Radical acceptance helps us expand our perspective of any situation we may face in our lives. By doing so, we create options for ourselves and move away from emotional reactions. We will cover what radical acceptance is, why it’s useful, when to (and not to!) practice it,
“Radical Acceptance” is a skill you can learn that can help to reduce the distress and suffering in your life. The goal behind radical acceptance is to create the ability to see options in your painful situation, especially when those options are initially invisible. While pain (emotional and physical) is an inescapable part of life, this skill can help you to move away from intense emotional reactions and helplessness toward calm and deliberate thought. Radical acceptance teaches us that, although you may not be able to change the facts of a particular situation, you can choose how you view it and how you behave.
Radical Acceptance is one of many skills derived from Dialectical Behavior Therapy, or DBT. DBT is a form of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT), developed to treat borderline personality disorder. It’s treatment of choice for BPD given its demonstrated effectiveness in resolving symptoms, decreasing mortality, and improving quality of life for individuals with this diagnosis. But you don’t need to have borderline personality disorder to benefit from DBT!
DBT has also demonstrated effectiveness for treatment-resistant depression (depression that doesn’t respond to traditional CBT or medication), some eating disorders, trauma-related disorders, and more. Many clinicians will use DBT to address symptoms commonly seen in teens, such as mood dysregulation, self-harm, suicidality, and relationship conflict.
Though it can be hard to pull one skill out of a larger treatment program, radical acceptance is something you can learn and practice on its own to cope with many types of distress. If learning about radical acceptance feels helpful and applicable to you, a therapist trained in CBT and DBT can help you find even more related skills like radical acceptance (RA).
When defining RA, first let’s define what “acceptance” means before we talk about doing it radically! Acceptance means letting go of fighting reality, openness, and acknowledging something as it is. The “radical” part of RA means that the acceptance comes from deep within one’s self and is totally complete. Learning to practice RA can help reduce your overall distress and improve your ability to cope with painful situations.
RA can be practiced when we want to change our reactions to painful events or experiences. Everyone experiences pain in life, whether this stems from difficult events, mental health struggles, or physical illness. In DBT, we understand “suffering” to mean experiencing pain, plus nonacceptance of the pain.
For example, breaking a bone is physically painful, but the emotional distress about feeling that pain adds a layer of “suffering” on top. The injury is painful already; but then you may also experience thoughts like “why did this happen right before summer break?” or “I’m going to be so lonely and miss out on everything.” Those negative thoughts about your pain add more pain to the mix.
Similarly, a relationship breakup can be very painful and difficult to tolerate. But sometimes you have additional thoughts about that hurt, like “why did this breakup happen to me?” and “why can I never find love?” Those thoughts cause pain in addition to the pain you’re already feeling. Addressing suffering is the primary aim of radical acceptance.
A core premise is that learning to accept problems that are out of your control will lead to less anxiety, anger, and sadness when dealing with them. Accepting some types of pain will allow you to learn to tolerate and cope with them, instead of collapsing under the weight of “why me?”
Radical acceptance transforms suffering back into only pain. To revisit the broken bone example, practicing RA would help you ignore the intrusive negative thoughts about the pain going on forever or missing out on fun activities. Instead, you can focus on treating the physical pain you’re in, and introducing alternative coping thoughts like reminding yourself of the temporary nature, promoting healing, and tracking the reduction of your physical pain over time.
In the breakup example, RA could allow you to slow down and focus on the emotional pain you’re in so you can address it more thoroughly. Accepting that breakups are very painful and that it is ok for you to be sad for a period of time lessens your suffering by allowing you to care for yourself. If you are too focused on negative thoughts about the experience, you can miss caring for yourself in the experience.
Events where you experience difficulty “moving on” or adjusting. Especially one that you had or have no control over:
There could be aspects of yourself that you don’t like at all, or parts of yourself you still can’t believe are part of you.
Once you accept something, you will notice that you have additional options. You had the choice to fight against the situation or to accept what was out of your control. Now, you have the power to decide how you want to behave.
Accepting something does NOT necessarily mean that you approve of it or like it. For example, there can be environmental inequities that are morally unacceptable, such as your school prohibiting a same-sex couple from attending prom together due to a religious affiliation. You may practice radical acceptance to protect your own wellbeing as you experience distress related to this injustice. But practicing RA in this case does not mean that you accept the circumstances. In fact, practicing RA may allow you more space and freedom to oppose inequities.
In addition, radical acceptance should not be used in cases where your safety is part of the equation. For example, there can be opportunities to explore acceptance in the context of relationship conflict, but you should never accept relationship violence or abusive behavior from a partner, parent, or anyone in your life.
A therapist can be a helpful person to talk to about what situations are applicable to RA, and help you with personalized strategies for building out an RA practice.
RA is a complex concept and, like most skills, it takes practice! It may be challenging to identify times where you should practice RA versus another distress tolerance skill. With that in mind, here are some examples of thoughts that may signal it’s a good time to use RA:
Here are some example alternative RA thoughts to try out when thoughts like those ones above come up:
The most prevalent myth about radical acceptance is that it’s passive. Many people have the misconception that practicing RA means that you just “accept” any and all circumstances that come your way. This can feel really invalidating to some people - “I’m just supposed to be ok with my cancer diagnosis?” or “it’s on me to be fine with my parents getting divorced?” Radical acceptance is actually a very active stance toward self-preservation. The ultimate goal of RA is to “create options” for yourself by disengaging from suffering.
Another myth about radical acceptance is that you have to be in a DBT program, or have borderline personality disorder for it to apply to you. Anyone who wants to improve the way they respond to stress can practice radical acceptance!
One final myth about radical acceptance is that it always has to make sense to other people. When you begin practicing RA, it may be hard to explain your point of view to others at times. Remember that acceptance comes from deep within one’s self and is totally complete - you are the only one who needs your approval and participation. That being said, the right therapist for you can help you figure out what situations need more acceptance in your life, when acceptance is safe to practice, and help you find other tools in addition to RA to cope with all sorts of stress.
Therapists at Joon Care are particularly experienced with evidence-based interventions like radical acceptance, and are really good at personalizing them for teens and young adults. If you think therapy could be right for you, try getting matched with a therapist at Joon today.