Making Peace with Reality: The Practice of Radical Acceptance

Person stands back on pavement, holding arms out, flower in one handHave you noticed a general unease, anxiety, or agitation as you move through your days, with sudden bursts of more extreme rage or anxiety when certain things don’t go your way?  Do you notice a frequent feeling of depression and despair when you think about how your life is going?  Does every day feel like you’re walking through mud or as if nothing feels good enough?

There may be a variety of causes for these feelings, but I want to focus specifically on one cause that plagues many of us: the war we are waging against reality. To put it another way, we may have certain pictures in our minds of how we think life should look and cannot accept when those pictures do not correspond to what life really is shaping out to be. In this article, I want to help you identify if you are indeed waging such a war and (if so) how you can find peace by accepting yourself and your life as is.

Why Do We Wage War with Reality?

One of the most difficult aspects of life for human beings is our lack of control. It is often the cause of a tremendous amount of anxiety, and many of us unconsciously spend a great deal of energy developing strategies to attempt to establish control or convince ourselves that we can control life. When things in life go in certain ways that demonstrate our lack of control, it can be quite unnerving. If you experienced pain as a child, when a lack of control is quite evident, unnerving events now may feel especially threatening.

If this resonates for you, you may be unconsciously fighting against reality. Other signs might include frequent agitation and anxiety or rage when things happen that you don’t want to happen. This can range from spilling something on the floor, to traffic, to not performing the way you want, to feeling frequently agitated by the people in your lives. And if these intense emotional reactions are due to particular events, they may be evoking memories of injuries you may have sustained as a child.

Fighting against reality, whatever is actually occurring in every given moment, can be the source of significant pain, but the thought of not fighting can be even more frightening. By not fighting, you have to accept that you are not in control.

Radical Acceptance

Radical acceptance describes the act of embracing, with your entire being, what is happening now. It is accepting that you cannot control others. It means accepting yourself as you are, no matter who that person is. Radical acceptance means removing the additional layer of reactions to the things that are happening that you do not like.

Accepting that you are not in control takes a lot of practice! It helps to remember you don’t have to like what is happening. In fact, radical acceptance does not mean you resign yourself to injustice or harm. What it does mean is accepting what is happening in order to take action appropriately and effectively.

Fighting against reality, whatever is actually occurring in every given moment, can be the source of significant pain, but the thought of not fighting can be even more frightening. By not fighting, you have to accept that you are not in control.

When you accept life, you will find that you can choose how to respond to it rather than feel imprisoned by it, and this, in turn, may help you find a connection to joy.

Here are a few ways to start down the road to radical acceptance:

  1. Build your awareness. Start to observe your own reactions to life’s twists and turns as much as possible. Examine which kinds of twists and turns in particular get to you. How do you typically react? Building awareness in and of itself is an act of acceptance because it is separate from judgment and reaction.
  2. Practice watching your breath. You don’t need a meditation practice to watch your breath. Whenever you feel a reaction coming on, take several deep breaths into your belly, as many as you can until your reaction subsides. This and awareness are the seeds of radical acceptance.
  3. Work with your thoughts. As you build your awareness, you will notice your reactive thoughts take a certain form: “This sucks!” “I hate this!” “Why is this happening to me?” “Why do bad things always happen?” Once you can identify those thoughts, you can work with them by counteracting them. You can challenge those thoughts by refuting them in your own mind: “Actually, bad things don’t always happen to me.” “Yes, I don’t like this, but it’s okay. I can deal with it.”

These are some of the basic but surprisingly difficult ways to develop radical acceptance. If you dedicate to these practices, you may find it easier to shift the way you relate to life and that, by doing so, you find more peace and joy in life.

If you find the practice of radical acceptance to be challenging, a mental health professional can offer support and guidance. I wish you the best in your pursuit.

© Copyright 2017 GoodTherapy.org. All rights reserved. Permission to publish granted by Ben Ringler, MFT, therapist in Berkeley, California

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by GoodTherapy.org. Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

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  • alternative

    alternative

    November 11th, 2017 at 1:53 AM

    I practiced ACT therapy under the guidance of a skilled practitioner and I would like to alert readers to a danger in this approach from my own experience.
    I was too passive and out of touch with my body and my feelings. I was a doormat in my relationships. I lacked effective boundaries and a strong sense of self.
    ACT did not put me in touch with my feelings, despite sincerity and effort in applying it in my life. I simultaneously took up a daily meditation practice. I practiced mindful awareness and non-judgement as much as I was capable and made bold changes in accord with my values.
    However, without healthy boundaries and a sense of intrinic value, I had no way of knowing what effective action in relation to asserting myself was appropriate. I allowed people to exploit me, I was co-dependent and behaved as a doormat. Practicing ACT intensified these problems. Paying close attention and not reacting to disrepectful behaviour was already a problem for me, and becoming less judgmental and even less reactive was unhelpful to say the least.
    I was suffering PTSD and depression. I didn’t know that I was out of touch with my body and therefore my feelings, and that my mindful practice was affected by severe derealisation. I suspect this particular condition was actually worsened. What could I compare my experience to? I thought a derealised experience of the world outside of me was how life was.
    My depression became very severe. I nearly died.
    I believe ACT therapy needs to be preceded by a thorough, objective, investigation into the emotional, social, interpersonal and cognitive functioning of the patient, especially where there is a significant trauma history. Some patients may need education about what a healthy relationships look like, and guidance about how to created and develop such relationships. They may need to learn about healthy boundaries and assertiveness, and use proven trauma therapy modalities to reconnect with their bodies, with other people and with the world.
    Mindfulness practice could be a useful part of trauma therapy, it should never , in my experience, be the whole therapy.
    It is quite possible for those for whom mistreatment and abuse is ‘familiar’ to radically accept abusive or disrepectful behaviour from others, but doing so is disastrous. It can lead to a vicious, downward spiral of misery, the consequences of which, are also “radically accepted”. In my case the spiral ended with crash and burn. I am lucky that this led to my finding an appropriate and effective treatment.
    There is a saying which goes something like: “one needs a strong ego, in order to disidentify with the ego. Therapies based on the concept of ‘no-self’ can be hazardous to those who have become deselfed by abuse.

