When we think about the term “acceptance”, many people believe that this means either condoning a situation or behavior. Not so. Acceptance is not an excuse to be passive, to give up our rights in a matter, or resign ourselves to continued abuse.
Quite the opposite. Acceptance is actually a proactive stance. Radical Acceptance, one of the principles of Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT) is a choice that we consciously make, and doing so can actually maximize our ability to make necessary changes, if need be. To quote William James, “Acceptance of what has happened is the first step to overcoming the consequences of any misfortune”.
DBT is a form of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy originated by psychologist Marsha Linehan to help individuals suffering from Borderline Personality Disorder, who have difficulty managing intense emotions and who can behave in impulsive and harmful ways. DBT has since demonstrated effectiveness in treating depression, binge eating, and ADHD. In addition, since it’s natural to have strong feelings from time to time, all of us can benefit from practicing DBT principles such as radical acceptance.
Radical acceptance means accepting ourselves, other people, and life as they actually are – and completely, meaning not only with our mind (i.e., intellectually), but also with our heart, soul, and body – the whole deal. No “if only”. No “except for”. No “but”. The whole shebang. No judgment, either. No holding your breath until you, another person, or this situation is “fixed”. Completely, unconditionally, unequivocally accepting (and actually embracing) reality.
Admittedly, this may sound like a tall order. How on earth do we accomplish this?
It may help to take a look at the opposite of acceptance, namely resistance. When we’re in resistance, our self-talk can take the form of:
“This can’t be happening!”
“I can’t believe it’s true.”
Or, perhaps most blatantly, “I refuse to accept this”.
The pain which we feel when something doesn’t work out our way can be bad enough. Add to this a resistant attitude, and the result can be intense suffering, which can at times rival the initial pain in its severity. However, if we opt for radical acceptance, while we still cannot alter the situation that caused the pain, we can reduce (or even eliminate) the self-imposed suffering.
With radical acceptance, we say “yes, and…” to life, rather than “no”. This approach increases our options, as we are open and able to see new possibilities.
- Acceptance can also be viewed as acknowledgement. With acceptance, you’re not agreeing with or endorsing the situation, but you’re admitting that it exists. At the same time, you don’t stand for abusive or manipulative behavior. Once you recognize the current reality, as opposed to living in denial, you’re in a better position to be proactive in changing the situation. For instance, you might leave an abusive relationship. Rather than wasting valuable time and energy telling yourself that this can’t be the case or shouldn’t be the case, you acknowledge that, okay, this is indeed the case, although you may not like it, and then you consider your possible choices and move forward.
- Acceptance involves letting go of judgment and opting to practice perceiving things as they actually are. Negative judgment, whether of ourselves or others, drains us and blocks us from being mindful and present. Judgment often contains a lot of resentment, which, as had been said, is like “swallowing poison and expecting the other person to die”. Of course, if the object of our resentment is ourselves, this is a double whammy. Even without resentment, judgment tends to lead to increased emotional upset. Imagine how much more effective you’d be if you directed that energy elsewhere, such as towards what is within your power to control, namely your present attitudes and actions. Note that the past nor other people’s behavior or attitudes fall under your control.
- Notice when you’re negatively judging or criticizing something. Keep a record (on a notepad or your phone) of your judgmental thoughts. If the phrases “should”, “ought to”, need to”, or “must” crop up, chances are that you’re being judgmental. If possible, record your judgment soon after it occurs, so it’s fresh in your mind. Where were you when the judgment occurred? When? Were you exceptionally hungry, angry, lonely, or tired (HALT)? After awhile, you’re likely to notice some patterns. For example, you may notice that you’re judgmental more often at work than at home, or vice versa, or after spending time with a particular person. As you review your notes, try to take the perspective of “beginner’s mind”, in that you look at things as if for the first time, and as an observer rather than a judge. Be curious rather than furious.
