The Power of Radical Acceptance When You Feel Miserable

“Life is a series of natural and spontaneous changes. Don’t resist them; that only creates sorrow. Let reality be reality. Let things flow naturally forward in whatever way they like.” – Lao Tzu

There is no denying that most of us know what it’s like to feel just plain miserable. That statement may strike you as rather bleak or depressing. Upon typing the words “just plain miserable,” I felt a bit deflated myself. That almost immediate response served as a reminder that some part of me had assigned an unpleasant meaning to feeling miserable. When you assign “good” or “bad” meanings to thoughts or emotions, those thoughts and emotions can shift your mood in subtle or overt ways. While you cannot exert direct control over your emotions, you can indirectly affect your emotions by choosing alternative thoughts and behaviors.

Radical acceptance means to fully embrace whatever experience may be occurring, even if you don’t particularly like it. When things don’t go your way, the idea of accepting the situation might not sound very appealing. Acceptance is not the same thing as approval. When you choose to radically accept something that may be causing you pain, your suffering will lessen dramatically. This is because you are no longer fighting the reality of “what is,” which frees up your mental, physical, and emotional energy to engage in mindful problem-solving.

Radical Acceptance & Healing

The healing power of radical acceptance is most important and most difficult just when you need it the most… during those times in life when you feel truly miserable. Painful emotions can exert a negative effect on your overall well-being or functioning, even when you aren’t acutely aware of it. It’s not uncommon to subconsciously employ various defense mechanisms in the face of painful emotions. This is a natural human tendency that can be quite adaptive in the short-term, in the sense that it allows us to temporarily set emotional pain “aside” so that we can function in day-to-day life.

Difficulties may begin to arise when those defense mechanisms become outdated… in other words, there often comes a time when defense mechanisms that were once adaptive simply aren’t needed anymore. Attachment theory is one framework through which to understand how relationship beliefs and expectations develop. An example of this phenomenon: a child learns through repetitive interactions with his or her primary caregivers / parental figures that when he or she outwardly expresses sadness, that emotion is perhaps ignored, invalidated, or punished by the child’s parents. As a result, it is possible that the child may carry these experiences into adulthood and employ a basic defense mechanism such as denial – in this case, of sadness – when this person experiences sadness in adulthood.

Energy & Rumination

When you’re feeling hopeless, helpless, or just plain miserable, you might not have the physical, mental, or emotional energy to go through the motions of your daily routine… much less contemplate accepting just how unhappy you are feeling. The ironic thing is, embracing and accepting your pain – no matter how intense it may be – takes less energy than staying stuck in unhappiness. Radical acceptance is one way to get unstuck.

You may discover that your energy is being drained in ways you hadn’t even noticed. You may become consumed by spending excessive amounts of time thinking about just how unhappy you are… rumination is an understandable response when you’re feeling at your worst. It can be very challenging to break the cycle of replaying negative thoughts or events in your mind. It can be especially difficult to untangle yourself from rumination when you feel justified in feelings of anger, guilt, shame, or sadness.

Rumination & Thoughts

Notice if any of these statements resonate with you:

  • I was wronged!
  • I didn’t sign up for this!
  • Life isn’t fair.
  • Nothing ever works out for me.

If you noticed an unpleasant or intense emotional response, I encourage you to remain present to whatever thoughts or emotions may be arising. I recognize this can be very difficult or uncomfortable. Although it can feel painful, temporarily sitting with anxiety or discomfort can provide you with incredibly valuable information… the kind of information that has the potential to show you how to free yourself from unnecessary suffering in the future. It might sound a bit counterintuitive, but “leaning in” to pain can lead to healing.

As you stay present with your internal experience for a few moments, allow yourself to take a few slow, deep breaths. Notice where you may be feeling anger, sadness, or any other distressing emotion in your body. As you breathe slowly in and out, check in with your bodily sensations. Do you feel tightness or tension in your jaw… neck… shoulders… arms… chest… back… stomach… legs… or feet? If so, pause and direct slow, healing breaths toward the sensation. Your physical response to internal discomfort is one way to increase emotional awareness and learn how to regulate emotions more effectively.

How can you actively apply radical acceptance toward current difficulties you are experiencing? Consider areas of your life where your emotional or psychological resources feel particularly drained. Notice how much of your energy is being lost through rumination, avoidance, or attempts to control external situations. Choose to adopt a different stance toward the most challenging or draining event you are currently experiencing. Rather than push it away or fight against it, accept it fully. Try to harness whatever renewed energy arises within you toward moving forward with greater peace, mindfulness, and self-determination.

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Hall, K. (December 15, 2013). Three Blocks to Radical Acceptance. In Psychology Today. Retrieved June 10, 2014, from

Featured image: Hangover by Mislav Marohnić / 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. Emily Wright on July 23, 2014 at 4:14 am

    Very nicely written to enlighten our minds. Thankyou so much! I have been going through a phase where I was taken over by miserable thoughts. However, I started practicing mindfulness and it helped me get through. The believe in alchemy of happiness grew, you may find this article useful too!

  2. on August 8, 2017 at 10:21 pm

    What IS radical acceptance then? Apparently it is not approving or passing a positive judgement – it’s acknowledging the reality of the situation. Okay.

    And yet, even though I’m NOT in denial about being assaulted and abused, even though I COMPLETELY ACKNOWLEDGE the reality that these things happened – somehow that means I haven’t actually accepted that this happened because I would magically feel better if I did (even though this is explained to me in the same breath that someone says that RA isn’t about feeling good).

    What the bloody hell IS RA, then, and just how is it actually helpful?

    Apparently I’m the only one in the world who doesn’t understand, so maybe explain it to me like I have a learning disability?

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