Today I’m tackling another skill that has been subjected to a lot of scrutiny and criticism, generally from those who don’t understand what it’s about. Radical acceptance is a powerful tool for change and reducing internal turmoil. In hopes of avoiding triggering anyone, I’m going to use an analogy and let you translate that into your own life experiences.Everyone, at some point in their lives, experiences an event that leaves them wanting to stand up and scream, “It’s not fair! That shouldn’t be the way it is!” Another response may be, “This should never have happened to me!”
Those responses are valid, but they don’t move us toward a resolution and they can quickly become a trap that keeps us hurt, angry, depressed, and locked into that event. Given enough time and energy in this state, trauma can take over our lives and lead us to places we never imagined ourselves being.
One tool to break free of this is radical acceptance.
Radical acceptance draws criticism because many people feel that accepting a situation means being “okay” with it. It’s viewed as a form of self-gaslighting, a dismissal of events that have caused hurt. It’s not either of these things. Instead, it’s bringing ourselves to a point where we can say, “Yes, this happened.” It’s not approving or dismissing events. Instead, once we accept what has happened and stop fighting against reality, we can take action to move forward.
Suppose you’re preparing for an important interview. You’ve chosen your clothing, styled your hair, and even picked up a lint brush to carry with you. Your resume is printed and ready to go with you. You know that you’ll get a job offer out of this, and it’ll lead you right to the career opportunity you’ve been working toward. You are ready.
On the way to the interview location, your car gets a flat. Now, you’re stranded on the side of the road trying to figure out how to get the tire off your car so you don’t miss the interview. You’re also trying not to end up covered in grime, because tires are caked in grime, courtesy of the roads and weather. Through whatever sequence of hideously timed events, you miss the interview and are told there is no time to reschedule as the hiring decision will be made later that day.
How might you feel in that situation? Personally, I’d experience a combination of “betrayed by the entire universe” and “why do these things always happen to me?”
Enter Radical Acceptance
The tire has finally been changed. You’re back at home. Maybe you want to cry or throw something to vent your frustration. Maybe you feel you’ve missed the chance to have what you wanted.
Step 1: Everything you’re feeling is valid. Don’t tell yourself NOT to feel it. This experience happened to you, it’s acceptable to have an emotional response. Don’t use that response to hurt yourself or others, of course, but simply admit how you feel.
Step 2: Look at your responses. Is the universe really against you? Do these things “always” happen?
Let’s be very real for a moment. My personal luck is often miserable. I’ve had a close friend even remark, “You have the worst luck of anyone I know. It’s like you just can’t catch a break.”
Fair, sort of. Despite my “bad luck” I have a life I tend to like. I am someone I like. I have housing and food. I have a job that supports me. Yep, life throws those curve balls at me and doesn’t even think about slowing them down any. Even for me, things don’t always go wrong. I’ve published my first trilogy, and despite not investing in ads or other ways to promote them, I still have sales every month. Often one sale, but hey, this isn’t awful after allowing them to languish for over a year!
Don’t criticize yourself for your responses, but work toward accepting that some of them don’t match with reality. Reality being, the universe is probably busy with the business of being a universe and had nothing to do with what happened.
Step 3: Get comfortable with the facts of the situation. I often make a list (yes, I’m a list person) and detail events as if I were making a report to a police officer who wants “just the facts.” In this instance, here’s what the list might look like.
- Left for interview fully prepared.
- Allowed an extra 10 minutes travel time.
- Tire made strange noises.
- Pulled over to check tire.
- Found flat.
- Called to advise interviewer of delay and request rescheduling.
- Removed tire.
- Took call stating interview can’t be rescheduled.
- Finished changing tire.
- Drove home.
The list doesn’t include the utter panic of trying to get out of traffic on a flat tire, the sinking, nauseated feeling when seeing the flat and calling the interviewer, the frustration and anger that drove me to curse wildly when the last lug nut refused to move until I jumped on the tire iron, or the tears that came when the call came to say the opportunity had fled with the air let out of the tire.
This is what is meant by accepting “reality.” It’s not about how we feel about the events, it’s simply a statement of “these events are the things that occurred.” Our reactions and feelings are still valid, but we have to pull those back just long enough to look at the actual event with clear eyes.
Step 4: What does it really mean? Will there never be another opportunity? Will we never trust our car to carry us from point A to point B? Will we never drive that stretch of road again?
The odds are, if we look, we can find other opportunities – and perhaps a better one. If we need to drive again, we might look at the tires to be sure they’re safe before we take off, but we’re going to keep driving. If that stretch of road is central to our routes, even if we want to avoid it, we’ll get tired of the extra time and gas used to get around it and drive that road again.
Step 5: Are there changes needed? We’ve looked at our feelings, set them aside for a few moments to consider the bare facts, and recognized that the event is no longer occurring. We’ve considered what the repercussions are.
So, if we want to try to prevent these things from happening, what steps can we take? Maybe we can invest in puncture resistant tires that won’t flatten right away. Perhaps we can invest in roadside assistance so we can just call someone to meet us if there’s a problem. What about arranging with a friend for a backup ride ahead of future interviews?
This is where radical acceptance gets its power. Once we can get to a point where we can see the facts, we can make changes. We can determine what we will do in the present and the future to prevent these issues. We can decide how we will respond. We can find ways to help others.
We see the power of radical acceptance in current events with the protests following the horrific and unforgivable death of George Floyd. No one involved in these protests supports accepting what has happened to Mr. Floyd and so very many other black men and women in America. The deaths, the abuses, all of it are explicit violations of human rights and dignity. That it’s a pattern is undeniable. This is not the 1800’s and the black community has spoken and begged for acceptance and respect since before the Civil War.
Accepting these facts leads to understanding the need for change. Once the need for change is recognized, action can be taken. Protests are organized. Outside influences try to turn protests into riots. Organizers of the protests take steps to reduce or eliminate opportunities for this to happen. Acceptance doesn’t make police brutality or blue on black violence alright. It makes it a thing that can be turned into a force that drives the changes.
I’m sure many of us have survived events more traumatic than a flat tire. If you choose to handle those events with radical acceptance, know that it’s not a quick fix. It takes time, self-evaluation, and often the support of a therapist. Sometimes we find resolution in a few short weeks, and sometimes it takes a few years. There really are no magic bullets when dealing with trauma, but I hope you’ll consider this tool as one to use as you seek your path forward.