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  • Radical Acceptance: What It Is and What It Isn’t

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November 5, 2020

Many of us cringe when told we need to accept things as they are. But the practice of radical acceptance may not be what you think it is. To understand what acceptance is, it’s sometimes easier to learn what it’s not. Acceptance is not agreeing, forgetting, or forgiving. It’s a profound practice that can change how you relate to the world, and to yourself.

radical acceptance, Radical Acceptance: What It Is and What It Isn’t

“Radical acceptance rests on letting go of the illusion of control, and a willingness to notice and accept things as they are right now, without judging.”

- Marsha Linehan -

When things don’t go the way we’d like them to, it’s difficult to accept. But a full human life involves both joy and pain. When we cannot accept our moments of pain, suffering arises. Radical acceptance is a mindful approach to pain which prevents suffering. 

Non-Acceptance is Avoidance

The Dalai Lama teaches us all human beings are alike in that we only want to avoid pain and be happy. Suffering arises, however, because we avoid pain and seek happiness in all the wrong ways. We tend to fight our reality. Unfortunately, this is a fight we cannot win.

It’s not easy to sit with discomfort, and can be extremely overwhelming for some. If you find yourself saying any of the following, you might be avoiding reality...

  • This isn’t fair
  • This can’t be true
  • It shouldn’t be this way
  • Why me?
  • Why now?

When in a state of non-belief or non-acceptance we avoid connecting to our emotions by avoiding a connection to reality. We waste bodily and mental energy on wishing things were different, lamenting the causes, or looking back to question things that have already happened, which are precisely the things we cannot change.

radical acceptance, Radical Acceptance: What It Is and What It Isn’t

On some level, by rejecting the experiences or circumstances of our lives, we also reject ourselves. We reinforce a subtle (or overt) belief that we’re not good enough, that something’s wrong. Through avoidance, we create the suffering we’ve been attempting to evade.

The truth is, we do need to change, but not in the way we think. We need not change what’s happening nor how we are feeling, but we must change our relationship to reality. Radical acceptance is the process of recognizing life’s imperfect moments and accepting them for what they are.

Ironically, when we open ourselves to the truth of our circumstances and emotions, we open ourselves to the possibility of lasting and beneficial change. True happiness comes not from the avoidance of pain, but from turning towards it with radical, loving and open acceptance.

What Radical Acceptance Is NOT

When experiencing great pain, grief, or sadness most people recoil when told they need to accept it. No one wants to feel badly, and the term “acceptance” is often misconstrued. To practice true radical acceptance, it’s helpful to understand what it’s not. 

Accepting is Not Agreeing

Accepting reality as it is doesn’t mean we have to like it. Acceptance should not be confused with endorsement. Acceptance is an acknowledgement of reality as it is right here and right now. It’s free from judgement. 

When we accept the things we can’t control, we avoid getting stuck in a no-win situation. We cease to waste energy on anger or resentment and instead make space for grief, sadness, and ultimately, healing.

Next time, try saying the following mantra:

“This present moment is necessary and perfect, even if I don’t like it.”

Acceptance is Not Inaction

Accepting reality and our present moment circumstance doesn’t mean we roll over and play dead, or become door mats and let life or others walk all over us. We don’t throw up our hands and become helpless. Acceptance is actually empowering.

Acceptance is necessary if we are to move forward with mindful action. When our actions are rooted in reality, we’re empowered to change the things within our control. Acceptance leads to mindful problem solving. We work with reality, not against it. 

Next time, try saying the following mantra:

“OK, this is happening. What I do next is the only thing I can control.”

Acceptance is Not Forgiveness

Accepting something that’s happened has nothing to do with a decision to forgive the parties involved (or not). Radical acceptance is about you. It’s not accepting someone else’s behavior, it’s accepting what has happened and what you’re feeling.

Radical acceptance requires nothing from others. But it does require us to be mindful and open to our own experiences and emotions. Acceptance reduces our personal pain by asking us to acknowledge facts so we can direct our energy towards freedom instead.

Next time, try this mantra.

“This happened, and it hurts. But I’m exactly where I need to be so I can grow and move on.”

Practice Radical Acceptance with the Following Mindfulness Exercises:

Radical Acceptance of the Self

Radical acceptance refers to our circumstances and the behavior of others, but it also refers to acceptance of the self. When we fail to accept how we feel in any given moment, we fail to accept who we really are. The Buddha refers to this type of avoidance, our failure to accept each and every part of our being, as the source of all our suffering.

In truth, each one of us is perfect. All of our shortcomings, our failures, mistakes, and mental afflictions are perfect. Right now, we are exactly where we need to be and who we need to be. When we accept this, we silence our constant near-constant companion, the inner critic. By doing so, we can better hear our own true nature calling.

radical acceptance, Radical Acceptance: What It Is and What It Isn’t

“Whatever we can’t embrace with love imprisons us.”