- Practice willingness. Willingness means that you do whatever it takes to be effective in a given situation, and you do this without waffling. Willfulness can look like throwing up your hands in despair, sitting on your hands when action is needed, refusing to make what seems like the best choice or a necessary change, refusing to make any decision at all (when time is of the essence), pouting, acting impulsively, attempting to fix what isn’t within your control, refusing to accept reality, or focusing exclusively on your needs and desires (rather than considering other people and the bigger picture).
- Notice when you’re resistant to reality. This can manifest as resentment, crankiness, condemnation, giving up, trying to control other people’s behavior, or thinking that all would be well if only “X” would happen.
- Act as if. What actions would you take and how would you talk if you accepted the facts? Play the game of pretend and act as if this were so. A change in your actions can often pave the way for a change in your attitudes. This approach is known in DBT as “opposite action.
- Relax your body. This will promote an attitude of acceptance. Practice “willing hands” by placing your open hands palms-up in your lap. You can also try a gentle half-smile. Studies have shown that the simple act of smiling can lighten our mood and decrease our anxiety.
- Take into account all of the decisions and events that occurred up until now. All of these factors contributed to the current situation being what it is. You influenced some of these events, and others were entirely out of your control. You were not in charge, but you played a part. At any rate, what’s the point in assigning blame? The question is, what now?
- Learn (and remember) what you can and cannot control. As human beings, we wish to be in control. The idea makes us feel safe. To accept our situation means acknowledging that we’re not always in control. And this can be a bitter pill to swallow. However, warring with reality does not change reality.
- Examine your expectations. Were (or are) they realistic? Or did they set you up for disappointment, anger, or anxiety? How can you adjust your expectations and wishes so that they’re more realistic and appropriate?
- Practice watching your breath. This will help to ground you to the present moment and help you to detach from the thoughts that will inevitably occur. The goal is not to eradicate thoughts, but simply to notice them, without getting carried away by them. With radical acceptance, you choose to direct your attention to making decisions that will improve your well-being as well as those around you, rather than assigning blame. The better you get at seeing your thoughts without being hijacked by them (which a breathing meditation can teach you), the better you’ll get at radical acceptance.
- Acceptance is a decision you make again and again. This is not a one-and-for-all choice. Acceptance is a conscious stance you take many times a day. You’re likely to fall back into resistance on occasion – and that’s natural. Just notice when you do so and see if you can mindfully choose acceptance at this moment.
- Live in the present moment. We expend so much needless energy when we agonize about the past, worry about the future, or retreat into fantasy land. Best to stay with here and now.
- Recognize the difference between urges and behaviors. If you are tempted to give in to a temptation to act destructively, accept that you feel a certain way, but don’t succumb to the urge. Sure, giving in to the desire to eat a pint of ice cream, drink a bottle of wine, or yell at your boss might give you some short-term satisfaction, but in the longer run you’ll probably just have added to your list of problems.
- Appropriate action has everything to do with your own attitudes and actions, rather than other people. For instance, if you notice that you’re the one who initiates plans with a friend, while they rarely if ever do so with you, you can ask them to suggest plans from time to time. What they do with this request is up to them. All you can control is the degree to which you set and maintain boundaries and your attitude. You can give your friend some space if they don’t contact you. You can develop friendships with people who meet you halfway. You can accept that your friendship with this person is not all you hoped it would be, while mentally wishing them well.
- Develop some personal coping statements (and keep them handy) for use during difficult moments. Examples include:
This is difficult, but it’s temporary.
I can feel anxious and still deal with this situation effectively.
Resisting reality only blocks me from seeing my options.
It is what it is.
I can accept things the way they are.
I can get through this.
This feels painful, but the feeling will pass.
Fighting with the past is futile.
I can’t change what’s happened, and that’s okay..
I can accept this situation and still be happy.
I can feel bad and still opt for new and healthy choices.
I can only control my present responses.
There was a cause (or causes) for this. I do not have to know what the causes are, but I can accept that they exist.
When I stay in the present moment, I can effectively problem-solve.
No need to blame and judge myself. Instead, I need to take appropriate action.
What do I need to do right now?
Choose to believe that life is worth living, even though there will be painful times. Choose to live with radical acceptance.