There are so many things in life which seem unacceptable to me, starting with the fact that one day I will die.
But I’ve recently begun getting into a practice called radical acceptance, and it’s helped me gain enormous confidence and well-being.
Here’s how radical acceptance works and why it’s so helpful and powerful in improving your emotional and mental well-being.
Let’s start at the beginning.
What is radical acceptance?
Radical acceptance is the practice of accepting everything that’s out of your control.
It’s also about accepting the pain and struggle you are feeling without judging it.
You observe what is happening, your reaction to it and the pain of it without analyzing or judging.
You accept what is. You don’t necessarily like it. You may hate it.
But you don’t focus on that.
The best starting point I’ve found for this is the free values exercise from Life Journal. This program is incredible, and puts you in the driver’s seat of your own life.
It uses radical acceptance and a very effective planning strategy from life coach Jeannette Brown to bust down the lies we tell ourselves and get us in touch with our core values and mission.
Radical acceptance is ultimately about being realistic instead of just wasting your time on what you don’t like, you spend your time on what you do like.
You focus on what’s in your control and fully accept what is not, even the seemingly unacceptable.
As psychology writer Madelyn Brown explains:
“Fully accepting things as they are, instead of ignoring, avoiding, or wishing the situation were different, can be a critical step in moving through a difficult experience to experiencing more meaning.”
OK, this sounds intriguing, right…
But how do you actually do it?
The most helpful method I have found for practicing radical acceptance is a 10 step guide.
This is how you do it:
1) Be aware
As biological organisms, we run away from pain and run towards pleasure. It’s our instinct.
Be aware of your instinctual desire to resist pain, conflict, frustration, sadness and disappointment that’s out of your control.
You want to argue against, deny it, defeat it or simply escape it.
Failing that, you want to drown it out, maybe through the use of drugs, alcohol, food or sex.
Maybe through gambling, or shouting at someone, or driving recklessly, punching the wall, or taking medication and sleeping as much as possible.
Be aware of this desires and your reaction to what’s causing you discomfort.
2) Talk it out
Self-talk is a good way to start to practice radical acceptance.
When you find yourself getting into over-analysis and over-speculation or denial and non-acceptance about something that’s going on, talk it out.
“This is what happened and it’s completely unfair and bullsh*t. There’s no reason to accept it.”
Then answer yourself:
“What can you change by not accepting it?”
“Well, I could show this person that…”
“Would that actually do anything at all?”
And so on.
In this way, you will come to realize whether this is a situation you can really keep refusing to accept or whether it’s out of your control.
3) Be real
Before fighting back against what’s out of your control, you need to be aware of your response as I noted in point one.
Here you also need to be real about what you’re facing.
If you just lost your job or had a partner break up with you, you need to face it.
Your instinct may be to hit back, deny it or find some analysis that throws it in a different light.
But instead of that, just accept what it is as far as you know right now.
For example, maybe you lost your job and you’re sure that it was unjust and that you deserve the job. Fine.
But if you can’t change the loss of the job right now, you need to be real about what you’re facing instead of focusing on the injustice of it or how it shouldn’t have happened.
4) Be accurate
Related to being real is the need to be accurate. Radical acceptance can only come if you’re accurate about what’s going on.
Be real about it, and be accurate.
For example, if you were just dumped and told that your partner doesn’t want to be with you anymore, you need to be accurate.
Instead of focusing on how nothing ever works and it’s all your fault or all their fault, admit the fact that it may be both of your faults.
Whatever happened or did not happen, you were dumped and your partner said he or she doesn’t want you back.
That’s the accurate facts of the situation. Your own analysis or speculation is secondary.
5) Think about this…
Next up, think about how you would feel if you accepted what was happening or happened instead of resisting or arguing against it.
Imagine you’ve gotten past it and accepted it.
You don’t like it, you may not even agree with it, but you have come to terms with the reality of this event.
For example, you may have been diagnosed with a serious disease. It’s beatable but tough, and it could get a lot worse or even kill you.
You badly want to spend all your time investigating every single last piece of evidence and theory about how to beat this disease, but you also know deep down that it’s health anxiety and that at this point you’re already doing all you can.
How would you feel if that resistance and over analysis stopped? How much more energy would you have? How much more time in your day and calmness?
6) Picture this…
In addition to thinking about how you’d feel if you let go of your resistance, picture it.
Picture yourself waking up and making coffee.
Picture yourself going for a walk, playing with your dog, saying hi to your colleagues at work.
Picture the difference in your facial expressions and your energy as you go through your day without the burden of resisting what’s out of your control.
7) Feel your whole body
As you practice radical acceptance, pay attention to the sensations throughout your whole body.
Breathe deeply and be conscious of your inhalation and exhalation.
Feel the wind blowing against your skin, or the tiredness of your eyes.
Feel the heaviness or lightness of your limbs. If you feel separate or dissociated from your body, sink into the strangeness of that sensation.
Accept the way your body is and how it feels.
8) Feel all your emotions
At the same time, feel and accept all of your emotions.
This includes feelings of frustration, anger, resistance, denial and anything else that you may have been socially conditioned to believe is “bad.”
