK. In other cases, people don’t want to acknowledge the pain that would come with acceptance.

Whatever your reasons for a lack of acceptance, know that these feelings are normal and many other people have felt the exact same way.

That does not mean that it is impossible for you to feel differently or eventually get to a place of acceptance. It just will require practice and dedication.

The problem with a lack of acceptance is that when you try to not feel pain, you are also choosing to not feel joy and happiness at the same time. Avoiding your emotions means creating more problems in the long run such as anxiety, depression, addiction, and other mental health concerns. Instead, practicing calm acceptance will allow you to process your emotions and move forward.

How to Practice Radical Acceptance

Learn more about the steps you can take to improve your ability to engage in radical acceptance. Remember, it is a skill that gets better the more that you practice.

  • If you are unable to solve a problem or change your perspective on it then radical acceptance may be the answer.
  • When you are in a situation that causes extreme emotions, try focusing on breathing deeply and examining the thoughts you are having (and let them pass).
  • Watch your thoughts for signs of not accepting.
  • Remind yourself that reality can’t be changed.
  • Practice a feeling of acceptance through relaxation strategies and self-talk.
  • Think about what you would do if you were able to accept what happened (and then do those things as though you had already accepted what happened).
  • Be aware of how you are feeling in your body.
  • Accept that life can be worthwhile even when experiencing pain.
  • Identify the events in your life that you are having a hard time accepting.
  • Think about the causes of events that you can’t accept.
  • Accept the emotions that you feel when thinking about events.
  • Make a plan of action or what you will do.
  • Create coping statements to help you through difficult times.
  • Accept things as they are instead of how you want them to be.
  • Understand what is within your control and outside your control.
  • Practice mindfulness and living in the present.
  • Find ways to ground yourself or calm yourself down.
  • See yourself as an observer rather than a participant.
  • Check the facts and reality of what you are thinking about.
  • Countdown if you are feeling out of control and want to feel calmer.
  • Use your five senses to ground yourself in the moment.
  • Practice radical acceptance in daily life to make the habit easier.
  • Allow yourself to let go of the need to control situations.
  • Focus on your wise mind instead of catastrophic thinking.
  • Allow yourself to be imperfect and make mistakes.
  • Stop judging situations or attaching a value to them (good or bad).
  • See people as human and not all good or all bad.
  • Forgive yourself but also learn to move on and accept responsibility.
  • Allow yourself to stop thinking about how things “could have been.”
  • Read books about radical acceptance.
  • See a therapist if you are unable to move through difficult feelings on your own.
  • Practice empathy and learn what you can about other people to accept them.
  • Engage in journaling and self-reflection to understand your emotions.
  • Keep notes on when you feel judgmental.
  • Look for patterns in your negative thoughts.
  • Relax your body and watch how you are breathing.
  • Don’t give in to urges such as engaging in addictive behaviors.

Coping Statements for Radical Acceptance

Here is a list of coping statements you can use when you are feeling as though you can’t accept situations and move on. Keep these handy with you so that you can use them in the moment when you are feeling out of control.

  • I can only control the present moment.
  • When I fight against my worries and negative emotions, I only fuel them to grow larger.
  • Even though I might not like what happened, the present moment is exactly what it is.
  • I can’t change the things that have happened in the past.
  • I am able to accept the present moment exactly as it is.
  • I can get through difficult emotions even if it is hard.
  • It is unhelpful for me to fight against what has happened in the past.
  • It’s not possible for me to change what happened.
  • I am able to accept things the way that they are.
  • I will get through this no matter what.
  • I will survive and this feeling will fade even though this feels painful right now.
  • There is no point in fighting against the past.
  • What I’m going through right now is hard but it is temporary.
  • It’s possible for me to feel anxiety but still manage this situation in an effective way.
  • When I try to fight against reality then I don’t see the options in my situation.
  • It’s possible for me to accept what happened and still end up happy.
  • I can choose to make a new path even if I feel bad.
  • All I have control over is what I do in the present.
  • I don’t understand why this happened, but I can accept that it did.
  • When I remain rational I am better able to make good choices and solve problems.
  • It’s better to take the right actions than keep judging or blaming.
  • It’s best to stay present and focus on what needs to happen in the moment.

When Radical Acceptance Is Not Appropriate

There are some situations where you will not want to engage in radical acceptance because it would not be considered inappropriate. Most of these involve situations where it is more prudent to try and make a change in the situation rather than accept things the way that they are.

