Practicing Radical Acceptance: 5 Minutes at a Time

A big part of my journey through Second Middle Age is acceptance of things as they are, and not as I wish them to be.  This does not mean that I have given up on big dreams – in fact acceptance and release of what I cannot control allows me to breathe and creates space for new good things.

There are many ways to release conflict and move on.  One that I find particularly helpful is called Radical Acceptance, and is part of something called Dialectical Behavior Therapy or DBT. 

DBT was created by Dr. Marsha Linehan as an outgrowth of Cognitive Behavior Therapy inspired by Zen practices, and originally developed for Individuals suffering from Borderline Personality Disorder or BPD. 

Over time, DBT has proven to be very helpful for a range of issues and I found it to be an effective tool for my son (diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder) at a time when the world looked bleak and he had few prospects for ongoing growth and development. While Aaron was not able to participate in DBT group therapy, however he really benefitted from one-to-one DBT with the support of an excellent social worker, John Dunn.  One of the core elements of DBT is Distress Tolerance, which includes the concept of Radical Acceptance.  

Sometimes no matter how hard you try, you can’t make the pieces of the puzzle fit together.

Radical Acceptance aims at removing the judgment from things in our lives that are not working, to make it easier to accept painful realities that may cause embarrassment or shame.  

Many times we judge ourselves harshly for situations where we would show sympathy / empathy to others.  If we can accept those things that are making us unhappy and that we can’t change (at least in the present), this can lead to greater peace and tranquility in our everyday lives.

Removal of judgment, while challenging, is essential to make space for adaptation and to alleviate suffering.  

While Radical Acceptance is best known for its benefits for adolescents and adults with BPD and other serious mental health diagnoses, it can be helpful to anyone suffering from circumstances or events beyond their control.

This practice of Radical Acceptance is particularly effective in dealing with the collateral damage of the breakdown in relationships that are out of an individual’s control. 

When something happens that seems truly incredible – and that feels impossibly painful – as happened to me,  it is only natural to deny the reality of the situation. I literally could not believe it when my daughter severed ties with her parents – of which I have been one for the last 26+ years. 

I spent a considerable amount of time in deep denial, thinking variously that she didn’t really mean it, that I just needed to try harder, give her more time, give her space, etc. It was beyond belief to me that this was something that I – her loving mother – could not fix.

Rejecting objective reality – a form of Magical Thinking – was in retrospect most likely a coping strategy that served some purpose for a limited period of time.  But denial of reality does not change that reality.

When someone does not accept the truth of a situation, it causes the event or situation to hurt them over and over again, instead of just once or sometimes for years after it is no longer happening. If something happens and you resist the truth of this thing, then not only are you having to deal with the hurt of the situation when it happens, you have to deal with it over and over again every time reality asserts itself. 

The Little Shaman

For now the causes, the ‘rights and wrongs’ of the situation are immaterial.  The most important thing is to accept the reality as it is, and not as I wish it to be, and to find peace in living in reality.  Accepting the truth of my situation:  my own personal daughter does not want me at her wedding; she does not want her mother (and father) in her life in any meaningful way.

And so to Radical Acceptance.  John Dunn once wisely told Aaron and me that it is something that you practice in five minute increments, every day, until it feels normal.  So I am working on it. 

It does not feel normal at this stage; it does feel better. 

Life is good even if this is not. 

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