Radical Acceptance

Life doesn’t always go the way we expect. When difficult or painful things come our way, like a job rejection, breakup, or loss, we may want to resist or fight back against reality, wishing things were different.We might get angry and blame the world or the people around us, or we might even get angry at ourselves. However, it’s important to remember that rejecting reality doesn’t actually change anything, and it can keep us stuck in negative emotions, like bitterness, sadness, and anger. This can make painful situations worse by creating unnecessary suffering.

Instead of fighting reality, try radical acceptance, a distress tolerance skill from dialectical behavior therapy (DBT). Radical acceptance doesn’t mean approving of or agreeing with what happened. What it DOES mean is accepting reality for what it is, even if it’s not the way you want it to be. Once you accept your present reality, opportunities open up for you to problem solve, feel your emotions, and cope with the situation.You may feel sad when accepting the facts of a hard situation, and that’s normal. What’s important is allowing these feelings to arise so that you can move forward. In fact, accepting reality is actually the first step in changing reality.

Radical acceptance is acceptance with your whole self, which means it involves your body as well as your mind. Twoskills that can help you embrace radical acceptance with your body are willing hands and half-smiling. You can practice willing hands while you’re sitting, standing, or lying down. Relax your body and open up your hands so that your palms are facing up, with your fingers unclenched and relaxed. Stay in this position as you breathe in and out, holding the posture for at least three breaths.

Half-smiling also starts with relaxing your body, specifically the muscles in your face. Let go of each muscle, moving through your forehead, eyes, cheeks, nose, mouth, and jaw. With your face relaxed, gently lift the corners of your lips, just so you can feel a very slight smile. You can keep your eyes closed or open as you hold the half-smile for at least three breaths.

These two skillsmay sound simple, but even these slight shifts in your posture can affect how you feel and think. As you practice half-smiling and adopting a willing posture, you may start to feel more open and accepting toward your present reality.You can practice these skills anytime – first thing in the morning after you wake up, when you notice yourself starting to feel annoyed, or perhaps when you’re thinking about someone you dislike.

The next time you find yourself in a challenging situation, try practicing radical acceptance and see how it feels. Remember that even when painful things may happen, life is still worth living.


If you’re interested in learning more skills like this, you can read more about our DBT groups, which are led by Dr. Lisa Napolitano, the Founder and Director of CBT/DBT Associates.

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