- Tara Brach -

Non-Acceptance as Saying No

Each of us lives with an inner critic who constantly tells us we’re not enough. Our self-criticism traps us in thinking we’re flawed. This leads to fear and a compulsion to control situations and other people. The antidote is acceptance of the self. According to mindfulness teacher Tara Brach, radical acceptance releases us from the compulsion to manage, fix, and control. Acceptance frees us to be present instead.

As Tara Brach says, “managing is a way of saying no to what’s happening right now.” We busy ourselves with the denial of reality and attempt to manage our circumstances and the behavior of others because we’re afraid. Deep-seated self-critical beliefs tell us we’re inadequate, and we fear we’ll end up as bad people or failures if we’re not continually in fixing or doing mode. We are compelled to act because society and our inner critic have taught us simply being is not enough. We think we’re not enough.

But the truth is, we are enough. Radical self acceptance is about awakening to the reality that you are perfect just as you are. When you embrace that reality in body and mind, you become free to be present. You’re able to pause, rest and simply be.

Once we embrace radical acceptance of the self, further growth and change arises not because we hate who we are, but because we love ourselves unconditionally. 

radical acceptance, Radical Acceptance: What It Is and What It Isn’t

“On this sacred path of radical acceptance, rather than striving for perfection, we discover how to love ourselves into wholeness.”

- Tara Brach -

How to Accept and Say Yes

When we say yes to who we are in the present moment, we open our hearts and minds to the fullness of our human experience. Then, we can offer ourselves compassion and begin to heal. 

Tara Brach’s method for living in a state of radical acceptance includes three steps; pausing naming, and saying yes.

1. Pause

Mindfulness and meditation are not methods of escaping our feelings, nor are they ways in which we learn to stop feeling. On the contrary, mindfulness and meditation help us feel our feelings more deeply.

Mindfulness lets us be fully aware and at home with what’s happening in our bodies and minds. We do this free from judgment, and free from the need to manage or change what we notice. 

In moments of discomfort, pause. Notice if you are fighting a battle with reality, and take three slow cycles of breath to interrupt your current state. During this pause, allow yourself to be fully present with how you feel in your body and mind.

radical acceptance, Radical Acceptance: What It Is and What It Isn’t

2. Name

Having taken a pause to tune in to sensation, acknowledge and identify what you’re feeling. Mindfulness helps us name our moments of pain. Naming is a critical step within radical acceptance because it’s by naming something that we bring it into existence. Naming strengthens our connection to reality. 

Naming is an acknowledgement and it need not be complicated. Mindfulness teacher Kristin Neff advises us to identify our pain with the phrase, “this is a moment of suffering.” With naming, there’s no need to diagnose why, or to look back at a lifetime of causes and conditions. Remain in the present moment, and give a name to what’s happening here and now.

3. Say Yes

Having paused and named what’s happening, accept it and say yes. Practice acceptance in your body and mind. Infuse your acceptance with profound self-compassion. Send yourself love and kindness.

When we say yes to the fullness of our human experience, even our moments of pain become expressions of love. The more we can be present with our own pain, the more we’re able to be present with the pain of others. It’s through self-compassion that we build the capacity to share compassion with others. 

Imagine how you might act in the world having fully accepted who you are and how you feel, then go do it. Even if you feel you’re not ready. Remember that self-acceptance is a continually evolving process that takes practice. Like all mindfulness exercises, it requires repetition. 

If you don’t get it perfect right away, pause, name and say yes again. Keep mindfully returning to check in with how you’re feeling. At each step along the path to radical acceptance, accept where you are in the process.

Listen to Mindfulness Teacher Tara Brach Discuss Radical Acceptance

A Prerequisite for Change

Embracing radical acceptance creates a shift in identity. We move from the small self that’s stuck inside our story to the greater self who witnesses the story with kind open-heartedness.

This unconditional self-love is a prerequisite for real change. Once we ourselves are healed, ironically, we finally become able to change our worlds. It’s only by accepting ourselves and connecting to our innate wisdom and compassion that we’re able to look around and see others with the same tenderness and openness. 

Present and firmly rooted in reality, we change our worlds not by fighting against what is or attempting to manage, but by connecting to others from the spaciousness of authenticity and total acceptance. 

radical acceptance, Radical Acceptance: What It Is and What It Isn’t

“The curious paradox is that when I accept myself just as I am, then I can change.”

- Carl Rogers -

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About the author 

Sara-Mai Conway is a writer, yoga and meditation instructor living and working in Baja Sur, Mexico. In addition to online offerings, she teaches donation-based community classes in her tiny, off-grid hometown on the Pacific coast. She is a certified 500-hour Remedial Yoga and Applied Mindfulness Advanced teacher with Bodhi Yoga Spain under the Independent Yoga Network (UK).