Radical Acceptance and 3 Techniques to Help You Get There
Updated: Sep 29, 2019
One of the main areas that psychotherapy focuses on is training people in how to deal with distress and successfully self-regulate their emotions. Admittedly, we all struggle with distressing thoughts, emotions and situations from time to time. Some more than others, depending on our personality structure, our way of upbringing, the set of skills and resources we have available, the intensity and severity of triggering situations, and many more parameters.
The given is that everyone faces distressing moments sometimes. But what to do, during these moments?
Here I’d like to mention the concept of the Window of Tolerance. The Window of Tolerance is each person’s comfort zone, that place where we feel calm, content, in control, regulated, at peace. Whenever something upsetting or distressing happens, one can come out of their Window of Tolerance either towards Hyperarousal (Fight/ Flight Response) or towards Hypoarousal (Freeze Response).
Hyperarousal is associated with the more intense emotions of anxiety, anger, despair, with emotional outbursts and aggression, impulsive actions "in the heat of the moment", feeling overwhelmed, exhibiting chaotic responses. Being hyperaroused means a more active presentation of emotions. On the other hand, Hypoarousal is by default more passive. It is associated with depressed emotion, numbness, dissociation, feeling disconnected, shut down, and not present.
We all come out of our window of tolerance sometimes! And that is ok. The question is , how soon and how easily can we return within this area? And how can we widen this comfort zone in order to be more flexible and resilient to distress?
In this article we will discuss Radical Acceptance as a way to deal with distress, and subsequently return in our Window of Tolerance. Accepting a situation is the first step towards changing it, if required!
Radical Acceptance is defined as our willingness to accept things exactly as they are- not as we wish them to be.
When faced with a distressing situation or thought of something that bothers us, often a default response is denial that it is actually happening. Phrases such as “This cannot be”, “I cannot stand this”, “I don’t want it to be this way” are playing on repeat in our mind, and a sense of how unfair it is that we have to be faced with this particular situation may flood us.
It is indeed often difficult to accept what we don’t want to be true. It is painful. But denial, despite being such a popular defense mechanism, prolongs suffering in the long run!
Pain is not optional, but suffering is. Because suffering is prolonging pain, maintaining it there- and denying reality does intensify suffering. Therefore, it is even more difficult to not accept what is real than the other way around.
It is then that the monkey brain takes action and we may find ourselves falling into a downward spiral of ruminating and catastrophizing, without being able to let go of what bothers us and go on with our day. In the vicious circle between our thoughts, emotions and behaviours, we think negative thoughts, thereby perpetuating negative emotions and acting in dysfunctional and unhelpful ways.
It's kind of like a free fall... And the circle keeps repeating , the wheel keeps turning, until we make the decision to somehow stop it. Well, Radical Acceptance is a way to stop this destructive wheel!
Many people object to the concept of radical acceptance, because they mistakenly regard “acceptance” as the same with agreement or approval. Accepting a negative situation does not mean approving of it, or agreeing with it being how it is. Both agreement and approval include judgement within them- but acceptance just means admitting that a situation is how it is for now, and allowing it to be so.
It is a technique to practice that can help you when you’re in the midst of distress- because it actually takes more energy and mental effort to keep going in circles, making assumptions and interpretations about what should be instead of Accepting What Is.
Radical Acceptance however does take practice. It is not an easy fix! You need to be mindful about what is going on, recognize your emotions and thoughts and admit them to yourself, give yourself permission that it is ok to feel this way- and then letting it be, at least until a later moment that will be more appropriate and fruitful for you to process this particular situation.
It may be substantial to add here, that the suggested method of Radical Acceptance does not apply to every kind of distressing situation. For example, in the event of loss or a very severe external situation, it would be counterproductive and even excruciating to just try to accept it as it is. The suggestion applies more to external events that are distressing, stressful, out of our personal control, but not extremely painful or traumatic.
So let’s explore some things you can do in order to bring forth Radical Acceptance while in distress.
1. The technique of Turning the Mind
A useful exercise is “Turning the Mind”. As discussed above, when you’re distressed, your “monkey brain”, your mind, will probably try to apply all its usual and old tricks, to keep fueling its mental chatter and noise. Your mind can keep giving you other ideas, more negative thoughts, reasons to worry, ruminate and catastrophize.
That is, if you let it! The trick is to make your mind be your servant, not the other way around. Mindfulness exercises are an excellent way to train your mind in this direction.
