How to Find Balance Between Change & Acceptance

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

Dialectical behavior therapy (DBT) rests upon the idea of balancing and comparing two seemingly oppositional things.  This is at the heart of the word dialecticDr. Marsha Linehan, creator of DBT, explains that dialectics is “the reconciliation of opposites in a continual process of synthesis” (Linehan, 1993, p. 19).  It is the tension between two opposing emotions or ideas that must be used constructively.

Once we begin to accept ourselves exactly as we are in the present moment, we are more open to change.  This concept seems paradoxical in nature, which is perhaps why there is a tendency to resist, hold on, and fight back when we sense that we need to change.  The more rigid we become in clinging to the familiar, the more likely it is that we will react to this rigidity by springing like a rubber band to the other side of the continuum – chaos.

Radical Acceptance

The trick is to begin to focus on changing behaviors that create suffering while simultaneously accepting yourself just as you are (McKay, Wood, & Brantley, 2007).  While this might seem to be a contradiction, it is actually at the heart of how DBT brings about meaningful change.  This process requires radical acceptance.

Radical acceptance requires that we accept something completely, without judgment.  Keep in mind that acceptance does not mean approval.  Just because we accept the fact that we or someone we care about has acted in a hurtful or destructive manner, it does not mean that we approve or condone of those behaviors.  Until we accept what is, there is little hope for meaningful and lasting change.

This radical acceptance involves reminding ourselves that whatever is happening now is the result of a very long chain of events.  Everything that has happened in our pasts has worked together to bring us to this present moment. No “one” decision created our present realities.  There is no use in placing blame, fault, or accusations on others or ourselves.  It won’t change what has already happened.

Choice & Responsibility

There is a balance between the choices that we have made and the choices that others have made in creating the present reality.  While many situations in life are wrong or unjust (e.g., abuse), many more situations require that we are willing to take responsibility for the role that we have played.  Life does not just “happen” to you passively – you are an active participant.

With recognition and acceptance of the power that we have in creating our present realities may come a sense of guilt or shame over having made poor decisions in the past.  This is okay – in fact, when we use guilt constructively, we are learning what not to do in the future.  When we deny the role that we have played we are missing valuable opportunities to learn important life lessons.

When we operate from a stance of mindfulness and radical acceptance, we are open to opportunities to respond to situations in new ways – free from old patterns.  DBT reminds us that while we are not responsible for creating all of our current distress, we do have to deal with it.  When we allow full acceptance and love towards ourselves, despite all flaws, we are ready to take an honest look at what needs to change.

Denying Reality

The more we fight back and deny reality (warts and all!), the longer we are choosing to stay stuck. Take an honest look at how the choices that you have made have brought you to where you are right now. Stop denying what is.  Even though honest self-reflection can be frightening, it is also liberating.  When we know the truth, we are able to accept what is and make a decision about what we would like to be different.

Nowhere is it written that we are condemned to repeat the same mistakes over and over.  This only happens when going through life with eyes closed, saturated in denial and guilt.  Make a conscious decision to open your eyes to what is.  Accept it completely.  Tell yourself that what will be is up to you.  If you want to free yourself from old habits or patterns that seem to have power over you, shine the light of mindfulness onto them.

Every present moment is a new opportunity to wake up to what is. Admit what you already know to be true.  The pain of denial and unawareness is self-imposed.  You are not meant to live in this way.  Choose to free yourself from obstructed awareness.  Begin to live a wakeful, alert, and intentional life, free from old patterns and problem-saturated stories.  Are you ready to wake up to your life and do things differently?

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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: Free Child Walking on Round White Spheres Balance by Pink Sherbet Photography / CC BY 2.0

About Laura K. Schenck, Ph.D., LPC

I am a Licensed Professional Counselor (LPC) with a Ph.D. in Counseling Psychology from the University of Northern Colorado. Some of my academic interests include: Dialectical Behavior Therapy, mindfulness, stress reduction, work/life balance, mood disorders, identity development, supervision & training, and self-care.


  1. Meag-gan Walters on May 23, 2011 at 11:56 am

    Such a great and useful message for everyone in many spheres of life! I agree “What you resist, persists.”

    • Laura on May 26, 2011 at 6:25 pm

      Meag-gan – Absolutely! The more that we fight “what is” the longer it will stick around. It’s interesting to notice how many times the same lessons will keep popping back up until they are learned.

      Thanks for visiting my site and for your comment!

  2. Elise on May 23, 2011 at 12:49 pm

    I agree! Great article Laura. It really begins with self-acceptance of where we are in our lives without blame while still taking responsibility. Sometimes it’s a really fine line to walk. Any more tips on distiguishing between the two? Thanks Laura!:-)

    • Laura on May 26, 2011 at 6:30 pm

      Elise – I’m glad you enjoyed this article. It is a tricky thing to find balance between change and acceptance. I imagine that it is a lifelong process. It can be helpful to allow yourself to accept those uncomfortable truths, thoughts, or feelings, by practicing self-compassion. It is sometimes easier to feel compassion for others than it is for ourselves. Once we’re able to direct compassion toward the self, it becomes easier to “let go” of things that are painful or difficult. It helps me to constantly remind myself that “acceptance” does not mean “approval.” We can accept things that we do not like – perhaps that is a good indication that it is something we need to change.

      Thanks for your comment!

      • Elise on May 31, 2011 at 1:28 pm

        Thanks Laura!! That’s great advice. I’ll definitely try practicing that. 🙂

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