Radical acceptance refers to fully and wholeheartedly accepting every moment for what it is. The concept comes from the idea that attachment to pain causes suffering- rather than the pain itself. By letting go of self-judgment and unrealistic expectations, you can find greater peace within yourself.
How Does Radical Acceptance Work in Practice?
Radical acceptance isn’t some pinnacle of mental health that a few people are “lucky” to achieve. Although it may seem mysterious, it’s within anyone’s reach.
Radical acceptance, in many ways, is a mindset. You’re choosing to stay present and allow yourself to be with your feelings, thoughts, and current circumstances. This is an active, conscious process where some days may be much easier than others.
Radical acceptance counteracts most of our modern culture. We currently live in a society that encourages both distraction and temptation. At any given moment, we’re pressured to buy, fix, enhance, improve, or numb. There is very little room for stillness, and there is hardly any permission to accept yourself for who you are.
Radical acceptance rejects the notion of trying to alleviate pain. Instead, it’s about acknowledging the moment and fully immersing yourself in it. When you can do that, you can live a life that feels more authentic and meaningful.
You may benefit from focusing on a radical acceptance practice if you:
- Struggle with compulsive behavior
- Often feel angry and powerless about your life
- Blame yourself disproportionately when things go wrong
- Become rageful or shameful very quickly
- Constantly expect other people to change
- Hold onto grudges
- Can’t feel happy or confident no matter what you do
How Do You Embrace Radical Acceptance?
Radical acceptance is a conscious decision. For many people, developing this practice feels strange at first. After all, there’s a good chance you’ve spent most of your life not in any state resembling acceptance.
Like most people, you probably spend most of your days alternating between feeling distracted, frantic, numb, anxious, or frustrated. Even if you do experience moments of joy, they might be clouded by a fear that something bad will happen- or that you’re being selfish for being happy.
This isn’t your fault. We live in a world cluttered with endless distractions and messages about how we should feel at a given moment. Many of us also struggle with themes of control and perfectionism. We want to live a happy life, but we don’t really know what it takes to get there.
The first step is knowing that radical acceptance is a journey. You won’t “get it right” immediately, and that’s not the point. Everything exists within the process.
Here are some steps you can take to begin your radical acceptance practice:
Stop Trying to Change or Fix Your Emotions
We spend so much of our lives trying to control how we feel. This works in both directions- we’re wired to maximize pleasure and minimize pain. It’s part of our neuroscience, and it’s rooted in our survival instincts.
That said, emotions are powerful, and they can’t just be pushed down, avoided, or intellectualized. Take the following example into consideration. Let’s say you felt anxious after a rough day at work. You originally planned to come home and go for a run, but you instead found yourself on the couch and devoured a pint of ice cream.
The sweet treat, at first, numbed some of that anxiety, but did it make your emotional state disappear? Of course not. And there’s a good chance your actions resulted in you feeling guilt and frustration on top of that anxiety, making the situation feel even worse.
Our feelings are smart, and they tell us important data about our internal and external needs. The more we can try to notice them without judgment, the less scary they feel.
Keep in mind this process takes significant practice. At first, sitting with feelings may feel incredibly challenging. You might be overwhelmed by the magnitude of your emotional state. You may even worry that something is wrong with you.
Nothing is wrong with you, and it will be crucial that you remind yourself of that. You are simply becoming more aware of yourself- and because that awareness is probably so new, it feels heightened. But when you can trust your emotions, you can trust yourself, and that opens the door to significant emotional wellness.
Practice More Mindfulness
Mindfulness is an essential component of radical acceptance. At its core, mindfulness means being in the present moment without judgment.
When you’re mindful, you’re fully engaged in whatever you’re doing or whatever is happening around you. You aren’t ruminating over whatever happened in the past or obsessing about what might happen in the future. You’re just in the here and now.
If the concept of mindfulness seems foreign to you, consider spending time with a baby or a young toddler. Note how they are entirely absorbed in what’s happening at each moment. If they are hungry, they don’t hesitate to cry. When they become tired, they cry and fuss until they fall asleep. And when you play peek-a-boo with them, your face is the only thing they are focused on.
Of course, it’s impossible to be completely present at all times. You are only human. Likewise, there’s a time and place to think about the past or plan for the future.
But this moment is the only moment you really have. Radical acceptance means making this moment the moment that counts. So try to be with it- even if it feels painful, boring, scary, or shameful.
Acknowledge the Inevitability of Pain
There’s an old adage that says, Pain is inevitable. Suffering is optional.
Pain is everywhere, and to be human is to experience failure, rejection, heartbreak, and loss. That is the essence of existence. As we thrive and enjoy positive emotions, the pendulum naturally swings in the other direction. It’s the most organic part of life.
