Sometimes problems can't be solved.
Posted July 8, 2012 | Reviewed by Lybi Ma
One of the four options you have for any problem is "radical acceptance" (Linehan, 1993). Radical acceptance is about accepting life on life’s terms and not resisting what you cannot or choose not to change. Radical acceptance is about saying yes to life, just as it is.
Imagine that you talk with an apartment manager about leasing an apartment in a popular complex that is completely full. He agrees to call you when the two-bedroom apartment is available. You wait for months, then stop by to check with him. When you arrive, he is signing a lease agreement with a couple for a two-bedroom unit. When you confront him, he shrugs. That shouldn’t happen. It isn’t fair. And it did happen.
The pain is the loss of an apartment that you really wanted. You may feel sad and hurt. Suffering is what you do with that pain and the interpretation you put on the pain. Suffering is optional; pain is not.
It’s difficult to accept what you don’t want to be true. And it’s more difficult to not accept. Not accepting pain brings suffering.
Refusing to Accept Reality
People often say, “I can’t stand this,” “This isn’t fair,” “This can’t be true,” and “It shouldn’t be this way.” It’s almost as if we think refusing to accept the truth will keep it from being true, or that accepting means agreeing. Accepting doesn’t mean agreeing.
It’s exhausting to fight reality, and it doesn’t work. Refusing to accept that you were fired for something you didn’t do, that your friend cheated you, or that you weren’t accepted into the college you wanted to attend doesn’t change the situation, and it adds to the pain you experience.
Accepting reality is difficult when life is painful. No one wants to experience pain, disappointment, sadness, or loss. But those experiences are a part of life. When you attempt to avoid or resist those emotions, you add suffering to your pain. You may build the emotion bigger with your thoughts or create more misery by attempting to avoid the painful emotions. You can stop suffering by practicing acceptance.
Life is full of experiences, some that you enjoy and others you dislike. When you push away or attempt to avoid feelings of sadness and pain, you also diminish your ability to feel joy. Avoidance of emotions often leads to depression and anxiety. Avoidance can also lead to destructive behaviors, such as gambling, drinking too much, overspending, eating too little or too much, and overworking. These behaviors may help avoid pain in the short run, but they only make the situation worse in the long run.
Acceptance means that you can turn your resistant ruminating into accepting thoughts like, “I’m in this situation. I don’t approve of it. I don’t think it’s OK, but it is what it is, and I can’t change that it happened.”
Imagine that you are late for an important job interview. Traffic is especially congested, and you are stopped at red light after red light. Raging at the traffic lights or the drivers in front of you will not help you get to your destination sooner and will only add to your upset. Accepting the situation and doing the best you can will be less emotionally painful, and likely more effective. With acceptance you will arrive at your interview less distressed and perhaps better able to manage the situation.
Radical Acceptance Requires Practice
Radical acceptance is a skill that requires practice. The ability to accept that traffic is heavy, that it’s raining on the day you wanted to go to the beach, and that your friend cancels when you had plans to spend the day together is important for coping well and living a more contented life. When you practice acceptance, you are still disappointed, sad, and perhaps fearful in such situations, but you don’t add the pain of non-acceptance to those emotions and make things worse. Practicing acceptance in these situations also helps you prepare for more difficult circumstances.
Everyone experiences losing someone they love. The death of a parent, child, spouse, or dear friend is particularly difficult. Your first reaction may be to say something like “No, it can’t be!” even though you know it's true.
The death of a loved one will always be difficult and painful. Acceptance means that you can begin to heal. Resisting reality delays healing and adds suffering to your pain. When you practice acceptance every day, you may be more prepared when the most difficult experiences in life occur. So accepting the heavy traffic is about easing your suffering in that moment — and also about being able to decrease your suffering in more difficult situations that may come.
Reasons to Not Accept Reality
Sometimes people behave as if they believe not accepting something will change the situation. It’s like accepting painful situations or emotions is being passive or giving in. That’s not it. It’s allowing reality to be as it is.
Other times, people don't want to feel the pain. There are many life situations that are painful and are not in our control. We can't avoid that pain, but we can control how much we suffer over the experience. Suffering is the part we can control.
A Place to Begin
Life gives us lots of opportunities to practice acceptance. If you have a problem that you can solve, then that is the first option. If you can’t solve it, but can change your perception of it, then do that. If you can’t solve it or change your perception of an issue, then practice radical acceptance.
Begin by focusing on your breath. Just notice thoughts you might have, such as the situation isn’t fair, or you can’t stand what happened. Let those thoughts pass. Give yourself an accepting statement, such as “It is what it is.” Practice it over and over again. Acceptance often requires many repetitions.
Linehan, M. Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy of Borderline Personality Disorder. New York: The Guilford Press, 1993.