When times get tough and nothing makes sense, most of us do one of two things:
- We shut down and self-isolate;
- We try to push back against what’s happening or deny it.
Neither of these responses work. They disempower us and they actually make the hard times worse.
From dealing with severe anxiety in the past to rejection and career ups and downs, I found something that does work when times get chaotic and hard:
Here’s how radical acceptance works in a practical sense…
1) Don’t deny what’s happening
Many of our first responses to trauma is to deny it happened or that it is what it is.
This is counterproductive and ends up increasing suffering, because you can’t resolve something or move on if you don’t face that it happened.
- Refusing to accept a breakup
- Trying to distract or deny yourself from how lonely you feel
- Running from past bullying, abuse or mistreatment and trying to forget it ever happened
- Using alcohol, drugs, sex, gambling and other tools to try to run from stress and stressful people who are negatively impacting your life
- Downplaying the seriousness of an injury you suffered
- Not accepting that you’ve lost a job
- Denying a death of someone close to you
When we deny, we self-sabotage.
When times are tough or something difficult has happened it’s crucial to accept the reality of what’s going on so that you can begin to process it.
2) Accept what you feel without making it your story
Radical acceptance is about feeling what you feel and accepting your thoughts without making them part of your story or clinging to them.
You radically accept what’s happening and even observe your own attempts to resist and deny what’s happening.
What you’re feeling is what you’re feeling.
The situation is what the situation is.
It may be horrible. It may be frustrating, depressing, you may even see no way out.
Accept that you see no way out.
The author Louise Erdrich puts it in a melancholy but powerful way when she writes that:
“Life will break you. Nobody can protect you from that, and being alone won’t either, for solitude will also break you with its yearning.
“You have to love. You have to feel.
“It is the reason you are here on earth. You have to risk your heart. You are here to be swallowed up.”
3) Pause and breathe
The first key to radical acceptance is to pause and breathe.
Your mind and emotions are likely to be in a state of intense shock, frustration, anger, sadness and many other states.
This is natural and so is your instinct to deny what’s happening.
Sit with it and breathe.
You are not your situation, and no matter how bad things are right now, there is only a limited amount you can change.
By focusing your energy and attention on radical acceptance, you build a small core of stability in the midst of the storm.
Sit in a quiet place and breathe. Focus on your inhalation and then exhalation, breathing in for three beats and breathing out for six beats.
Let the difficult emotions happen, cry if you want to, shout if you want to, but return to the breathing.
Sink into this moment and acceptance of the situation you’re in.
It may be deeply unfair, have no lessons to teach you or even be the repetition of an experience you’ve had many times before and see no value in.
Try to find that small space of acceptance and slowly widen it.
4) You’re not always the victim or the villain
Radical acceptance is actually the best way to start to calm down when life is buffeting us around unfairly and randomly.
Refusal to accept something and trying to control situations and people are forms of anxiety.
We all do it from time to time, but if you find yourself doing this a lot it’s because it’s become highly ingrained in you.
It often goes along with unrealistically centering yourself in events that are happening:
You’re either the negative or positive cause of what’s going on around you in your own mind, and as a result it’s very hard to accept when something’s not going your way or very painful.
The fact is that you’re not always the victim or the villain:
Somebody may be breaking up with you almost entirely because of their own problems, not because of something you did wrong or because of a targeted, personal assault on your wellbeing where they don’t care about hurting you.
Radical acceptance requires accepting just how much is out of our control, which brings me to the next point…
5) Let go of what you can’t control
There are so many parts of life that we can’t control, starting with the emotions and opinions of others.
It’s just not possible to make everyone like you or fit in everywhere. It’s not possible to get the forgiveness of people who you’ve wronged, nor to force an apology.
It’s not possible for the world, society or other people to be what you want them to be, even though we may desperately want to.
As Kyira Wackett explains, it’s crucial to let go of what you can’t control, which in her case included years of trying to do everything she could to get her mom to stop using drugs.
But it didn’t work and it took a lot out of her in the process, because in trying to control another person’s poor actions she took up an impossible mission.
“We’ve all spent countless hours fighting the same losing battle, attempting to control what isn’t in our control.”
6) Get clear on your core values
When you’re faced with tough times in life it’s easy to lose sight of where you’re headed and what’s guiding you.
How can you accept what’s going on when you don’t even know the point of your life or what you want to do with it?
It’s extremely helpful to explore what your driving motives are in life.
