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3 Things We Often Get Wrong About Radical Acceptance.

Radical acceptance in therapy is often a hard idea to grasp because of three myths around the idea of "acceptance."

A red car with a yellow hubcap sits with a flat tire.
It can be hard to fix a problem when we don't accept it first.

It was a cold day in January and I had taken one of the unpaved country roads I often used as a shortcut in my morning commute. The sky was gray and a cold drizzle pelted the windshield. The heater was blowing, making the car comfortable and warm as I pulled back onto the pavement and merged with the commuting traffic. Just then, the low-pressure light lit up on my dashboard, its yellow glow a sharp contrast to the blue-gray world outside. I found a place to pull over, zipped up my jacket, and stepped out into the icy chill to look around the car. Sure enough, a sharp rock had sliced a one-inch opening in the front passenger-side tire. It was cold and wet, I was on my way to work, and the last thing I wanted to do was freeze my fingers off changing a tire. I also hated to call in to work and tell them I needed to get my tire fixed before I could make the long commute up to the office. Setting a boundary and putting your needs first is generally more uncomfortable than standing out in the January cold to change a tire.

A lot of thoughts first came to mind. "Why me? Why today? I had driven that road plenty of times just fine! I've only been out here five minutes and it's so cold my fingers already hurt, even with gloves on!" Naturally, there was quite a bit of colorful language sprinkled into my internal dialogue.

But standing there cursing my luck and the weather wasn't going to change the situation. Neither would climbing in the car where it was warm to pretend it didn't happen. And I certainly couldn't continue my commute as if nothing happened without causing a lot more damage to the car!

No, I had to radically accept my situation before I could start to do something about it.

I didn't have to like it, but I did have to accept it.

What is radical acceptance?

As a child of the 1980s, my first thought is often that "radical" acceptance involves acceptance on a skateboard while slamming a Capri-Sun. There might be a Ninja Turtle in there somewhere as well.

A basic description of radical acceptance is the ability to acknowledge your situation and the thoughts, feelings, and even physical sensations that come with it without judgement or getting tangled up in those thoughts and emotions. This is often contrary to the way we approach mental health challenges like anxiety, depression, substance use, grief, and trauma. Very often, we try to pretend like the thoughts and feelings don't exist. We deny the reality of our situation. We put our energy into addressing things other than the challenge we are confronted with. We tell ourselves, or are told by others to, "just get over it" or "suck it up and deal with it."

But these ignore the fact that we are human beings who have emotions and all sorts of random thoughts going on in our head all the time. It's natural to be sad about losing someone. It's understandable that you feel anxious about going out in public presenting as your authentic self in our present culture.

And it's quite acceptable to swear at an inanimate object like a flat car tire when it's near freezing and wet out. Even if you're a therapist.

When I present the idea of radical acceptance to clients, the first reaction is often one of worry, distrust, or even a sense of hopelessness. People go to therapy to change their situation, not simply accept it, right?

And you're completely right on that. But there are three things we often get wrong about radical acceptance that make it challenging to put it into practice.

The TL;DR (Too Long; Didn't Read) of radical acceptance myths.

  1. Radical acceptance is not the same as approval.

  2. Radical acceptance is not giving up or not making any changes.

  3. Radical acceptance is not the same as forgiving those who have hurt you.

Radical acceptance does not mean you approve of or like your circumstances.

The word "acceptance" is actually misleading in the whole radical acceptance idea because we often think of accepting something as being the same as approving of something. Personally, I like to rephrase acceptance as "acknowledgement," as in we acknowledge that, yep, this is a thing.

I didn't have to approve of having a flat tire to accept that was my situation, but I did have to acknowledge and accept that was the situation so that I could change it.

In the same way, you don't have to like that a social situation might make you anxious, but accepting that it does is a good first step to learning how to manage your social anxiety.

It is uncomfortable or even downright painful to admit you're struggling with an addiction, and that's okay. Accepting - or if you prefer, just acknowledging - that this is your situation right now is an important part of changing it.

With any stressful situation, acknowledging that it is the situation in that moment can help you start to unhook from your usual struggle strategies that might often just make the situation worse. By accepting and stepping back from the situation, you can begin to also accept that the work you'll have to do might also be uncomfortable - much like the discomfort of changing a tire on a cold, wet morning.

