What Is Radical Acceptance And How Can It Help Me?

By Julia Thomas

Updated January 02, 2019

Reviewer Chante’ Gamby, LCSW

The practice of radical acceptance, first developed by Marcia Linehan, is used in Dialectical Behavior Therapy to help people let go of what isn't possible. It isn't a new idea. The Serenity Prayer has a line that reminds us we need to 'accept the things we cannot change.' People recovering from addictions find strength in these simple words.

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While the value of accepting reality is widely acknowledged, there's also a lot of talk about never giving up on your dreams, never admitting defeat, never losing hope for what you want. When what we want becomes impossible, though, false hope can only make the situation worse. So, we strive to accept reality. Knowing it's good to accept unhappy realities isn't enough to help us. Instead, we may need to go through a process that helps us know and feel the acceptance in every part of our mind, body, and soul. This deeper process is called radical acceptance, and it can improve your life dramatically.

What Creates Our Suffering?

Suffering doesn't come out of nowhere. Something always causes it. Pain is at the root of our suffering, but it isn't the whole story. When we have pain, feel it, and accept the reality of it, we can move on to embrace our new reality. However, when we refuse to accept what is, we become stuck in a persistent state of suffering. Pain and nonacceptance combine to create this suffering. Until we can break through to reality, the suffering will continue.

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A Basic Definition Of Radical Acceptance As A Concept

Radical acceptance means complete and total acceptance that permeates every part of your being. It's more than an intellectual task. In DBT radical acceptance refers to a specific set of practices and techniques you can use to get the message through in a complete way.

When you radically accept a painful reality, your thoughts, emotions, physical sensations and attitude all shift to make room for the true details of what happened to you earlier in your life and for fully experiencing your present reality. This shift creates the opportunity and ability for change. As Carl Rogers once said, 'The curious paradox is when I accept myself just as I am, then I can change.'

Components Of Radical Acceptance Practice

Radical acceptance is not just a concept that psychologists talk to each other about. It's a practice that many people are engaged in right now. To practice radical acceptance, we need to:

  • Accept what is
  • Realize what we can control and what we can't
  • Look at our situation from a nonjudgmental perspective
  • Acknowledge the facts of our situation
  • Stop fighting reality
  • Learn how to live in the present moment despite our pain

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The radical acceptance DBT refers to is accomplished through group skills training sessions and individual work, which often takes place in one-on-one therapy sessions. The practice is made up of a few key components.

Practicing Mindfulness In The Present Moment

Mindfulness practice is based on Buddhist traditions. To psychologist Tara Brach radical acceptance grew out of an exploration of these Buddhist practices. Brach teaches the long-standing belief that living fully in the present moment is a freeing and centering way to live. The mindfulness of radical acceptance Tara Brach uses in helping suffering clients is a method of experiencing the physical sensations of the environment you're in currently.

Practicing mindfulness means intentionally noticing the sights, smells, sounds, tastes, and touch sensations that are happening in your body right now. By connecting with these sense experiences totally, you open your mind to a new way of experiencing what is happening to you and stay focused on the here and now rather than on the past.

Examining The Situation That's Causing You To Suffer

To overcome your suffering, you also need to understand the initial situation that caused your pain. Before you can understand it, you must identify it, but this can be difficult if you've buried your past in your mind.

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A therapist can guide you as you seek to remember the exact details of the initiating event or situation. They might use guided imagery, for example, to help you reconnect with that early reality. Once you remember that earlier reality, you can examine it fully.

Some of the questions you'll need to answer to understand the genesis of your pain include:

  • What were the events that lead to the painful situation?
  • What part did you and others play in causing this situation?
  • What control did you have over these precipitating events and what did you not control?
  • How did you respond when the situation happened?
  • How did your response change the way you and others thought and felt?
  • What could you have done differently to reduce the suffering you feel or the suffering of others?
  • What about the situation would have been different if you had practiced radical acceptance?

