Crash Course In Radical Acceptance

“Don’t turn away. Keep your gaze on the bandaged place. That’s where the light enters you.” ― Tara Brach, Radical Acceptance: Embracing Your Life with the Heart of a Buddha

When I first started learning DBT, I arrived at the skill of radical acceptance and observed a gut reaction: my brain and body said “OH HELL NO!”. “Accepting in your mind, your heart, and your body.”?? NOPE. NO THANK YOU. All I heard in my head was acceptance = approval.

What I was experiencing was a common experience when one encounters radical acceptance for the most part. I have yet to meet someone who is completely on board with this skill from day one. Sure, people can see the hypothetical value of accepting what we cannot change, but actually doing it, putting it into practice, over and over, is a MUCH larger task.

This time of year can be difficult for many, for a variety of reasons. For me, it is usually a time of great joy and celebration. You see, my birthday is in December. I embrace my birthday totally and fully, and every year make special time to spend the day with myself, through a variety of activities that feed my soul.

Sounds good right? How could radical acceptance apply to what I just said?

Well, you see, this year is a milestone birthday, a “big one” as they say. Major milestones can naturally create thoughts of comparison, “What have I learned in the past x years?” “What have I gained?” “What have I lost?” “Am I where I want to be?” These types of questions can bring up all kinds of emotions: sadness, fear, anger, happiness, calmness, and gratitude.

If you had asked me five year ago, where I would be as I round this birthday, I probably would have predicted the following: married, kids, adopting animals, enjoying my life in private practice, regularly engaging in activities with family and friends.

As I close in on my birthday this month, my current experience does not match my prediction. You see, I’ve had a great deal of loss and change this year. I ended relationships that were not serving me, I lost three pets in an eight month span, I was forced to re-evaluate goals, both personal and professional. I am not where I thought I would be.

So here is where the radical acceptance comes in. When we are not accepting our reality, we often experience emotions like bitterness, anger, sadness. I have felt all these things, often in cycles, in addition to willfulness. And to be honest, there were days where I didn’t want to feel ANYTHING. I went right into “doing” mind, where it felt safer to just do the things, not feel the things.

Radical acceptance asserts that we see reality as it is. Knowing that everything has a cause, even if we don’t get to know the “why” behind all the events in our lives. And finally, that life can be worth living, even with painful events in it.

So how have I integrated the practice of radical acceptance? First, I attempted to consider all the causes of reality, and nonjudgmentally viewed that those causes exist, even if I didn’t get to know the why or how. The causes behind our reality can be viewed in an if-then equation: “If this happens, then this happens.” I had to meet that equation in it’s simplest of terms. There are causes for everything.

Secondly, I allowed myself to experience disappointment, sadness, and grief. I do not like this part of the skill. I do not like the experience of disappointment. My problem solving loving brain tried to drive the bus, and drive far, far away from the physical experience of disappointment into the land of “we can fix it, YES WE CAN!” And again, I had to turn towards acceptance. I gave myself permission to feel those feelings without judgment. They are just there, giving me information about my current state of being, as all emotions do. I allowed myself to compassionately experience feelings of disappointment in myself, others, and the events of the past year, without having to do anything else. I allowed sadness and grief to pass through me as waves, and observed when I let go, that they passed more with ease.

Finally, I acknowledged that life can be worth living, even with pain in it. I could not deny that the pain was there. When I tried to avoid it, it sprang forth in uncontrollable ways: crying for “no reason,” increased rumination, and anger towards… let’s just say, mostly innocent bystanders.

What have I learned from acknowledging that pain is a part of life? Ironically, I feel a sense of control and calmness navigating the world. Radical acceptance is not a skill that comes with ease, but with continued practice, one that can grant those who practice it a sense of calm.

Radical acceptance is an ongoing practice. I, (for the most part), have radically accepted that I am not where I thought I would be. I have had to use radical acceptance strategies over and over to decrease suffering in my life. I have found peace and happiness even with all the unexpected changes this past year.

Sometimes you don’t get to know the “why” or “how.” Sometimes you will feel disappointed, sad, and angry. Sometimes things really, really hurt.

Sometimes you find a skill that helps you find peace. Radical acceptance is mine. As you move into this new year, my hope is that you give radical acceptance another shot- all the way: mind, body and soul.

In the immortal words of Bill and Ted:
(and yourself)

Change of Plans: Crash Course In Radical Acceptance

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