Sometimes life can really stink! Yep, I said it, it’s not all flowers and rainbows. But we don’t have to get dragged down by this truth. We can gracefully deal with our hardships and we can grow and find peace with things. The power of radical acceptance is the ability to see what is, so that we can then either accept and move on, or make changes where they are needed. It allows us to regulate our emotions and release a lot of the inner pain and struggle that we go through when we encounter challenges.
What is Radical Acceptance
Radical acceptance is simply seeing the situation for truly what it is. This can be very hard, especially if the situation seems unfair or deeply painful. Maybe it’s something small, like you didn’t get the parking spot you wanted. Or it could be something big, like your spouse has strayed from the marriage. Or maybe, you got busy with life and now you realize that you haven’t put your health first and you have gained thirty pounds. All of these situations can be hard to deal with, depending on your previous experiences and how much value you give each circumstance. Radical acceptance is also focusing on the facts and avoiding judgement of the situation.
What is Not Radical Acceptance
Accepting the situation is not saying that you approve of it, or that you are going to ignore it. It is taking the first step to acknowledge that you wanted the parking spot, faithful spouse, or fit body and you don’t have them—and that you can survive it. It is recognizing that you can handle this truth and the pain or disappointment that comes with it.
Acknowledging the reality of a situation is also not a passive act in which you ignore your own needs. It is simply the first step that allows you to pull back the emotions that are clouding your clear thought around the problem. Once you get clarity you can begin to create a realistic and methodical plan to deal with the situation.
Where It Comes From
Radical acceptance is something that has been practiced by Buddhists for over a thousand years. It comes from a tradition that has a gentle, compassionate approach to everything. Currently positive psychology is researching many of the techniques that Buddhists have taught; i.e. mindfulness, meditation, and other relaxation and mind/body exercises. They are finding that these techniques to improve one’s mind and life are effective. And now, therapists have been using radical acceptance to help people overcome some of the more emotionally challenging situations we can face. The creator of Radical Acceptance, Marsha Lineham, discusses her inspiration for this tool HERE.
How Can You Use Radical Acceptance in Your Life?
Radical acceptance doesn’t need to be only used when you have a major challenge in your life. It is a way of being. It is a way of recognizing your own ability to handle the situations that arise in your daily life. Whether it is the missed promotion, or the coffee stain on your favorite shirt, radical acceptance will allow you to see things as they are. You won’t spend a lot of energy obsessing over the problem, because you will simply accept what has transpired. This allows you to think clearly about the situation and make changes if it’s beneficial for you and others.
The Eight Steps to Radical Acceptance
Let’s look at an example of a challenging situation. And then we will break it down into its parts, so that you can learn to apply the 8 steps of radical acceptance to your own life.
The Scenario: You got caught up at work when you were supposed to be at your daughter’s recital that begins at 7:00pm. You look at your phone, it’s 7:10 and it’s a twenty minute drive from the office to her school. It’s all because of your coworker, Tom, prattling on and making the monthly sales meeting go over. You think, maybe she’ll sing at the end of the concert, so you may still be able to catch some of it. But you’re feeling a tightness in your body and you’re really starting to worry you won’t make it at all.
You jump in your car and you hit the road. But it’s not going well. Traffic is backed up on 494 and you are getting increasingly anxious. You think to yourself, “This is ridiculous!” If it weren’t for Tom and his rambling novel of a presentation, you’d be at the school by now. Then, just as you see a break in the traffic, you make a move to the next lane where it is moving faster. But someone cuts you off. You slam on your brake, barely missing them. You roll your window down, scream at the driver, and flip them the bird as you pull in behind them. They respond by slamming on their brakes and you ram into their backend.
Shit! Now you have to pull over and wait for the police. There is a dent in the other person’s car. You are furious and you’re definitely missing your daughter’s performance now. You’re feeling sick with stress. You worry about what this will do to your insurance and how your spouse will react when they find out.
The Way Forward: Radical acceptance allows you to take steps forward when you are stuck in an emotion or you are obsessing over a situation. Radical acceptance also allows you to deescalate an emotional event. These are the 8 steps to move from pain to freedom.
Step 1: Breathe
Take a moment to relax and focus on your breathing. You need to calm yourself in order to begin this process. I have created a short meditation that can help you take this first step to radical acceptance.
Step 2: Just the Facts
Carefully go over the facts in the situation. What led up to the challenging event. The important part of step two is to not offer any judgments, just clearly state the situation as it is/was.
I was asked to stay late at a meeting because Tom’s presentation went over. I felt anxious that I would miss my daughter’s performance. I got into my car when I was feeling frustrated and nervous. Traffic was particularly slow because of an accident on the freeway. I tried taking an opportunity to get into a faster lane, but was stopped from entering by another driver who pulled in front of me. I pulled right in behind them though, but I was angry and shouted at them and gave them the finger. They responded by slamming on their brake and I hit them from behind. This caused a dent and so we needed to pull over and wait for the police so that we could make an insurance claim. Now I have a negative mark on my driving record and my insurance has gone up and I missed my daughter’s show.
Step 3: Setting the Scene
What happened in the past to create this situation?
I’ve felt bad for missing many of my daughter’s school functions because work is really demanding. I always give in to the demands of my career and I feel like I’m letting my daughter down. So I wanted to avoid being late to her recital.
