Radical Acceptance: What It Is and Why Using It Can Help, Part I

Radical acceptance is a complete acceptance of reality. By complete, I mean with your mind, heart, and soul to eliminate suffering and leave only the pain. That may seem a little “woo-woo,” but hear me out. There are practical ways to utilize radical acceptance to help you make actual changes in your life. Below are three points on radical acceptance that can help you change how you work with pain and suffering.

Radical Acceptance is about acknowledging reality.

I’m sure there have been times when you have raged against the reality of a situation. This may look like throwing temper tantrums, blaming others or institutions, using denial, and even having feelings of shame and depression. When we say we radically accept something, we acknowledge and honor the reality in the present.

For example, let’s say you went on a few dates with someone and were vibing with them. Then, three days after your third date, the person texts you and says, “Hey, I’ve had a great time on these past few dates, though I’m not feeling a spark. I want to be friends with you, but nothing more than that.”  Your heart breaks. You can feel your stomach drop, and your face becomes sullen. Believe it or not, you have a few options here.

  1. You can push against reality and text them back to convince them to continue seeing you.
  2. You can become angry and tell this person off, saying they are a “stupid idiot” and don’t know what the hell they are doing.
  3. You can not respond and then blame yourself for not being pretty, smart, or funny enough.

OR you can say to yourself, “Damn. That really sucks. I really liked them and am feeling disappointed and heartbroken.” This is acknowledging the reality.

Just because you utilize radical acceptance and acknowledge the reality doesn’t mean there won’t be pain.

Some people believe that if we radically accept everything, we will automatically feel better. This isn’t necessarily true. The equations pain + radical acceptance = pain AND “pain + nonacceptance = suffering” help to explain this point.

We are biologically hardwired to experience pain. If we weren’t, we wouldn’t be alive! Pain is inevitable; we will experience it throughout our lives. We don’t have to live pain-free lives to build a life worth living. The suffering, however, is optional.

In the example above, the first three options (without radical acceptance) guarantee continued suffering. If you were to attempt to convince the person to stay dating you (when they say they didn’t want to), that can decrease self-respect and confidence in the long run, as well as postpone the inevitable. If you were to tell off the person and call them names, that can produce a cycle of anger and leave you feeling angry for days or weeks. If you were not to answer and blame it on yourself, those thoughts might continue to spiral, leaving you feeling self-defeated, depressed, ashamed, and isolated.

These options lead to suffering or a conscious endurance of continued pain. Now, if we were to experience the pain and utilize radical acceptance (i.e., The reality is he no longer wants to date me because he believes there isn’t a spark), we would be left with pain and not suffering. Pain is temporary, like any other emotion we experience. It ebbs and flows. Suffering is ongoing. We can choose to experience pain rather than suffering.

Just because you radically accept something now doesn’t mean it won’t come up later.

Utilizing radical acceptance takes time, patience, and practice. For example, we may radically accept at the moment that the above person chooses not to date us, though two days later, we may “fall out of acceptance.” This happens! When we fall out of acceptance, we acknowledge it and turn our minds toward acceptance again and again and again.

We all have difficulty accepting what is happening at the moment or what has happened in the past. Acknowledging that you are not accepting reality as it is now and choosing to utilize radical acceptance is the first step in stopping that long-term suffering. Check out part two of my Radical Acceptance series to learn how to utilize Radical Acceptance step-by-step.


Shelby Milhoan, LCPC

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