I learned the term radical acceptance when I was facilitating a Dialectical Behavior Therapy group with woman in early recovery from addiction. Asking the women to fully accept the reality of their situation seemed like a terrible thing to ask of them, because it felt impossible. Most had lost their children, relationships, home, legal freedom, reputation and any sense of self love or hope about having meaningful life. Slowly, I realized that asking them to accept “just the facts” was empowering. From that place of acceptance, they could work with the situation as is, without judging it, denying it, or refusing to accept it. They had to face the pain and discomfort, but it no longer needed to become a place of dwelling or suffering. They could be uncomfortable in the present moment without giving up or needing to completely “numb out.” They could begin to take action steps to heal and build an enjoyable life.
Here are some of the lurking myths about radical acceptance:
- If you accept a painful situation, you’re accepting more pain, without end.
- If you accept the painful situation as it is, it will take over your life and swallow you whole.
- If you accept the painful situation, it will magically change.
Have you ever believed any of these myths?
Pain is part of life, and it is inevitable. Pain serves a purpose. It tells us to remove our hand from the burning stove. Psychological pain serves its own purpose. It points us to our values, directs us to love by showing us the opposite, and illuminates our needs so that we can take action.
We struggle to accept many painful experiences in life – being treated poorly, losing people we love, financial struggles, physical problems, disappointments, addictions and the list goes on. In defense, we often avoid pain. If we avoid painful thoughts, our habitual defense might turn into denial, which is a way of keeping reality from our conscious awareness. Ironically, over time our denial of reality leads to suffering. Denial is neglect of our pain; pain being our indicator of what needs our loving presence and attention.
Suffering is pain that goes on without remedy; it’s even more difficult to bear. It can happen when we get caught up in our story of what happened and we lose touch with the opportunity to be in reality of what is now.
For example, a woman addicted to alcohol is in denial of how her behavior hurts other people and herself. To break the vicious cycle of addiction and denial, she needs to radically accept her addiction by taking the first step in A.A. “We are powerless over alcohol and our lives have become unmanageable.” She must accept that she has a disease and accept that her life is out of control. Once she accepts these problems (not the same as approving or giving into them), she can start to take responsibility for what she is doing and how she is treating herself and others. If, however, she remains in denial, everyone’s suffering will continue.
How you can apply this in your daily life? Explore this metaphor
Consider The Purple Problem: Imagine that you hate the color purple. Then imagine that you move to a house where your room is purple. If you refuse to accept that the room is purple, you will never paint it a color that you want. Fighting reality causes suffering (I just hate this room). You could live there for decades, feeling miserable whenever you’re in your own bedroom! Or you can accept the purple-ness of the room, and then paint it.
Radical acceptance is acknowledging what is reality right now. Accepting reality is not the same as judging it as good or bad. It does not mean you approve, or want it to be this way. Pain we experience creates suffering only when we refuse to ACCEPT the pain. When we can let go of the fight against reality of what is, we might still experience pain. But when we cannot accept reality, we may experience suffering. Radical acceptance is making the brave decision to tolerate each moment and to be in the reality of what is.