When you acknowledge your situation and recognize that you don't have to like it to start doing something, you can start to tackle the next myth about radical acceptance.

Radical acceptance is not the same as giving up and not changing things.

You might hear the word "acceptance" and think that accepting a situation is the same as giving up on it and doing nothing. Really, you're once again just acknowledging that your situation is whatever it is to gain a different perspective. Once you have that, you can start to consider what parts you can change and what parts might need a certain amount of acceptance. There may be things you can't change, after all. You can't change your past. You may not be able to change your financial situation right now. You can't control how other people behave or will respond to the changes you want to make in your own life.

It might sound like accepting all of these things you can't change is like telling you to give up and do nothing and learn to like your situation. But remember, acceptance doesn't mean you like something and it doesn't mean you don't do anything. It just means you let go of the urge to control what you can't change so that you have more focus and energy for the things you can change.

I couldn't change the weather, but I could change my tire.

Let's say you're learning to set better boundaries with people and say "no" to unreasonable requests. You can't change how people are going to react to you setting that boundary. People are going to do what they're going to do. But what you can do is accept that you have no control over their reactions and whether or not they get mad.

Then, accepting that reality, you can also change how you respond to your fears that they'll get mad and learn to stand firm with your boundaries. You can acknowledge that you will probably struggle with guilt for saying no to someone at first. But by accepting that you will have that uncomfortable feeling you also step into a place of power to bring about change in your life.

When you radically accept that your situation is what it presently is - complete with a good look at what you can and can't change - you start to free yourself up to focus your work on those things you can change.

Which brings us to the final area of confusion about radical acceptance.

Radical acceptance is not the same as forgiveness.

Radical acceptance can be a challenging idea if you've experienced abuse or trauma because of another person, group, or organization. If you have experienced trauma or abuse because of someone else such as a parent, friend, or authority figure, you might have been told you need to "forgive and forget" or "turn the other cheek." You may feel like you are being told you need to just ignore what happened and how it affects you even now. This can be especially hurtful if you come from a spiritual or religious background that puts emphasis on things like forgiveness, because you're being told to ignore your hurt and trauma is the "good" thing to do.

This can also create blockages in therapy if you're worried that learning to rise above the pain of trauma or abuse means that you've somehow forgiven your abuser or "let them off the hook." Clients sometimes feel like holding onto the pain of their suffering is what gives it meaning or ensures the other person is suffering for what they did. This can also turn into things like addictions to try and numb the pain or self-harm to give the pain physical expression.

There is a saying that has been attributed to many influential figures that goes something like, "Holding a grudge is like drinking poison and expecting the other person to get sick." Holding onto the pain of trauma or abuse really only hurts one person - you.

Let me be clear, accepting - or acknowledging - that trauma or abuse happened because of another person does not mean you must forgive them, condone their actions, make excuses for them, or absolve them of the choices they made to do the things they did. You may choose to do that if that is part of your journey or value system, but it doesn't mean its required.

I have had plenty of clients that came to conclusions about why a parent may have acted the way they did without condoning the parent's choices and actions. In doing so, they were able to accept that the hurt or neglect happened and start to focus on their own needs in therapy while also not feeling compelled to absolve the parent nor hold onto the pain.

They learned to accept what was and relax their tight hold on it to focus on the present and future they wanted for themselves.

What things are you struggling to accept?

People often start considering therapy when they're at the point of just starting to accept that they need help with something. Or sometimes they know they are struggling but not sure why or what to do about it.

Maybe you're struggling to accept that avoidance of anxiety-producing situations is only making your anxiety worse.

Maybe you're struggling to accept that you do have the power to break the cycle of depression and sadness to create a life worth living.

Maybe you're struggling to accept that you are gay, pansexual, asexual, or transgender. Or maybe you're struggling to accept that being who you are authentically will have have positive results but also have challenges.

Whatever you're struggling to accept, you have it in you to face the challenges ahead. You are strong and can tackle the discomfort of making change while accepting those things you can't change.

You've got this. I believe in you.



My approach to therapy is grounded in ACT and DBT, both of which help build skills for radical acceptance. Are you struggling with acceptance in your situation and want to talk about working together in your challenges? Click the link below to contact me for a free, no-pressure 20-minute consultation call to get started.


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