Using Radical Acceptance to Minimize Suffering
Five ways to become more accepting of pain.,
Pain Is Inevitable. Suffering Is Not.
Here are five ways to get unstuck.
As a psychologist, I often teach clients in my clinical practice the difference between pain and suffering. Pain on its own can be difficult. But it’s only when you don’t accept it that it turns into suffering.
Of course, more than a year into the Covid-19 pandemic, pain and suffering are understandable emotions. But as a compassionate gesture to yourself, it may be liberating to consider how you approach your own anguish, and if there are ways you can ease it a bit.
After validating my clients’ legitimate distress, I encourage them to deal with challenges by embracing something called radical acceptance. It is a component of the kind of treatment I practice, dialectical behavioral therapy, which was developed by the psychologist Marsha Linehan. Many people know the term from the popular book “Radical Acceptance” by the meditation teacher, psychologist and podcast host Tara Brach.
Radical acceptance means recognizing your emotional or physical distress — whether around minor issues, like traffic, or more significant challenges, such as navigating a chronic illness — and wholeheartedly practicing acceptance.
Though it sounds counterintuitive, accepting negative circumstances can help you feel better. “Life regularly and inevitably involves emotional stress, anger, fears around health, shame around failed relationships,” Dr. Brach told me in an interview, “but anything short of fully accepting our human experience will keep us caught in those emotions.”
One reason is that the habitual ways we deal with difficult situations, like pretending that everything is fine, acting pleasant when feeling resentful or even trying to acquiesce as a way to avoid truly feeling our emotions, are ultimately depleting, not restorative. That’s where the radical bit of radical acceptance comes in. In this case, the word means being all in rather than going halfway, which will feel phony to you and those around you. It’s the difference between accepting you’re anxious and avoiding, and being willing to feel anxious while approaching meaningful opportunities.
Many of my clients initially confuse accepting with resigning themselves to feeling bad, but that couldn’t be further from what this practice intends. Psychologically, acceptance is an active stance that actually promotes change by helping us manage our emotions so we can solve problems. For instance, emotional eating can be a response to feeling bad about excess weight, but in fact, once you compassionately let go of berating yourself it can be easier to make healthy food choices.
One trick to approaching radical acceptance, according to Dr. Brach, is to keep the acronym RAIN in mind. RAIN stands for: Recognize and pause to notice; Allow, or accept your current experience; Investigate, by pinpointing what is happening in your mind and body; then Nurture, by bringing compassion to yourself.
By choosing acceptance in tense situations, you’ll get into the habit of bringing mindfulness to moments in your life when you need it most. As a bonus, studies have also shown that therapies incorporating acceptance reduce suicidality, substance use, anxiety, chronic pain, and improve relationships and subjective well-being.
If becoming a more accepting person feels like an extreme makeover of your personality, research suggests that low-effort self-help exercises, similar to the ones I suggest below, can help you improve peace of mind and quality of life.
Scan your mind for judgmental thoughts
To begin to bring more acceptance into your life, rather than passively falling into negative thinking, notice thoughts, like “Why me?,” that thwart your ability to cope. Then come back to seeing the present as it is, not as you think it should be. When you’re lost in thoughts about life being unfair or terrible — even if it is — it’s impossible to be effective.
For instance, if your child is up hours after bedtime, you may tell yourself, “I can’t take this!” But instead of falling into an emotional spiral, try to recognize what is actually true, such as, “I’m exhausted and crave some time for myself.” Besides easing your frustrations with your child (which will be more conducive to setting the mood for sleep), thinking factually offers more perspective.
Honor your emotions
While acceptance will help you feel better, know that it isn’t a way to escape your feelings. Emotions communicate information to us and can motivate useful actions when based on realities, rather than stories our minds churn. That’s why it’s important to allow yourself to experience whatever you’re feeling.
Experiment with accepting your emotions and utilizing them to inspire you. If you’re feeling lonely, rather than passively scrolling on social media and thinking you’re never going to have a relationship as amazing as your friends’ posts suggest they have, honor your sadness as a sign that you’re a social being. Let it propel you to reach out, and just as important, ease your pain in the moment. You may be surprised by how much acceptance helps, as fighting emotions by suppressing them often backfires.
Release the tension in your face
One simple way to amplify acceptance in situations where you want to feel more accepting is to bring your attention to your face. Many experts say that, along with your thoughts and approach to your emotions, your expression influences how you feel. According to something known as the facial feedback hypothesis, the faces we make impact our emotions, which is why I teach my clients who yearn to be more accepting how to go from a scowl to “half smiling.”
So in moments when you want to improve your ability to accept what is rather than raging against it, try adopting a more relaxed, serene facial expression. If you are frustrated while waiting in a long line, try a half-smile, ever-so-slightly raising your lips, which automatically releases tension in your forehead and jaw to ease your resentment. Not to be confused with forcing a smile for others, the half-smile is for yourself. By subtly changing your face in a way that feels less taxing, you can begin to feel more accepting from the outside in. “When we soften our eyes, we quiet our minds,” said Dr. Brach.
True acceptance also extends to your behavior. Dr. Linehan teaches that in any moment you can either choose willfulness — by refusing to tolerate something or needing to be in control — or opt for willingness — by behaving as if you’re saying yes to participating in reality. Since life is full of activities we dread (doing yet another Zoom meeting), choosing to do so with pep can feel nicer than dragging your feet.
So, during your next video call, turn on your camera, close all distracting browsers and see how that compares to attending in a grudging way. As I coach my clients, the challenging and the liberating aspect of radical acceptance is being genuine by aligning your mind and behavior.
Work on your U-turns
Finally, know that defaulting to fight or flight reactions is normal. It’s unrealistic to think that you’ll decide to radically accept and immediately find enduring bliss. But that’s OK — when you find yourself thinking judgmentally, tensing up or holding back from ultimately helpful actions, you can notice it and try “turning the mind” back to accepting, as Dr. Linehan teaches, without blaming yourself for the detour. Acceptance, I tell my clients, is not merely a one-time choice; you have endless opportunities. At any moment, you can choose to find more freedom.
Jenny Taitz is an assistant clinical professor in psychiatry at the University of California, Los Angeles, and the author of “How to be Single and Happy: Science-Based Strategies for Keeping Your Sanity While Looking for a Soul Mate” and “End Emotional Eating.”