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Radical Acceptance in a Time of Uncertainty

Written by Andrew Harris, MS, LCMHC, Primary Therapist

In this time of uncertainty, it is both understandable and valid to feel anxious. Of course you are anxious; we have never lived through something like COVID-19 and the amount of information (and misinformation) is overwhelming, to say the least. While what we are dealing with is unprecedented, there is a skill from Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT) that can help us get through this difficult time.

What is Radical Acceptance?

Radical acceptance is a distress tolerance skill that is designed to keep pain from turning into suffering.

While pain is part of life, radical acceptance allows us to keep that pain from becoming suffering. By accepting the facts of reality without responding by throwing a tantrum or with willful negligence. In other words, it is what it is.

This does not mean we roll over and become helpless; rather, we acknowledge that denying the facts of reality will not change the facts, but keeps us stuck in thoughts such as “this is unfair”, “why me?”, and “why now?”.

Radical acceptance is NOT approval, but rather completely and totally accepting with our mind, body and spirit that we cannot currently change the present facts, even if we do not like them. By choosing to radically accept the things that are out of our control, we prevent ourselves from becoming stuck in unhappiness, bitterness, anger and sadness and we can stop suffering.

The Coronavirus is here and it is scary, but no matter how unfair it is, no matter what plans have had to change, the job it might cost you, we cannot change the fact that it is here and is impacting our lives.

Completely and totally accepting this fact is still challenging and painful, but focusing on what we can control versus what we cannot, can be liberating. It frees up all of the energy we were using to fight reality, and helps us use it to focus on how we can effectively cope with the situation and take care of ourselves.

Here are the 10 steps to practicing Radical Acceptance according to DBT’s founder, Marsha Linehan:

  1. Observe that you are questioning or fighting reality (“it shouldn’t be this way”)

  2. Remind yourself that the unpleasant reality is just as it is and cannot be changed (“this is what happened”)

  3. Remind yourself that there are causes for the reality (“this is how things happened”)

  4. Practice accepting with your whole self (mind, body, spirit) - Use accepting self-talk, relaxation techniques, mindfulness and/or imagery

  5. List all of the behaviors you would engage in if you did accept the facts and then engage in those behaviors as if you have already accepted the facts

  6. Imagine, in your mind’s eye, believing what you do not want to accept and rehearse in your mind what you would do if you accepted what seems unacceptable

  7. Attend to body sensations as you think about what you need to accept

  8. Allow disappointment, sadness or grief to arise within you

  9. Acknowledge that life can be worth living even when there is pain

  10. Do pros and cons if you find yourself resisting practicing acceptance

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