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What Is Radical Acceptance, Exactly?
Dr. Nanika Coor explains what radical acceptance is, how it can help us become better parents, and six steps for getting there.
- Written By
- Dr. Nanika Coor
- Lucia Vinti
No matter how old your child is, you’re going to encounter challenging aspects of parenting that you just can’t change. Challenges come in the form of loss, physical and mental health issues, death, disappointments, divorce, daily frustrations, natural disasters - pandemics! It’s natural that you sometimes get stuck in a swirl of chaotic emotions, having thoughts like, “Why me?!” or “This is so unfair!” or “This shouldn’t be happening!” When you’re in this state of agitation that seems beyond your ability to cope, you can minimize your uncomfortable feelings by practicing radical acceptance.
What is radical acceptance?
Radical acceptance is a therapeutic tool taught in Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT) that can help you tolerate distressing situations. Distress and suffering result from expecting or wishing that things be other than what they are. Railing against, denying, or trying to avoid reality won’t change that reality, but your non-acceptance will turn ordinary pain into suffering. This doesn’t mean ignoring your own needs, giving up, giving in or approving of what is happening. Instead, it’s a conscious choice you make not to waste energy fighting the reality that things are what they are. It’s letting go of what you want or what you would have preferred and acknowledging what is.
The benefits of radical acceptance:
Radical acceptance can move you toward growth and progression rather than getting stuck in a spiral of clinging to the past or ruminating on things you can’t change. It’s also a powerful way to cope during challenging parenting moments. Being a parent means you’ll sometimes be overcome by your anger, fear or helplessness. Part of practicing radical acceptance of yourself is directing compassion and validation toward your emotional experience. When you allow the benevolent and friendly “witness” part of your awareness to acknowledge and make space for your internal experience - whatever it is - you turn down the volume of difficult emotions, and you create more room for connection to self, others and to the present moment.
Not only can practicing radical acceptance help you calm down when you’re feeling overwhelmed, but it also allows you to slow down your emotional process enough for your ability to reason to come back online so that you can make healthier decisions rather than knee-jerk reactions you may later regret. You’re less likely to lash out (or in) when your buttons are pushed. Once you are expending less energy resisting reality and things you can’t control, you can focus on what you can control and take effective actions.
Here are three ways parents can use radical acceptance:
Radically accept yourself
Like many people in western hyper-individualistic upbringing and culture, you’ve likely grown up with conscious and unconscious messages from parents, teachers, and society about the ways you’re falling short and the ways you should be different than who you are. You’re told to work harder, be special, look and act a certain way, succeed, win, be the best - don’t be too loud, too quiet, too demanding or needy. You are overtly and covertly getting the message that who you naturally are isn’t okay. You get the message that to be acceptable, you must be different than who you naturally are. All humans have biological, emotional and spiritual needs, but when independence, strength and self-reliance are highly prized in your culture, awareness of your own needs can cause self-contempt and fears about being deficient and weak. You end up focusing on the ways you’re not measuring up and having difficulty seeing your talents and the value you bring to the world.
Radical acceptance of yourself is about having the courage to see yourself exactly as you are - the good and the bad - and accepting yourself completely and without judgement. Instead of hating, denying, or being defensive about the qualities you wish were different, accept them as the reality of being the person that you are. You can work toward personal growth in your life all while accepting wherever you are on the journey to the positive changes you hope to make. Rather than feeling badly about negative labels you put on yourself or that you’re falling short of an ideal version of yourself, radically accept the reality of who you are. You won’t make yourself do better by making yourself feel worse. Also, the more you’re able to be radically accepting of yourself, the more practice you’ll have when it comes to accepting others - like your child.
Radically accept your child
It’s not easy when you see the potential for greatness in your child. It makes sense that you’d want to help them be their best, but when kids sense that their significant adults want them to be different somehow, it negatively impacts their self esteem, making it difficult for them to reach whatever potential they might have. When you’re very different from your child, or less comfortable with your child’s personality, identity, interests or how they show up in the world, radical acceptance can help you stay connected to your child - which is what they need most for healthy development. Children are positively impacted when they are seen for their true selves and accepted completely.
When you radically accept your child, you’re seeing them fully for who they are while accepting that you can’t change or ‘fix’ them, and it isn’t your responsibility to do so.You can believe in your child’s capacity to do well or to do better. You can control your responses to them and even your thoughts about them. You can make things better or worse for a struggling child by choosing words and actions that escalate or de-escalate a situation, but you can’t control who your child is or how they think, feel, or behave. Trying to do so can damage your relationship with them - and a strong parent-child relationship is the best parenting tool you have to use instead of control!
