Radical acceptance is the belief that suffering doesn’t come from pain but rather your attachment to that pain, which must be released or “accepted.” It’s a belief rooted in Buddhism, and psychologist Carl Rogers asserts that acceptance is the first step toward true, meaningful change.
Radical acceptance involves the ability to accept situations that are outside your control without judging them, which reduces the suffering you experience in those situations. It’s not approving of the situation but instead accepting that you’re in it, dealing with it, and moving forward. By choosing to practice radical acceptance of the things we cannot control, we can stop ourselves from becoming stuck, unhappy, bitter, angry, and sad; we can avoid suffering.
Instead of being attached to painful past experiences, nonattachment is the key to overcoming suffering. Nonattachment doesn’t mean avoiding or ignoring your feelings – instead, you don’t allow your feelings to fester, and you explore them in a healthy, safe way.
What Does Radical Acceptance Look Like?
Radical acceptance can require a lifetime of work to truly execute. It’s often applied to situations when you can’t change the outcome of things (no matter how badly you want to), especially situations that feel unfair and out of your control. This could mean being laid off from a job or losing a loved one. Grief and disappointment are natural emotions to feel, but suffering occurs when you refuse to accept the situation you’re in.
Anyone can practice radical acceptance. It often benefits those who find themselves feeling stuck in negative emotions related to past experiences that they feel they could’ve avoided. Radical acceptance can be hard to follow when you’re in a negative headspace, but letting your emotions get the better of you will only prolong any pain you’re experiencing.
Radical acceptance can sound similar to forgiveness, but they’re very different. Forgiveness involves performing an act of kindness to another person. Radical acceptance is an act of kindness to yourself.
Normal acceptance vs. radical acceptance
Radical acceptance is not a passive act but a conscious decision to see things differently. Rather than resisting, intentionally being radical in your views changes what you can accept. The goal behind practicing radical acceptance is for you to be able to clearly see all the options you have in any given situation. For example: If you’re in chronic pain, you can choose to believe that even though your life is painful, there are good moments and life is worth living. Living your life with this mindset is the idea behind radical acceptance.
Ironically, sometimes it is only when you finally come to terms with and accept what’s happened that you’re able to go ahead and make the changes that’ll allow you to feel better about everything.
The History of Practicing Radical Acceptance
Radical acceptance began as a part of dialectical behavior therapy (DBT). DBT was developed by psychologist Marsha Linehan, PhD, in 1993 to help people diagnosed with borderline personality disorder deal with their intense emotions. During DBT sessions, clients learn how to practice distress tolerance, which can enable them to stop turning painful or traumatic experiences into long-term suffering.
How to Practice Radical Acceptance
If you’re unable to solve a problem you’re presented with, change your perspective on the situation; if you feel stuck, radical acceptance may be the answer you’re looking for.
Observe your emotions.
When presented with a challenge, how do you normally react? Do you become frustrated and focus on the negative aspects of the situation? Or do you approach the obstacle from all angles, to determine the best way forward? Practicing radical acceptance means accepting any challenge ahead of you and not wallowing in the fact that you’re faced with a challenge at all.
Seek professional help.
Working with a mental health professional can provide a fresh perspective on the issues you’re facing. Therapists can give you a better understanding of your emotions, teach communication and self-soothing skills, and boost your confidence in your ability.
Explore coping statements.
Coping statements help put a stop to negative thoughts of self-doubt and anger and then replace those thoughts with rational ones. When practiced, this form of gentle conditioning can help keep thoughts of self-doubt from cropping up in the first place. These statements can include:
- I can’t change the things that have happened in the past.
- I will survive, and this feeling will fade ‒ even though life feels painful right now.
- It’s possible for me to feel anxiety but still manage this situation in an effective way.
- I don’t understand why this happened, but I can accept that it did.
- Even though I might not like what happened, the present moment is exactly what it is.
When and Where Should You Practice Radical Acceptance?
During times of strife, pay attention to how you speak to yourself. “Should” statements are one clue that you’re not accepting reality. These sound like “This shouldn’t be happening to me,” “I shouldn’t have done that,” or “I should be able to fix this.”
There’s underlying judgment in these statements, a hidden belief that things ought to be different from how they are. Refusing to accept your reality can leave you suffering in negative emotions instead of looking forward. Times of hardship often call for radical acceptance, but the practice can also be used:
- During times of grief
- When you feel unable to move forward
- To control your emotional response
- After a loss
There are some times when radical acceptance isn’t the most effective and can actually do more harm than good. Often in these situations, you may put yourself in danger if you practice radical acceptance ‒examples include staying in an unsafe or abusive relationship or being harassed at work. Radical acceptance also isn’t advised in situations where you have some degree of control or you can make a change to improve your circumstances.
The Bottom Line
The ability to accept challenges – both large and small – is an important part of learning to cope, building resilience, and living a happy and healthy life. When you practice radical acceptance, you’ll still feel disappointment, sadness, and maybe even fear, but you won’t add the pain of nonacceptance to these emotions and situations.