Think back to the most recent time something didn’t go the way you hoped for. How did you feel? And how did you react?
For me, one recent incident would be finding out that one of my university applications had been unsuccessful. I was, of course, really disappointed. It’s so unfair, I thought. I worked so hard on my application. I should’ve been accepted! I would be so happy right now if I’d been accepted! I then went on for about half a day commiserating how it could have happened, and then worrying about the rest of the applications I’ve made. It was a downer of a day.
What radical acceptance is – and isn’t
There is a beautiful Buddhism-inspired concept called ‘radical acceptance’ that I’d like to introduce. It was coined by Marsha Linehan, the psychologist behind Dialectical Behaviour Therapy (DBT). Radical acceptance is a skill that is powerful in the sense that it helps us accept things as they are, and in doing so, alleviates a lot of needless suffering. Marsha talks about how, during a sabbatical, she spent time in a Buddhist monastery. One of the exercises they were given to do is to start sweeping the floor. When a timer pinged, they had to stop, even if their task was unfinished. I could imagine stopping was actually not an easy thing to do. We become so attached to what we do and the outcomes of what we do, and then it becomes difficult to let go. But accepting what is and letting go of our fantasies of how things could, should, must have turned out is the key to healing.
So what is radical acceptance? To radically accept something is to totally accept that it has happened, and that we can’t go back into the past to change it. It has happened, and during radical acceptance we accept the fact that it has. It’s not about approving or agreeing to what happened. It’s about acknowledging that it has – and in doing so, we accept the reality of things instead of fighting it.
Taking my own example, to radically accept my rejection would’ve been to say, “Okay. I wasn’t expecting that, but it happened. The way my application was assessed was out of my control once I’d submitted it. I don’t know what happened and I might never know.” And then, it would’ve been to ask myself, “Is there anything I’d like to do in response to this situation?” And maybe the response would’ve been that doing nothing and moving on was the most productive thing to do (which was what ended up happening).
The opposite of radical acceptance
The opposite of radical acceptance is the radical rejecting of reality. It’s about engaging in thoughts like, “It shouldn’t have happened to me! Life’s so unfair! Things should’ve turned out another way. They shouldn’t have done this. What did I do to deserve this?” When you fight reality like this, you can’t move on, because you’re angry, frustrated, resentful, bitter. And all those feelings are essentially useless because they don’t have the power to turn back the clock and erase whatever happened. So by accepting reality, you can react constructively.
In other words, think of radical acceptance as ‘it is what it is’. The beauty of this concept is that it’s something we can practice practically every moment of the day. How many of us groan when we’re stuck in traffic or waiting in line? How many of us examine our lives wishing our circumstances were different, or that our lives were more like person X or person Y? And how many of us women look at ourselves in the mirror in the morning wanting to change how we look?
Radical acceptance is not easy to achieve. It probably takes years of practice before someone is able to master it. But is it worth it? I think the answer to that is a big yes. The practice of looking at a situation and telling yourself ‘it is what it is’, rather than wishing it was something else, gives us a lot of power in terms of our happiness. It gives us power by helping us constructively process the things that happen in our lives, be it the minor inconveniences or the more serious events, like losing a loved one or getting a difficult diagnosis.
Radical acceptance is a choice
Remember, it’s a choice: you can either accept or reject the things that have happened to you. By practicing radical acceptance, you’re essentially training your mind to accept things and people the way they are, not how they should or could be. And when the time comes when you have to rise to a particularly distressing event, you’re ready. It sounds so, so simple but it’s so tremendously profound.
If you’d like to delve into this subject more, I highly recommend this series of articles on radical acceptance written by Marsha herself.