Radical acceptance is a skill found within DBT (Dialectical Behaviour Therapy). It helps one in becoming more mindful as well as how to tolerating distress. A tough skill to master, but ever so freeing the more it takes a hold in one’s life. Radical acceptance is learning to see a situation for what it is, and not judge it. To look back and acknowledge all the steps, decisions and explanations as to why you are where you are in this moment. Common phrases include, “it is what it is”, “I’ll know when I know” or “I’ll worry when I have something to worry about”.
Let me paint you a few examples:
A few years ago, I took part in an international ringette tournament in Europe and Scandinavia. I was travelling with close to 40-50 other teammates, coaches and parents. We got off the plan to find out that the bus that was supposed to transport us and all our luggage and equipment was too small. A combination of people being tired and competing personalities broke out in trying to herd everyone on the bus and arrange the luggage. I grabbed a seat, sat back and observed everything that was occurring, as were some others. There was a mash up of anger, annoyance and frustration, as suggestions as to how they thought the problem could get fixed swirled in and around the bus. Comments like, “why doesn’t the company just send another bus, how unprofessional”, “maybe if “X” just sat down instead of trying to help, we’d actually get going”, or ‘“Y”’ doesn’t know what they’re talking. This is so ridiculous.” Calmness ensued when I finally realized, “it is what it is, there’s nothing I can do or say in this situation to make it any better. Instead of getting worked up about it, I’ll just accept the fact they’re sorting it out regardless of my opinions about it. We’ll start moving when we start moving”. Of course I wanted to get to our hotel room and go to sleep. Of course I didn’t want the situation to be handled the way it was handled. Of course I wished the bus had just been big enough for us all to fit right from the beginning. However, this wasn’t the case. It simply was what it was, and I didn’t have to be out of sorts because of it.
Here’s another example. Earlier this year, I was driving back on the 401 to Guelph. My horseback riding lesson ran late, and there was traffic. I was getting worked up and anxious about the very real possibility I might be late for work. I was blaming myself, my lesson, the traffic, and on and on. Then… BAM… I caught myself and remembered radical acceptance. I tried to understand all the factors that occurred that resulted in the position I was in.
- I was late in getting to the barn, meaning the start and end of my lesson might have been pushed back as well
- we were jumping and cantering in the lesson and my horse got sweaty
- he hadn’t been shaved recently, so was extra hot
- I had to walk the horse around the barn numerous times to cool off before I brushed him, put his coat on and put him out to the field. Normally, a brush would have been sufficient for him to dry and cool off before putting his coat on.
- construction was on the 401 resulting in backed up cars
I couldn’t deny any of the above. It was what it was. Worrying about being late, or smelling like horse, was not going to somehow stop time and fix everything. It was a wasted effort. I don’t like being late for clients. I don’t like being stuck in traffic. And yet, it was what it was.
A few years a ago, I struggled with some mental health issues that I simply did not want to accept. My unacceptance of the reality that this was indeed happening, only exasperated my symptoms. I was struggling with what I was struggling, and by accepting this, I had one less thing to fight against… myself.
Using this skill can help reduce anxiety and create space for opportunities to address situations differently. If we’re so caught up in the thing we don’t want to accept, we rob ourselves of navigating these situations in a less distressing manner. Just because we don’t want to be struggling with mental health issues or aspects of recovery doesn’t mean we won’t. Sure, change the things you can change, and tolerate the things that in this moment you can’t, or ever will.
Give it a try! After all, we can’t control or be thrilled about everything that comes our way!