Radical Acceptance: How do you respond when reality bites?
A 35 year old single woman at a baby shower. A 28 year old banker living at home dreaming of financial independence. Another woman, 53, unable to go tramping in the South Island because of chronic back pain. What do all of these situations have in common?
Each of these people wish something else was going on rather than the current reality.
“Radical acceptance” a concept taken from dialectical behaviour therapy, is the ability to accept the current situation we find ourselves in and cope effectively. Many of us, myself included, quickly move to change a situation we don’t like without first seeing the situation as it is — including the thoughts, feelings and body sensations that come with it — and acknowledging its emotional impact on us.
The woman at the baby shower may, after politely handing over her gift, be tempted to leave the room full of mothers and children, but how much more authentic to acknowledge the mixed emotions of happiness for her friend’s impending baby and own sadness that this has not eventuated so far for her, even acknowledging the uncomfortable possibility that it will not occur.
Without acceptance, unacknowledged emotion has a way of building up and leaking out. Our single woman may complain that “all good men are either married or gay” possibly alienating herself from friends or possible opportunities to meet people. Acceptance of a situation is not the same as doing nothing about it.
Acceptance is rather experiencing the unpleasant emotion without fighting it or giving up in passive resignation. Our single woman may go home to take practical measures to help herself — e-mail her friends to set her up on blind dates or sign up for internet dating.
To practice radical acceptance, try:
- Acknowledging the reality of the situation for example: “This is how it is”. In the examples above this might be saying to yourself “I am single” or “I have $10,000 less than I used to have” or “ I have been made redundant from December”. These are factual statements with no interpretation.
- Recognise that the reality is only for this moment in time, it is not for ever, for example “at the moment, I am single.”
- Notice any feelings that show up (for example sadness) and let them be there without trying to push them away, and acknowledge that it is normal to feel sad when your desires are not met.
- If the feelings get too intense, do something else and return to it later.
- Get support from family and friends or a therapist if necessary.