Radical Acceptance: One Key to a Fulfilling Life
“I have a really difficult time letting things go. Instead, I am trying to learn to let things be.” Without fully realizing it, my client had skillfully described a concept so fundamental to psychological health that entire therapies have been developed around its essence: radical acceptance.
What is radical acceptance and why might it be helpful?
Acceptance is not wanting, wallowing, or resigning. It is not approving. It is not “giving up.” Acceptance—particularly radical acceptance—is simply the willingness to experience what already is without judgment. It is the difference between acknowledging that the hill is steep vs. ruminating about the many ways we wish it weren’t.
“But why should we do this, Dr. Clerkin?” I frequently hear some version of this question, and I relate deeply to the dilemma. Often, I feel intense internal resistance when attempting to radically accept “what is” vs. “what I want.”
In my view, to understand the value of acceptance, one must first internalize the logic of dialectical thinking. Dialectics are another eponymous concept for a major psychological therapy. Quite simply: acceptance and change are two sides of the same coin. To truly change, we often must accept what we are thinking, feeling, and experiencing. To truly accept, we often need to change.
How’s that working for you?
One of my clinical supervisors, Dr. Ellen Astrachan-Fletcher, encouraged my colleagues and I to ask, “how’s that working for you?” when considering a given behavior or situation. If the answer is “good,” there is usually nothing to worry about. If we can put a different spin on things or change our interpretation to be a bit more positive, terrific. Able to directly modify the circumstances leading to our distress? Even better!
Frequently, though, we’ve done all the problem solving that we can. We’ve changed what is within our control, and we’ve taken different perspectives. Perhaps at this point, the most effective thing we can do—as my client so wisely stated—is to “let it be.”
Practicing Radical Acceptance
Practicing radical acceptance may involve turning toward vs. away from our emotions, acknowledging the reality of our current experience, or carefully considering what we cannot change. Learning to radically accept may also be fostered by seeking professional support.
With intentionality, radical acceptance of where we are in the present moment helps us to create a life that is rich, full, and meaningful. After all, when we are not constantly struggling to accept the reality of “what is,” we have so much more freedom to pursue our values and “what could be.”