What Is Radical Acceptance?

Medically reviewed by Aaron Dutil, LMHC, LPC
Updated February 2, 2023by BetterHelp Editorial Team

Radical acceptance typically refers to the practice of accepting that which you cannot change or control. It may not mean that you love everything about yourself or the situation you’re experiencing, but it can provide a foundation of acceptance from which to move forward and improve. Therapy, whether in person or online, may help you embrace a perspective of radical acceptance.

What Is Radical Acceptance?

Radical Acceptance May Help You Cope With Difficult Situations.

Radical acceptance is a practice developed by psychologist Marsha Linehan. Often used in dialectical behavior therapy (DBT), this practice was created based on the notion that reality must be accepted, rather than fought against, and that fighting and railing against a situation can be a greater cause of distress than the situation itself. 

As its name suggests, radical acceptance generally means accepting everything about yourself, your current situation, your body, and your life without question, blame, or pushback. Far from condoning or embracing your current difficulties and situation, radical acceptance typically advocates accepting yourself and your circumstances in order to better move through and past them.

Radical acceptance can be helpful for a variety of mental health 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 to do 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 went away. Accepting yourself, your situation, and your mental health status may alleviate some of the symptoms associated with each of these things.

What Causes Suffering?

This question may not be easily answered. What causes an individual, group, or community to suffer can depend greatly on those individuals, their experiences, and the context of the situation. What has become an increasingly common thread, though, may be the notion that attachment (or fixation) can be a significant cause of suffering, separate from any specific religious ideology or philosophical leaning. 

Suffering, in this sense, may be a result of an attachment to an idea, a previous situation, or a determination of what should happen, who you should be, or what your life should be. To acknowledge and accept the entirety of your life and yourself may be to remove yourself from the possibility of experiencing this type of suffering, thus allowing yourself to move forward more readily.

When Radical Acceptance Is Used

Radical acceptance is typically 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, it can be applied to things that occur without us being able to have a hand in them. Each of these scenarios could prompt a response of fury, denial, pain, and fighting – or each of them could be accepted as a new reality and moved on from. 

You can be the author of your own life, and when you reframe statements about your life, you may give yourself permission and space to see things differently and grow. Ultimately, the goal of radical acceptance is typically progression and growth in the place of stagnation and clinging to the past.

If you or a loved one is experiencing abuse, please know that you can contact the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-SAFE (7233) at any time for resources and assistance.

Radical Acceptance Components   

Rather than being a thought or idea, radical acceptance can contain several components to put into practice. It may be good to say to yourself, “I accept myself just as I am,” but unless you live in a way that reinforces that belief, the belief may be useless to you and everyone else. To practice radical acceptance, you might try to:

  • 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 can be living in the future or the past rather than the present moment. Radical acceptance can be a subset of living mindfully and may require you to leave behind any fantasies you might have about your past or your future. It may ask that you root yourself firmly in your life as it truly is, without any judgment, anger, or denial.

This type of practice is not always an easy one to adopt, and it may require guidance. You might read books, consult with a specialist, or see a therapist to develop the tools required to effectively use radical acceptance in your life. Each of these options may largely depend on you, however; ultimately, you may need to be willing to consistently practice and adopt the tenets of radical acceptance, or the approach may 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 may be wholly up to you and may not be forced by anyone else.

The Roots Of Radical Acceptance

Despite functioning as a recognized mental health treatment, radical acceptance is often believed to have roots in Buddhism. One of the basic notions of this world religion is that attachment can be the root of suffering and that the lack of attachment can mean the absence of suffering. If you are not attached to money and a certain standard of living, why suffer when that money has gone? If you are not attached to your identity as a fixed, definitive thing, you may not need to suffer when aspects of your personality or identity inevitably change throughout life.

Radical Acceptance May Help You Cope With Difficult Situations.

This can function as the basis of radical acceptance; accepting yourself and your life can be a form of practicing non-attachment, and it may give 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

When you begin a radical acceptance practice, one of the first things you might do is think about what could be causing you the greatest amount of pain or distress. You might identify trauma, a breakup, or some other unpleasant event in your life as the root of your issues. You might find that your need for radical acceptance comes after your life not taking the turns you’d expected or hoped for. Whatever the case may be, determining the source or sources can be an important part of this work; once you can pinpoint the things that are troubling you, you may begin applying radical acceptance to them.

This work can be done on your own. Using journaling and self-reflection, you might identify the more problematic parts of your past and begin applying the principles of radical acceptance. As you progress, you can continue writing and checking in with yourself to make sure you are consistently applying the tenets of this treatment and actively working toward healing. You can also reflect on previous entries to assess how things are coming along.

Online Therapy May Guide You In Your Journey To Radical Acceptance

If you reach a place in your journey to radical acceptance where you feel stuck, you might 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 provide insight and training for a fully developed radical acceptance practice.

An alternative to traditional therapy could be an online therapy provider. Whether you are hoping to tackle death and grief with radical acceptance, or you’d like to overcome an addiction, online therapists may be available to work with you in a more relaxed setting – that is, from the couch in your living room or even from your bed. 

A 2022 meta-analysis of 41 studies on the efficacy and feasibility of online DBT (one of the primary therapy methods that utilize radical acceptance) found that it can be effective for a variety of people and could even be considered essential for those who cannot leave home or need help outside of traditional sessions.

Takeaway

When you accept the parts of yourself, your circumstances, and your life that you do not have control over, you may be practicing radical acceptance. This type of acceptance can empower you to move forward in a healthy way, and a combination of journaling and therapy may help you employ effective strategies for radical acceptance.

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