The Importance of Practicing 'Radical Acceptance'

05/30/2017 01:23 pm ET Updated Jun 02, 2017

Fighting against pain leads to suffering

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When we try to grasp for “a false sense of control” or fight against situations/emotions that we cannot change, this often leads to suffering. While there are certainly situations or circumstances in life that are within our control, often there are times when we simply are unable to change the reality of a situation.

As an eating disorder therapist in private practice in Rockville, Maryland, specializing in helping adolescents and adults struggling with eating disorders, body image issues, depression, and anxiety, I employ a variety of strategies to help my clients to reclaim their lives and uncover a sense of meaning. I tailor treatment to each person, however I often enjoy using elements of cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) and dialectical behavioral therapy (DBT).

One important skill from dialectical behavioral therapy, called “radical acceptance,” can help people to enhance their quality of life and may help to reduce unnecessary suffering.

What Is Radical Acceptance?

A common formula that is often discussed in relation to this concept is the idea that,

“Pain + non-acceptance= suffering.

When a situation, event, or emotion is out of our control, fighting against it (i.e. non-acceptance) often leads to suffering.

When a reality is painful, it’s natural to try to push it away, fight against it, or numb out through unhealthy coping mechanisms (i.e. drinking, restricting, bingeing, etc). These strategies might cause a temporary sense of “relief.” However, they only serve to bury the underlying issue and cause people to feel even worse in the long-term.

Radical Acceptance Is

• Acceptance of things as they are.

• Understanding what we can and cannot control in life.

• Being non-judgmental.

• Looking at “just the facts” of the situation.

• Acknowledging our situation.

• Letting go and not fighting against reality.

• An ability to tolerate the present moment, even if it’s painful or uncomfortable.

• Mindfulness of our emotions and allowing ourselves to lean into the discomfort of painful emotions. (remembering that no feeling lasts forever and if we can sit with them, they will eventually rise and peak on their own-much like ocean waves).

What Radical Acceptance Is Not

There are some common misconceptions about radical acceptance. Thus, it’s important to be clear about what radical acceptance is not.

Radical Acceptance Is Not

• Judging situations or emotions as “good” or “bad.”

• Condoning behaviors.

• Giving up your needs.

• Ignoring or denying a situation.

• Never asserting your thoughts/feelings.

• Acceptance does not equal agreement.

An Example of Radical Acceptance

A basic example of radical acceptance is to imagine that you are driving to an important meeting and you are stuck in bumper to bumper traffic. You can choose to dwell in your anger and frustration, asking “why did this have to happen today?” and judging your emotional reaction or the situation. Or, you can work to “radically accept” the situation (and that you cannot change it), as well as the anger and frustration that you feel.

Radical acceptance in this situation can help you to shift focus from unproductive ruminating and to think about what might be a better use of your time and energy. For instance, when I’m stuck in traffic-I might acknowledge that the situation is frustrating and mindfully accept my emotional reaction, and then think about how I can use this time to benefit me (i.e. playing a podcast or calling someone I care about).

Seek Help

If you are struggling with applying this skill, or are battling with a mental illness, it’s so important to reach out for help from a trained professional.

Seeking help when you are suffering is a sign of true strength, not weakness.

Through “radical acceptance” you can learn how to tolerate pain and discomfort, in the service of living a truly meaningful life.

Jennifer Rollin, MSW, LCSW-C: is an eating disorder therapist in private practice in Rockville, Maryland. Jennifer specializes in helping adolescents and adults struggling with anorexia, binge eating disorder, and bulimia, and body image issues. Jennifer provides eating disorder therapy in Rockville, MD, accessible to individuals in Bethesda, Potomac, Olney, and Washington D.C. Connect with Jennifer through her website: www.jenniferrollin.com

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