  • Ben Ringler

    Ben Ringler

    November 15th, 2017 at 5:26 PM

    Hello,
    I am not familiar with ACT therapy, but I do agree that you and your therapist need to assess where you are in terms of ego strength to determine best practice. Accepting what is, however, at its best is not a passive, laissez faire attitude but an active process of being with what is. Tara Brach’s book on Radical Acceptance goes into detail regarding this. Take care, Ben

  • alternative

    alternative

    November 16th, 2017 at 9:12 AM

    I’m not with the therapist, Ben.
    If I hadn’t gotten out of there I’d be dead. I found effective treatment. Chasing no-self when deselfed by abuse is dangerous.

  • Thomas

    Thomas

    November 11th, 2017 at 6:22 AM

    I find that I often wage war with reality not because I don’t understand that this is the way things are, but more because it is not how I always envisioned that my life would be. I know that this is ridiculous but I guess that most of us had this vision of what life would be like and then when it doesn’t live up to those expectations then we sort of get mad and act out against that.I know that to be reasonable I need to understand that I am the only one who can change that reality… but you know, that seems so hard at times. I’m not offering up an excuse, just stating that this is ultimately the reality that I am living with right now.

  • Ben Ringler

    Ben Ringler

    November 15th, 2017 at 5:28 PM

    I hear you Thomas! It is very hard to reconcile our hopes, dreams and expectations with reality sometimes. It is important to try to move towards acceptance, and acknowledging the feelings of remorse, grief and sadness around that discrepancy usually reside here. Thanks for sharing your honest struggle with acceptance.
    Ben Ringler

  • Melanee

    Melanee

    November 13th, 2017 at 10:29 AM

    Does radical acceptance ever come easily? I have thought about it and think that it must be difficult to go from one way of thinking to something totally different.

  • Ben Ringler

    Ben Ringler

    November 15th, 2017 at 5:29 PM

    It’s hard! A moment to moment practice, we fall, get up, fall, get up… keep trying!

  • Jenny M

    Jenny M

    November 23rd, 2017 at 7:54 PM

    In Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) both components, the A and the C are critically important. Acceptance is about seeing things as they are through mindfulness and accepting their reality rather that battling with what already is. Acceptance however does not mean condoning or resigning yourself to the status quo, it just avoids wasting time beating yiur head against the brick wall of reality. Commitment, however, is what helps you shift your life in a desired direction and we do that by identifying what is important to you, what you value and how you want your life to be. Skill development such as assertiveness training comes into this.
    ACT is not about resignation its about enriching your life through validating, respecting and honoring your needs and taking steps to meet them, not deny them. That is often misunderstood.
    Hope that helps clarify what you can expect from a qualified ACT therapist :)

  • Mark

    Mark

    November 24th, 2017 at 8:56 AM

    Alternative, Sounds like a very difficult experience. The challenge I have found with ACT is it takes time to grasp each aspect. The beginning is mindfulness (a skill challenging to develop) but that is followed by committed action based on values. That for me is where the rubber hits the road. I was comfortable learning to meditate but actually acting on my values took a long time. It took time really change my relationship with thoughts and feeling to have the space to willing choose to act on my values. I don’t look at ACT as a quick fix but a discipline that over time has allowed me to act on my values. Just my experience.

  • alternative

    alternative

    November 24th, 2017 at 3:19 PM

    Jenny, Mark.
    My therapist was a highly qualified ACT practitioner, and the therapy was long, not short term.
    To be completely open, I believe that for me, meditation and mindfulness was a master class in derealisation. My therapist had been practising meditation and mindfulness for decades. I believe her own faith and practice meant she misinterpreted a pathological state as a spiritual one. Because of this, I wonder if clients could be in greater danger with a more highly-skilled pracitioner, than one with a broader base of treatment modalities.
    I made major changes in my life and took some radical actions in accord with my values and beliefs. Becoming more profoundly derealised, along with the effects of having been deselfed by abuse, put me in serious danger. I believe this danger is intrinsic to ACT and to minfulness as a foundation for any therapy practice.

  • mary

    mary

    November 30th, 2017 at 1:55 PM

    Also read Tara Brach Radical Acceptance great book on this topic

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