I’ve definitely been practicing what I preach lately, especially when it comes to radical acceptance. Radical acceptance is a concept that underlies Buddhist philosophy and has been written about at great length by one of my favorite authors, Tara Brach. It is also at the foundation of distress tolerance practices in DBT (Dialectical Behavior Therapy), which I have added to my practice recently.
So what is radical acceptance? It means accepting reality (and that includes our life, ourselves, others, our emotions, our current situation) as it is – not necessarily liking it but not fighting against or judging or resisting it. It is the true understanding that, as much as we would like to, we cannot control many things. It is letting go of the things we cannot control – and that is where the fundamentally important shift occurs.
We go through periods in our lives when things seem to be moving along quite nicely and then – slam! Something hits us unexpectedly and knocks us right off our smooth path. We often react by fighting the reality of what has occurred, and then what follows is a range of emotions, thoughts and judgments that can leave us feeling flooded, which makes the unexpected event or situation even worse.
Radical acceptance provides an alternative that allows us to accept the reality of our current situation, although it may be painful, challenging, or frustrating, but not add to our distress by resisting reality and by engaging in thoughts or actions that only increase our suffering.
We spend an extraordinary amount of energy fighting our reality when it is not what we hoped it would be. Often this energy is spent wishing that other people would change so that we can finally get what we want from them. Sadly, we also expend a lot of energy failing to radically accept ourselves. Instead, we judge ourselves and our emotions harshly, often believing that we “should” be or feel something other than what we actually are or feel.
Paradoxically, when we can truly accept our reality, we find that shifts occur. When we accept that others will not change, we then can determine how we might learn to interact with them more effectively or we decide to let certain things go that get in the way of true connection. When we accept ourselves and our experience without judgment, we can open to sadness or other difficult emotions, and then often find peace when we give up resistance. We often resist difficult emotions because we are afraid we will not be able to tolerate them. But it is the resistance that often causes greater suffering for us than the emotions. When we accept pain when it occurs, we find that we can tolerate it although we would not necessarily have chosen it.
All of us would like to travel along a smooth path without obstacles, challenges, or pain. But we know (and must accept) that life will throw the unexpected in our way. Although we often would not choose these obstacles, we can choose how we will meet them. I’ve had a few of these come my way recently. I can honestly say that, while I would not have wished for any of them, my efforts to embrace my reality with radical acceptance has lessened the suffering and allowed me to continue to live fully in the present moment.