“The curious paradox is when I accept myself just as I am, then I can change.” – Carl Rogers
In Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT), the word “dialectic” refers to balancing and comparing two things that seem to be quite different – even contradictory. In DBT, this balance is between change and acceptance. For many people, there is a tendency to engage in behaviors that are self-sabotaging or causing unnecessary suffering. There is a clear need to change destructive or maladaptive behaviors while simultaneously working towards radical acceptance of yourself just the way you are. It can be very difficult for many people to truly and completely – “radically” – accept themselves when they strongly dislike certain ways that they are behaving or otherwise living their lives. Radical acceptance is the key toward ultimately making lasting changes in your life.
Radical acceptance requires that you look upon yourself, others, and the world in an entirely new way. You must be willing to let go of your ideas about how you “should be” and simply accept the way that you are… in this present moment. When you radically accept something, you are completely releasing judgment of it and avoiding any attempts to fight against or change it. For example, if you were to radically accept this present moment in time, it means that you would acknowledge that everything that “is” right now is the result of a very long and complicated chain of events. You are responsible for some of this present moment and you are not responsible for some of this present moment. Many events have happened to bring you to precisely where you are right now.
McKay (2007) points out that “the present moment never spontaneously leaps into existence without being caused by events that have already taken place. Imagine that each moment of your life is connected like a line of dominoes that knock each other down.” The idea is that this present moment is the complex consequence of many events – some caused by you and some caused by other people. It does no good to place blame on whose “fault” any of it is. The reality is that no matter who “caused” your circumstances in this moment in time, you have to deal with them nonetheless. It is in your best interest to accept this moment precisely as it is and then begin to make real behavioral changes.
When you radically accept the present moment, you are allowing yourself the opportunity to recognize and take responsibility for the role that you have played in creating the current reality. Things are rarely “all” anyone’s fault. When you are able to assume responsibility for the only things that are truly within your control – your thoughts and behaviors – then you are taking back an enormous amount of power over building a meaningful life that can enable you to feel happy, proud, and fulfilled.
Dialectical Behavior Therapy: Radical Acceptance
Imagine a recent distressing situation. Now, read and respond to the following questions to see how radical acceptance can help:
What events led up to the distressing situation?
Think about particular events that may have happened prior to the event. Notice any thoughts that went through your mind prior to the distressing situation. In DBT, a “prompting event” is whatever happened right before you experienced an emotional reaction.
What role did you play in creating this situation?
It can be difficult to recognize the role that you may have played in creating the distressing situation. Remember that you are not a passive observer of your life – you are an active participant. With that in mind, think about what you may have done (or not done) to help create this situation. Let go of the ideas of “fault” or “blame” and simply describe.
What role did other people / another person play in creating this situation?
Describe what actions (or inactions) of other people may have contributed to this distressing event. Remember to be realistic and only describe the factual information associated with the event – let go of the emotional impulse to place blame or exaggerate. Just describe.
What did you have control of in this situation?
It can be difficult sometimes to recognize just how much control we have over creating our current realities. No matter what “happens” in life, it is always up to you how you choose to respond. Your thoughts and behaviors are entirely up to you.
What didn’t you have control of in this situation?
No matter how much we might like to believe that we have control over other people, this is simply untrue. Recognize what external events or behaviors of other people were entirely outside of your direct control. Try to find peace and acceptance in the knowledge that you cannot control the behaviors of other people.
What was your response to this situation?
How did you choose to respond to this distressing event? Sometimes it might feel like there is “no choice” over how to respond to events, but there really is a choice. Just like strengthening a muscle, strengthening your ability to mindfully recognize your internal state can enable you to be more intentionally responsive (rather than reactive) to upsetting situations.
How did your response affect your own thoughts and feelings?
When you make a behavioral choice to take action in some way, there is a natural effect on your thoughts and feelings. Similarly, when you make the choice to alter your thoughts, there is often an effect on your actions and feelings. Notice how the way that you chose to respond to this distressing event impacted your thoughts and emotions.
How did your response affect the thoughts and feelings of other people?
Notice the impact that your response may have had on other people. Recognize that the way that you behave has an effect on people around you, even when it is unintentional on your part. Try to become mindfully aware of how you affected those around you in this situation.
How could you have changed your response to this situation to lead to less suffering for yourself and others?
Whatever happened has already happened – it’s done. Radical acceptance means fully embracing this reality. When you accept what “is” you open yourself up to reflect on what “might be” in the future. Rather than blocking out distressing events and their consequences, allow yourself to reflect on how a different response to the situation on your part may have resulted in a more desirable outcome for yourself and others.
How could this situation have occurred differently if you had decided to radically accept the situation?
Reflect on what might have been different if you had been able to radically accept the situation in the moment that it occurred. How might your thoughts, emotions, and behaviors had been different with radical acceptance? Remember that radical acceptance does not mean that something is “okay” with you – it means that you recognize and accept that whatever is happening is happening. How might future distressing events be different if you practice radical acceptance?
Reality can be painful. It is natural to want to push away things that hurt and cause suffering. The idea of accepting – much less embracing - a painful reality might seem terrifying. Consider that reality doesn’t change just because you deny it exists. It is still there, waiting for you to deal with it. When you open yourself up to accepting the present moment precisely as it is, with no judgments, you are free to look at all of those puzzle pieces of the present moment and start to piece them together. When you deny reality, it is like choosing to take away pieces of the puzzle, then wondering why you can’t make things fit. Allow yourself to see things just as they are, with radical acceptance, then allow change to happen.
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Linehan, M.M. (1993). Cognitive-behavioral treatment of borderline personality disorder. New York, NY: The Guilford Press.
McKay, M., Wood, J.C., & Brantley, J. (2007). The dialectical behavior therapy skills workbook. Oakland, CA: New Harbinger Publications, Inc.
Featured image: step by step by AlicePopkorn / CC BY-ND 2.0