Human beings have a natural tendency to fight back against any perceived challenges. Therefore, when it comes to acceptance, our instincts are already working against us. We want a sense of control and for situations to work in our favor. This notion made it that much more difficult for me to understand this next concept of “radical acceptance.”
Marsha Linehan, a famous psychologist responsible for founding dialectical behavioral therapy (DBT), developed the idea of radical acceptance. Let us break down the phrase first. For something to be “radical,” it must be “all the way, complete, and total” (Byron Clinic). “Acceptance” means the “process of being received as adequate or suitable.” Together, they emphasize the complete process of seeing reality for what it truly is.
Radical acceptance contrasts with the formula of “pain + non-acceptance=suffering” (Rollin, 2017). More often than not, individuals find themselves in situations where feelings, events, and even their own thoughts are out of their control. People numb themselves, avoid the situation, or find temporary relief. This battle simply prolongs the suffering.
Acceptance does not equate approval. Let’s be real. Reality sucks. There will be ups and downs. Not every situation will work in our favor. Radical acceptance makes the pain and suffering more bearable in the long run (Tartakovsky, 2015). As situations come along, it helps to see them for what they are – both good and bad. It comes with an understanding of what we can and cannot control no matter how uncomfortable we feel (Rollin, 2017).
Personally, the idea of radical acceptance blew my mind when I first learned of its existence. It was difficult to incorporate such a foreign idea into my arsenal. Over time, I made sense of it using an old Greek legend and my own analogy that I still share with my clients to this day. The Greek legend talks about a Titan named Atlas. This legendary Titan led the battle against the Olympian gods under the reign of Zeus. Atlas and the Titans lost the battle, and Zeus gave him the worst punishment. Atlas was to carry the heavens on his back for all of eternity. This image is often depicted as Atlas carrying a globe or other heavenly body on his back.
I often use this image to describe how we have all felt when confronted with large amounts of stress “carrying all that weight on our shoulders.” This story continues into my analogy of someone throwing a ball to you. That someone is life. The ball represents a situation. I instruct my client to look at the ball like a scientist. This means to look at it objectively, nonjudgmentally, and only at the facts. After looking at it, the individual has a choice. They can decide to hold onto that ball, allowing it to weigh them down and to avoid the situation altogether. What I like to point out is that usually this approach works for the first few balls and provides the temporary relief mentioned earlier. However, if you store more and more of the, eventually your back will break under the pressure. The other choice is to throw it away by taking action. This prevents that ball from putting more weight on you. Taking action could be as simple as developing a plan, simply seeing it for what it is and letting it be, or finding a distraction. This is how I made sense of this difficult idea, and I hope it helps.
-The Caring Counselor
Byron Clinic. (n.d.). Radical Acceptance. Retrieved from Byron Clinic: https://byronclinic.com/marsha-linehan-radical-acceptance/
Rollin, J. (2017, May 30). The Importance of Practicing Radical Acceptance. Retrieved from Huffington Post: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/the-importance-of-practicing-radical-acceptance_us_592da801e4b0a7b7b469cd99
Tartakovsky, M. (2015, October 4). What It Really Means to Practice Radical Acceptance. Retrieved from Psych Central: https://psychcentral.com/blog/archives/2015/10/04/what-it-really-means-to-practice-radical-acceptance/