I talk a lot about acceptance every day. It is one of the fundamental distress tolerance skills in Dialectical Behavior Therapy (LINK to article on DBT I should write…) and a tool that we all need in order to get through the day without a giant hassle at every turn.
It is a common misunderstanding to think that acceptance is synonymous with approval. Acceptance does not mean that you think everything is okay. Rather, it means that you have accepted the facts of reality. Something exists or happened or is emotionally present. You acknowledge that. Again (LINK: Accepting Pain, 11.20.18), with Carl Rogers: The curious paradox is that when I accept myself just as I am, then I can change. He was spot on. We have to first accept the reality in order to begin to do anything with ir.
DBT offers a handful of skills that are helpful in the department of actual practice. This is one of the greatest things about DBT as a therapy model… There are acronyms and skills and tactics for practically every single thing that might come up in life. For radical acceptance, the skills to apply are half-smile and willing hands. Before I explain those, I’d like to introduce the idea of having four choices always in life. In (nearly) any circumstance, you will have these four choices:
- Solve the Problem: Is there an actual way to address the issue and solve it? Can you ask for help, do you need to have a difficult conversation or get a job or borrow money? Addressing the concern head-on might be the exact approach that will alleviate your problem.
- Change How You Feel About It: Address the thoughts, judgments, interpretations you might be imposing on the situation. Are you angry because you’ve deemed the offending party out of line and you just won’t stand for it? If so, might you consider where they’re coming from, or what else might be happening in order to shift toward a more compassionate perspective? Or at least to ease some of your own emotional distress if not actual compassion?
- Radical Acceptance: Use the skills we’re learning to accept reality just how it is! This might feel impossible, or revolutionary at the least. It is often the path to peace, though, and certainly a path to change.
- Stay Miserable: If you do not actively select one of the first three, then you are likely defaulting to this fourth option.
I have yet to run into a situation where these are not the options. Granted, there possibly is no actual solution. So maybe you don’t have the first option, but you *always* have the last two.
Radical acceptance at first feels like standing at the edge of the ocean, arms outstreched, letting the waves crash down on you. It is painful, scary, and not entirely predictable. It sucks and most people want to go sit on the sand, head hanging, at this point. However, if you wait, and are willing to do the hard part, then the tide eventually goes out, and you’re standing where you are just watching the rise and fall of the water. It is not so scary anymore. The pain has subsided.
This work is brutal. There are so many terrible and wrong and painful things. Unacceptable things. I challenge you, though, to consider what would happen if you accepted those bits of reality. Remember, it’s not about approval. That’s not what I’m suggesting. But straight up acceptance of what is.
Two approaches to this hard work are half-smile and willing hands. I like these because they are physical actions of your body so that you can inform your entire system that things are okay. Or okay-ish, anyway. In half-smile, you are gently turning the edges of your mouth upward; it is not an all-out grin. An observer may not even be able to see it, but it’s enough to get your brain unstuck and thinking about how to shift things in order to get past whatever the difficulty is. Willing hands are outstretched and upturned. A bodily indication that you will accept what comes your way. I can’t overstate that the practice of acceptance is not a sign that you’re cool with whatever happened. Nor is it suggesting that you are complacent, that there’s no room for change. In fact, the opposite is actually true (again!)… Acceptance has to preclude change. There is no other way around it.
I encourage you to give this a shot next time life is dishing up something you’d prefer be different. Circumstances, feelings, physical pain, the choices of other people. These are all potential opportunities for big time acceptance. The resulting freedom from suffering is so worth it. Remember that it will take practice. The first, or first hundred, times will sting. Self-righteousness, justification, anger and old beliefs will have you thinking this means you’re giving up or giving in. It doesn’t. It means you’re clearing the space for peace and moving forward. Who doesn’t want that?
What do you need to accept? What would change for you, in your life, if you were able to accept some of the painful things? Are there other ways to practice that you’ve found useful?