Radical Acceptance: Definition & How It Can Help

Published on: 25 May 2022
Clinically Reviewed by Meaghan Rice PsyD., LPC
woman deep in thought looking to the left with a hand over her mouth

The radical acceptance definition is the key to overcoming emotional pain. Radical acceptance can happen only once you become determined to stop rejecting reality and acting impulsively so you can release bitterness, resentfulness, pain, and trauma, even when things aren’t going your way. 

Radical acceptance is a crucial component of dialectical behavior therapy (DBT), a subtype of cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) that was developed to treat borderline personality disorder (BPD). 

Keep reading to learn more about the origins of this therapeutic protocol and to learn how it can help you move beyond painful emotions or trauma from the past that’s holding you back.

Origins of Radical Acceptance

It’s commonly accepted that the origins of radical acceptance go back to 1993 when psychologist Marsha Linehan developed DBT for borderline personality disorder (BPD). However, the liberating and empowering self-healing practice of radical acceptance actually dates back much further. With roots in the Buddhist lifestyle, radical acceptance focuses on learning to detach and accept, which can greatly relieve suffering. 

Buddhism

Buddhism is a philosophy (not a “religion”) dedicated to improving the quality of life by understanding and alleviating core causes of suffering. Suffering is universal for all humans, regardless of socioeconomic status, genetic predisposition, or any other factor.

Buddhist philosophy is based on the Four Noble Truths:

  1. Suffering and misery exist
  2. Suffering is caused by attachment
  3. Suffering can be overcome
  4. The Eightfold Path enhances understanding to the point where suffering no longer affects you

These core lessons of suffering and how to overcome it coincide with the core values of the radical acceptance definition. This modality of dialectical behavioral therapy teaches you to acknowledge and accept life and to detach or disassociate from your past suffering.

Prince Gautama, the 14th Buddha, developed and taught the Eightfold Path, which are methods for achieving benevolent and beneficial ethical conduct.

Buddhist principles rely heavily on the following 8 ways to a better life:

  1. Right understanding (Samma ditthi): Accept the teachings of Buddhism.
  2. Right intention or thought (Samma sankappa): Commit to the right attitude.
  3. Right speech (Samma vaca): Speak truthfully, don’t gossip or slander. 
  4. Right action (Samma kammanta): Behave in a peaceful manner.
  5. Right livelihood (Samma ajiva): Make a living without causing harm to others. 
  6. Right effort (Samma vayama): Stay in a positive frame of mind. 
  7. Right mindfulness (Samma sati): Become self-aware.
  8. Right concentration (Samma samadhi): Focus to keep all of the above efforts active. 

These core lessons of Buddhism align with the techniques presented by radical acceptance theory.

Marsha Linehan and DBT

Marsha Linehan is the pioneering psychologist who first developed dialectical behavioral therapy in 1993. Linehan’s DBT was initially intended to treat people living with borderline personality disorder (BPD). It allows them to better manage incidences of strong and difficult emotions that are common with BPD.

“Radical acceptance is a cornerstone of dialectical behavioral therapy (DBT). It is acceptance of the things that we cannot change.”

Talkspace therapist Bisma Anwar, LMHC

How Does Radical Acceptance Help with Emotional Pain?

Since 1993, DBT and radical acceptance theory have gained a lot of popularity and are now being used to help treat other conditions like certain types of depression, eating disorders, and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), to name a few.

DBT for PTSD and numerous other conditions, all have emotional dysregulation in common. Each can be treated with the core lessons taught in both Buddhist theory and radical acceptance.

Practicing radical acceptance helps alleviate painful emotions by encouraging you to:

  • Accept reality as it is
  • Anticipate occasional misery and be OK with it 
  • Explore the core of what’s causing your emotional pain
  • Appreciate and accept your past and the present moment, even if it’s not the way you like it

Radical acceptance teaches you that instead of rejecting reality, you should embrace it. This empowers you to break the cycle of emotional suffering, bitterness, unhappiness, anger, or other uncomfortable emotions that you might be persistently experiencing.

We all suffer, and it’s not easy to get through sometimes. However, we cannot expect these difficult emotions to be alleviated without taking action to heal. By acting with intelligence and intention and utilizing healthy coping techniques, self-healing and overcoming emotional pain is possible. Further freedom from your pain can occur much quicker than you might think. 

Now, let’s examine some of the core mechanisms of radical acceptance theory.

