What Is Radical Acceptance And How Can It Help Me?
Updated March 24, 2020
Reviewer Chante’ Gamby, LCSW
Individuals with mental health issues, concerns, and disorders very often all suffer from one common thing: a skewed sense of their own identity. Having a clear idea of who you are, what you want, and what you are about is invaluable in navigating the world in safety, confidence, and strength. Losing this pivotal aspect of being human can lead to a cascade of other issues. Fortunately, there is a way to combat this type of loss of yourself, and it starts with radical acceptance.
What Is Radical Acceptance?
Radical Acceptance is a practice developed by Marsha Linehan. Used in Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT), this particular practice was created based on the notion that reality must be accepted, rather than fought against, and that fighting and railing against a situation is a greater cause of suffering than the situation itself. Radical acceptance, as its name suggests, means exactly that: accepting everything about yourself, your current situation, and your life without question, blame, or pushback. Far from condoning or embracing what you are and what you are going through, radical acceptance advocates simply accepting yourself and your circumstances in order to better move through and past them.
Radical acceptance is helpful for all manner of ailments, including various mental health maladies and concerns. This is because fighting against something often makes it worse; in one study, people were told to think of white bears, then expressly forbidden from doing so a few minutes later. The study's participants found it virtually impossible to stop thinking of white bears. Once the directive changed to allow students to think of bears the urge to do so actually went away. Accepting yourself, your situation, and your mental health status can actually help alleviate some of the symptoms associated with each of these things.
What Causes Suffering?
This question is not one that is readily answered; the exact cause of suffering is not widely agreed-upon nor is it determined by any single governing party. What has become an increasingly common thread, though, is the notion that attachment (or fixation) is a significant cause of suffering, separate from any specific religious ideology or philosophical leaning. Suffering is a result of an attachment to an idea, a previous situation, or a determination of what should happen, what you should be, or what your life should be. To acknowledge and accept the entirety of your life and yourself is to remove yourself from the possibility of experiencing this type of suffering.
When Radical Acceptance Is Used
Radical acceptance is used in situations that are beyond our control. Radical acceptance should not be engaged in situations that require a change, such as an abusive relationship or a dangerous work situation. Instead, radical acceptance is applied to things that occur without us being able to have a hand in them. Radical acceptance can be applied to a devastating breakup, a sudden, sharp turn in your life plans, the loss of a loved one, or the loss of a job. Each of these scenarios could prompt an unending response of fury, denial, pain, and fighting - or each of them can be accepted as a new reality and moved on from. Ultimately, the goal of radical acceptance is progression and growth in the place of stagnation and clinging to the past.
Radical Acceptance Components
Rather than being a thought or idea, radical acceptance actually contains within it several components that must be put into practice; it is all well and good to say to yourself "I accept myself just as I am," but unless you live in a way that espouses that belief, the belief is useless to you and everyone else. To practice radical acceptance, you must:
- Accept yourself and your life for what they are - not for what you want them to be
- Realize and acknowledge what you can and cannot control
- Survey yourself and your life without judgment or condemnation
- Acknowledge the facts of yourself and your situation
- Accept reality
- Practice mindfulness and live in the present moment
Part of refusing to accept reality is living in the future or the past, rather than living in the present moment. Radical acceptance is a subset of living mindfully and requires you to leave behind any fantasies you might have about your past or your future and to root yourself firmly in your life as it actually is, without any judgment, anger, or denial.
This type of practice is not an easy one to adopt, and often it requires some help. You can read books, consult with a specialist, or see a therapist in order to develop the tools required to effectively use radical acceptance in your life. Each of these options, though, will largely depend on you; ultimately, you must be willing to consistently practice and adopt the tenets of radical acceptance, or the treatment will not be effective or useful. Whether you read about radical acceptance and begin practicing at home, learn about it in group sessions, or work one-on-one with a mental health professional, what you get out of radical acceptance as a practice is wholly up to you and cannot be forced or influenced by anyone outside of yourself.
