One of the most difficult lessons to be learned in Dialectical Behavioral Therapy (DBT for short) is radical acceptance. It is often taught in the Distress Tolerance module of the program, a specific group of skills designed and meant to help people in the moment of crisis and how to de-escalate themselves. As a DBT therapist, I’ve wondered why it was specifically placed there in the teaching modules, of all places. I’ve come to realize that it’s because of how difficult it can be to understand that pain and suffering will always occur, and that we actually have some control over it.
Before I go further, I will pause and explain what radical acceptance means to a DBT Therapist. Radical acceptance is when we accept the reality that we live in fully and whole-heartedly, without trying to change it. It does not mean that we agree with it. It does not mean that we support it. Often, those are the beliefs that prevent people from fully practicing radical acceptance. More on that later!
Radical acceptance acknowledges the following quote: “Pain is inevitable, suffering is optional.” Radical acceptance is a full-body practice, meaning that my thoughts, emotions, and behaviors are all in alignment with the belief that I am radically accepting. This is really, really, really hard. I cannot stress enough how difficult this is to implement in daily practice.
I have genuinely loved this skill from the first time I heard and learned of it. Initially I thought I had mastered it. HAHA! I shall pause so we can all laugh together. I have since realized that radical acceptance is not something that you are able to immediately discern and implement with instant maturity. It’s something that you have to grow into…or at least that’s my own perception of it.
Radically accepting that life actually may be so terrible is a strange thing to consider simply because people may have difficulty allowing themselves to actually say it. This may be related to the fact that sometimes we feel like if we radically accept something, it means we are weak and that we have given up. I am here to say that this is not the case.
When people choose to not accept the reality that they are in, they begin to rally against it in whatever fashion they feel is appropriate. That may sound like: I choose to rally with willfulness and defensiveness. I say that I am radically accepting of this and that, when in reality I struggle to radically accept myself at times. We try to enact change whenever and wherever possible, and then become frustrated when our labor does not amount to anything fruitful. We want to fight so hard. We want to rage against it all.
Honestly, our emotions are truly valid in these situations. Unfortunately, they can serve as obstacles to our own self-growth. If we do not accept the reality that we live in, although this may feel painful or even unbearable, our unwillingness to accept reality unfortunately still does not change it. Change requires acknowledgement that something is not working effectively and needs to be repaired or modified.
Radically accepting reality as it is does not mean someone is weak or incapable, it means that they are brave enough to acknowledge the things in their life that are difficult and painful. They are showing up for themselves. I encourage my clients (and myself ) to make a commitment to themselves when they begin practicing radical acceptance. I ask them to make the choice to let go of the desire to hold onto everything, be it good or bad, and allow it to exist within themselves. I truly believe that it is courageous it make the decision each and every day (or with each conversation) to radically accept something.
I would like to mention that when people begin to practice radical acceptance a whole host of things may occur such as: intense emotions, remembering previous events, potential resentment of self or others, fear, and exhaustion. My hope is that these create long-term obstacles for you, or even cause to you possibly avoid your own radical acceptance of those realities in your life that are difficult to accept.
Instead, I’d ask you to allow these moments to wash over you so that you can grow from this experience. All of these emotions and feelings are natural and normal. It is exhausting when you first choose to begin reprogramming your mind to think in a more helpful and kind way. Give yourself space and permission to experience your emotions fully, however that looks, in order to grow.
Helen Capita is a Mental Health Counselor and has been practicing for about two years now. Helen obtained her master's degree in Mental Health Counseling from University at Buffalo, and is intensively trained in Dialectical Behavioral Therapy (DBT) and Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT). Helen is available to accept the following new clients at this time: Adolescents/Teenagers (14-19), Adults.