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Radical Acceptance encompasses acceptance and change

Updated August 2021

A definition and overview of DBT’s Distress Tolerance can be found here.

Radical Acceptance is a large concept. And a large skill to practice.

Radical Acceptance is a specific Distress Tolerance skill you can practice to help you get through emotional situations.

Situations where your emotions can hijack your body and mind and you might do or say something impulsive that you later regret. Situations that put you into fight or flight mode. Situations where you stop breathing and thinking.

We all have those situations and yes, we’ve all done and said things we regret. It’s not about being perfect, it’s about moving forward and practicing new skills, trying on new behaviors for size and then practicing those new behaviors in your life so that you are happier.

The Distress Tolerance skills are so you don’t give in to the urge to act. They help you stop and give you breathing room to think before you act.

Radical Acceptance Encompasses Both Acceptance & Change

The underlying concept of Distress Tolerance is Radical Acceptance, an attitude borrowed from Eastern philosophies.

It’s acceptance of the reality of life, as it is, cultivating a non-judgmental attitude. It’s acceptance that pain is a part of life, that we cannot eliminate pain from our lives, but we can reduce extreme pain and reduce extreme suffering to ordinary pain. Judgement and non-acceptance cause suffering and extreme pain.

The goal of radical acceptance is to accept reality as it is without “…throwing a tantrum or responding with willful ineffectiveness.” (Linehan, p. 451).

What’s very important as part of Radical Acceptance is that learning to accept reality is not approval and passivity. Accepting reality is imbedded in the dialectic of acceptance and change.

So, you learn to skillfully walk the line of acceptance of the situation and yourself and the realistic ability to change the situation (or yourself). And do this without beating yourself up, giving up or being consumed with shame. Radical Acceptance helps you become free of intense desires and cravings and lets you open up to peace and contentment.

Radical Acceptance is an emotional, psychological and, yes, spiritual attitude that helps us recognize the limitations we all realistically have.

It’s not a religious attitude but a philosophical one, so it can be blended with your personal religious beef system. Radical Acceptance can encompass the concepts of endurance and acknowledgment as a pathway towards acceptance.

It’s accepting the facts of reality. Facts such as: we all have limitations. Biological, environment and circumstantial limitations. Obviously, not all of us are going to be models or athletes. And some of us do have bipolar disorder, schizophrenia or social anxiety that limits us in our ability to be employed or have easier relationships.

But wishing these limitations away don’t or won’t make them go away, but instead, causes grief, anger, bitterness, guilt, and shame.

So Radical Acceptance is about not constantly wishing things to be different when they cannot, but learning to accept life as it is without judgment.

Radical Acceptance alleviates shame, bitterness and anger.

It’s important to know that Radical Acceptance is not approval. It’s a way of looking at the facts as they are and accepting the situation without bitterness. Radical acceptance is more than a grudging acceptance of reality; it is an acceptance emotionally, physically and at a soul level. Radical acceptance of a situation gives your heart the room to open to the world as it is and to move on realistically.

Always remember that there’s the underlying dynamic of acceptance and change.

What is is NOT: Saying to yourself “I accept that I am worthless and stupid.”

These are not facts, these are your negative thoughts and feelings about yourself. Feelings aren’t facts.

What it is: You are living in an abusive situation, with no job and no money to get out. You cry everyday and feel sick and are terrified every day. This situation is of course, not right, but you keep thinking that it will get better and you shouldn’t be there. But, unfortunately, you are there. Radical acceptance is looking at this situation, gathering the facts and realizing there’s a power/money/other differential at play here and it’s been going on for 3 years, and it’s not going to get better. It is what it is.

A lot of emotionality and emotional behaviors won’t release you. Openly fighting back gets you beat up, running away impulsively leaves you with no where to go and giving up leaves you depressed and stuck in the situation.

But being realistic can help you survive and then gain psychic space to plan how to act in your best interest and find a way to look for realistic help to get out.

What it is: You are feeling suicidal over your disability. You have not been able to find work. You tell yourself, “I am worthless, I am ugly.” It’s more skillful to accept your feelings and not judge yourself. To look at you situation realistically and plan accordingly. Yes, you have limitations imposed by your disability. And you are a worthwhile person within those realistic limitations. There is beauty in life even if you need to live within certain limitations. You can step back and know that:

“Life can be worth living even when there is pain.”

So, applying Radical Acceptance to your life doesn’t mean that you just accept things as they are. But it is way to calm your body and mind. Accepting life and its inherent limitations, but also balancing acceptance with your knowledge that there may be a time for change to happen, when it is possible to happen.

Radical Acceptance is a large concept. And a large skill to practice.

Be kind to yourself. All skills take time to learn; DBT skills are no different. Just remember to be kind to yourself. Give yourself time to learn and practice the skills until they become a natural part of your thoughts and behaviors.

The steps to learning such skills are:

  1. learn them in a group or with a private therapist

  2. practice the skill as homework and and

  3. then slowly integrate the skills into use in real-life situations

  4. (which means being able to use them when under stress).

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