Practicing Reality Acceptance Skills

Radical acceptance may be the most sensible approach to dealing with suffering, but how do you do it? You can tell yourself the facts all day long, but if you don't accept them fully, they still won't feel real. In developing radical acceptance, psychologists identified several skills that can help you make deeper contact with reality. These reality acceptance skills include:

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  • Mindfulness, which includes observing, describing, and participating in your physical sensations, and doing it nonjudgmentally and effectively.
  • Distress tolerance, which are techniques to help you handle the uncomfortable and painful feelings that spring from your actual reality.
    • Crisis survival, a skill which includes learning to contribute, occupy yourself with activities, make comparisons, using opposite emotions, pushing away from nonreality, examining thoughts and emotions.
    • Self-soothing using your five senses.
    • Improving the moment by using imagery, meaning, prayer, relaxation, doing one thing at a time, vacationing, and encouraging.
    • Identifying pros and cons.
    • Mentally and physically accepting your reality.
    • Having the willingness to accept things as they are.
    • Turning your mind towards reality.
  • Emotion regulation, a way of isolating and dealing with erratic emotions. Techniques include:
    • Reducing vulnerability by treating physical illness, by eating, sleeping, and exercising properly to improve your health, and by avoiding altering drugs unless they are prescribed medications taken as directed.
    • Building mastery.
    • Building positive experiences.
    • Being mindful of present emotions.
    • Avoiding acting out of emotion.
  • Acceptance skills like half-smiling, an expression that brings the reality from your body to your mind.
  • Interpersonal effectiveness, which is a means of interacting with others in positive, productive ways using techniques like:
    • Objectiveness effectiveness, with subskills like describing, expressing, asserting, reinforcing, being mindful, appearing confident, and negotiating.
    • Relationship effectiveness by giving gently, with interest, validating, and having an easy manner.
    • Self-respect effectiveness, which includes being fair to yourself, not apologizing for who you are, sticking to value, and being truthful.

What Radical Acceptance Isn't

It's just as important to stay focused on what radical acceptance is not, as you learn these skills and practices. You may want to judge emotions and situations harshly when you examine a past situation. Or, you may feel the urge to look at everything through rose-colored glasses. However, in radical acceptance, the point is to not judge but only to look at reality.

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Radical acceptance also doesn't mean to condone your behaviors or the behavior of others. You'll never be instructed to give up your needs during any part of radical acceptance therapy. You aren't taught to ignore or deny painful situations, either. You can assert your thoughts and feelings in appropriate ways. Although you learn to accept reality, you don't have to agree with someone or some situation to accept them.

Who Can Radical Acceptance Help?

Anyone can benefit from radically accepting the reality of what is. People with certain mental disorders, including borderline personality disorder, anxiety, and eating disorders can rely on radical acceptance to improve their mental health. The practice is also especially helpful for people who experienced any childhood trauma or abuse.

Benefits Of Radical Self Acceptance

Radical self-acceptance means to accept yourself just as you are, without judging yourself. You know clearly who you are. This knowledge allows you to make mindful choices based on the reality of your being. Accepting yourself completely gives you the ability to care for yourself in a strong, realistic way. This helps regulate your emotions so that you can stop bouncing between positivity and despair, but rather maintain a clear, calm focus on your unique identity and needs.

When you learn to accept yourself realistically, you give yourself the power to change and become more like who you want to be. The changes you make can lead to better relationships, more work success, and a more peaceful outlook on life.

Learning And Practicing DBT Radical Acceptance

If radical acceptance is a new concept for you, you may want to start your journey by reading a radical acceptance book. As you read, you can better understand the benefits of radical acceptance. You can also get a general sense of what happens in DBT radical acceptance, so you can make an informed decision about whether it's right for you.

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Radical Acceptance Skills Groups

You can learn and begin practicing radical acceptance in DBT skills group therapy. In these groups or on your own, you can fill out radical acceptance worksheets that help you apply the concepts to your own life. Each time you do a radical acceptance worksheet, you come closer to your reality.

DBT Therapy - A Vital Part Of Learning Radical Acceptance

Individual therapy is a crucial part of radical acceptance DBT training. It is an individual one-to-one session that you can get to the deeper reality of the situation that caused your current suffering. Your therapist guides you on this journey into your own unique past experiences.

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Finding A Therapist For Radical Acceptance Therapy

If you're interested in practicing radical acceptance, your best option is to connect with a therapist who is trained in providing DBT therapy. Many such therapists are available online through BetterHelp.com. The therapists at Better Help are licensed and knowledgeable in mental health issues. They can help you find the reality of the situations behind your pain and accept it fully to reduce your suffering and help you make the changes you want to make.

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