No one wants to experience pain. Heartbreak, grief, intense fear. Life is full of pain and suffering. This concept isn’t new to us. In the Four Noble Truths that is the basis of Buddhism, the First Truth is that life consists of suffering, pain, and misery. We all know from experience that stress is unavoidable. Many of us have been told that the only consistency in life is that it will continue to be stressful. Even though we all try to avoid pain and hold on to happiness in the face of stress, we also know that difficult situations are not always a choice. So, if we can all agree that pain is sometimes inevitable, why do we work so hard to suppress it?
In Dialectical Behavioral Therapy (DBT), this would be considered a dialectic where two truths are happening at the same time: we want to suppress pain and we know it is not avoidable. What tends to happen is that when we are presented with two truths, our minds simplify the situation and choose to only believe one and then we ignore or discredit the other truth. For example, I’ve had a hard day at work and I just want to go home and relax. However, on my way home, I get into a fender bender. At that moment, my thoughts might be “I don’t deserve this! I’ve already had an awful day! I just want to go home! Why didn’t I take a longer way home with less traffic? I don’t have time for this!” We call these thoughts typical thinking and as you might be able to tell, they are keeping me from acknowledging the pain of what just happened. My brain does not want to believe that after the day I had, I will have to take on one more stressor. However, with this typical thinking, you’ll notice that my emotions are beginning to intensify and instead of avoiding the pain, I am making it bigger. When I get out of the car to address the other driver, I might be so upset I start yelling or burst into tears. So, the very emotions I was trying to avoid during my already stressful day just showed up anyway. So, what’s the alternative?
DBT teaches the concept of radical acceptance when we are faced with stress. To radically accept something means we accept that it is happening totally and completely. Therefore, in my example of the fender bender, if I radically accepted what happened I would say to myself “This is awful and I have to go through it anyway. This is going to delay my trip home to relax and cause me anger and I accept that it happened.” Once we accept something that has happened, we stop resisting and fighting against it. Now, we are better prepared to problem solve and handle what happens next. So, I can take a deep breath, make sure I am physically OK, and then check on the other driver before I call the police. I accept that this is not how I wanted to spend my evening, it may increase my insurance rate, and my car might be in the shop for several days. Most importantly, it is what is; I have no control over what happened 10 seconds ago. It is in the past. When we accept something painful, it doesn’t make the pain go away, but it helps us better understand how to manage it at that moment.
Radical acceptance is one of my favorite concepts to teach clients because I typically use it several times per day. When my dog wakes me up several times per night because he isn’t feeling well and wants to go outside, I accept that I will have a restless night and will be tired the next day. When I have back-to-back trainings on my days off and recognize that I won’t have much time to relax certain weeks, I have to accept that I will feel frazzled and burned out some of those days. Radical Acceptance reminds me of when I had several pages of math homework to complete in elementary school and complained that I would much rather spend time with my friends playing Skip It (yes, I grew up in the 90s) to which my parents would tell me “you don’t have to want to do it, but you have to do it.” That’s radical acceptance.
On any given day, something might pop up that I don’t want to do, but I have to do it. When I accept what I have to do, even when I hate the activity, I usually can let go and complete it. Letting go of frustration and doing something anyway leaves more time for me to (metaphorically) play Skip It with my friends. Let’s face it, Skip It is way more fun when you’ve let go of your stress throughout the day.