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Blog Short #174: How to Use Radical Acceptance

Photo by Liderina, Courtesy of iStock Photo

It’s natural to seek out peace, comfort, and pleasurable experiences. We welcome these things with open arms. They feel good! It’s also natural to repel pain and discomfort and resist the events and situations that bring on those feelings. They’re stressful!

The fact is, you will have both throughout your life. Sometimes, painful experiences feel like boulders coming at you; other times, they’re just small rocks or a little debris.

But regardless of the magnitude of problems coming your way, they will come. It’s the nature of life, and when you can accept and work with them, they provide opportunities to learn and evolve.

When you try to avoid them, they get bigger and come back at you with greater force. You’ve heard the phrase, “What you resist persists?” It’s a shortened form of the original quote from Carl Jung, which is,

What you resist not only persists, but will
grow in size.

That being the case, it’s in your best interest to develop methods of dealing with problems straight up rather than resisting them.

​Marsha Linehan​ developed a specific practice aimed at this issue as part of a therapeutic strategy called ​DBT​ (Dialectical Behavioral Therapy.) This practice is “radical acceptance,” which we’re discussing today.

What It Is

Radical acceptance is the practice of fully accepting situations that come at you and are outside of your control.

That doesn’t mean you have to agree with them, but you accept them without judgment as they are. In other words, what’s happened has happened. “It is what it is.”

When you resist, you inflate the situation by piling on negative thoughts and feelings about it. If something is painful or stressful, you make it worse by entertaining thoughts like:

  • Why is this happening to me?
  • It’s not fair.
  • Things shouldn’t be this way.
  • I don’t believe this is happening.
  • It’s one awful thing after another.
  • I can’t deal with this.

There are many more variations of these thoughts and interpretations you can drag out and focus on indefinitely. But regardless of what you think, the situation is still there, and you still have to deal with it.

By accepting the situation as it is and recognizing that it’s not going away and you can’t bypass it, you’re free to figure out how you want to handle it. And because you’re not spending your energy resisting it, you have a better chance of resolving it and moving on.

Radical acceptance is a method of ​distress tolerance​. You’re building your capacity to handle stressful situations objectively and effectively.

What It’s Not

Radical acceptance isn’t about suppressing your emotions.

When something stressful happens, like the loss of a significant relationship or your job, you feel pain. Acceptance doesn’t mean pretending you don’t feel that pain, but rather, you accept that what’s happened is out of your control while allowing yourself to feel it.

Suppression of emotions, just like resistance, worsens things and keeps you stuck longer than necessary to recover or find solutions.

Radical acceptance also doesn’t mean ignoring feelings of grief that may take longer to process. It takes time, maybe a lot of time, but part of grieving is coming to terms with the reality of your loss.

Appropriate Situations for Using Radical Acceptance

Situations where radical acceptance is useful are:

  • Experiencing a loss of any kind – death of a loved one, ending a relationship, losing your home or job
  • Unexpected changes or events that cause distress
  • Feeling stuck or being unable to move on from an adverse event
  • Past trauma or abuse that’s impeding your current life
  • Rumination and overthinking problems without taking action to resolve them
  • Anger management
  • Dealing with avoidance

When Not to Use Radical Acceptance

Situations where radical acceptance is not helpful and can be detrimental are:

  • Abusive or dangerous relationships
  • Being taken advantage of, disrespected, or harassed
  • Needing to set a boundary or stand up for yourself
  • A bad workplace environment
  • An assault on your ethics or values

Radical acceptance doesn’t mean accepting harmful or abusive behavior. But it can mean seeing and acknowledging that such behaviors are occurring and need to be confronted.

How to Use Radical Acceptance

Dr. Linehan provides ten steps for using radical acceptance.

  1. Observe that you’re resisting the reality of the situation. You could examine what’s triggering you or notice your resistant thoughts, like, “Why is this happening to me?”
  2. Remind yourself that you can’t change the situation. It is as it is. Say it to yourself.
  3. Recognize that you have no control over what’s happened. There are causes for this situation, and you can’t go backward.
  4. Think about what you would do if you’d already accepted the situation, and then do those things as though you had accepted it. What are the behaviors you would engage in?
  5. Imagine how things would be if you had accepted what happened. What does that look like?
  6. Use any techniques that will help you accept the reality and apply them. Possibilities are breathing exercises, relaxation techniques, journaling, mindfulness, or meditation.
  7. Allow yourself to feel your emotions of sadness, anxiety, anger, or frustration without using them destructively.
  8. Notice reactions in your body as you let your emotions arise, such as shallow breathing, tension, or pain.
  9. Acknowledge that life can be worthwhile even when there is pain.
  10. Commit to practicing radical acceptance when you feel yourself resisting again.

Some of these steps may seem redundant, especially if the situation doesn’t involve grieving or a significant life change. However, they’re all helpful, and going through them is worthwhile.

Sometimes situations are less involved, yet you still resist them and waste time and emotional energy not accepting them.

Examples might be: Having a flat tire on the way to work, oversleeping and missing a meeting, driving behind a slow driver when you’re late for an appointment, dropping your breakfast on your kitchen floor and making a mess, etc.

All of these situations can bring on emotional resistance and make dealing with them much harder than it has to be.

It’s helpful to take that breath, accept what’s happened, let your emotions cool, and get your mind in a rational thinking mode so you can resolve the problem or let go of the situation if you can’t fix it.

Use the steps as you need to, depending on how great your resistance is and how life-changing or serious the situation will affect you. The goal is to avoid piling on additional pain that’s unnecessary and gets in your way.

The Paradox

The paradox of radical acceptance is that once you fully accept the reality of what’s happening, you’re freed up to use your resources to more readily solve the problem.

Acceptance reduces the emotional noise that’s distracting you from using your thinking and imagination to find solutions.

The second paradox is that the more you use radical acceptance, which is directly dealing with your distress, the more tolerant you are of stress in general.

As you practice radical acceptance and solve problems, you train your mind to bypass resistance so that with each new stressful occurrence, your negative reactions are shorter and easier to overcome.

You’re building your mental “anti-stress muscle.”

Try this approach with small things that aren’t too stressful for starters, and then move on to bigger things. Unless, of course, you like to dive in the deep end right away!

That’s all for today!

Have a great weekend.

All my best,


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