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Radical Acceptance: A powerful technique to help you move on

Woman sitting on top of mountain. If you want to change your life, you can.

Radical acceptance is the practice of accepting things that you cannot change. It means recognizing that you can’t always fight against things. Sometimes, you’ve just got to let something go. 

Maybe you’re thinking – but that’s easy…that’s just called being lazy, right? 

It’s not. If you practice radical acceptance, you are able to completely let go of things that you might want more than anything.

It might mean being able to accept that you’ll never achieve a dream you’ve had since you were a kid, or you’ll never see the love of your life again.

That’s hard.

It’s in our nature as humans to fight for the things we want. And fighting for the things we want is something that is usually a good thing to do.

Radical acceptance feels like a cop-out. It’s far from that, but because it can feel like it is, it’s really hard to do.

In this article, you’ll learn everything you need to know about radical acceptance. You’ll learn about what it is, when to use it and what will happen if you don’t. 

What is radical acceptance?

When you face a problem, you have four potential ways to respond. You can:

1. Solve the problem

This is usually the best option. If you can solve a problem, why wouldn’t you? The thing is, it’s easy to spend too much time and energy solving problems you can’t solve. Sometimes, however hard you try, it’s just not going to happen.

2. Change your perception

You can begin to view the problem not as a problem at all.

So, rather than feeling irritated that your train to work is late again, you can choose to be grateful that you have a career that pays you well and that you enjoy.

Of course, this can be very difficult to do, and isn’t always the best response. Some things are just too complicated for a simple perception change.

3. Be miserable

If you can’t solve the problem and you can’t change how you see it, you could just be miserable. Lots of people do that. But it’s really no fun, which is where radical acceptance comes in.

4. Radical acceptance

Radical acceptance is your alternative to misery. It means giving in to reality – the problem is there, you can’t solve it, so you won’t try and change it. It doesn’t mean you have to be happy about it. It just means you won’t keep fighting a battle you can’t win. 

When should you choose radical acceptance?

Let’s say you’ve found out that your boyfriend has cheated on you with one of your closest friends. 

That’s always going to be a super-tough thing to go through, however you choose to deal with it.

And it’s that kind of situation – a really emotional and complex one – that is the hardest to radically accept. 

But let’s look at your options:

  • You can’t solve the problem, because it’s outside your control. ‘Solving’ might mean getting your boyfriend to stay with you and rebuilding things with your friend. It might mean taking revenge on both of them. But neither of those things actually solves the problem. It’ll always be there and you’ll never go back to how it was before.  
  • You could, possibly, change your perception. If your relationship had become unhappy already, you might decide to see it as a good thing that they cheated. But that won’t change the hurt and it won’t get your friendship back.
  • You could stay miserable and angry. Where would that lead? Say your ex and your friend stay together. Eventually, your friends will accept them as just another couple. You won’t have dealt with your emotions, and your hurt could continue to burn for years to come.
  • Radical acceptance is the obvious choice. It means that you’re able to walk away from the situation without desperately trying to solve it when you can’t. It means that, while you will obviously still feel hurt, you will begin to heal and feel stronger. Those emotions are powerful and your instinct is to fight them. But accepting them is the only way to let them go.

Radical acceptance can be the only option you have to deal with negative emotions.

And if you don’t deal with those emotions? They’ll never go away and your mental health will take a battering. If not now, then at some point. 

Radical acceptance doesn’t have to be just about dealing with a crisis situation. It can also be about coping with problems from childhood, or things you’re generally unhappy about in your life, like your career or the place you live.

It can also be a way of dealing with something just for a little while. Some problems can’t be solved now, but that can often change. 

Say you hate your career, but you’ve got financial commitments that mean it’ll be another year before you can quit.

You could spend that year feeling unhappy and resentful. Or you could just accept it for what it is, live as happily as you can and then start making a change when you can.

When should you not choose radical acceptance?

You don’t have to choose radical acceptance every time. There are some situations where radical acceptance is totally the wrong thing to do. 

Radical acceptance is about accepting reality, even when that reality is really difficult.

It’s not about giving yourself an excuse not to shoot for change and progress.

Part of accepting reality is being able to own your outcomes. That means that, if there is a clear, genuine solution to a problem, that’s usually going to be a better option than accepting a bad situation.

Maybe you hate the place you live.  You know you want to move and you know you could afford to.

But you choose not to simply because you never get around to making the practical arrangements to do it.

That’s not really radical acceptance. It’s avoiding dealing with reality. Radical acceptance is about facing reality head-on.

How difficult is radical acceptance?

Radical acceptance makes a lot of sense, but that doesn’t make it easy. There are several things that can get in your way when you’re trying to radically accept a situation.

One of the hardest things to get around is that radical acceptance can feel as if you’re giving in.

Our instinct is usually to fight something we’re not happy with until we feel we’ve won. Acceptance can seem like the opposite of that. It feels like a loss of control. In fact, it’s about keeping control.

With radical acceptance, you decide to stop fighting something not because you’re giving up, but because you recognize that you can’t change it. 

That’s actually a pretty powerful statement of autonomy. You’re saying “I’m choosing not to engage with this situation, and there’s nothing anyone can do to change that decision.

If I decide to re-engage, it’ll be on my terms”. There’s really nothing about that statement that means you’re giving in. 

It can be difficult to practice radical acceptance because you feel that doing so means that you’re OK with a situation that you still feel hugely uncomfortable or hurt about.

It’s natural to feel like this. Maybe you’re worried that important people in your life will think you’re giving up.

