The Power of Radical Acceptance
It has been a minute since I have done any significant amount of writing, but I was recently introduced to a concept that warranted me putting pen to paper again, or fingers to keyboard, if you will. Not to sound dramatic, but it is a concept that, since only learning about it a little over a month ago, has already greatly improved my mental health, my relationships, and as a result, my life. Prepare yourself – here I go again acknowledging my own humanness!
If you listen to our podcast, Afternoon Snack, you probably know that I am a fan of therapy. I have not been a frequent goer to therapy, but I have therapists that I see here and there to help me through difficult situations or times in my life. Life can be hard, and if there is a professional that can help with an aspect of it, why not? Psychologists and the like help us deal. Period. I don’t know about you, but this is the first time I have gone through life – the first time in my thirties, the first time having a career, and the first time being in a long-term serious relationship. I simply do not know what I am doing half the time (actually, probably more than half the time) and can’t seem to learn quickly enough to not let life grab me by the horns sometimes. Therapy helps me. I can be a high functioning and good coach, athlete, partner, and person, but I also want to continue down the path to self-improvement.
I recently started seeing a new therapist who specializes in Dialectical Behaviour Therapy (DBT) which is based on cognitive behavioural therapy and combines cognitive behavioural techniques for emotional regulation with skills and concepts like distress tolerance and mindfulness. My goal is to learn these skills and use them to help me regulate anxiety and my emotions. I will be the first to admit, I run a little hot and am self- (and others) described as ‘tightly wound’.
When things go wrong, especially things outside of my control, I struggle to manage in a productive way. Instead, stress, worry, and anxiety regarding the situation consumes me. In other circumstances, if something doesn’t feel right, I may try to convince myself that it’s okay. For example, I resisted going to a therapist for years because I convinced myself that my breakdowns or emotional explosions, to not put it lightly, were one offs, or that I could just try harder next time. Clearly, the plurality of that sentence indicates that they were in fact, not one offs. I know that I am not alone in this. We are conditioned to react to our environment.
Back to the point! This concept was first introduced to me by my therapist, Michelle, during our second session together. It’s called Radical Acceptance. The more I learn about it and use it, the more I realize that it is actually very similar to what the stoics and the Buddhists have preached for years. But for some reason, while similar in theory, radical acceptance was presented to me in a different way and it hit me a little harder.
Radical acceptance is accepting what is. Acceptance. Accepting where you are. Accepting who you are. Accepting what is happening. Accepting what is real. Being with your reality as is.
It’s not trying to think positive thoughts, imagine where you want to be, or wish something else was happening. It is not resigning to your situation or giving up. It’s checking the facts, properly assessing the situation, and getting comfortable with the situation, because that is what is required to establish a productive path forward.
After learning about radical acceptance in therapy, I learned more about it in Brad Stulberg’s most recent book The Practice of Groundedness. In this book, I understood his description of RA to be more overarching. It is acceptance of large-scale situations in life such as mental health, your career, your relationships, or even your sexuality. For example, if you are truly unhappy with your job, radical acceptance is accepting that rather than try to convince yourself that it is something that you want, or should want, or isn’t that bad. Radical acceptance is not deceiving reality. The path to happiness is first accepting and acknowledging that something is notmaking you happy.
He also describes Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT), which outlines a three-step approach: 1. Accept what is happening without fusing your identity to it. You are not your situation; 2. Choose how you want to move forward; and 3. Take action, even if it’s scary.
For me, radical acceptance explained in this way is to fully accept that I struggle with anxiety, coping, managing stress, and handling myself better than a raccoon trapped in a garbage bag. Credit to Taylor Tomlinson for that description. She has a great stand-up feature on Netflix where she hilariously describes her struggles with mental health. It is refreshing, and highly recommended. It is accepting this fact, understanding how it is negatively impacting my life, and then taking productive steps to improve or change it. I did the same when I finally came out as gay. I finally accepted myself for who I was and figured out the best path forward. And hot dang, am I better for it now.
The way radical acceptance was explained to me in therapy was a little different – radical acceptance scaled down. To me, it is still accepting reality, but in a less profound way. Even on a smaller scale, I would argue that it's more impactful over time.
I will explain by example. Meredith, my lovely wife, cannot for the life of her load the dishwasher properly. And yes, there is a proper way to load the dishwasher. I have told her many times, sometimes calmly, sometimes not so calmly, to load the dishwasher in a specified way, and yet, she still cannot do it. After over five years of this, it was either she loaded the dishwasher properly, we got a divorce, or I radically accepted.
As much as I want so badly for her to care about the dishwasher as much as me, or to care about me caring about the dishwasher loading process, it just is never going to be the case. She was not loading the dishwasher without thought because she was trying to make me mad, she just is a little out of it when it comes to that task. That was reality. I had to accept that. And as silly as it sounds, as soon as I accepted that, I felt better. I felt like I had gained control of my response. My mental state was no longer at the whim of her loading the dishwasher properly.
Meredith does a lot of things well. Dishwasher loading is just not her thing, and this is something that I can live with. It’s not worth getting upset over on an almost daily basis. I just accept it and move on. Of course, there is a limit to accepting, but my limit was/is not even close to reached. I have slack to provide to Meredith.
Where radical acceptance really shows off its power is when you parse out and understand what your expectations are and what your reality is. Frustration is a direct result of when your reality does not meet your expectations. The simple fact is that you cannot change your reality. You can however change your expectations. Alternatively, keep your expectations, but understand that when they are not met, you only frustrated yourself by setting those expectations in the first place.
If something is out of our control, we can hope that it will work out the way we want it to, but we don’t have any business holding another person or a situation to our own subjective standard. We are only setting ourselves up for potential disappointment.
One more example – Meredith and I traveled from Calgary, Alberta to Raleigh, North Carolina last week for a Brandi Carlile concert (I love her, it was great!) and to visit her family. We hit a series of travel snafus starting with almost missing our outbound connecting flight and then not receiving our luggage upon arrival in Raleigh. The hotel was noisy and we had to shower in a YMCA on the way to the concert the following day due to spending more time at the airport collecting our luggage. On the way home, our flight out was outright cancelled due to a mechanical issue. We were rerouted with a 48-hour layover. And our bags were lost again.
Now, as much as I would like to sit here and tell you that past Alex would have been cool with these unexpected events, she would not have been. There is no doubt that there would have been multiple mental breakdowns. Poor Meredith. But new Alex – radically accepting Alex – was! I was okay. I held it together. I radically accepted. I accepted the situations for what they were and kept cool, understanding that crying, getting mad or angry, or blaming someone was incredibly unproductive. I felt for the first time in my life, in control of my emotions and responses. This was HUGE. And because of this, despite the series of unfortunate events, it was a great trip. I am so incredibly proud of that.
This is radical acceptance. I will admit, this is a new concept to me. I have not tested it over time, but so far, this simple concept has made me into a calmer, gentler, more level-headed person. The type of person I thought was a pipe dream. It certainly does not come naturally to me. I must be very aware, catch myself and work hard to get myself to accept and check the facts. It might always be that way, but that is certainly better than being at the whim of my emotions and reacting unreasonably and unproductively to situations.
As is probably very clear by now, radical acceptance has been a game-changer and I think everyone should know about it. I am not an expert on this topic, but in the spirit of learning, sharing, and growing, I felt like it would be helpful to share this concept from my experience and perspective. I hope it provided some value. Go little doggies and radically accept!
If you want to respond to this email with your own experience, please do not hesitate. I will read and respond.