There are many misconceptions about what radical acceptance — a skill taught in dialectical behavior therapy — actually looks like. One of the biggest myths is that radical acceptance means agreeing with what happened. People assume that acceptance is akin to approval.
If I accept what happened, then I approve of it. Then I like it. Then I’m OK with it. Then I excuse the abuse. Then I absolve the person who deeply hurt me of all responsibility. Then I allow the infidelity. Then I can’t do anything about losing my job or losing my home. I can’t change it. Then I resign myself to being miserable. Then I keep wallowing and suffering.
Radical acceptance doesn’t mean any of these things. “It simply means that you are acknowledging reality,” said psychotherapist Sheri Van Dijk, MSW, RSW. You are acknowledging what happened or what’s currently happening. Because fighting reality only intensifies our emotional reaction, she said.
We might fight reality by judging a situation. We might fight reality by saying “It should or shouldn’t be this way,” “That’s not fair!” or “Why me?!”
Fighting reality only creates suffering. While pain is inevitable in life, suffering is optional. “And suffering is what happens when we refuse to accept the pain in our lives,” said Van Dijk, the author of several books, including Calming the Emotional Storm: Using Dialectical Behavior Therapy Skills to Manage Your Emotions & Balance Your Lifeand The Dialectical Behavior Therapy Skills Workbook for Bipolar Disorder.
She shared this example: When someone passes away and we accept their passing, we focus on coping with the pain (grief) instead of the suffering (refusal to accept grief = bitterness, anger and resentment).
Acceptance also doesn’t mean throwing our hands up in the air or waving a white flag. To the contrary, once we accept reality, we can consider if we’d like to change it. We can say: “OK, this exists. This is happening or happened. How do I want to handle it?”
In other words, practicing acceptance actually leads the way to problem solving.
As Van Dijk explained, “if you don’t like something, you first have to accept that it is the way it is before you can try to [change] it. If you’re not accepting something, you’ll be so busy fighting that reality that you don’t have the energy to put towards trying to change it.”
For instance, recently Van Dijk, who’s Canadian, received a letter from the IRS saying that she owes a lot of money. She does many presentations in the U.S., but her income is minimal. She could’ve refused to accept this reality by saying: “This is ridiculous. It can’t possibly be right. They’re crazy. I didn’t even make that much money in the U.S. last year; they’re out of their minds! And now I have to deal with their screw-up. This is just not right. It shouldn’t be like this!”
However, by fighting her reality, Van Dijk isn’t able to focus on what she can do to change the situation. By ranting, raving, judging and blaming, she’s wasting her physical and emotional energy and getting nowhere. Instead, she accepted the situation: “OK, I got this letter. I can’t understand how this could be. It doesn’t seem right, but this is what they’re telling me.” Then she left a voicemail for her accountant.
By practicing radical acceptance, Van Dijk still reacts. But her reactions are less intense, and they don’t last as long as they would if she focused on fighting.
Another benefit is that you typically spend less time thinking about the situation, she said. And when you do think about it, “it triggers less emotional pain for you. People often describe a feeling of being ‘lighter,’ ‘relief,’ ‘like a weight has been lifted.’”
With acceptance, your suffering dissipates, she said. The pain doesn’t disappear (though it might over time). But because you aren’t suffering, the pain becomes more bearable, she said.
Practicing radical acceptance can be accepting that it’s raining on the day you planned to visit the beach. And it can be accepting your partner for who they are right now. For instance, one of Van Dijk’s clients is working on accepting that she can’t rely on her husband. He was supposed to renew their mortgage. The day before the deadline he told her that he hadn’t done anything.
“He might not ever change, in which case she needs to decide if she’s willing to continue the relationship as he is. Or if she’s going to remain in the relationship, she needs to decide how much (if any) energy she’s going to put into asserting herself, versus just accepting it and not trying to change it.”
Van Dijk also presents radical acceptance as an alternative to forgiveness. Because, unlike forgiveness, radical acceptance has nothing to do with the other person. It’s completely about reducing your personal pain, she said. She’s helped clients with all kinds of experiences practice acceptance.
For instance, she worked with a client whose father sexually abused her as a child. The client’s family was pressuring her to forgive him. Van Dijk also worked with a woman whose psychiatrist told her that in order to move forward, she needed to forgive her husband for kissing another woman. Neither client was ready to forgive, so they worked on accepting what happened.
“This is often really helpful for people, recognizing that they can do something to move forward, and yet still hold the other person completely responsible for their behavior.”
Radical acceptance takes lots of practice. And understandably, it might feel strange and hard. But remember that radical acceptance is about acknowledging reality – not liking it or contesting it. Once you acknowledge what’s really happening, you can change it or start to heal. Radical acceptance has nothing to do with being passive or giving up. To the contrary, it’s about channeling your energy into moving on.
Woman with letter photo available from Shutterstock