By Laura Agurkis, MS
With everything going on in the world, our lives have been turned upside down, and we have all been asked to adjust to this “new normal.” It comes with immense feelings and emotions that most of us struggle to navigate, find meaning, and gain acceptance around. I, as a licensed clinician, have been working intensely around this dynamic with several of my patients. The one thing we all must remember is that we are not alone.
Without question or exception, we have all been asked to make major changes in our day-to-day lives, such as scaling back our spending, working from home, changing our routine, monitoring and teaching our children, etc. All of these changes come with their own specific challenges and added stress that can make it difficult to cope. “Radical acceptance” is a particularly useful skill I teach frequently in my practice, because without acceptance, we often will find ourselves building resentment and having increased frustration around circumstances we cannot control.
Radical Acceptance: What is it and why should we use it?
Radical acceptance is a skill that is commonly taught when learning “distress tolerance.” At times in our lives we have all been asked to cope with distress (e.g., considerable anxiety, sorrow, pain, etc.), and during such times, it can be difficult to find relief. Furthermore, distress is often unpredictable, and impossible to avoid. This is why we must rely heavily on coping skills to battle feelings of distress. Radical acceptance, specifically, refers to “when you stop fighting reality, stop responding with impulsive or destructive behaviors when things aren’t going the way you want them to, and let go of bitterness that may be keeping you trapped in a cycle of suffering.”
To illustrate the usefulness of radical acceptance, consider the following: At times, we all encounter certain troubling events or persistent stressors that may cause us to feel angry or upset. Examples could include fighting with our loved ones, feeling a lack of control over decisions being made in our world, or a potential conflict with a co-worker. As these feelings of anger, frustration, helplessness, and resentment grow, we may easily become overwhelmed, which can in-turn cloud our ability to clearly see or rationally interpret what is happening around us. Being able to radically accept allows us to face difficult situations like this without self-judgement or criticism. In turn, this increases our ability to work through these stressful times and circumstances rationally, clearly, and wisely.
Of course, it can be very tough to alter habits that we have developed over significant portions of our lives. For example, over time, many of us learn to face our stresses (or other difficult feelings) by avoiding them, convincing ourselves they are invalid, or even denigrating ourselves for having the audacity to “let” ourselves feel these feelings in the first place. It can be incredibly challenging to shift these habitual ways of thinking so drastically, but just because aiming for radical acceptance is difficult, that does not mean it is not a practice worth pursuing
One of the major benefits of radical acceptance is the fact that you can access and utilize it at any moment of the day. In times like these, rife with persistent and seemingly unending stress, it is that much more important to have skills like this in our toolbox, as having the ability to cope in this way can help us to feel more safe, secure, and regulated.
Radical Acceptance: How do we shift our thoughts?
First and foremost, in attempting to achieve radical acceptance, we must be able to shift our thoughts, allowing us the space to decrease judgement and increase insight and control of the situation. When we feel like we are losing control, it is common for our thoughts to propel us into a downward spiral of emotion, often breeding increasing feelings of worry, frustration, and lack of clarity. In an attempt to avoid this spiral, we must develop new thoughts or coping statements that help us not to see the situation as good or bad, per se, but instead see it for what it really is without any judgment.
Examples of New Coping Statements:
“I can’t change what has already happened”
“This is the way it has to be”
“All the events have led up to now”
“It’s a waste of time to fight what has already occurred”
Radical Acceptance: How do we use it?
Now that you have found ways to shift your thoughts toward a healthier, judgment-free perspective, let’s discuss some ways you can apply these statements or thought patterns. Radical acceptance is ultimately about “turning the mind.” For example, let’s imagine a fork in the road, where one path is that of acceptance, and the other is that of rejecting reality (e.g., avoidance, invalidation, downward spiral, etc.). To achieve radical acceptance, we must redirect our thoughts and choose the path of acceptance, despite the habits we’ve formed before. Below is a step-by-step guide to turning the mind in this way:
- OBSERVE that we may not be accepting. Often times this observation can come with anger, resentment, and bitterness. Still, it is important to avoid negative statements such as “Why me?” or “Why is this happening?” These statements go beyond observation and can result in getting marred in problem-solving rather than aiming for acceptance.
- FIND your inner self and make a commitment that you are going to choose to accept. For example: I had a conflcit with my co-worker today. I used to feel the whole world is aganist me, and that there is no hope for resoultion. Today I feel I am going to accept reality for what it is, and that I do not have control over what my co-worker might think or do, but that when things have settled there is hope for resolution.
- DO IT AGAIN over and over as you find yourself at the fork in the road. Challenge and allow your mind to turn towards acceptance each time. For example: everytime I hear something negative on the news it makes me lose hope. Over and over again I am remidning myself I accept what the news may be, I recognize I do not have control, and I am going to stay present in this moment
- DEVELOP A PLAN for catching yourself drifting away from acceptance. For example: Everytime I feel my negative thoughts spiral, I am going to commit to implementing one of my new coping statements. I recognize that I may need to practice this everyday, or several times throughout the day to stay on the right path.
Through this process of striving for radical acceptance, we can all gain access to our own inner strength to overcome difficult emotions. We can also dedicate ourselves to remembering that life is worth living, even though it comes with painful emotions sometimes. With radical acceptance in our tool belt, we will increase our capacity for kindness toward ourselves and those around us.
If you think you or someone you know may benefit from receiving mental health services and/or learning more about radical acceptance, please feel free contact the Metis Center for Psychological Services and schedule a consultation with one of our qualified care providers.