These emotions aren’t “bad,” they simply may be getting in the way of you clearing the energy and moving on in difficult situations.
But it’s crucial to fully accept them and not resist or identify them as bad.
They’re how you feel. You’re aware of it and you accept it, but you also accept that certain things are out of your control and that your emotions don’t justify stopping in your life.
Simple as that.
9) Say this
When you are finishing your exercise, there’s a way to firmly plant the concept in your mind by saying the following statement:
“Even though this is unfair and horrible and I wish it had not happened, life is still worth living and I will continue to live my life.”
It sounds very basic and simple, and it is.
But repeating this every day will start to clarify your ability to accept and continue with life even when it seems truly unacceptable.
As therapist Andrew Harris puts it:
“This does not mean we roll over and become helpless;
Rather, we acknowledge that denying the facts of reality will not change the facts, but keeps us stuck in thoughts such as ‘this is unfair’, ‘why me?’ and ‘why now?’”
10) If there’s too much resistance, do this…
If you find that you just keep going back to denial or non-acceptance, don’t worry!
Accept the non-acceptance – for now.
Write out a list of pros and cons.
What are the pros of not accepting this, and what are the cons?
Be honest and real.
Knowing that you do have a choice in accepting or not is empowering.
You always have the right to refuse to accept a situation and push back against it, but you need to know that radical acceptance is an option and that it is possible and has many benefits for you.
How can radical acceptance help me?
Radical acceptance is about accepting what you can’t change.
If you have a bad situation that can be changed and you can do something about it, radical acceptance may not be the way to go.
I would never recommend passivity in the face of life’s challenges and tragedies.
Here are some examples of uncomfortable things we often can change:
- Being overweight or leading a generally unhealthy lifestyle.
- A personal conflict that’s got us stressed.
- Difficulty fitting in where we are and the desire to move somewhere else.
- A relationship that’s in trouble which we need to spend more time or attention on.
- A job that’s having issues that need to be solved.
However, there are many things that happen or occur in life which can’t be changed.
Here are some examples:
- An incurable illness.
- The loss of someone we love.
- The loss of a relationship where the other individual no longer wants to be with us and will not change their mind.
- Our own general height (some adjustments to height are possible but not massive ones).
- Our family background and who our biological parents are.
- The cultural background we were raised in.
When we practice radical acceptance about the things we cannot change, it ends up greatly empowering us.
It frees up:
- Emotional energy
- Mental clarity
And also gives us a more realistic perspective on life. Instead of living in fantasy or in denial and resistance, we live in the cold hard light of what’s really going on.
Accepting the unacceptable
This brings us to the next point: accepting the unacceptable.
When we come face to face with a situation or event in life which is completely unacceptable to us, radical acceptance seems like the last thing we should do.
Why accept something that’s horrible, disturbing or awful?
The real answer is that the other choices are even worse.
This was the purpose of step 10 with the pros and cons list. When you look at your list of cons you’ll notice how much worse something can get when you refuse to accept it.
Here’s an example…
Your girlfriend who you love says she’s breaking up with you. You talk it out with her and explain the strength of your feelings and how you don’t want her to leave. You do everything in your power to show her what she means to you.
But she says she has to go. It’s not about you, it’s about her and her needing more time to “find herself.” You think that sounds like bullsh*t or like something a person would say when they don’t really love someone.
But it doesn’t really matter what you think, because she’s leaving you and you can’t do anything about it.
You now need to construct a life without her and figure out your next step in life on your own.
Option A: reacting instinctively
You drink heavily, swear a lot, scream into your pillow and go through the motions at work. You start playing video games until late into the night trying to escape from reality and put the future plans you had on hold, since they were supposed to be with her anyway.
What’s the point of them, now?
You stop answering calls from friends, become bitter about life and continue to try to talk your girlfriend into coming back. She eventually blocks you and you feel even more victimized and furious.
You start feeling like a total victim and begin gaining weight and becoming more unhealthy. What’s the point of working out anyway? The girl you loved is gone. Your life is crap, really, even if it looks good to other people on the outside.
Option B: radical acceptance
You accept the situation even though it makes you extremely sad and upset. You accept your difficult emotions about it and continue to work hard despite a few very bad weeks.
You try to focus on having a healthy sleep schedule, diet and exercise regime, since those things are still in your control. You think about recalibrating your future plans. You’d wanted to do them with her, but now you’re trying to think of ways to do them alone or with someone else.
It’s not optimal, but what other choice is there?
You start spending more time with friends and realize that life is worth living even though it’s very difficult at times.
Your health improves and you find yourself focusing less and less on the misfortune that occurred. Even though her leaving will always hurt, you don’t feel like a victim who’s being persecuted by the universe. You’re just a person trying to live their life and accepting what you can’t change.
A final note
Radical acceptance is a powerful tool that you can use to gain clarity and strength in life.
When you accept what you can’t change, you can focus on what you can change.
Earlier I recommended the values exercise from Life Journal, a program by renowned coach Jeannette Brown.
It’s helped me immensely and I highly recommend it to those seeking guidance to find their own inner purpose and drive in life.