Radical Acceptance: How Accepting Our Pain Can Prevent Us From Prolonging Our Suffering

Rishika Singh, LMSW on Jun 07, 2022 in Mood and Feelings

At times in life, we experience events that are so difficult that accepting them may seem nearly impossible. In other instances, it may be more day-to-day frustrations that we cannot come to terms with. There may be no justification for the things in life that cause us pain. We may wish things happened differently. We may not deserve them. Some things don't feel fair at all.

What is radical acceptance?

To radically accept is to wholly and completely see reality for what it is. It is to acknowledge the past and present as facts and stop fighting what cannot be changed.

The idea of radical acceptance has roots in Buddhism, which posits that letting go of want and desire can free us from suffering. The term was coined by Marsha Linehan (the creator of Dialectical Behavior Therapy) after time in a monastery as a strategy for tolerating distress coming to terms with pain as an inevitable part of life.

Radical acceptance is most useful in situations where we do not like the circumstances but for one reason or another do not have a choice in the matter. For example, when feeling unhappy with someone else’s choices or behavior, we cannot control others. Alternatively, when wishing for things to have happened differently in the past, what has already happened cannot be changed.

Why is it Important?

While there will be times when we have no control over the things that cause us pain, our reactions to that pain can prolong our suffering. Specifically, by not accepting things in life that we cannot change, we attach to that pain and prolong our suffering.

To move forward and to make progress, we must be able to make rational choices that are grounded in the reality of how things are.

A simple example: You lose your phone and retrace your steps to look for it but do not find it. You go on to look for it in the same places over and over again. By radically accepting that it is not there, you are made free to move forward and do what you need to do next. You could look somewhere else, borrow another person's phone, look into replacing it. Until we accept the facts, however, we are left stuck.

What radical acceptance is not

Acceptance does not mean we approve of things or that we must become passive and allow anything that is handed to us.

For example, in a relationship involving abuse: Radical acceptance is not accepting being abused. Denial can look like wishing your partner was different ("He shouldn't be this way") or that things had happened differently ("That shouldn't have happened"). Accepting the truth of the situation ("He is like this; that is what happened") is the first step in moving forward. Rather than being a passive act, acceptance can empower us to change what is in our control.

How can I practice acceptance?

  • Look out for signs that you are fighting reality. The word "should" can be a useful indicator: "It shouldn't be this way."
  • Reframe your language: "This is what happened," "These are the facts."
  • Allow yourself to feel the difficult emotions that come with a painful or disappointing truth. This may be anger, sadness, grief. Denial often serves the purpose of protecting us from these feelings but will ultimately leave us stuck.
  • Tune in to what your body needs to cope with these feelings. Practice self-care as you allow yourself to move through these feelings rather than avoid them.
  • Make a list of what the version of yourself who does accept things would do, and begin doing these things. This is akin to "fake it until you make it." Acting in line with acceptance will help you feel acceptance.
  • Remind yourself that pain does not mean that you cannot live a fulfilling and worthwhile life.

Rishika Singh is a Psychotherapist in Brooklyn, NY.

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