Part of radical acceptance is realizing that doesn’t matter. The point of radical acceptance is that you accept the situation, regardless of other people’s views on either it or you. 

If you’re struggling with radical acceptance, or you don’t think that you can be ‘serene’ enough to do it, remind yourself that you don’t need to feel nothing about the situation in order to radically accept.

You can still feel hurt and angry. Radical acceptance doesn’t get rid of those feelings right away but it is often the first vital step on the road to getting rid of them.

Radical acceptance techniques

If you’re struggling with radical acceptance, there are some simple steps you can take to break down the process and make it easier. 

1. Let go of your ideas about how things should be. Most of us have an internal narrative about our life and how we expect it to be. Most of us have goals we haven’t quite reached and have lived through disappointments. 

2. Think about what has led you to where you are now. What events have brought you to the point where you’re trying to radically accept something?

3. Identify who did what. What did other people do to create this situation, and what did you do? This can be tricky as it means you need to be completely honest with yourself. Often, when you’ve been struggling to accept something, you get so caught up with the role of others than you don’t think about what you did or didn’t do.

4. How have you reacted to the situation so far? What could you have done differently? What could you do differently now? It’s easy to feel that you can’t control your feelings and reactions, but most of us do have that control. It can be difficult to use it, but we usually have it.

5. Remind yourself that reality will not change because you decide not to accept it. If you have been honest with yourself about your situation and what’s happening, then you already know what that reality is. What you choose to do with that knowledge will shape your response. 

Some of these steps are drawn from the way radical acceptance is used in a therapy called dialectical behavior therapy (DBT).

This is a type of cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) that was originally developed to help people with borderline personality disorder (BPD).

People with BPD tend to experience very strong emotions, and DBT and radical acceptance helps them manage those.

But you don’t have to have a diagnosable condition to have strong emotions. Many people do, and the principles of DBT can help everyone.

Radical self-acceptance

As well as radically accepting a situation, we can choose to radically accept ourselves. 

Radical self-acceptance means acknowledging that you are who you are and that that’s OK. It’s not about accepting your flaws so much as it is about celebrating the whole of you, whatever and whoever you are. 

No-one is flawless. Everyone makes mistakes. Everyone has regrets. But many of us spend much of our time trying to change. We often think ‘if only I could lose weight, then I’d go out and socialize more’. Or ‘if only I was better at networking, then I’d go for a promotion’.

Radical self-acceptance means being able to love the whole of yourself, even the bits that you don’t like or would rather change.

When you can do that, you stop putting barriers in front of your own progression.

You stop worrying that you’re not good enough and you begin to pursue goals and dreams just because you want to. 

It means saying ‘I am who I am, and I am going to live my life to its fullest now, rather than waiting for things to change’

Radical self-acceptance tends to get easier as you get older. For some, it’s a natural part of the ageing process. Most people are far more self-critical in their teens and twenties than their thirties and forties. 

Alternatives to radical acceptance

Earlier in the article we gave three alternatives to radical acceptance:

  • Solve the problem
  • Change your perception
  • Stay miserable

No-one should ever choose to stay miserable. But when should you choose one of the other options, rather than radical acceptance?

If you can solve a problem, then you generally should. There’s no value in trying to radically accept a situation if you could take action to change it.

Trying to do so also goes against the principles of radical acceptance – you can’t genuinely accept a situation if you know that you could do something to change it. 

If you know that you really can’t solve a problem, then changing your perception can be the best response, but it’s not necessarily better than radical acceptance. 

Changing your perception can be the best response to simple, uncomplicated situations. There can be huge value in choosing to see something differently and to emphasise the benefits to you, rather than the costs.

It’s a great response to being stuck in traffic. It might be too simplistic for you if you’re getting divorced.

It could be that a mixture of perception-changing and radical acceptance is helpful. If you are getting divorced, you might choose to focus on the benefits of single life, for example.

But unless you have accepted the reality of the complex emotions that you’re no doubt feeling, it’s unlikely to be enough to get you through on its own. 

If you’re ever in doubt about how to respond to something, run through possible solutions and perception changes in your mind. If none of them fly, then it’s probably time to move to radical acceptance.

Conclusion

Everyone faces problems that are difficult, painful and complicated. 

Everyone can choose how to respond to those problems. 

Radical acceptance is a way of responding to things that we can’t figure out how to respond to. It’s a way of coping with big emotions and of healing from them.

Some problems can be solved, but if you can’t solve a problem, you’ll can either be really unhappy about it, or you can radically accept it. 

Radical acceptance just means deciding to accept any given reality as it is. It doesn’t mean that you think something’s OK when you don’t.

It doesn’t mean that you can’t ever try and change it. It does mean that you stop fighting battles that you’re never going to win.

It means that you give your mind the space it needs to work through tough emotions and come through the other side. 

As well as radically accepting the reality of a situation or problem, you can decide to radically accept yourself.

When you do this, you accept that you are who you are, rather than living with anxiety and self-doubt.

You can just live your best life without having to change first. 

Radical acceptance is tough. To do it, you have to be really honest with yourself. You have to be able to let go of big emotions and sometimes, let go of big dreams.

But if you’re going to move on from a place of confusion, pain and hurt, it can be the only way.

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Lachlan Brown

Written by Lachlan Brown

I’m Lachlan Brown, the founder, and editor of Hack Spirit. I love writing practical articles that help others live a mindful and better life. I have a graduate degree in Psychology and I’ve spent the last 6 years reading and studying all I can about human psychology and practical ways to hack our mindsets. If you to want to get in touch with me, hit me up on Twitter or Facebook.

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