Components of radical acceptance

Two crucial elements of radical acceptance are a need to: 

  1. Be able to shift your mind to reject suffering
  2. Be willing to engage in life fully, understanding the good and the bad

It’s essential that you’re willing to reject intense emotion and pain based on past events or things that are out of your control. You must shift your way of thinking toward accepting the path that you’re on, and not work against yourself by staying inside your misery.

Radical acceptance can help you become determined to minimize negative emotions like bitterness, hatred, anger, guilt, and shame. It’s important to make an internal commitment to start practicing acceptance of your reality. To fully shift your mind, you’ll need to repeat this inner commitment and be dedicated to its development. 

In time, you’ll find yourself moving away from misery and reveling in the enjoyment of life.

All of this considered, it’s important to acknowledge that no long-term healing from emotional pain can happen unless you’re willing to actively participate in life. It takes willpower to achieve a new lifestyle that’s free from persistent emotional pain. You should be prepared: like any healing, it’s going to take work. The result, however, is well worth the effort. A more peaceful life of happiness and freedom from this intense emotion is what you’re working toward.

Examples of Radical Acceptance

Examples of painful experiences that radical acceptance might be able to help you navigate include:

  • The death of a loved one
  • A diagnosis of terminal illness
  • Coping with trauma or fear from childhood sexual abuse
  • The loss of a respectable job or position
  • Hunger, war, or other misery in the world

For some people, learning to embrace traumatic experiences like these has helped them from becoming depressed or otherwise emotionally distressed. When you can acknowledge that many people live in suffering, sometimes in much worse situations than yours, the concept of embracing life and living as much as you’re able to can be game-changing. 

“Radical acceptance means that we accept something we have no control over. We might not be okay with it, but we must accept it in order to move on with our lives.”

Talkspace therapist Bisma Anwar, LMHC

How to Practice Radical Acceptance Using DBT

There are several different DBT therapy techniques and ways that you can begin practicing acceptance right now:

  • Pay attention to and acknowledge the reality of your situation
  • Open up and experience acceptance on a whole-body-and-mind level
  • Understand that your current situation is not a permanent state of reality
  • Acknowledge that you can’t always change everything that makes you unhappy
  • Make a list of the types of behaviors you want to exhibit once you accept your painful past
  • Embrace negative emotions like disappointment and grief, knowing that they’ll end
  • Pay attention to the physical and mental sensations that your body and brain experience 
  • Plan activities you usually avoid, thinking about the best coping mechanisms you’ll use during them
  • Believe that life is worth living and everything is going to be OK after this temporary pain passes

As with all positive and beneficial life tools, radical acceptance DBT takes time, dedication, and practice to learn and implement in your life. Gently but firmly embracing this new way of thinking will help you begin to act free from emotional pain, anxiety, and misery.

“When we radically accept a part of reality that has caused us pain in the past, we’re able to start the process of healing. Ultimately, we’re able to let go of the negative thoughts and feelings that came up for us due to this reality.”

Talkspace therapist Bisma Anwar, LMHC

Conclusion

Nearly 53 million people in the United States were living with a mental health condition in 2020. Regardless of what specific condition they were dealing with, emotional dysregulation is a common symptom. If you suffer from any type of mental health condition that causes you emotional pain, radical acceptance can be a powerful tool so you can gain a clear picture of who you are, who you want to be, and what happiness life holds for you.

Radical acceptance DBT techniques can offer incredible skills for anyone who suffers emotionally. Talkspace is an online therapy platform where you can find the best therapist or psychologist for you. Ask someone who specializes in DBT how you can use radical acceptance skills to heal from your past. Reach out and ask for the help you need.  

Sources:

1. Chapman AL. Dialectical behavior therapy: current indications and unique elements. Psychiatry (Edgmont). 2006;3(9):62-68. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2963469/. Accessed April 5, 2022.

2. Görg N, Priebe K, Böhnke J, Steil R, Dyer A, Kleindienst N. Trauma-related emotions and radical acceptance in dialectical behavior therapy for posttraumatic stress disorder after childhood sexual abuse. Borderline Personal Disord Emot Dysregul. 2017;4(1). doi:10.1186/s40479-017-0065-5. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/28717512/.Accessed April 5, 2022.

3. Mental Illness. National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH). https://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/statistics/mental-illness. Published 2022. Accessed April 5, 2022.  

Talkspace articles are written by experienced mental health-wellness contributors; they are grounded in scientific research and evidence-based practices. Articles are extensively reviewed by our team of clinical experts (therapists and psychiatrists of various specialties) to ensure content is accurate and on par with current industry standards.

Our goal at Talkspace is to provide the most up-to-date, valuable, and objective information on mental health-related topics in order to help readers make informed decisions.

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