DBT Skills to Know - Radical Acceptance

The concept of Radical Acceptance is rooted in the idea that all suffering originated not in pain, but in our attachment to pain. In fact, Radical Acceptance has origins in Buddhism with the tenant that relief from suffering begins first and foremost with acceptance. 

As a Dialectical Behavior Therapy skill, Radical Acceptance refers to the ability to accept our situation when the circumstances are out of our control, which can reduce the suffering we feel. Instead of being attached to our past pain, for instance, Radical Acceptance dictates a lack of judgment toward our experiences and a detachment from them. Detachment does not mean avoiding emotion, but rather observing our situation or experiences without letting them increase our sense of suffering. It’s easy to allow ourselves to feel worse than is necessary, or to get caught up in an emotionally destructive spiral. Radical Acceptance suggests we accept our reality without getting absorbed by emotional reactivity to that reality. 

Understanding Radical Acceptance 

DBT advocates will willingly admit that Radical Acceptance is not an easy skill to master. In fact, it can take a lifetime to practice in order to utilize it effectively. Using the skill of Radical Acceptance begins with recognizing when you are out of control in a situation or circumstance (such as job loss, death of a loved one, a breakup, etc), and both recognizing that your grief and disappointment are normal, while not prolonging or amplifying their impact by avoiding acceptance of your experience. 

Faking happiness is not what Radical Acceptance is about. Rather, the goal is to avoid fighting against your reality in order to find the peace of acceptance. It can be very difficult to do this in the moment when things are out of your control, but finding ways to keep your emotions from running wild will significantly decrease any emotional pain. 

Radical Acceptance in DBT 

Radical Acceptance originated within the practice of DBT, as developed by psychologist Marsha Linehan in the ‘90s. This type of therapy is particularly good for individuals with Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD), and anyone who experiences intense emotional highs and lows. The word Dialectical in DBT refers to a healthy balance of two seemingly opposite extremes: acceptance and change. When we learn to embracing our logical mind while still experiencing emotions, we are able to take purposeful actions rather than letting our emotions dictate our state of mind. 

Throughout DBT therapy, patients learn how to practice “Distress Tolerance” which keeps them from amplifying painful situations long-term. Radical Acceptance is a key tenant of the Distress Tolerance module. 

Practicing Radical Acceptance 

Pain is an unavoidable part of our lives, but Radical Acceptance reminds us that we are in control of our reactions to pain and can avoid feeling helpless by moving toward calm, rational thoughts. We are in control of the way we view every experience, even the negative ones. 

A lack of acceptance is a normal human reaction to pain. Sometimes we can have trouble accepting challenges and frustrations because accepting them feels like agreement or approval. That’s not the case! Accepting a situation doesn’t mean you believe it is OK, but it does mean you can avoid emotions that spiral into anxiety, depression, addiction, and other mental health conditions. 

Practicing Radical Acceptance means learning to focus on what you can control in the middle of distressing situations, and practicing self care and resourcefulness to remain grounded. Here are some thoughts that can indicate you may need to take a step back to practice Radical Acceptance in the moment: 

  • This isn’t fair.
  • I can’t believe this is happening.
  • I don’t deserve this. 
  • Why is this happening to me?
  • I can’t survive this. 
  • Why did this happen now?
  • How do I deserve this? 
  • No one cares about me. 
  • Everyone is working against me. 
  • I have the worst luck. 
  • I never catch a break. 
  • I wish things were different. 
  • I can’t accept this. 
  • I’m never going to recover from this. 
  • I shouldn’t have to deal with this. 

These types of thoughts and others like them are a great indicator to step back and work to distance yourself from the situation in order to view it in new ways, and to keep your emotions from spiraling out of control. When you notice these types of emotions, take time to step back and do the following: 

  1. Focus on breathing deeply and examining your thoughts. Feel them, but let them pass. 
  2. Think about what you are feeling in your body. Sit with any tension (for instance, in your chest, neck, back) and practice mindfulness. 
  3. Remind yourself that your situation can’t be changed by your reaction to it.
  4. Consider what acceptance would look like, in your mind, body, and actions. 
  5. Remind yourself that life is worth living despite your present circumstances. 
  6. Remind yourself of the facts, and avoid judging the situation at hand. 
  7. Remind yourself we are all human and make mistakes. Try to avoid seeing everything as black and white. 
  8. Think about the specific things you are struggling to accept with your present situation. 
  9. Think about the cause of these things/your situation. 
  10. Make a specific, purposeful plan about how you want to feel and what you want to do next. 

Key Coping Statements 

These Radical Acceptance coping statements can help you in the moment as you learn to accept a situation and move on. 

  • I can only control my reactions. 
  • When I fight my situation, I am enabling it to have a bigger negative impact. 
  • I can’t change what’s happening. 
  • I can accept my present moment. 
  • I can work through these difficult emotions. 
  • I will get through this. 
  • I know these feelings will fade, even if they’re painful in the moment. 
  • I can feel these feelings, but still find ways to stay calm and in control. 
  • I can choose a new path. 
  • When I remain grounded, I can make good choices to solve my problems. 
  • I release myself from judgment or blame. 
  • I choose to stay grounded in the moment. 

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Some situations are not deserving of Radical Acceptance. In the following situations, it is likely that changing your situation is much better than accepting the way they are. 

  1. Abusive Relationships
  2. Dangerous Environments 
  3. Harassment or Stalking
  4. Repeated Disrespect
  5. Being Paid Unfairly
  6. When You CAN Make a Change to Improve Your Situation 
  7. When You Might Use Acceptance as Avoidance

No matter who you are, everyone can benefit from Radical Acceptance. Take the time to bring this new concept into your life in order to enjoy greater peace and move on in a healthier and faster way from negative situations. 

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