Let’s be real – no one ever aspires to become a drug addict or alcoholic. Substance addiction is a disease pure and simple.
And like no one ever decides one day, “I’d like to become a diabetic” or “I’d like to have fibromyalgia,” they also don’t choose to become addicted to substances.
But what addicts can decide is that they want to get and stay clean. Enter Radical Acceptance, one of the critical skills practiced in Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT).
Radical Acceptance is merely the recognition of reality. It is the indisputable acceptance of things as they are.
Another way to describe it is when we examine only the substantial evidence of an event or thing, void of emotion, expectations, or perceptions of how we think things should be, and consciously choose to let it be what it is as opposed to fighting against it.
What we know is that pain combined with the non-acceptance of a situation, event, or person only leads to unnecessary suffering.
This unnecessary suffering can be avoided by learning to tolerate pain in the present moment through the use of radical acceptance.
Even when the present situation is extremely uncomfortable or even painful, we can learn to accept the reality of it. In other words, if we sit in the discomfort or pain, it passes more quickly.
The one constant in life is change, and this applies to pain and discomfort as well as joy. Emotions come and go. Radical acceptance allows a continuous flow of change with a sense of serenity around it. Pain in life can’t be avoided but unnecessary suffering can.
Many concerns have been raised about using radical acceptance due to misinformation and misunderstandings about what it is and is not.
It’s essential to possess a clear understanding of these concepts to be able to successfully learn and implement radical acceptance in your own life and for addicts, as a powerful recovery tool.
To this end, there are three crucial points to make about what radical acceptance is not:
If a woman was raped, for instance, she can use the tool of radical acceptance to help her tolerate the trauma and intense emotional and physical pain she is experiencing.
This does not in any way mean she forgives the rapist or condones the rape. It only says she accepts that the violation occurred and that she is in a great deal of physical and emotional pain as a result.
She still gets to have all her emotions around what happened and is fully justified in doing so. It is a radical acceptance that will allow her to be able to do this and begin to heal more quickly.
Another example of this is when a person is fired from their job. Accepting that they have been fired in the present, does not mean they agree to be terminated or aren’t angry or upset.
It means, they fully recognize the facts of the event – they were fired and need to come up with a job search strategy, reign in their spending until they can secure new employment, and the like.
Radical acceptance allows the person to fully recognize the situation for what it is, so they can take action steps toward improving it.
Accepting reality is entirely different from denying it, stuffing down feelings, dissociating, or any of the other unhealthy behaviors humans turn to when they find a situation or emotions intolerable.
Let’s say a person is diagnosed with diabetes by their doctor. This can be a very upsetting diagnosis. The person may need to follow a restricted diet now, take medications, test their blood sugar levels several times a day, and possibly give themselves insulin injections.
Ask any person with diabetes – it’s a lot to deal with initially and can be for the long term if the person is avoidant. Avoidant behaviors could include continuing to eat whatever they want, skip medications, blood testing, and regular doctor checkups.
But it can also include doing what the doctor says but being bitter, resentful, and grumbling every time they eat, take a blood test, refusing to acknowledge their feelings about the diagnosis and total lifestyle change required, etc.
This is the complete opposite of radical acceptance. In this scenario, radical acceptance is feeling the feelings as they come up. There will probably be grief over the loss of being able to eat whatever they want, the loss of their health, and having to do so much extra than the non-diabetic on the daily for self-care.
Radical acceptance is acknowledging and allowing all of those feelings to be there in the present moment. It is also the understanding that, ok, I’m diabetic, I’m going to have to take these extra steps to take better care of myself now and then actually doing it without bitterness or resentment because there is a deep knowingness that this just is what it is and complaining about it is only going to bring suffering.
I’m not talking here about people who were victimized. What this means is that if we radically accept an event or person in our lives for what it is or who they are, we are not stuck with that situation.
Quite the opposite is true; radical acceptance of ‘what is’ opens up space for us to choose how we want to respond next. If we’ve accepted the situation, is this something we want to have exactly the way it is going forward, or is this something we would like to improve in the future?
This is where the simple 12 Step Serenity Prayer comes into play. “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.”
In radical acceptance, if a man’s wife cheats on him, he accepts this fact along with the pain, hurt, sadness, anger, grief, and whatever other emotions may arise surrounding this devastating revelation.
