What Is Radical Acceptance?

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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.

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.

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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Signs of Radical Acceptance

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.

Signs of Lack of Acceptance

When you pay attention to your thoughts, feelings, and relationship patterns, you may begin to notice events or situations that you have not accepted.

Thought patterns:

  • 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?

Feelings and Behaviors:

  • You blame yourself for everything bad that happens in your life.
  • You feel stuck and don't think you can change anything for the better.
  • You wish that things were different, but you feel powerless.
  • You are angry with the world.
  • You resort to maladaptive coping mechanisms (such as alcohol or drugs).

Relationship patterns:

  • You are constantly nagging your spouse, hoping that they will change.
  • You are often disappointed by the choices that others make.
  • You feel resentful of things that have happened in the past.
  • You tend to hold grudges.

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.

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.

  1. Pay attention to what triggers resistance, or notice when you can't accept something.
  2. Remind yourself that in this moment, reality can’t be changed.
  3. Remind yourself that there are causes for this reality that are outside of your control.
  4. 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).
  5. Imagine what things would be like if you accepted the situation.
  6. Use relaxation strategies, mindfulness practices, journaling, and self-reflection to understand your emotions.
  7. Let yourself feel your emotions in a safe way.
  8. Observe how emotions resonate in your body. Is there any tightness, pain, or restriction?
  9. Accept that life can be worthwhile even when experiencing pain.
  10. Decide to commit to the practice of acceptance when you feel resistance come up again.

These steps can help allow you to stop thinking about how things “could have been" in order to live more in the present moment.

There are many books, podcasts, and other resources about radical acceptance. If you are unable to move through difficult feelings on your own, try seeing a therapist who can help you work through them safely.

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.

  • When I fight against negative emotions, I only fuel them to grow larger.
  • 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.
  • I will get through this no matter what.
  • I will survive and this feeling will fade even though this feels painful right now.
  • It’s possible for me to feel anxiety but still manage this situation in an effective way.
  • 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.
  • 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.

Appropriate vs. Inappropriate Radical Acceptance

Ultimately, it's up to you when to use (and when not to use) radical acceptance. However, there are some helpful tips to keep in mind when choosing a situation in which you can safely practice radical acceptance.

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 or someone is treating you poorly or with disrespect
  • If you are being harassed, taken advantage of, or not treated fairly at work
  • If you are experiencing burnout or a lack of motivation with your current situation
  • When you are intentionally not taking action out of fear
  • When acceptance becomes an obstacle in actually improving your situation or 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 the end of a relationship
  • If you are experiencing an unexpected change (such as job loss)
  • If a loved one has died
  • If you’ve experienced a traumatic event (such as neglect or abuse as a child)
  • If you refuse to accept what happened and are avoiding emotions
  • If you feel stuck or unable to move on from a negative event
  • If you have tried other ways to deal with your pain and nothing has worked

Different Types of Acceptance

Below, you'll see how radical acceptance is similar to (and different than) mindfulness practices, as well as how radical acceptance is separate from regular acceptance.

  • Mindfulness: 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.
  • Regular acceptance: While the meaning of the word acceptance often implies that you have come to agree with a situation, radical acceptance doesn't imply that you agree. Instead, 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

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.

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, MA
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." She has a Master's degree in psychology.