Balancing Change with “Radical Acceptance”: Getting Unstuck and Moving Forward in Life

Although at this time of year, many people are talking about trying to make things different, there is actually significant value which exists in accepting reality just as it is.

The curious paradox is that when I accept myself just as I am, then I change” ~ Carl Rogers

Accept myself…as I am??? (yikes!) This is a challenging concept for so many and for others it can feel impossible. Self-criticism and self-loathing are, unfortunately, common things in our culture. Messages of our need to change ourselves in every which way surround us, especially at this exact time of year. Not to say that there’s no value in wanting to better ourselves, but it’s the drivenness, striving and self-critical spirit in which we try to motivate ourselves, that can be unskillful, and even damaging. But sometimes it’s not just ourselves that we need to accept, but often times, it’s also the situations in which we find ourselves.

Radical acceptance is a cognitive technique used in a variety of therapeutic approaches. It is derived from Buddhist teachings and mindfulness. Radical acceptance simply means accepting a situation (internally or externally) wholly and completely, as it is, without getting caught up in prejudice or preconceived notions of how things should be. It doesn’t mean that we have to like it, it’s just an acknowledgment of reality as it is, without judgments or evaluations. Practicing radical acceptance sounds easy, but in times of stress and crisis, accepting reality can feel be deeply distressing. It's a key stepping stone for making important life decisions, especially when you feel torn between choices or feeling stuck in a rut. Radical acceptance is not a passive resignation where we give up. It’s an active choice to accept things as they are and to see what, if any, action needs to be taken. To be clear, we are not talking about extreme situations like radically accepting if we are in a situation where abuse is taking place.

Cultivate Your Mind

Radical acceptance is a state of mind that requires you to be mindful, non-judgmental, and curious. Practicing mindfulness meditation can help you to cultivate a mindset where you can see multiple sides to a situation. It facilitates psychological flexibility, a hallmark of mental health and wellness. Mindfully noticing your thoughts and emotions from a witness/observer stance means that you can identify your initial stance without committing to it, allowing you to think more flexibly. You don’t have to get locked into your first reaction of what you’re observing. You can pause, notice, be curious and see if you can be open to a variety of ways to see the situation.

Cognitive Defusion

Language is a collection of syllables to which humans assign meaning. When you first approach a situation where you feel stuck or confused, try outlining the problem aloud in one or two sentences, facts only, summarizing the issue as succinctly as you can. The words you choose to describe the problem may well have conscious or subconscious meanings for you and will influence the way you think and feel.

Cognitive defusion is a technique you can use to disempower a single thought, to observe and unhook from it. By stepping back and seeing a thought as just a thought can be interestingly regulating and stabilizing for our attention. We can learn to not take our thoughts so seriously and not have to believe or follow every darn thought that pops into our head. It can also make room for seeing the situation from additional creative and complex ways. One cognitive defusion technique is to try saying the problem aloud in a series of funny voices. Or, try saying the sentences backwards, sing it to the tune of your favourite song or even to the tune of Happy Birthday. Keep finding new ways to play with the language you've chosen to describe the problem until your mood lifts and the words lose their power.

Consider and Play Around with Context

The way that you view any situation is rooted in your worldview. The way a person or situation is viewed can be radically different depending on culture and societal expectations. If you are stuck in one mindset, try considering how a Buddhist monk or a practicing Catholic approach the same situation differently. Ask what a military leader would think compared to someone from a different ethnic background. Consider how an elderly person might see things, and how a toddler would approach the same situation.

Viewing your current situation from a variety of contexts can help you to get unstuck and unlock flexible, creative thinking.

Identify Barriers

When you try to accept a situation radically, it's a good idea to get curious and ask yourself lots of questions. Are you stuck in one viewpoint because the issue is truly unsolvable, or is there a subconscious part of you that doesn't want to radically accept reality? In some situations, radical acceptance means accepting you were wrong, or that you need to make a major life change that is overwhelming and uncomfortable. Accepting a situation radically doesn't mean that you are committing to any particular action, but it does require you to identify any barriers that are stopping you from being honest with yourself.

Acceptance or Action

With practice, radically accepting a situation can be very empowering. I use the radical acceptance skill most days, when things aren’t exactly the way I want them to be. Once you see a situation clearly from every possible angle, you get to decide whether to take action to change or improve the situation. But radical acceptance is the first step for self-care. It’s a relational shift to the situation and yourself in it. Sometimes, radically accepting the past can empower you to make different choices and create a different future for yourself. Equally, radically accepting a relationship might mean accepting someone for who they are and changing your own expectations of that person to alleviate stress and frustration.

Radical acceptance is a valuable skill rooted in mindfulness and ancient wisdom. Practicing radical acceptance can be tricky as it requires you to overcome preconceptions and prejudices and view a situation from a variety of viewpoints. However, if you can practice and hone this skill, it can help you to navigate stressful or even seemingly impossible situations and empower you to make choices that are grounded in clarity and reality.