Radical Acceptance — How to accept life as it really is and make meaning.

“during 26 months of hospitalization, [Miss X] was, for a considerable part of this time, one of the most disturbed patients in the hospital.”

That was an excerpt from a discharge summary from the Institute of Living, a psychiatric hospital that housed those deemed to be “severely mentally ill”.

A 20 year-old female was admitted, diagnosed with schizophrenia, and given the appropriate treatment “protocol”. This was in the 1960’s, meaning heavy, psychoactive medication, which primarily was used to sedate people, and electroshock therapy (30 rounds of it, to be exact.). Not surprisingly, it didn’t work. The symptoms remained and from all accounts, the young woman remained in crisis, and felt considerably worse, for not being “cured” after 26 months of intense treatment.

The years leading up to the hospitalization for this particular woman was marred with depression, intense swing in emotions, extreme bouts of self-harm, self-loathing, and suicidal ideation. These remained far after her discharge.

Until one day it dawned on her. In an incredibly personal, but transformational moment, she was able to say, “I love myself”.

That’s it.

It didn’t make sense. It doesn’t make sense.

And it shouldn’t.

But everything changed that day. Despite the years of being in and out of treatment, through tears and moments of anguish, and countless marring of her physical and emotional body, she simply said “I love myself”.

This woman? It’s Marsha Linehan.

Credit to New York Times

Now for the layperson, that reveal should not mean much. But in the field of psychology, it is huge. Dr. Linehan is a giant. Anyone and everyone who has entered this field either knows her name or knows of her contribution to the field. She has provided an efficacious treatment for those diagnosed with Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD), a pervasive and debilitating illness, often seen in the field as difficult to treat or with poor prognoses. She didn’t stray away from this fire, but went into it head first.

Why?

Because she knows full well what it feels like to be marginalized, rejected, and receive the wrong treatment. That she wasn’t “insane”, but terribly misunderstood. Dr. Linehan herself, has said that she probably would have diagnosed herself with BPD, if the diagnosis existed during her struggles.

“I love myself”

From this simple line blossomed a line of thinking that hadn’t existed in the field of psychotherapy. Radical Acceptance.

“Radical acceptance rests on letting go the illusion of control and a willingness to notice and accept things as they are right now, without judging.” — Marsha Linehan

At the time, Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) was beginning to blossom. A therapeutic modality that was anchored on examining people’s malignant patterns of thinking and misinterpretation of reality. Therapists would help people “correct” the way they filtered their world, in hopes of mitigating their emotions and behaviors. It was an effective tool for depressed and anxious clients. But what if a person was seeing the world exactly as it was? What if things just “sucked”?

This is where Dr. Linehan’s beautiful and incredibly idea of radical acceptance filled the gap.

Often times, life is incredibly difficult. Sometimes, it simply “sucks”. You hate your job, you hate yourself, you hate everything and everyone. There is a moment in everyone’s life where these sentiments ring true and at times, are incredibly true.

Radical acceptance pulls you to concede these awful truths and learn to tolerate them. No delusions or seeing the silver lining. You see yourself and the world as they are.

There are three parts to radical acceptance. The first part is accepting that reality is what it is. The second part is accepting that the event or situation causing you pain has a cause. The third part is accepting life can be worth living even with painful events in it. — Marsha Linehan

It seems so simple.

But after inspection of my own life and those I’ve encountered in therapy, it’s not true. It almost seems impossible at times.

What does it mean to radically accept things? What does this look like practically?

Let’s imagine that you were passed up for a promotion. You’ve worked hard for this company for a year now, exceeded expectations, and when the big day rolled around, you were given high praises, but left with the same job and a measly pay raise. And to top it off, your colleague, who you believe was subpar to your skills, was promoted instead. Many thoughts would flood your mind as to why, what it means to you and what it means for your future.

“My bosses didn’t see all I’ve contributed”

“They’re too cheap”

“My best is not enough”

“I hate this place”

And so on, and so on.

You slowly begin to build resentment for yourself, your work, and your job. You see a slow decline in your production/creativity and, let’s face it, you’re simply not enjoyable to be around.

Have you actually accepted the fact that you weren’t promoted?

Or are you stuck on the “what if’s”, the unfairness, and the judgments and meaning you’ve made from this event?

You never really had control of whether or not you would get promoted. You only had control of your work and your attitude. The rest is up to the powers that be, regardless of whether it was inherently right or wrong.

Simply put, you were not promoted.

There were reasons for why your bosses decided on the choice that they did. And in that moment, it is what it is.

Acceptance for moments like these and many others we encounter is not easy. But it’s necessary.

We get stuck on things we have no control over and place ourselves in a delusional state of believing that the more we ruminate and toil over this unfairness, the more it will make sense.

But it won’t. It never will.

It is what it is. It is what it is. It is what it is.

The quicker you can come to that the conclusion, the faster you can move forward with your life.

Marsha Linehan found this out after years of struggling with herself and her world. She simply could not tolerate that she was suicidal, depressed, and constantly hurting herself. After acceptance of this disposition, regardless of how unfair it was that she had no power or choice in it, her life began to have meaning and moved forward. In great, great ways.

What is it that your unwilling to accept at this moment? How is it holding you back from where you want to be?