Acceptance is Not Agreement, It's Freedom
Updated: Dec 7, 2020
Have you heard the Serenity Prayer? You know, the one used in 12-step groups like AA and NA? It was written by a man named Reinhold Niebuhr, and it goes like this: "God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference."
The word accept in this context used to trouble me. In light of horrific trauma, oppressive systems, abusive relationships, and other injustices, how could acceptance (which we commonly understand as allowing, even condoning) possibly be what's necessary?
Yet, in my therapy practice, as in my personal life, I again and again find the concept of radical acceptance to be incredibly healing, both for me and for the folks with whom I'm privileged to work.
Radical acceptance, quite contrary to our common understanding of the word, means fully accepting the aspects of a situation we cannot change, and allowing ourselves to experience the moment as it is, rather than how is "should" have been or how we wish it would be. At the core, radical acceptance is acknowledging and naming thoughts, emotions, and experiences. Radical acceptance does not say "this is okay," but rather says "this is."
Attempting to change emotions or thoughts you are experiencing often results in significant energy and time lost to a mental tug-of-war. This internal battle with your emotions and thoughts shifts your focus away from your values, away from the things that matter most to you. Why not learn how to put down the tug-of-war rope completely? When you acknowledge and accept situations, thoughts, and emotions, just as they are, then you are able to shift your energy and focus instead to how you would like to respond. You are free to move forward rather than to wrestle in place.
Take the example above: on the left, we see the (very normal, automatic) responses to experiences that we find uncomfortable. We find ourselves judging the situation, wishing it away, identifying our responses to the situation as universal truth. On the right side, we see simple acknowledgement.
Yup. It's raining. Yup, my family disowned me. Yup, I was passed over for a promotion at work. Yup, I hurt someone I love. Yup, I have privilege. Yup, I was hurt as a child. Yup, the pandemic is happening. Yup, I yelled at my kids. Yup. Yup. Yup.
Yup. And. And I can choose how to respond. And I can seek help. And I can care for my hurting self. And I can make a plan to show up in more loving ways. Radical acceptance frees us up to see a situation clearly, just as it is, and choose to respond in ways that are consistent with our values.
By practicing acceptance, we can acknowledge reality, just as it is. We practice freeing ourselves from judgement ("I shouldn't have done that," "They are just trying to hurt me," "I am always going to feel this way,") instead experiencing the moment fully. This can be uncomfortable, painful even. Wrestling with pain is often what produces suffering and a sense of feeling stuck. Acknowledging pain fully allows us to respond in helpful ways ("This hurts. How would I like to be able to respond?")
This is where work with a therapist can be incredibly helpful. Radically, mindfully accepting situations as they are is a skill that requires practice; likewise, identifying values and ways in which to respond that are consistent with them is a skill that requires practice. Compassionate, skilled therapists can serve as guides and coaches in developing and honing these skills. After all, your therapist is also using these skills in their own life. We're all human; we're all doing the best we can with the tools at our disposal. Learn and practice the tool of radical, mindful acceptance. Put down the tug-of-war rope, so you can live fully and meaningfully.