Going to college, I had stepped out of a life where I felt like I was drowning and into a world where I could explore how I could be someone that would help other people. While it was refreshing, I was still silently suffering. I thought that when I moved off and started a new life, I could escape my past. That didn’t work. I constantly ruminated on things I wish I could change – things I felt we’re fair or were unjust, or times when I felt like I had messed up ran through my mind at the worst of times. No matter how far I had gotten away or how long I worked on creating a new life for myself, I was stuck there in those painful moments.
Early on in my Master’s program, I learned about radical acceptance. I loved school, and personally tried everything I learned in and outside of school for myself. I remember the exact moment that I practiced radical acceptance. It was like a flood gate had opened (in a good way) and released everything that had been dragging me under. For the first time since I could remember, I felt like I could breathe. The weight of those really awful things was lifted off of my shoulders. That didn’t mean that those things weren’t painful still, though – it just meant that I had released myself from their tight grip.
I often hear clients tell me that they can’t accept it – that if they accept it, they feel like they’re approving of it; they feel like approval for a traumatic or bad situation is an injustice. This is particularly true for the clients I see that have dealt with sexual assault or traumatic loss. They become stuck in their pain with this notion that they have to remain underwater, unable to breathe – that holding their breath honors what they lost. Raising your head above water and letting out that exhale, though, doesn’t have to mean that you’re leaving your loss behind. It can mean that you’re moving forward, carrying your pain with you instead of allowing it to be the anchor that holds you down.
Approval means believing something is good, agreeing with it, or in some sense feeling content with it. Approval does not allow for negative or painful emotions. When we place the misconception on ourselves that we should approve of things or be OK with things that happen in life, we deny ourselves the necessary self-validation of our feelings that are in direct conflict with that notion.
Radical acceptance is acknowledging reality for what it is – pleasant and unpleasant, wholly. In this case, acceptance is not synonymous with approval. This means that I can be fully aware that a situation is extremely upsetting, while also making peace with the fact that it happened/is happening.
Here’s what it does for us –
Radical acceptance removes judgment from every aspect of the situation. It removes the feeling that the situation isn’t fair, that you should have done something differently or the situation shouldn’t be that way, and that you have anything to be ashamed of. It clears you of guilt anchors, allowing you to move forward without the extra weight.
Radical acceptance facilitates honesty. We often subconsciously deny pieces of what’s happening around – or more often – within us. It means that we can look at the situation and say “you know what, this just sucks, and that’s what we have to work with right now in the present moment”. When you’re able to be honest with yourself, you’re able to integrate the situation into your overall experience rather than holding it in a separate container of your mind.
Radical acceptance ends suffering. When we fight our reality, we’re constantly treading water; when we stop, we’re able to relax and simply float. Suffering is exhausting, overwhelming, and optional, even if it doesn’t seem like it at the time. Think about how much time you spend wishing things were different. Now, imagine if you put all of that time toward simply working with what you do have.
Radical acceptance is a form of self-love. We’ve talked about radical acceptance toward outside situations, but it’s also absolutely necessary to grant yourself radical acceptance, as well. Having an acceptance for yourself means an awareness of what you’re capable of in the moment, and an openness to helping yourself grow for the future. We often hear “wow, if I knew then what I knew now…” – it’s the truth; we’d absolutely handle our past differently if we had all of the information we gained since then, but the reality is that we didn’t and COULDN’T have had that at the time. We obviously learned from the situation, and couldn’t have known otherwise. We’re on a constant trajectory of growth and understanding – accepting where you’re at on your journey in the current moment allows you to give yourself room to be human.
Radical acceptance does NOT mean passivity or giving up. It isn’t giving up to acknowledge your reality for what it is in the moment – you are always able to monitor the situation and take action when you’re able to. It doesn’t mean that you sit back and say “wow this is just terrible, I’m going to do nothing about it” – it means that you see the tools you have, and you work on yourself to gain more. You aren’t able to change the situation, but you are able to improve on yourself, and to work with what’s within your control.