Source: Photo by Sam Sy on Unsplash
Your emotional arousal may be heightened and extreme right now, and there is no quick fix for the distressing problems we are facing—a deadly pandemic that has highlighted immoral and uncaring attitudes toward death and those most vulnerable to complications from COVID-19, civil unrest, conspiracy theories, violence and racism has eroded our belief in a compassionate, caring, just world, and has shaken our trust in one another. All this feels like a crisis. While this might seem like the right time for distraction or turning away from the suffering in order to manage what little energy we all have left, radical acceptance can bring us renewed energy. Radical acceptance means finding the courage to accept facts as they are so that we can begin to adapt to the facts as they are.
It may seem easier to take refuge in distraction, because acceptance of what is requires courage to face the pain and suffering. Cultivation of a few core distress tolerance skills can bring us renewed energy to thrive and create a life and world worth living in. We will have a greater chance at deep calm and effective problem solving if we walk straight into the proverbial fire of emotional misery. It is difficult to accept reality if it feels painfully unacceptable. So what has to be accepted? Reality is what it is. One way of arriving at radical acceptance is working with our thoughts.
Replacing ineffective thought patterns with more effective thought patterns might look like this:
Ineffective thinking: Evil and wrongdoing are human nature and if I accept this reality, it must mean that I approve of evil and wrongdoing. I cannot accept evil and wrongdoing so I must stay actively upset and condemn what I see as evil and wrongdoing. This attitude, while understandable, is more likely to lead to a permanent state of despair and bitterness, which is depleting.
Effective thinking: Evil and wrongdoing are human nature and if I accept this reality, it doesn’t mean that I approve of evil and wrongdoing. We will all have to endure suffering because evil and wrongdoing exists. If I accept this painful reality, within the depths of my soul, I will know better how to be effective to work against our potential dark side and will commit to prosocial and compassionate actions as an individual and in my community.
What is the difference between resignation and radical acceptance?
At the point of feeling overwhelmed with misery and suffering, I often hear my therapy clients state, “how much more can one person take?!” It’s the point at which their misery has intensified to the level that they have reached their peak tolerance threshold and where an unending set of nightmarish events turns what feels like a miserable existence they are barely enduring, into an unbearable hell. They have become overwhelmed with suffering and are teetering on the edge of either giving up, or resigning themselves to the idea that there is nothing that can be done to change things. For many of us, last week’s events at our nation’s capital felt like we had turned the corner from misery into hell, and many of us, feeling the urgency of changes needed, wonder if there is anything we can do to change things.
And while feeling exhausted, overwhelmed, and limited in our capacity to cope, all of our daily demands must still be met. This is an almost unbearable place to be. Rather than dull our senses with substances, food or distracting our mind with scrolling through endless nonsense on our social media accounts (i.e., resignation), the research supported practice of radical acceptance offers us healthier ways to cope during these times of distress. Radical acceptance shifts the focus away from trying to change or reject the distressing reality, and redirects our thinking to help us find effective strategies to adapt to the confines of the reality in which we are living.
Radical Acceptance Practices for Distress Tolerance
1. Recognize the difference between accepting reality and accepting extreme distorted thoughts. For example, after bearing witness to months of civil unrest, violence, racism and reckless, immoral decision-making during a pandemic, we may have the thoughts “no one cares about thousands of people dying everyday” or “people are cruel and ruthless” or “hate has won.” While these thoughts might feel true, these are extreme thoughts and are unlikely to be true as descriptions of human nature for most of us. Radical acceptance asks us to accept that the painful thought has arrived in our mind, but it is unlikely that it reflects reality. We can, however, accept that these dark and painful events have occurred and the reality is that we will need to work harder to create the world we want to live in.
2. Consider that all reality is caused, and non-judgmentally (i.e., without blaming) accept that causes exist. By understanding how our minds work, the historical context and dimension of why situations have happened, we will see more clearly our potential for creating horrors as well as wonders. The horrors we have experienced are caused by a complicated web of our interdependence and we must now accept the negative effects of our interdependence. It is only through this acceptance of negative effects that we can awaken to what needs to come next and take collective responsibility for what has occurred and start cleaning up the mess we are in and work toward healthy interdependence.
3. Develop coping skills to face experiences that feel unacceptable. Commit to having the courage to face difficult emotions brought about by the reality we are living in. Plan and engage in healthy behaviors that relieve distress. Lighting a candle, prayer, listening to music or holding your own hand can all relax the mind to bring attention to helpful, soothing thoughts. Or prosocial behaviors like volunteering, donating to a food bank, and being moved to tend to others with the intention of reducing suffering can offer us new insights and hope.
4. Tend to body sensations while thinking about the reality that needs to be accepted. Feel the weight of your feet planted on the floor. Relax your body in a way that makes you feel heavier and relaxed, like a ragdoll. Notice any painful thoughts as your body calms. Notice whether or not you are catastrophizing and work to bring a balanced perspective.
5. Develop compassionate thinking. Deliberately decrease a submissive orientation (i.e., giving up) and engage in behaviors that bring insight and understanding of reality. Increase accepting, non-condemning, non-submissive ways of viewing ourselves and others.
We have been wired and built to thrive, and are not prepared to just survive and endure. It takes work to stay engaged in a life worth living. It takes courage to face and accept the reality that sometimes, the more it hurts, the more it awakens us to become conscious participants in claiming our interdependence and creating a life worth living. Don’t give up, get busy learning and practicing the skills that will allow you to tolerate your distress!