The Roots of Radical Acceptance
Despite functioning as a recognized mental health treatment, radical acceptance does have some roots in Buddhism and the Buddhist lifestyle. One of the basic notions of this world religion is that attachment is the root of suffering and that the lack of attachment means, in many ways, the lack of suffering. After all, it can be argued, if you are not attached to loved ones, why would you suffer greatly when those loved ones are gone? If you are not attached to money and a certain standard of living, why suffer when that same money has gone? If you are not attached to your identity as a fixed, definitive thing, you need not suffer when aspects of your personality or identity are ripped away.
This functions as the basis of radical acceptance; accepting yourself and your life is a form of practicing non-attachment, and it gives you the freedom to live your life from moment to moment, rather than perpetually scrambling to recreate a moment in time, or forcing your life to fall into line with the plan you'd previously set forth.
Identifying Sources of Suffering and Working On Your Own (h2)
When you begin a radical acceptance practice, one of the first things to do is think about what is causing you the greatest amount of pain. You might identify trauma as a root of your issues, a breakup, or some other unpleasant event in your life. You might find that your need for radical acceptance comes after your life not taking the turns you'd expected or hoped. Whatever the case may be, determining the source of your suffering is an important part of this work; once you can pinpoint the things that are causing you pain, you can begin working on applying radical acceptance to them.
This work can be done on your own. Using journaling and self-reflection, you can identify the more problematic parts of your past and can begin applying the principles of radical acceptance. As you progress, you can continue writing and checking in with yourself, in order to make sure you are consistently applying the tenets of this treatment and actively working toward healing.
When BetterHelp Can Help
If you reach a place in your own journey of radical acceptance where you feel you have grown stagnant or stuck, you may reach out to a mental health professional for additional help and guidance in your journey. Someone who is trained in this type of therapy can help you identify any weak points in your radical acceptance practice and can provide insight into and training for a fully-fleshed-out radical acceptance practice that covers the vast majority of your current ills, ailments, and mental health concerns.
BetterHelp is an online therapy provider that offers a wide range of therapy backgrounds, specialties, and interests. Whether you are hoping to tackle a well of grief with radical acceptance, or you are hoping to grapple with an addiction you've struggled with for years, BetterHelp therapists are available to work with their clients in a more relaxed setting - that is, from the couch in your living room, or even from bed. Online therapy can be enormously useful for people who struggle to work with the standard scheduling habits of traditional therapy offices and can offer a more personable experience than the usual clinical settings. Below are some reviews of BetterHelp counselors, from people experiencing similar issues.
"I appreciate the timely availability of behavioral professional, Shorena Alexander (LCSW). When I could not arrange to meet with a local professional in person, Shorena was able to support me electronically. She has maintained objectivity while sharing encouraging feedback, which has empowered me to better accept my own role in the healing process."
"In just a few sessions, Erika has helped me to soften into myself and shift some perspectives that were causing suffering. She is compassionate, wise, open and supportive and the sessions are always enlightening on multiple levels."
How do you practice radical acceptance?
Radical acceptance means accepting that life doesn't work in your favor all the time, and many parts of life are sometimes beyond your control. So how do you practice it when you're faced with a situation beyond your control? Here's how.
- Look at the situation critically. How much of the problem was beyond your control? If it was at least most, then radically accepting that life is like that is the solution. If it was your fault, radically accepting is not the solution, and you need to learn from your mistakes.
- Practice mindfulness or cognitive behavioral therapy. Both techniques can help you discard any self-defeating or negative thoughts you may have. When you feel upset over an event, there may be many emotions you feel about it, and radical acceptance doesn't fare well against these thoughts. A therapist can help you achieve these mindsets.
- Remember that radical acceptance doesn't mean you can't feel emotions. If you feel like crying or venting your frustrations, do it. Just realize that you're unable to change what already is. Radical acceptance requires you to deal with a big problem: the random events of life.
What is radical acceptance and how can it help me?
When you hear the term 'radical acceptance,' you may have several questions, the biggest being "Just what is it?" How is it different from normal acceptance? Radical acceptance is accepting that some things are beyond your control.
