What’s So Radical About Acceptance?
Author: Megan Nogasky, MSW – Adult Milieu Therapist
“Radical acceptance” is a term that comes from Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT), which is one of the core therapies used at Compass. As small as the phrase itself is—only two words!—it’s a challenging concept to grasp, and even more difficult to practice.
As human beings, we often want to be able to exert control over ourselves, our circumstances. If we could take our uncomfortable feelings and erase them from existence, we would. Denying those feelings, however, maintains and strengthens them (Berlin, 2005). Although we may succeed in quieting our distress for a while, it’s likely to come roaring back.
Acceptance requires that we stop fighting reality. A necessary step toward doing that involves distinguishing between what we can and can’t control—and then relinquishing the need, the desire, and the effort to control when it would be fruitless. If you’ve ever heard the Serenity Prayer, you’ve been exposed to this idea: “grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.”
It can be easy to hear “acceptance” and believe that it means you are either completely at peace with your circumstances or that you’ve given up entirely (Brach, 2004). Remember, though: it’s about embracing reality, which we know is made up of the things you can’t change and the things you can. Acceptance allows for what is, in all of its mess, joy, frustration, and hope.
Why radical acceptance, though? What does the word “radical” add that we don’t already get with “acceptance?” In DBT terms, radical acceptance is “complete acceptance from deep within” (Linehan, 1993, p. 148). It’s full, it’s all-in, it’s entire. And it isn’t shallow; it comes from our core. That makes sense: “radical” refers to the root of things, whether in language, or mathematics, or in the natural world.
Another way to look at it, though, is that acceptance is radical because it is an inherently self-compassionate act. At least one conceptualization of self-compassion involves “stop[ping] to recognize our own suffering,” which sounds a great deal like acceptance (Neff, 2011, p. 10). Self-compassion is revolutionary; it goes against much of what society teaches us. It’s radical.
Perhaps you have the expectation that you can control everything, even the things you couldn’t possibly influence or fix. Maybe you believe that the only way to motivate yourself is with cruel, domineering language; maybe you’ve got a drill instructor in your head. You may want to be the ultimate individualist, reliant on no one, determined not to show any cracks in your armor.
Accepting that you can’t control some things, that kinder self-talk may get you moving in a way that self-criticism doesn’t, that you (like all human beings) need help every now and again—that’s radical. And not just radical, but compassionate.
Neither radical acceptance nor self-compassion is about self-indulgence, however (Brach, 2004, p. 39). Acceptance doesn’t get us off the hook for doing things that work against us, saying “Oh, that’s just how I am.” For example, “[i]f we are addicted to nicotine…Radical Acceptance doesn’t mean that each time we feel like having a cigarette, we go ahead and light up” (Brach, 2004, p. 39). What we can’t change is the emotion and the urge; what we can change is the choice, the behavior. Ideally, we treat ourselves with compassion. We can have compassion for our feelings, and we can show compassion by caring for ourselves rather than being self-indulgent or harmful. We can say, “This is reality, this is my habit, this is where I’m starting. Now, what next?”
Radical acceptance allows us to confront reality rather than living in denial. We can’t avoid the pain that comes from living in the world—illness, disappointment, failure—but we can choose to respond in a way that doesn’t make our suffering worse. Especially when the concept of radical acceptance is new or when the pain is fresh, the choice to respond effectively must be made over and over again.
It’s scary to face our limits, to grapple with the idea that we’re not superheroes and that we can’t fix everything. Ultimately, though, it’s freeing. We can stop fighting, stop being stuck. Radical acceptance opens doors, allowing us to move forward, to grow—to tend to our roots, with compassion.
Berlin, S. B. (2005). The value of acceptance in social work direct practice: A historical and contemporary view. Social Service Review, 79(3), 482–510. https://doi.org/10.1086/430893
Brach, T. (2003). Radical acceptance: Embracing your life with the heart of a Buddha. New York, NY: Bantam.
Linehan, M. (1993). Cognitive-behavioral treatment of borderline personality disorder. New York, NY: Guilford Press.
Neff, K. (2011). Self compassion. New York, NY: HarperCollins.