Often, when we are affected by intense negative emotions, our natural reaction to them can be anger, feeling upset and blaming the situation or others about our unfortunate feelings. Some of us are more inclined to blame ourselves - we're judging ourselves and we very easily find all the "faulty" things we wish we didn't have. Whichever of these reactions we have, the truth is that our negative, intense emotions are still there. Maybe we are ruminating over a past event that affected our present and we just can't get over the fact that it did happen and we can't do anything to change the past. Radical acceptance means fully accepting our reality and letting go of the bitterness. It refers to realizing that fighting what is already happening just leads to more pain.
We'll present two exercises that will help you accept what you can't change. In order to do something about a problematic situation, you first have to accept what is already happening. Thus, you'll release the energy that was previously spent on uncomfortable emotions and thoughts and you'll be more able to make a proactive plan for change.
Step One: Think of an Important Event
First, think of an important event in your life that you have a hard time accepting. It can be something that is currently happening to you, or if there is a regret from your past that you often catch yourself ruminating over - you can choose that as well. Take your time.
Note: If you have experienced a traumatic event in the past, then it might be too overwhelming to work on that in the beginning. So try to pick another event which is less overwhelming but still important to you.
Step Two: What Caused the Event?
Try to think of all the facts that led to the event that you have a hard time accepting. Try not to judge yourself or blame the situation when you write down the causes of the event. For example, if the situation you chose to work on is how you've been bullied in school, don't explain the causes by saying that the bullies were more popular than you or that you were a loser at school. Those are not facts, but judgments. State the facts. Don't judge something as good or bad. This is not meant to undermine the pain you've been through or are currently experiencing, but simply to find a way to move on from a certain event and feel more free.
Step Three: Accepting the Feelings
Can you observe whether certain emotions arise in you when you are thinking about this event? Perhaps you feel frustration, anger, sadness or shame. Be open and try to observe whether you feel a certain sensation in your body as a manifestation of the emotion. Maybe you will have an obvious sensation such as sweaty palms or increased heart rate, or you might have a milder emotional reaction. Whatever you feel, accept that emotion fully. Remind yourself that you can't change what has already happened. By fully accepting the emotion and the physical sensation you will feel a sense of ease.
Step Four: Proactive Plan
The last step is making a proactive plan about the situation or its effects. If it is something that doesn't affect you in a significant way, then it might be enough for you just to practice radical acceptance (the previous steps) and gradually come to terms with the event. On the other hand, if it is something that has affected you in a way that is not optimal for you, then try to think of how you can improve this situation. You can use the mindfulness exercise Wise mind, if you feel uncertain about what to do.
- Event: The event that I have a hard time accepting is how I was bullied when I was in school, and how that has made me feel anxious and suspicious when it comes to social interaction with new people.
- Causes: I couldn't fit in because I was different than the rest of the kids and that is not a bad thing. Children of that age can lack empathy and they often don't know how to do better. They are not aware of the effect that their bullying has on other kids.
- Accepting the feelings: I get angry and frustrated when I think about these events. I'm trying to fully accept these feelings since I know that by doing that I will be able to move on.
- Proactive plan: I really want to feel more comfortable and less anxious when I talk to new people. So, I would like to address this issue, and make a change in my life. Next time when I talk to people and when I feel anxious, I'll try to accept that feeling and continue the communication. I'll try to be realistic and not assume that the others see me as being too awkward.
Another way to practice radical acceptance when you are dealing with emotions, thoughts or a situation that you have a hard time accepting, is using coping statements. These statements are meant to remind you that there are some things you can't change. By accepting the reality as it is, you can free yourself from the emotional tension and judging thoughts. Again, this by no means is meant to undermine the situation and turmoil you've been through, it is simply a way for you to try to let go of the negative feelings and thoughts.
In the list below you will see examples of coping statements that you can use. Consider which ones you like the best and write them down in the worksheet so that you will have them ready to use:
- The present moment is the only one I have control over.
- Fighting my current emotions and thoughts only gives them more fuel to thrive.
- The present is a result of thousands of variables from the past.
- This moment is precisely as it should be even though I might not like it.
- I cannot change what has happened in the past.
- I accept this moment as it is.
- Although my emotions are uncomfortable, I will get through it.
- It's not helpful for me to fight the past.
If you can think of other coping statements that suit your situation better, write them down in the worksheet as well. You don't have to limit your choice to the ones presented.
Work through the two radical acceptance exercises using these worksheets.
Does radical acceptance means I need to be okay with a situation that is bad for me?
No. To radically accept a past or present situation means to come to terms with the aspects of it that we cannot change. This means accepting the reality as it is with our mind, our body and our emotions. Then we can liberate the bottled up energy and if needed we can make a plan to change the situation for the better.
If I do the steps does it mean that automatically I will be okay with what I'm struggling to accept?
This depends on several things. If you chose to work on an event that you've been struggling to accept for a long time and that has high emotional tension for you, then it is normal if you need more practice to come to terms with it. Radical acceptance is a skill that, like all the others we've been working on, needs to be gradually learned and practiced. So, be patient and don't get discouraged if you feel like you haven't completely accepted the event or your emotions at the first attempt.
How can I be sure that I'm practicing the skill the right way?
First, remind yourself that perhaps you will need some time to get used to practicing this skill. For some people it may be easier, for others more difficult and that's okay. Radical acceptance should give you a liberating sense of coming to terms with what you're struggling to accept. It's about being present and not resisting whatever you're experiencing in this moment. Cognitively, you might experience a change of perspective that might stir your actions in another, more positive direction.