When chaos comes to your mind, could you just mindfully Let it Be? Every time your mind tries to go away, wander towards something unhelpful and dysfunctional, simply bring your attention back to this moment. Without judgement of the situation in any way.
You can visualize your worry or ditress being trapped in a colourful balloon, with a string attached to it. You can still catch it from the string and bring it close to you if you need to, but for now, just let it float in the air, away from you.
Repeat to yourself: It is what it is. Now let it be. Don’t judge it. Don’t try to change it- for Now.
You may find other mantras to repeat to yourself, depending on each specific situation. Think of affirmations you can tell yourself to allow yourself to move forwards, instead of getting stuck in a dysfunctional pattern of rumination.
Accept it, you just have to accept it.
Be kind to yourself, recognize how you’re feeling. “Oh, that’s right. I feel helpless. I feel in despair. That is familiar, I've been here before, but I don't have to stay here". Do NOT judge the situation as good, bad, or in any way. If judgement comes, ignore it. Let it pass, fly away. Don’t engage your attention in it. Could you try to do that? Allow it to be what it IS.
Radical Acceptance is a useful technique to help you get in the present moment mindfully, but it does NOT mean that you should be ok with a certain situation forever.
After all, when faced with any situation, we always have three options: Fight, Flight or Freeze! Radical Acceptance is just a tool to assist in keeping you in your comfort zone, but by no means should you accept unpleasant situations for an unlimited amount of time.
Recognizing your own boundaries about staying in a discomforting situation is a step further.
2. The technique of Delayed Worry
A technique in the direction of setting boundaries to yourself is Delayed Worry.
If something keeps coming back to your mind to upset you, and you cannot seem to be able to accept it as it is, you can set up a deadline or time limit until which you will be setting the troubling thought aside, thus accepting the situation as it is.
Think of it as a Worry Period. Suppressing negative thoughts or distress does not work long-term, but you can gain some sense of control on your own mind by arranging when it is ok to worry about a given situation.
Try to be as concrete as possible about your Worry Period. When will it be exactly? For how long? What is your limit? In what particular place will it occur? As soon as you become aware of worrying about the above-mentioned distressing situation, postpone it until its designated time.
Consciously and gently remind yourself that you have time to worry about this issue later, scribble it down briefly if you have to, and then let it be.
After this, try turning the mind again. Accept it as it is, and subsequently focus on your daily activities. This seemingly funny exercise can work miracles in your sense of cognitive control and emotional regulation!
When the deadline comes, you may decide what to do about the situation:
Fight --> take some action, decide what to do
Flight --> leave the situation, if it is not subject to change and you cannot accept it as it is anymore
Freeze --> do nothing (for now)
3. The Technique of the Container
Another very useful visualization exercise to help you cope with distress until a later moment, therefore aiming to Radical Acceptance in the Here-and-Now, is the Container, borrowed from the EMDR therapy toolkit.
With this visual experiment/ exercise, you can mentally construct a container, box, chest of gold, safe- up to you- that can withhold negative thoughts and feelings and help you get rid of distress.
Let’s give it a try!
Imagine a container of some kind that you could use to hold uncomfortable, unpleasant or distressing thoughts and feelings.
What would this container look like? Would it be like a box, a chest, a safe? What material would it be made of? What size would it have? Would it lock with a key, a chain, or a combination? What would this look like, what would the combination be?
Is it safe enough, is it strong enough to store whatever is bothering you? Can it contain your negative thoughts securely, or can they still somehow escape outwards? Where would you store it, how could you access it back when you need it?
The beauty of this exercise is that your imagination can mold your container into whatever you need it to be. Try to imagine all possible elements of your box- its colour, consistency, material, warmth, decoration, storage place, weight, size; anything and everything.
Once you’re done with mentally constructing your box, visualize placing in it whatever is troubling you or burdening you in this moment. Whatever is distressing you or upsets you. You can do this with open or closed eyes.
…Is distress safely stored in your box? Good! Now, once again: Let it Be!
You can also place something positive in this container; like a wish, an intention, or a hope about the resolution of the situation. Your mind is a powerful tool- don’t underestimate its strength! Perhaps till the next time you access your container, a positive change will have occurred by itself, automatically.
The above exercises and techniques may help you further in practising radical acceptance.
Once you've practised a bit with how to achieve Radical Acceptance about situations that distress you, there are lots of other things to do that can keep you focused on other activities, such as distraction techniques.
But we'll talk more about this at some point in the future... Till then... Train in Learning to Accept!
Would you like to learn more about regulating your emotions and dealing with distress?
I can assist you in this process. Contact me here!