Buddha once said: “Pain is inevitable, suffering is a choice”. What exactly did he mean by that? Throughout our lives, we will feel pain, loss, grief, regret, disappointment, failure and many more difficult and painful emotions. This is true for all humans (other than for a small percentage of humankind who does not have the capacity to feel emotions). We will also all face situations that we cannot change or control. What Buddha is arguing is that when we try to take control of, or fight against hard situations and/or emotions that we cannot control, we increase our suffering.
Being human is a gift, albeit a fragile one. To be human is to be able to love, connect, communicate and create. All wonderful and beautiful things. However, being human is not without its challenges. With love comes heartbreak, with connection comes loss, and, we must all face death. These truths are scary, there is no denying that. It is normal to be scared, and the urge to avoid fear is strong. So we turn for the emotional exits whether that be: being busy, work, alcohol, drugs, sex, shopping or any other distraction. We are essentially trying to escape, deny or reject reality as it is.
Carl Rogers famously stated: “the curious paradox is that when I accept myself as I am, then I can change”. Research supports this: accepting reality as it is will actually activate the potential for change. Marsha Linehan, the creator of dialectical behaviour therapy (DBT), defines radical acceptance as “complete and total acceptance, from deep within, of the facts of reality. It involves acknowledging facts that are true and letting go of a fight with reality”. Susan David (2017) argues that when emotions are pushed aside or ignored, they actually get stronger. David further states that the radical acceptance of all our emotions, even the messy and difficult ones, is the cornerstone to resilience, thriving and true authentic happiness.
Consider this example:
A teen’s parents get divorced, but her father couldn’t accept it. He moved to another house, he complains frequently how it feels empty and not like ‘home’ without his full family there, despite the fact that his teen lives with him on weekly roundabouts. Because he could not accept the reality of his divorce, he does not fully furnish the house and leaves the walls bare. His energy is low, he has no motivation and finds no joy in day to day life, even things he used to enjoy. He starts to notice that his teen is also showing symptoms of depression. He decides to seek help to get guidance on how to help his teen. Throughout his sessions, he realizes that he is actively rejecting reality as it is. He learns two things: one, this is keeping him shackled to the past and is only serving to increase his suffering. Two, it is having a significant impact on his teen. She is not only feeling sad and miserable for her father, she is starting to resent her mother for causing his unhappiness. He comes to the realization that he must acknowledge the divorce: it is real, it is happening, and there is no changing it. Now that he is no longer using his energy towards fighting or denying what was out of his control, he notices he has energy to put into his life. He decides to get real furniture and hang pictures. His house then starts to feel more home-like, and his teen feels much more at home there too. While acknowledging the divorce did not remove the pain of the divorce, it allowed for him to move forward and have a life. His teen started feeling better and her relationship improved not only with her father, but with her mother. Non-acceptance gets you stuck and prevents you from moving forward, whereas radical acceptance moves us towards change.
The framework to practicing radical acceptance is as follows:
- Acknowledge the situation: When you’re experiencing pain, whether due the loss of a loved one, a break-up, uncertainty within your employment, a diagnosis or any other difficult situation: pay attention to what you’re feeling and acknowledge what’s happening.
- Accept it non-judgmentally (even if you don’t like it): Now that you have acknowledged the situation and the painful emotions that come with it, it’s time to accept it– all of it– fully, openly, and non-judgmentally without question. This does not mean that you like it, or that you agree with what is happening. You are simply recognizing and accepting that it is a part of your reality.
- Now that you have accepted reality, choose how you want to live moving forward.
Remember, radical acceptance does not mean that you are giving up or agreeing with the difficult situation you are facing. It means that you are acknowledging reality as it is. You are now ready to learn how to live in the present moment despite the pain. I invite you to reflect on whether you are practicing radical acceptance within the various areas of your life.