By sitting in the present moment and feelings, and pausing just to let them be as is, he can come to a place of clarity about his choices and decide what he would like to do to move forward.
He may want to start by consulting an attorney, mental health professional, or trusted spiritual advisor to find out what his options are. Then he would learn that he and his wife could pursue counseling, take a trial separation, or file for divorce.
Playing the victim, on the other hand, would look something like the man resigning to stay with his wife, maybe saying he forgives her, but bringing up the infidelity every time they disagree with something entirely unrelated such as a credit card purchase for clothes for the kids.
As previously defined, Radical Acceptance is the recognition of reality. That part seems easy. But for the addict, denial is an integral part of what drives the disease of addiction.
If I had a dime for every time an addict said, “Who? Me? I don’t have a problem! I can stop any time I want to,” I’d be a billionaire.
According to the National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH), in 2013 more than 95 percent of people in need of treatment for substance abuse did not seek or agree to it because they didn’t believe they needed it. A common acronym for D.E.N.I.A.L. is Don’t Even Know I Am Lying and it runs rampant in the disease of addiction.
The other major role denial plays in driving the disease, is a denial of physical pain and feelings about the person’s reality which is what causes them to turn to drugs and alcohol in the first place, also known as distress intolerance.
When life situations become too physically and emotionally challenging to tolerate, the brain is hard-wired to create a survival mechanism; and in the case of substance abuse, denial or suppression of intolerable physical pain and emotions becomes the tool by which the person finds temporary relief.
It is only when the substance abuse itself becomes intolerable (hitting bottom) that the person is jolted out of denial and becomes willing to seek help.
According to DBT creator Marsha Linehan, “Radical acceptance rests on letting go of the illusion of control and a willingness to notice and accept things as they are right now, without judging.”
For a person struggling with addiction, this first and foremost means full acceptance that they have a problem and can’t solve it on their own by trying to control or manage their addiction.
Radical acceptance during addiction treatment, when practiced in a nurturing and supportive environment, can develop as a significant tool in navigating the often-bumpy road to recovery. It becomes acceptance far beyond the understanding of the reality of one’s addiction into the full approval of the recovery process.
Most important in using radical acceptance in addiction and recovery is the practice of accepting relapses and viewing them not as failures, but as opportunities to help identify triggers to relapse that can be avoided or prevented in the future.
This approach to relapses as opposed to feeling like a failure, hopeless, and that recovery is out of reach for the individual, instead harnesses energy of discovery and hope followed by an action plan which serves to empower the recovering addict, builds self-esteem, develops self-love, and strengthens their resilience.
Ultimately, the addict’s distress tolerance is raised to a much healthier level, directly addressing the cause of the first addiction and enabling long-term recovery to become their new reality.
It is true that an addict in recovery, or anyone for that matter, cannot force radical acceptance. While it is something we can decide and choose to engage in, fully developing the skill takes time, patience, and a highly trained support system comprised of mental health professionals, doctors, and support group facilitators.
Thankfully, the payoff of significantly increased distress tolerance and decreased addictive behaviors is entirely worth the effort. Therefore radical acceptance has quickly become a favorite part of the overall treatment protocol at many substance abuse rehabilitation centers across the country and around the world.
The practice of radical acceptance brings good news and much-needed relief to those who are willing to develop it.
The good news is that you no longer must try to control, manage, fight against, or avoid intolerable situations any longer in an attempt to make them tolerable. The relief is in the letting go of the needless suffering that results from non-acceptance of our reality.
Controlling takes so much energy. So does swimming upstream, and rolling a boulder uphill.
Radical acceptance is the first step toward decreasing or possibly eliminating suffering and creating a life you love. We must begin with where we are genuinely at to plan an empowered course of action and implement it to invoke meaningful change.
If you want to understand Radical Acceptance and include it in your recovery program, you can get in touch with the Hotline at our Recovery Center where trained and experienced professionals are available to assist you in every way.
The staff at Chateau Recovery is always available to help you with all of your questions regarding addiction recovery and treatment. Call anytime.
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A wonderful and heartfelt video on the topic or Radical Acceptance. I’m sure this will clear up some questions for you.
“I was inspired to film this video after reading a post by Heather Kirn Lanier on her journey to and with radical acceptance around her adorable daughter, who has special medical needs.”
A beautiful help list on Radical Acceptance. Download and read. Link below.