That’s why radical acceptance is particularly helpful when parenting teens. You can radically accept what’s in your control and that there are limits to the lines you can draw in the proverbial sand when it comes to adolescents. If your teen is set on doing dangerous things, no speech, show of disappointment or punishment is going to change that. If your relationship with your teen has a strong foundation of connection and trust, you’ll have a good deal of influence with them, but you can’t control them. A focus on building a foundation of trust in your relationship with your teen, however, gives you a better chance of having influence with them in challenging situations, so you have a better chance that they willingly consider your concerns, worries and desires to keep them safe.
You might need to practice radical acceptance to manage the fact that other adults in your child’s life probably aren’t practicing radical acceptance! In many ways, parents are judged by society on how well they’re able to get their child to change: to learn more, behave and perform better, or be more “presentable”. Practicing radical acceptance of your child helps to keep you from internalizing societal pressure to take responsibility for changing aspects of your child over which you have no control, and shifts the way you see your role as a parent. Just because society places an expectation on you or tells you that something is your responsibility doesn’t doesn’t make it true! You don’t have to believe that or take it on.
Radically accept your circumstances
If coronavirus variants like Delta and Omicron have taught you anything, it’s that you only have control over your personal self. You can’t control which variant will be next or how severe its consequences will be. You can’t control what people are doing in other neighborhoods, cities or countries to stop the spread of the virus. You can’t control other adults in your extended family who won’t get vaccinated or take more stringent safety precautions. You can only decide what you will and won’t expose yourself and your children to based on your own risk assessments.
When you find yourself in a painful parenting situation, radical acceptance can move you into a place of empowerment where you’re able to make a realistic assessment of what’s happening and choose a constructive response. Instead of seeing challenging parenting moments as a call to change someone else or their behavior, reframe these moments as opportunities to identify underlying needs, and to communicate or empathize with unexpressed emotions. Accept each moment as it comes. Rather than focusing on how someone else needs to change for your comfort, concentrate on what you can do to contribute to mutually beneficial solutions and peaceful coexistence.
Rather than taking a stance of resistance, condemnation, or judgment in the face of difficult circumstances, radical acceptance is a more effective mental state or attitude. Remind yourself that everyone involved is doing the best they can to meet the needs that are important to them at that moment. For example, instead of taking a toddler’s temper tantrum personally or viewing it as misbehavior, radically accepting it means understanding that this is the best your toddler can do right now with the relational tools and life experience they have. This allows you to respond to them from a place of empathy - which is connection-enhancing - rather than reacting from a place of shame, blame and criticism that can damage your relationship and your child’s sense of self-worth.
As long as no one is in imminent personal danger, embrace whatever chaos is happening in your family - the good, the bad, and the ugly. Lean into it instead of fighting it. You’re more likely to reduce your suffering and learn from the pain or unpleasantness of the situation.
6 Steps For Practicing Radical Acceptance
1. Notice when you’re resisting reality. Internal catastrophizing is a form of non-acceptance that can come with thoughts like: “This is a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad embarrassing disaster and it shouldn’t be this way!” When you notice yourself internally complaining - pause and take a deep breath.
2. Name the feelings that arise as a result of your non-accepting thoughts. Frustration, anger, and agitation are common emotions in times of non-acceptance.
3. Notice how the agitation is showing up in your body. Are you holding tension in some of your muscles? Take another breath and consciously try to relax any clenched muscles as you exhale.
4. Make an inner commitment to accept reality. Imagine you’re at a fork in the road, with one fork leading to acceptance and one to non-acceptance - consciously turn your mind and heart toward acceptance.
5. Focus on the facts of the situation, rather than the story you’re telling yourself about those facts. Accept that the situation is occurring because of millions of previous tiny decisions and happenings even if you don’t know what they are.
6. Use self-talk and mantras. Explain to yourself: “I don’t like what’s happening, but I accept that it is, in fact, happening. I accept that this is my reality in this moment and I will choose to respond constructively instead of insisting that it shouldn’t be happening this way.” Or repeat a single sentence to yourself: “There’s nothing I can do to change the past.” “I have no control over other people.” “I have survived hard things before and I can survive this hard moment.”
When you accept yourself just as you are, your child just as they are and a situation exactly as it is, you can see the reality of what you’re dealing with. You can intentionally choose thoughts, words and actions that improve the situation - or at least don’t make things worse. You can plan proactively for what you’ll do in the same situation in the future to make things less frustrating for you and more helpful for your child.
Sometimes letting go of the struggle, allowing yourself to experience the difficult feelings you’re avoiding ultimately leads you to a feeling of groundedness inside of yourself that increases your bandwidth for parenting in the moment. You’ll also build reliance for surviving the difficult parenting moments that will inevitably happen in the future. You have thousands of opportunities each day to practice turning your mind toward acceptance. And when you accept and embrace what is, life becomes less stressful, and you have the potential to experience more joy.
Dr. Nanika Coor
Dr. Nanika Coor is a Brooklyn, New York based clinical psychologist, respectful parenting consultant, and mindful parenting activist helping cycle-breaking parents who don't want their childhood history to become their parenting destiny. Learn more about her work at Brooklyn Parent Therapy.