  • If you are in an abusive relationship
  • If there is something dangerous about your work situation
  • If you are being harassed at work
  • If you are being taken advantage of at work or not paid a fair wage
  • If someone is treating you poorly or with disrespect
  • If you are experiencing burnout or a lack of motivation with your current situation
  • When you have some degree of control over a situation
  • When you could make a change to improve your situation
  • When you intentionally are not taking action out of fear
  • When you are using acceptance as a crutch to not have to face a situation
  • When you are engaging in people pleasing instead of standing up for yourself

When Radical Acceptance Is Appropriate

On the other hand, there are situations in which radical acceptance is entirely appropriate, including the following:

  • If you are going through a divorce or breakup and are having a hard time moving on
  • If you are experiencing an unexpected change in your life plans that you have no control over
  • If you have experienced the loss of a loved one
  • If you are experiencing job loss
  • When you’ve experienced a traumatic event over which you had no control
  • If you had a traumatic upbringing or neglect or abuse as a child
  • When you are causing yourself more pain because you refuse to accept what happened
  • When you are limiting joy in your life because of a feeling that you must avoid all emotions
  • If you struggle to articulate the emotions that you are experiencing
  • If you often react out of anger or negative emotions to little things that happened
  • If you feel stuck or unable to move on from a negative event
  • If other people have told you that it’s important to let go of the past
  • If there is no possibility of solving your situation or improving upon it
  • If you have tried other ways to deal with your pain and nothing has worked

Mindfulness vs. Radical Acceptance

You might be wondering if radical acceptance is just another way to explain mindfulness. While these two concepts share similarities, they are actually quite different. Mindfulness is the focus on the present moment and is only one method of practicing radical acceptance.

Mindfulness has origins in the Buddhist tradition of maintaining a state of zen and calm. When you are in a state of mindfulness, you are living in the present moment without any thought or judgment. Radical acceptance builds on mindfulness such that it is the overall goal.

Normal Acceptance vs. Radical Acceptance

Radical acceptance is not a passive act. Rather it is a conscious decision to see things differently. Rather than resisting, it involves intentionally being radical in your views of what you can accept (because it is your reality).

The goal behind radical acceptance is to get to the point that you are able to see the options in your situation. For example, if you are in chronic pain, you could choose to believe that even if life is painful, there are good moments and life is worth living. Living your life with this mindset is the idea behind radical acceptance.

Another example is how to cope with death. Rather than focusing on the injustice of a death or why it should not have happened the way that it did, radical acceptance allows you to focus on your grief and the best way to handle it. In this way, you are still reacting but it is with less intense emotions. You are goal oriented and focused on finding a way out of the situation for yourself. 

Acting according to radical acceptance principles allows you to feel a sense of relief and feeling better about your situation. In this way, you are striking a balance between making changes and accepting your fate.

Ironically, sometimes it is only when you finally come to terms and accept what has happened, that you are able to go ahead and make the changes that you will allow you to feel better about everything as a whole.

A Word From Verywell

If you have experienced trauma or other negative events in your life, stuffing down your emotions or being overly emotional are not likely to help. Practicing radical acceptance and tapping into your wise mind (a balance of emotion and logic) will take you the furthest.

While it won’t be easy initially to cope with situations that have caused you a lot of pain, you may find that when you practice radical acceptance you eventually start to feel better.

At the same time, it’s important to acknowledge that there are situations that you should not accept and that do not fit the criteria for radical acceptance. It’s usually easy to identify these situations because they are ones where if you made some change or took some action, then it’s possible that things could be different.

For example, if you are stuck in a dead-end job that you hate, practicing radical acceptance might allow you to not hate your job as much but it will keep you stuck. By the same token, if you are stuck in a relationship that is going nowhere, practicing radical acceptance might reduce your feeling of unease, but in the long run, you might wish that you had just gotten out of the relationship.

If you are holding on to some past trauma because you feel as though letting it go would be the same as saying that you agree with what happened, then chances are that radical acceptance could help you. It is those situations where there is nothing to change and only suffering remains that radical acceptance makes the most sense.

When you identify those situations in your life, be prepared to acknowledge your emotions and then move on. While this will not be easy in the short run, you should find that in the long run things gradually start to improve in your life. And when things start to improve, you might find that everything naturally becomes easier and lighter, making it easier for you to make other necessary changes in your life.

1 Source
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  1. Hall K. Radical Acceptance.

By Arlin Cuncic
Arlin Cuncic, MA, is the author of "Therapy in Focus: What to Expect from CBT for Social Anxiety Disorder" and "7 Weeks to Reduce Anxiety."