I recommend starting with the free values exercise from Life Journal, a groundbreaking program developed by life coach and business expert Jeanette Brown.
I did this course myself and the values exercise is a great way to start orienting yourself.
When you feel like nothing makes sense and you don’t know where you’re going, sometimes it’s because you need some pointers on how to figure out what drives you.
Radical acceptance is about getting unstuck:
When we don’t accept what’s happening or overestimate our own role in it, we get snared in a trap.
The more we struggle, the more the teeth of the trap bite into us, causing worse suffering, confusion and pain.
Getting unstuck requires a moment of relaxation and looking at the situation.
Taking this example, your ankle is snared in a trap set out for wild animals, for example.
It hurts badly and you have no idea why somebody put it there. You’re angry, in excruciating pain and confused about what’s going on.
Here’s what you do using radical acceptance:
- You face the reality: you were hiking and suddenly you stepped in a bear trap! It’s absolutely insane but it’s true.
- Your ankle is mangled. It hurts a lot, but you’re still conscious.
- If you can squint your eyes to keep them open and see through the tears, you can spot an old piece of metal on the ground that’s just within your reach and could be used to leverage the trap open just enough to get out.
This example can be applied to almost any situation in life.
There isn’t always a solution, of course.
But there’s always something in your control, ending, ultimately with your own attitude in the face of overwhelming circumstances that are against you.
As the psychologist Viktor Frankl puts it:
“Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms—to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances.”
This brings me to the next point…
Focusing on what’s in your control
Radical acceptance is not passivity.
It doesn’t mean you stop caring what happens or give up on life.
It’s actually the opposite:
You begin caring more deeply about what’s in your control and what you have in your power when times are tough.
Instead of lashing out, denying what’s happening or blaming outer circumstances for their injustice and random nature, you focus on what you can do about it.
Maybe you can adjust your business strategy, declare bankruptcy…
Maybe you can end the relationship or take a break from your partner…
Maybe you can start seeing a therapist or look more deeply into a spiritual path that’s always intrigued you…
Maybe there is absolutely nothing you can do:
Your friend’s been diagnosed with cancer…
You’ve been laid off and your sector is crashing completely…
But even then you can make a conscious choose of your attitude and accepting what’s happening.
Even in the above examples, how you choose to hold yourself and accept what’s happening can have a direct impact on how strongly you can be there for your friend when they’re suffering, or how well you can adapt and retrain for a new industry.
But it all has to start from radically accepting what’s happening.
Use your emotions instead of them using you
I’ve emphasized in this article about accepting the emotions you’re having.
They’re not wrong or “bad,” and even if it hurts a lot, it’s important to really process what’s going on and accept how you feel about it.
The key is not to let your emotions write your story for you.
For example if you’re experiencing a lot of failures in life, don’t let your mind or emotions tell you that you’re a loser.
You may currently be losing but that’s a thing that’s occurring, not your identity.
You may be angry as hell about the injustice of life and a friend who just got cheated on and feel done trying, but that feeling of being “done” is a feeling, it’s not your new identity or permanent state.
You have to decide what you want to use your emotions for rather than them using you.
You can channel your anger into a project, or helping fight injustice.
You can use your sadness to create amazing art, write a screenplay or help understand a friend who’s going through a rough time.
You can use your confusion and despair about life as the kernel of a quest to explore different spiritual paths and find out what many cultures and faiths have to say about why we’re here!
Your emotions all have potential in them, and once you radically accept what’s happening and your reactions to it, you can begin becoming more conscious about what you will do next.
Instead of being a victim of your emotions or thinking of them as bad or wrong, start to see the power in them.
You are accepting what’s in your control and deciding how you will use your emotions and attitude to achieve your goals going forward and steer the course of your life.
Keep your eyes on the journey
Radical acceptance is about valuing the journey over the destination.
There won’t ever be a plateau where suddenly all “negative” emotions are gone or the things out of your control no longer bother you.
Life is wild, traumatic, deeply intense: one moment hilarious, the next tragic and insane.
But by putting into practice the ideas and steps of radical acceptance, you can begin to both:
- Accept the current reality
- Accept your own limits of control and actions in regard to the current reality.
When the ocean waves are knocking you down and it feels like the entire world is against you, you can curse and bellow, losing energy and focus, or you can gather all your energy and do what you need to survive and move forward.
As author, former Navy SEAL and ultra marathon runner David Goggins says:
“Hang on to your paddle, get back in your boat and get back to rowing.”