Many people will fight back against things they cannot control. For example, if you end up getting in a car crash, you may have a hard time accepting your car is totaled and will get angry when someone says it can't be repaired. While you can be upset about it, learning to radically accept what happened can help you move on with your life.
A concept found in dialectical behavior therapy, radical acceptance is not about saying you shouldn't change injustices, but it's instead being at peace with the unpredictability of life. In many situations, your emotions may get the better of you, and finding acceptance in these situations can be challenging, but by trying to practice it, you can live a better life.
Why is radical acceptance important?
Radical acceptance is about accepting that some factors in life are beyond your control. As people, we tend to want to believe that we are in control of everything, but that's not how life is. Whether you believe it's all random chance or the plan of God, it's important that you learn that not everything is going to be under your control, and learning to accept that is a sign of a strong person.
Who coined the term radical acceptance?
The psychologist Marsha Linehan was the one who created dialectical behavioral therapy, and who coined the term. She observed how people responded to tragedies and circumstances they couldn't control, then created the concept based on that.
What radical acceptance is Not?
Radical acceptance is not approving of the circumstances that have happened with you. Nor is it about not showing feelings towards those circumstances or changes. Radical acceptance acknowledges the fact that we're all going to have feelings about something, but at the end of the day, it's important to learn that you can't change everything.
How do you practice acceptance in everyday life?
Here are some ways to practice acceptance.
- Be mindful of your thoughts and feelings towards something. Are they valid, or do they come from biases or things you can't control? If it's the latter, learn to control them.
- Try finding the good in everything, even a situation that seems unfortunate. Looking on the bright side does sound like cheesy advice, but there's a reason why it's so used. There are many reasons why you should be positive, even if the world is negative.
- Be mindful of your judgments. If you see someone who you dislike because they are different, try figuring out what it is about them that bothers you. Is there a way for you to change that?
- Seek help from a counselor or therapist.
How do you accept difficult circumstances?
Acceptance is about accepting anything, even the most difficult of circumstances. Sometimes, we're hit with the worst luck, and it can be a challenge to accept it. However, it's wise for you to accept these parts of life. With that said, we do realize that it's not easy. Here are some ways you can accept difficult circumstances better.
- Don't be in denial of the circumstances. If you're in denial, you may end up putting these problems on the back burner, which can lead to the problems worsening over time. Accepting reality is important, even if that means accepting the reality that is uncomfortable for you.
- Sort out the problem and figure out if there's something you can do to change it. Some problems are beyond your control, and other times, you can make changes.
- If you can, think of a plan to handle it. Also, don't be afraid to seek help from friends, family members, or therapists. Even if you feel like that's swallowing your pride, you should always get help whenever you can.
- Acceptance things you cannot change. Practice mindfulness and instead focus on circumstances you can make changes to.
- With that said, it's okay for you to vent some emotions about these circumstances. Keeping your feelings bottled up and radically accepting how you feel may end up backfiring in some cases.
How do you practice acceptance of others?
Accepting others who are different from you is something that you should practice in most cases, but many people do not. Even if you would say that you're open-minded, you have your biases and it's difficult for you to be able to accept others at times. However, practicing acceptance is something that anyone can do. If you want to practice acceptance, here are some ways you can achieve it.
- Practicing acceptance means using empathy. Think about what would happen if you were in their shoes. How would you feel if you were criticized for being different?
- Learn more about their differences. Instead of making judgments, do your research. And if the person is open to questions, feel free to ask them.
- Accepting means getting past your thoughts. No matter how you accept someone, you may still have negative thoughts that pop up in your head. Practicing mindfulness and cognitive behavioral therapy can help with that.
- If you're having trouble accepting someone, a therapist or counselor may be able to help. Sometimes, your refusal to show acceptance towards someone stems from something in your past, and a therapist may help you to sort that out.
Radical Acceptance and Healing
Although radical acceptance might at first seem simple enough, it is actually a powerful tool to improve any mental health ailments you might have. Whether you practice alone or engage the help of a mental health professional, radical acceptance can prove to be a powerful ally in improving your overall health and well-being. Take the first step today.