by Beth Ayers, Family Peer Support Lead
June 6, 2023
What is radical acceptance? In an article on Psychology Today (psychologytoday.com) titled "The Healing Power of Radical Acceptance,” author Michelle Maidenberg Ph.D., MPH, LCSW-R, CGP writes, “Radical acceptance is letting go of the need to control, judge, and wish things were different than they are.” I also like this definition by the creator of dialectical behavior therapy, Marsha Linehan, “Radical acceptance rests on letting go of the illusion of control, and a willingness to notice and accept things as they are right now without judging.”
For most of my life, I avoided reality. At the time, I didn’t know this was what I was doing. I would have said I was helping or fixing or taking charge or being strong or managing. Sean Fargo wrote an article on mindfulnessexercises.com titled “Radical Acceptance: What It Is and What It Isn’t.” In it he quotes Tara Brach, Ph.D., meditation teacher, psychologist, and author in saying, “Managing is a way of saying no to what’s happening right now. We attempt to busy ourselves with the denial of reality and attempt to manage our circumstances and the behavior of others because we’re afraid.” I felt that I was in control. I thought my tactics would move me forward, but, in fact, they did not. They kept me stuck. You could tell I was stuck by my often-used phrases of “This isn’t fair!” or “Why did this happen to me?” I constantly wished things were different, that I was a different person with a different life. My thoughts and reflections about life and myself included words such as “should”, “ought”, and “must.” I measured myself against the illusion of perfection. I thought that if I was perfect, life would be perfect. I was sure that if I did the “right” things then I would be okay. I thought pain could be avoided by controlling life. I have come to learn that life is messy. Why didn’t someone tell me that sooner!? When I couldn’t avoid the pain or disappointment or embarrassment, I just denied my feelings. In the same article on Psychology Today that I previously mentioned, Michelle Maidenberg describes my strategy perfectly. She writes, “When a reality is painful, it’s natural to try to push it away, fight against it, or numb ourselves through unhealthy coping mechanisms (eg. drinking, overeating, engaging in unhealthy relationships). These strategies might cause a temporary sense of ‘relief.’ However, they bury the underlying issue and likely cause you to feel even worse in the long term.” She goes on to say, “Resisting reality delays healing and adds suffering to your pain.” By not accepting my reality (or I’ve heard it said, “not accepting life on life’s terms”) and ignoring my feelings, I could pretend, for the moment, everything was okay. But these moments became harder and harder to hold on to. The ability to control life turned out to be an illusion that kept me stuck in suffering and unable to heal.
By focusing on what I couldn’t change, I had given up my control over the things I could change. The Serenity Prayer has helped ground me in reality and has allowed me to distinguish between what I can and cannot control: “God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and wisdom to know the difference.” I began to see how much I dwelt on the past: thinking of how I could have done things differently, mourning the causes and circumstances, wishing life was different, questioning the why, ruminating on feelings of regret, guilt, and shame. Accepting what I cannot change allows me to make choices about what I can change and enables me to move forward. A perfect example is rain. The reality is that it is raining outside. If I ignore my reality, I will walk outside, get wet, and then probably be upset for being wet. By ignoring my reality, I didn’t give myself choices other than to get wet. And of course, it would not be my fault because, after all, I did not make it rain. If instead I accept that it is raining outside, now I can choose whether to take an umbrella or wear a raincoat or do nothing and get wet. I do not have control over the rain, but I do have control over my choices. I can choose to wear a raincoat and not get wet. Accepting that it was raining gave me control over whether or not to get wet. Michelle Maidenberg puts it this way in the Psychology Today, “Radical acceptance helps you to shift focus from unproductive ruminating to thinking about what a better use of your time and energy might be.”
The other thing I was giving up by not accepting reality was the ability to be present. In his same article on mindfulnessexercises.com, Sean Fargo writes, “Radical acceptance releases us from the compulsion to manage, fix, and control. Acceptance frees us to be present instead.” He also writes, “Present and firmly rooted in reality, we change our works not by fighting against what is or attempting to manage, but by connecting to others from the spaciousness of authenticity and total acceptance.” As a Family Peer Supporter, working with families is an exercise in acceptance. I cannot fix their situation or take charge of their family. I can share my lived experience of pain and imperfection, and also joy and hope. I can be present and listen. I read somewhere that if I can be present with my own pain, I am then able to be present with others in theirs. Being present, feeling my feelings without judgement, practicing radical acceptance. This is where I find joy, hope, compassion, rest, and contentment. Tara Brach so beautifully sums it up, “On this sacred path of radical acceptance, rather than striving for perfection, we discover how to love ourselves into wholeness.”