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Stop Trying to Control Everything and Focus on What You Can Change

When all else fails, try radical acceptance.

Key points

  • It is natural for us to avoid pain, but this only intensifies our suffering.
  • Radical acceptance is the practice of accepting the difficult parts of life.
  • Once you make peace with what you cannot change, you can focus on what is within your control.

No one enjoys suffering. When you stub your toe, do you stand still and breathe, serenely accepting the pain of existence? No. You scream, grab your foot, jump up and down, and generally do anything possible to lessen the pain.

Our natural human response is to resist and avoid pain. We go to great lengths to alleviate our discomfort because discomfort really sucks. Unfortunately, this isn’t a great long-term strategy for surviving the ups and downs of life.

Just as the world is filled with joy and love, it is equally filled with hardship and inconvenience. An illness, a loss, an indefinable but persistent bad feeling – these problems have plagued humans since the beginning of time.

And yet, when it is our turn to suffer, we feel surprised. It is as if the cosmic waiter brought us the wrong meal. Wait. This isn’t what we ordered! We wanted happiness with a side of modest, meaningful struggle. Not persistent hardship and frustration with ambiguity on top.

Radical Acceptance

Sadly, suffering comes for us all, at one time or another.

What should we do when we can’t scream and hop and wiggle our way out of it? Recognizing that suffering is a part of life feels awfully bleak at first. It can deposit you straight into the existential doldrums.

What is the point, you may wonder, of meticulously building a life when it can get so thoroughly ruined? Why in the world would you go to therapy, eat your vegetables, and generally try to improve yourself when life will undoubtedly trip you up, sending you faceplanting into the mud?

Dialectic behavioral therapy, developed by Marsha Linehan, Ph.D., offers us a possible solution to this persistent problem of the human condition. That solution is radical acceptance. Radical acceptance is a haven we can turn to when all else has failed.

When all your clever strategies and best intentions have gotten you nowhere, try radical acceptance. This acceptance is a practice of accepting things exactly as they are. It is making peace with the facts of your life. When all else fails, stop flailing, and try accepting that all is as it should be.

What Radical Acceptance Isn’t

People often struggle with the idea of radical acceptance because it feels like giving up. Isn’t all of psychology founded on the principle of identifying our problems and overcoming our flaws? Aren’t we supposed to take charge of our lives and make good things happen to us?

Radical acceptance is not giving up on living a good life. It is not yielding to meaninglessness and despair. It doesn’t mean accepting everything – or resigning yourself to things that ought to be changed. It means identifying what you have no control over and trying to make peace with it.

How to Accept Your Life, Radically

First, identify the problems over which you have no control. Focus especially on the issues that you wish would be different, but cannot make different.

Maybe you need to accept that the person you love is never going to treat you with kindness.

Maybe you need to accept that you have a chronic illness that isn’t going to be cured.

Maybe you need to accept that a bad thing happened to you, and you couldn’t do anything to stop it.

Maybe you simply need to accept that you can’t please everyone and that you will waste your life if you keep trying.

Then, turn yourself towards acceptance. Notice when you start to resist suffering. Often, we resist through trying to solve the unsolvable, or brainstorming ways to avoid pain in the future, or berating ourselves for not avoiding pain in the past.

When you notice your resistance, simply turn your mind and body towards acceptance again. This is not a one-time decision but a continual practice. Relax your body. Stop trying to find a solution. Repeat to yourself: “It wasn’t what I wanted to happen, but it is what happened, and I cannot change it.” Just accept. Again and again and again.

Redirect Your Energy

Radical acceptance is the last stop on the self-improvement train line. I tend to think it is also one of the best stops because it is such a relief. When you experience the peace of acceptance, you start to wonder why you spent so long kicking and screaming along the way. It is a gift you can give yourself in difficult and painful times.

For example, I have suffered from chronic pain for many years. I spent much of my twenties deeply frustrated with my body. I was young and healthy, and I wasn’t supposed to hurt. It was unfair and didn’t make sense, and therefore shouldn’t be happening. I overworked myself and ignored my needs, which only exacerbated my pain. Once I accepted chronic pain as a fact, I was free to build a life that accommodated my pain. Counterintuitively, accepting my pain was what made it better.

Once you experience the relief of acceptance, you may find that you have a lot of free mental energy. You don’t have to spend your time and effort resisting the facts of your life. In short, once you stop wasting your time on what you can’t control, you are free to work on what you can change.

The final step is to identify the problems in your life that you cannot and should not accept. The unjust treatment of others, an unsalvageable relationship, a job that is making you miserable; these things could conceivably change through your individual behavior and are therefore much more worthy of your attention. By practicing acceptance, you empower yourself to change yourself and the world meaningfully.

References

Linehan, M. M. (2015). DBT® skills training manual (2nd ed.). Guilford Press.

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