Radical acceptance means acknowledging that pain is unavoidable. There’s no need to try to escape or control it. It simply is there. The suffering comes from trying to manage or suppress the pain. The suffering also comes when our expectations are misaligned with reality.
The more you can accept your reality for what it is- even when it’s painful- the less distress you will ultimately experience.
With this, keep in mind that accepting something is not synonymous with liking something. You don’t have to like your current circumstances at all. You don’t have to feign gratitude or joy for things that feel painful. You can, however, accept their existence without trying to change them.
Embrace Positive Radical Acceptance Mantras
Many people find that it’s helpful to tell themselves certain affirmations. These reminders can be particularly beneficial during challenging situations.
Some mantras to consider include:
- I invite whatever thoughts and feelings arise.
- I am accepting this moment for exactly what it is.
- I acknowledge this pain and open myself to it.
- I can accept what is happening.
- I am fully here right now.
- I choose to sit in stillness.
- I say ‘yes’ to these emotions.
- This emotion is important to feel right now.
- It is what it is.
Lean Into Shared Experiences of Common Humanity
In her work on self-compassion, psychologist Kristin Neff talks about the virtues of being mindful of common humanity.
Sometimes, when we face hardships, we become frustrated and assume that we’re alone in this situation. This can sound like statements, such as Why is this happening to me? Nobody can understand what I’m going through. This isn’t fair!
But there can be profound healing in recognizing that everyone struggles. This is part of being a vulnerable, mortal human. You are part of a shared experience with everyone on the planet.
The more you can embrace that mindset- and recognize that you aren’t alone in your feelings- the more connected you may feel.
Many people go through their days in a mode that resembles an auto-pilot.
Maybe, for example, you take the same highway to work each morning. When you get there, you head to the breakroom and pour yourself a cup of coffee. Before you read emails, you scroll through social media at your desk for a few minutes. You do this routine every single day- and you probably haven’t given it that much thought.
These deeply-rooted habits, however, can sometimes have more insidious effects. For instance, let’s say you have a glass of wine every night to unwind. That glass of wine may seem innocent- until you find yourself rationalizing a second or third. Or, let’s say, whenever you feel sad, you find yourself shopping online- just an item here or there, just to feel a little better.
Pausing gives you space between the feeling and the response. When it comes to your mental health, that space can be everything. It’s the deciding factor when it comes to engaging in problematic behavior or compulsions you want to quit. Every pause gives you a new opportunity to make a new decision. And the more you do it, the easier it becomes.
Bring Compassion to Yourself
Are you guilty of criticizing yourself whenever you face a difficult situation? Maybe you feel guilty when you have emotions, as if you “shouldn’t” feel sad or scared or lonely. Perhaps you expect yourself to handle all obstacles perfectly.
Compassion means recognizing that you are always human. That doesn’t mean you get to release yourself from responsibility for your actions. It simply means being kind to yourself when things don’t go your way.
In radical acceptance, compassion entails regularly reminding yourself that having emotions or needs is not a bad thing. Instead, they often become problematic when we attach judgments to them.
Compassion also means acknowledging that:
- You can and will continue making mistakes in life
- You will have uncomfortable emotions, no matter how “good” your life is
- You deserve rest and relaxation
- You will not be able to radically accept all situations perfectly
- You deserve to love yourself unconditionally
If you want to enjoy loving relationships with others, remember that achieving that level of connection actually starts with yourself. When we don’t love ourselves, we’re vulnerable to controlling, projecting, or trying to “fix” others. We expect other people to fill our voids- rather than being accountable for them ourselves.
Seek Mindfulness-Based Therapies
Radical acceptance is a holistic mindset that’s part of numerous therapeutic modalities, including dialectical-behavior therapy (DBT), acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT), and mindfulness-based cognitive therapy (MBCT).
These types of therapies can support you as you work on improving your overall well-being Working with a therapist is especially important if your mental health affects your daily functioning, if you feel like your symptoms keep progressively worsening, or if you have a history of trauma.
In therapy, you will work on understanding your triggers. You will also strengthen your insight and implement new coping skills for changing how you respond to challenging emotions.
Use Acceptance as Your Springboard for Change
It’s a misconception that radical acceptance means letting go of goals or desires. The famous psychologist Carl Rogers once said, The curious paradox is that when I accept myself, just as I am, then I can change.
In other words, we don’t grow from spaces of self-loathing or hatred. We grow when we accept ourselves fully enough to acknowledge that we’re ready to try something different.
When you’re at that point of acceptance, you have a level of clarity about what to do next. You’re not acting from a place of fear or from a scarcity mindset. You’re moving gracefully because you have your own back.
Anyone can benefit from radical acceptance, and learning how to integrate these principles into your life can make you feel happier and healthier. No matter your circumstances, embracing the moment for what it is can unleash a sense of profound freedom.