I often hear people using words such as “feeling stuck” or “trapped” by the problems they are facing in their lives. This is often related to difficulty accepting or contacting painful thoughts, emotions, sensations and circumstances. They are caught in a cycle of suffering. After all, the human mind is programmed to avoid and control pain as much as possible. This works very well, for example, when we want to avoid touching a hot stove. However, it doesn’t work very well for our internal experiences or situations that we cannot control. In therapy, one process that many people find helpful is the concept of acceptance work. Practicing radical acceptance helps us to find peace in the chaos.
Radical acceptance is considered a distress tolerance skill in Dialectical Behavioral Therapy, developed by Marsha Linehan. It is an option for coping with emotional pain. The core concept of radical acceptance is that pain is to be expected as a normal part of life. At times, people experience pain resulting from difficult life circumstances, grief and loss or trauma. Everyone experiences pain at some point or another and everyone faces problems throughout their lifetime. Depending on how we react to painful life experiences, we may turn our pain into suffering. The concept of radical acceptance suggests that practicing acceptance work may decrease unnecessary suffering.
The example I often refer to is slipping into quicksand. Instinctually, we may want to fight and crawl out. However, in quicksand, this can quickly lead to sinking further down as the unequal distribution of your limbs create potentially suffocating suction. It is counter-intuitive, but the safest option is to spread out, touch the surface of the quicksand and float in it. Can you imagine? Imagine how uncomfortable and terrifying it might feel to float in quicksand, giving in to the complete uncertainty as to what may happen next. I notice anxiety popping up just thinking about it. However, sometimes in life, the best we can do – is not to make it worse.
This is where radical acceptance work comes in. However, it isn’t as simple as giving up, giving in and checking out of your life. No. It is the opposite. Radical acceptance allows us to release ourselves from chronic suffering in order to free up our resources for moving forward. This is an opportunity to let go of the struggle and move toward freedom. Radical acceptance is an active choice – and there are a handful of steps that may need to be exhausted before radical acceptance is truly necessary or attainable. Here are the 4 choices we have when faced with a problem:
The first option is to change the situation that is causing the pain. We can problem solve and take action toward change. A few examples may include leaving a dead-end job, ending a toxic relationship, seeking medical advice or changing a habit that no longer serves us. This step requires us to take an honest assessment of the situation, potential options and to be willing to take action.
If the situation cannot be changed, altering how you think about it might change the experience. Sometimes, people gain comfort in seeking silver linings and otherwise finding meaning in painful experiences. Sometimes, it may be beneficial to consider the grey areas. This could be as simple as noticing all or nothing thinking patterns; and shifting toward a more dialectical approach. Typically, replacing the word “or” with “and” could be helpful here. For example, if your mind produces the thought, “they either love me or they hate me;” you may want to try something like, “they seem to recognize both my strengths and weaknesses.”
This presents the option to walk off the battlefield, even if the war is still raging on. This is very difficult to do, especially since we usually really just want the war to stop. This is the step where I have to remind myself or other people that acceptance is not the same as condoning the pain or liking the pain. It simply means, “it is what it is.” Radical acceptance means that we are choosing to stop fighting an unwinnable battle; and to instead shift focus toward something else. This is painful, but we are letting go of the suffering. This means actively choosing to acknowledge and make contact with the pain. This means we are willing to fully experience the situation, all of our emotions, all of our thoughts; without trying to change, protest or escape it.
Until we are able to radically accept things that we cannot control or change, we will continue to struggle with feeling stuck in avoidance. We may struggle with rage, denial, distraction, bargaining and other unworkable coping strategies throughout our lives as we practice allowing ourselves to open up to our pain. It might help to remember that acceptance is sort of like a doorway to freedom. The goal is no longer to avoid or control pain, but to live fully.
Practicing Radical acceptance entails actively choosing to find peace in the chaos. It helps to transform suffering into freedom. This empowers people to work on living well with the necessary pain in life. The four steps in acceptance work may not always happen in a linear sequence, and will vary throughout life depending on the context of ourselves, our pain and our suffering. It is a practice, an option, that is available to us at any time.
Linehan, M. (1993). Cognitive Behavioral Treatment of Borderline Personality Disorder. New York: Guilford Press.
Linehan, M. (2015a). DBT Skills Training Manual, 2nd ed. New York: Guilford Press.
Linehan, M. (2015b). DBT Skills Training Handouts and Worksheets, 2nd ed. New York: Guilford Press.