Step 4: The Players and Their Parts
What did each of the characters in your scene do that created the outcome? It is important to analyze your role and other’s roles in this situation, so that you can get clarity and see what you can do to avoid events like this in the future. What role did you play in the situation?
I agreed to stay late at work, so that Tom could finish his presentation. Then I got behind the wheel when I knew I was feeling stressed and angry about being late. Then, when the driver cut me off, I got angry and yelled and flipped them the bird.
What role did other people play in the situation?
Tom and my other coworkers went over their time limit for their presentations, making us all stay later than we had agreed upon. Someone got in a car accident earlier that day and traffic was backed up for miles due to this action. The other driver that pulled in front of me reacted to my angry outburst by slamming on their brakes and causing me to hit their car.
Step 5: No More White Knuckles
Have you ever heard of white knuckling it? This refers to the act of holding onto something so tight, that all of the blood is pushed out of your knuckles and they turn a whitish/lighter color. Much of life can be improved by learning how to let go and not to try to control things that are beyond our power.
What did you have control over in this situation?
I could have explained to my team members prior to their presentations that I needed to leave work on time in order to make my daughter’s recital. They may have been more mindful of the length of their presentations, or maybe I could have respectfully left the meeting if it went over. I could have also practiced soothing myself before I got behind the wheel, reminding myself that if I am a bit late, there still may be a chance to see my daughter perform. In addition, I could have stayed calm and not responded with an outburst of anger when the person pulled ahead of me in the faster moving lane.
What part of the situation was out of your control?
I don’t have control over how long the presentations run at our monthly meetings. I didn’t have control over the traffic. I also do not have control over how someone else responds to my anger.
Step 6: Acting is Reacting
Our response to each circumstance we encounter affects our outcomes. This step allows you to see how your reactions affected the situation.
What was your response to the situation?
I responded to leaving work late by being angry and anxious. I responded to the slow traffic by getting even more frustrated. When the person pulled out in front of me, I responded with anger and yelled and flipped them off.
Step 7: Your Performance and You/Others
Our actions create emotions in us and in other people. Sometimes, when we act out of fear, jealousy, or anger we can create an even more challenging and painful situation. It is important to understand how our responses to certain circumstances create the situations we find ourselves in.
How did your response affect you?
The more I focused on my fear of missing my daughter’s recital the more angry and frustrated I became. The more angry and frustrated I became the more I reacted to these feelings. It’s like they started to build and grow inside of me, so that when I was cut off in traffic, I exploded.
How did your response affect others?
When I exploded in anger at the other driver, they got angry and slammed on their brakes.
Step 8: Learning a New Part
This step allows you to think about how you will handle a situation like this in the future.
How can you change your actions and reactions, to limit the pain and suffering for yourself and others?
I can talk with my supervisor/boss about finding solutions to my demanding work schedule. Maybe together we can find a way that I can be seen as a team player and still get to be the kind of parent that can be there for their child.
If I’m in a situation that I cannot control, and I feel that it is making me anxious or angry, I can soother myself so that I do not react in ways that escalate the situation. I can come up with a list of ways to chill out when I feel the tension building, so that I don’t have to try to think of it in the moment when I am stressed. I enjoy listening to reggae music and it reminds me of a wonderful vacation that I took. Maybe I’ll do some deep breathing the next time I am stuck in traffic and put on some Bob Marley.
I want to make sure my daughter knows how important she is to me. I also know that my work schedule can be rather unreliable. Maybe I can have my spouse record all of the performances and games that our daughter is in, so that I can view them at a later date. Maybe we can all watch it together as a family, with popcorn and treats!
Reimagining the Scene
How would the situation be different if you had radically accepted reality?
I would have stayed calm in the slow traffic, accepting what is and realizing that it may make me miss my daughter’s show, but that she and I can handle the disappointment. Then, when I got cut off I would have accepted that that person is in the same slow traffic that I am in, and that maybe they are also late. I know this doesn’t make it right, but it is what it is.
Radical acceptance is not just a great tool to look at a past situation that is bothering you, but it is a great way to move through your daily life with grace. Imagine losing your phone down the sewer grate and learning how to simply shrug it off. It’s obviously a problem that needs to be addressed, but getting emotional and screaming, “why me?!?” won’t bring it back. If you stay calm and even find the humor in it, you may be able to get someone to help retrieve it. Or, you can call your provider on a friend’s phone and see if they can help you get a new one. Your options for taking action to solve your dilemma can only be understood fully when you can clearly see the situation without the clouds of emotion and denial.
Radical acceptance gives us the power to see the situation clearly. We often deny a situation or fight against it, to avoid the real pain that it brings. But this avoidance causes more suffering. You see this when people try to hold onto a relationship that isn’t good for them. They fear being alone, or they imagine that they can never find another person as wonderful as their current partner; so they stay, even when they aren’t getting their needs met. Being angry and disappointed in your partner is not something that you have to endure. Reality is mandatory, but suffering is optional.
With radical acceptance you can see the relationship for what it is, and you can see that your needs are important too. This can give you the power that you need to move on or the courage to ask for what you need. Accepting the situation is empowering!
To help walk yourself through the steps of radical acceptance I have created a free video with a guided meditation. Just click HERE to start your journey to a place of peace and clarity.