Radical acceptance was probably the most valuable tool in my mental health toolbox while in the worst part of my recovery, and it works still to this day. The point is to accept reality how it is right now rather than hoping things will get better or wishing it was somehow different.
Step One: Abandon All Hope
This might first sound strange, as everyone loves to say “there’s always hope,” and sometimes there is hope, but in this moment, it’s irrelevant. Hope, I found, was not of much use during my recovery, and I still use the word very sparingly. In fact, when I abandoned hope, I began to find myself.
An excellent book called When Things Fall Apart, by Pema Chödrön (highly recommend!), taught me the phrase ye tang che, which means totally and completely exhausted. I’m sure many of you can relate to feeling this way emotionally and perhaps even physically, as emotional stress causes physical symptoms (especially digestive).
By completely giving up hope, we start at the beginning. As Chödrön puts it, “the beginning of the beginning”:
“Without giving up hope—that there’s somewhere better to be, that there’s someone better to be—we will never relax with where we are or who we are.”Chapter 7: Hopelessness & Death
We must not hang on to hope alone. It not only robs us of the present, which is the only thing that is real, it also keeps us forever searching for some form of external security rather than learning self-care. It’s not beneficial to use hope as a drug or a crutch. We first must accept our present reality, here in this moment, before we progress in our recovery and take steps toward the future.
Discarding hope is not giving into self pity or giving up on life. It’s the exact opposite, but it is not at all easy to do at first. Here is where we must employ distress tolerance tools, like radical acceptance.
2. Jagged Little Pill
Radical acceptance means swallowing a jagged pill if your current reality is excruciatingly painful. When you’re in an abusive situation. When someone assaulted you and you’re trying to come to terms with the damage they caused. When you’re dealing with the loss of a loved one, a home, a job, etc.
Radical acceptance is not excusing someone’s behavior or choices. Radical acceptance is not liking your current reality. In fact, radical acceptance is most powerful when things are difficult.
The Dialectical Behavior Therapy Diary explains it further:
“Radical acceptance helps you acknowledge that your situation is occurring because of a long chain of past events that you can’t control or fight…it also creates an opportunity for you to recognize the role you and others are playing in the current situation so that you can choose to do something more effective.”Distress Tolerance, pg. 7
By choosing to radically accept your situation, whether it’s something frustrating like a traffic jam or something damaging like an abusive relationship, you avoid compounding your distress. Just like trauma is cumulative, distress is cumulative, too!
Think of this simple example: you’re stuck in a traffic jam and late for an appointment. There is absolutely nothing you can do to make the cars move faster. Zero. If you scream and shout and hit the steering wheel or yell at the other cars around you (perhaps even flip them off), you’re piling distress on top of distress, creating more suffering in a situation that’s completely out of your control.
Instead, consider saying to yourself, “Well, this sucks ass. I’m going to be late and my boss might be angry, but there is nothing I can do about this traffic jam. It won’t help to criticize myself for not taking another route or leaving earlier. I’m here, right now. I’ll get there when I get there.”
It doesn’t change the shitty situation, but it also avoids stacking more distress, frustration, and/or anger on top of this shitty situation.
3. Life Sucks!
Accept that your life is currently miserable. Perhaps you don’t have enough money to make ends meet, or a person you loved and trusted assaulted you. Maybe you’re currently a victim of repeated domestic violence, or you just lost your job. Whatever is going on in your life, radically accept that is what’s happening at this moment.
I used to say this to myself, in a mirror if possible, “You’ve been a victim of multiple sexual assaults. You are deeply traumatized, then your husband left you. He’s a different person after the head injury, and you are now on your own. This is my reality now.”
If I was home alone, I would dive into the wave of grief before it bowled me over. I’d drop to the floor (if I wasn’t already there) and sob—like ugly cry—until the tears ran dry. It usually didn’t take as long as you’d think for the wave to pass, as everything does.
It is not bottomless.
In face, I found that being along helped me face the grief because I didn’t have to hold it in or explain to someone why I was in so much pain. When I tried to talk to people (usually well-meaning), I was met with platitudes or dismissed, due to their discomfort, which just upset me further. It prolonged the agonizing episode because I felt the need to justify my intense emotions, lest I be labeled “dramatic” or “overreacting” or “overemotional,” the words of my abusers.
All this made that wave last longer, so I learned to tolerate the anguish alone until that wave passed.
Then I’d get up and go about my day, as the next one wasn’t far behind.
4. Step Forward, Always Forward
You will rarely see me say “move on” or “let go,” as those phrases are so overused, usually while being judged, that I choose not to use them (same with “positive” and “negative”). They’ve lost all meaning. Thus I say step forward, and I mean literally as well as figuratively.
There is only now. The next step will take you to the next now.
And so on.
Personally, I find movement helps keep anxiety attacks at bay, and it also represents stepping forward in your life, emotionally. Walking or dancing or running becomes a metaphor for moving into the future and away from those that hurt you.
The past is gone. Every single thing before this very moment is gone. It’s smoke drifting into the cosmos. There is no going back. There is no “the way they used to be.” If you catch yourself saying, “I wish things could just go back to normal,” stop yourself and rephrase.
Say (out loud if you’re alone), “STOP! Things can’t go back, they can only go forward. Perhaps I will create something as good or even better for myself in the future, but I cannot go back to the way things were.”
I truly hope this powerful distress-tolerance tool helps you in the way it helped me. It’s difficult to do at first, but with practice, you will see how much happier you are in between the waves of grief before long. Then those waves get further and further apart as you keep stepping forward and radically accepting your situation.
This tool won’t cure your PTSD, C-PTSD, or mental illness, but it helps manage and tolerate it, which improves your quality of life.
May you find peace.