Radical Acceptance as a Tool for Change

Let go of guilt, be decisive, and still get what you want in relationships.

Posted Aug 08, 2020

Have you ever beaten yourself up mercilessly for committing a wrong? Some people have extreme difficulty letting go of their misdeeds. They ruminate on their shortcomings as if they could somehow undo what happened. They may revel in their self-criticism, insisting that such self-flagellation will keep them from making the same mistake in the future.

But criticism never changes anything. Instead, try practicing “radical acceptance” as a means of letting go of the past and growing into the self you want.

You did the deed, and nothing can change that. If you can accept this, it will be easier for you to make needed changes and correct your future behavior…and it will hurt a lot less.

The ability to forgive yourself and others, and then change, is at least partially based on your personality…or in this case, your attachment style.

One of the hallmarks of having a secure attachment style is the ability to accept the “good, the bad, and the ugly” in yourself and others. Securely attached people will have learned from an early age that engaging in a misdeed, while it may have had consequences, need not result in being shamed, ridiculed, or having to worry about continued parental support. Rather, healthy parents focus on correcting behaviors, not on ascribing blame or focusing on internal aspects of the child. By extension, securely attached individuals view themselves as good people who can also sometimes engage in negative behaviors. Because their parents do not over-react, they are not flooded by intense negative emotions, self-recrimination, or defensive tactics designed to distract, deflect, or attack the messenger.

Those of us who were raised in less secure environments may have...

  • had negative behaviors critiqued without corresponding corrective action.
  • been ridiculed or shamed for the behavior as if it emanated from something inside of us.
  • experienced threats of parental withdrawal or abandonment.
  • not had the behavior pointed out at all and received no feedback or corrective response.

If you received no response or correction, you may have had an underengaged or permissive parent. But children thrive best when there are clearly articulated boundaries and expectations for behavior. When parents do not enforce standards, the child may wonder if there is something wrong with them such that the parent doesn’t care what they do. By extension they may perceive a lack of care and love. Alternately, if a lack of standards and disregard for other people’s boundaries are combined with accolades and (false) praise, the individual may develop a sociopathic and delusional perspective that the self can do no wrong and any negative feedback is to be denied or diminished.

If you were raised by an insecurely attached parent in an environment in which accurate feedback and a well-calibrated response were lacking, you will probably have more difficulty. If you have a dismissing style, you were probably not comforted or made to feel OK about yourself after a social blunder. As a result, it’s unlikely that you can tolerate negative emotions because there will be no resolution. By extension, you may disown responsibility for your own wrongdoing and deny feeling bad about it. But there will be social consequences as a result. Because you can’t own your misdeeds, you probably do not develop a plan for corrective action. So, you are likely to repeat similar transgressions over and over.

If you have a fearful (avoidant) attachment style, you are likely to have been shamed or ridiculed without understanding or corrective feedback. Thus, you probably ridicule and shame yourself after doing something wrong and you won’t have learned how to identify pathways for correction or future oriented growth. It follows that you may just stay guilt-ridden and angry at yourself without engaging in a change process.

If you have a preoccupied (anxious) attachment style, your parents were probably inconsistent in their responses or in providing comfort, resolution, or coaching after a blunder. People with this style often exhibit “revolving anger” toward the parent and stay distrusting and angry even when the parent attempts a repair. Moving forward, in adulthood, those of us with preoccupied styles are likely to remain angry at ourselves. Because we are hypervigilant for negative social cues, we also are likely to replay negative events over and over in our minds and scan our memories to see if there is anything else we may have done wrong. In this context, the only way to head off rejection or criticism is to get out ahead of the curve and hit yourself before others do. But self-criticism just results in a self-fulfilling and repeating negative cycle.

What will change things:

  1. Recognition.
  2. Acceptance (of the act and its consequences).
  3. Self-regard and care.
  4. Corrective/growth-oriented action.

Recognition. Acknowledge that you actually engaged in the behavior and own the negative impact on yourself and others. There is no reason to do this repeatedly with the same event. Once you do this, move on to the next step.

Acceptance. Accept that you are capable of the behavior and that this does not make you a bad person. You are still a work in progress and have work yet to do. Having recognized and owned your part, just accept that now you get to experience the consequence of that behavior. It can be that simple. For example, if I say something insensitive to my wife and she is mad at me for a week, I may simply need to accept this as a normal consequence of the behavior…  and tolerate it without attacking her for being mad. It’s this simple; I did something crappy and now I am experiencing the consequence.

Self-regard and care. Remind yourself that you are a good person. Accept that good people like you can be fallible and hurt others. Part of self-regard and care is learning to forgive yourself. If you lie there and beat yourself up--“If only I hadn’t done X, I wouldn’t be in this situation”--you won’t change. You will just hurt and stay stuck. Instead, try saying, “I did do X, this is the result, and now I will do what I can to correct the situation and change and grow. If I can’t change the situation, I will forgive myself and grow into my new reality.

Corrective/growth-oriented action. This step requires opening up and being vulnerable. Unless it will result in more damage or pain, ask the other person what they need in the present moment or what you might do to provide a resolution. If you can’t identify change strategies on your own, seek out a sponsor, mentor, coach, or therapist to help. And trust that good can come out of any negative situation.

Follow up by exercising self-discipline. After all, there is not that much left to think about. You did the deed, you are accepting the consequences, and you are approving and nurturing enough of yourself so that you can take the necessary corrective/growth-oriented actions. This does not mean that you will avoid feeling residual negative emotions. But if you stop punishing yourself, the negative emotions will fade and will not prevent you from growing into a more positive future.

References

Shorey, H. S., Snyder, C. R., Yang, X., & Lewin, M. R. (2003). The role of hope as a mediator in recollected parenting, adult attachment, and mental health. Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology, 22, 685-715.