Radical Acceptance and how to get there

Radical acceptance is the practice of accepting things as they are and acknowledging that circumstances cannot be changed in the right now, including aspects that we don’t like and cannot control, when life is unfair and not as how it should be, when we fail to live up to our ideals of how we should live our lives, and the accompanying negative thoughts and feelings that come with any of the above. Radical acceptance is the act of giving in to reality as it is, and not adding further to our own suffering caused by our own reactions.

Sounds easy right?? Oftentimes this practice may seem easy in the beginning as we confuse it with the notion of tolerance, or just “putting up with it” or “putting it to the side” until it goes away. We often experience some measure of success as we start to feel better and an initial reduction in the negative thoughts and distressing feelings is reported. However where it begins to get harder is when we have been industrious in practicing radical acceptance as we understand it.. and “things are still the same” or “I am not getting better”!

So what went wrong?

Essentially, radical acceptance requires that the individual let go of all pre-conceived notions, judgments and expectations, that is, to accept things as they are now and more importantly, not place any expectations on when things may change, improve or pressure ourselves into being “better people”. As such it means acknowledging that we are “this person or this situation” right now, and to not place judgment or to ‘fight’ against our negative feeling or current reality as it is. Of course, this does not mean condoning behaviours or agreeing with things that run contrary to our values. It also does not mean giving up our needs or pretending that the situation does not exist or that changes are not necessary where they are possible. On a counterintuitive level, radical acceptance requires regular practice without expectation of success.

Radical acceptance is also about embracing ourselves as a whole, our strengths, areas of vulnerabilities, and everything in between. It involves acknowledging who we are at this point, and choosing to own our perceptions and reactions, and to forego judgment and the ever-present fear of negative evaluation of others on ourselves, of others by ourselves, and of ourselves on ourselves. Radical acceptance means making changes that align with where we want to be and what we want to be doing, rather than what we want to get rid of or feel pressured to do or become. Some steps that can assist us along this journey include:

  1. Seeing things for what they are – Identify your roles and that of others in the situation, and having a better understanding of how things came to pass. Refrain from blaming, judging or railing against aspects that you don’t like or seem unfair, notice when your own expectations or ideals are not met, or when there are fears involved.
  2. Consciously choosing to accept the situation, ourselves – Make a conscious decision to embrace and acknowledge the pain, not so much to stop it, but more because the pain is part of the process, just like how our vulnerabilities and parts of us that we don’t like are also part of us.
  3. Planning and making changes where we can in alignment with our dreams, desires –Make changes where is possible for a better outcome, to consciously begin to love the whole of yourself and to make changes that resonate with your values. Stop judging or castigating yourself on your flaws and beware the monkey mind that tries to stop you from trying things through ruminations, self-blames, catastrophisations, “what ifs” and “if onlys”.
  4. Making time to reflect on our choices and becoming aware of any expectations or judgments that we may unconsciously begun to place on ourselves, others etc – Take time out to identify any roadblocks or internal pressures that may have subtly begun to take hold especially after the first two weeks of practicing radical acceptance, and in the next three months that follow. Often we tend to feel that things don’t work when the emotions or negative thoughts do not abate or disappear. Remember, those are signs that we are not actually practicing radical acceptance in its intended form, but as a means to get rid of what it is we do not want.
  5. Repeat from Step 1 again.

    Those who are interested in learning more about Radical Acceptance and Dialectical Behavioural Therapy (DBT) can read and try the exercises here:
    (on how Marsha Lineham, creator of DBT, came up with radical acceptance)

Written by:
Dr. Daphne Goh
Clinical Psychologist

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