DBT Video Text: Radical Acceptance

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These are scripts from videos by Dialectical Behavioral Therapy creator Marsha Linehan describing DBT skills. You can purchase the videos from Behavioral Tech LLC.

Have you ever wondered why some people get destroyed by suffering, and other people, when they suffer, they don’t get destroyed. In fact, some people not only don’t get destroyed by suffering, but they…they seem to become even stronger just by going through suffering. Have you ever thought about that? 

Well, I didn’t think about for a long time because I was brought up believing that suffering is something everybody can go through. So I was just brought up thinking that. So I always thought it was true. That if you wanted to go through it, you could.

Then when I started working with people who suffer a lot, both as a psychotherapist but also I’ve worked a lot with the poor and with the homeless, I started realizing, hey wait a minute, I’m not so sure this is true. Everybody doesn’t go through suffering. Some people get destroyed by suffering. Despite their best efforts, some people simply get destroyed.

So I started asking myself what was the difference. I mean, what was the difference between the person who gets destroyed and the person who doesn’t. Why is it that when some people get knocked down, they keep going. They get knocked down, they get up, and they go again. Other people, they get knocked down and they just stay down; they never get up. 

So I thought to myself, well, I need to find the answer to this question. Mainly ’cause I work with a lot of people who suffer, and I work with a lot of people who seem to be getting destroyed by it. So I thought, well, if I can find the answer to that question, I could teach it and I could help the people that I work with. So I started to try to figure it out. So I thought a lot about it. I also did a lot of reading. I decided, alright, the thing to do is I’ll try to read as much as I can about people who have lots of suffering in their lives, tragedies and traumas, and the people who somehow make it, and I’ll try to figure out, what’s the difference between the people who make it and people who don’t make it.

DBT Radical Acceptance: a silhouette with thumbs up looks out over the clouds from a mountain top

The purpose of this program is for me to teach you what I’ve learned. In all the readings that I’ve done, all the thinking that I’ve done, and all the people I’ve talked to. What we’re going to focus on in this program is how to make it; how to keep yourself from being destroyed. Even how to grow or to build when a life that you’re living feels like it’s not worth living. 

We’re going to talk about 3 sets of skills, or 3 sets of behaviors. Three things to practice. These seem to be what the people who grow all have in common.

So, there’s a lot of information that’s going to be coming your way in this particular program. You may want to take some notes. Most people find that pretty useful. So if you want to take some notes, I recommend that you do. The thing to do right now is to get up and put this program on pause. Go get yourself some paper; get a pencil or a pen; come back; hit the start button; get yourself all comfy again and get ready to go.

Now while you’re doing all of that, I’m going to get myself all organized. I’m going to get all organized and be ready to teach the skills when you get back. 

One more thing. If you just so happen to have my skills training book, when you get up to go get paper, go get your skills training manual. If you don’t have the manual but you’ve got the handouts, well go get your handouts. Bring them back. And when you come back and sit down, you’re going to want to open your book up and you’re going to find the following handouts. You’re going to find “Basic Principles of Accepting Reality.” And there are two pages. On the first page you’re going to have Radical Acceptance, Turning the Mind. We’re going to be going over those skills. And on the second page you’re going to have Willingness and Willfulness. We’re going to go over those too. And when you get back, I’ll be back. I’ll be ready so I hope you are. Let’s go.

There may be an infinite number of really painful things that can happen to you. But there are not an infinite number of responses you can make to pain. In fact, if you sit back and think about it, there are only four. There are only four things you can do when painful problems come into your life. 

What do you think they are? Think for a minute. A problem is in your life, pain, suffering, something you don’t want in it. How can you respond?

Well the first thing you could do is you could do is you could solve the problem. You can figure out a way to either end the painful event or you could figure out a way to leave the situation that’s so painful. That’s the first thing you could do. Solve the problem.

What’s the second thing you could do? You could try to change how you feel about the problem; to figure out a way to take a negative in your life and make it into a positive. Alright, so that’s the second thing you could do.

What’s your other option? You could accept it. So that’s the third thing you can do. You could just accept the problem.

Ok. That’s not everything you could do. There is a fourth alternative. What do you think it is? You could stay miserable. That’s the only other option you’ve got.

So you’ve got to either solve it, change how you feel about it, accept it, or stay miserable.

The skills I’m going to talking about, you could call them ‘Reality Acceptance Skills’. And there are three: radical acceptance, turning the mind, and willingness. We’re going start with the first one, radical acceptance.

Radical Acceptance

Can you think of any really serious problems, really serious pain, serious traumas, things that make you really unhappy that you can’t change? Maybe you’ve had a child who’s died. People who have had a child who’s died never get over it. Maybe you have a permanent disability.

What are your options? You can be miserable or you can accept the reality that you’ve got it. Maybe you’ve had a really painful childhood. You know, a lot of people have to live with that; you just have to live with the fact that those happy childhoods you see on TV aren’t in your life and there’s nothing you can do about it. Maybe you didn’t get a job that you really wanted – there’s nothing you can do about it.

These are just not the kind of things you can start being happy about. So what are your options? You can either be miserable or you can figure out a way to accept the reality of your own life.

So what’s Radical Acceptance? What do I mean by the word ‘radical’? Radical means complete and total. It’s when you accept something from the depths of your soul. When you accept it in your mind, in your heart, and even with your body. It’s total and complete. 

When you’ve radically accepted something, you’re not fighting it. It’s when you stop fighting reality. That’s what radical acceptance is. 

DBT Radical Acceptance: A person in nature turns their face to the sky

The problem is, telling you what it is and telling you how to do it are two different things. Radical acceptance can’t really be completely explained. Why not? Because it’s something that is interior – it’s something that goes on inside yourself. But all of us have experienced radical acceptance so what I want you to do right now is to try to focus in on sometime in your life when you’ve actually accepted something, radically – completely and totally.

So let’s think about it. When might that be? Well, think back in your own life to either something you’ve lost, perhaps someone you’ve loved has died, or something that you really wanted that you didn’t get – a job you really wanted and you didn’t get it.

Think about something you wanted that you either didn’t get or something that you had that you’ve lost. Now, sit back, close your eyes and go back in time to right before you found out that you’ve lost what you had or right before you’ve found out that you weren’t going to get what you wanted. Imagine that again. Kind of go back there. And then go through that period were you weren’t accepting it, and then move to imagining when you did accept it. So kind of like, relive that.

Most people can find some place in their life where that’s happened to them and where they’ve accepted it, and that’s what I mean by radical acceptance.

I’m guessing some of you tried that exercise and you just couldn’t think of any time when you’ve accepted something. So you couldn’t imagine what it felt like cause you couldn’t even remember a time when you have done it. Don’t worry about it. Just try it another time – maybe after the program, today, tomorrow, or some other day. Just see if you can go back to a time when you’ve accepted.

But for the moment, let me tell you what it might feel like. Often when you’ve accepted you have this sense of letting go of the struggle. It’s just like you’ve been struggling and now you’re not. Sometimes, if you have accepted, you just have this sense of being centered, like you feel centered inside yourself somehow.

You may have a lot of sadness. Acceptance often goes with a lot of sadness actually, but even though you’ve got sadness, there’s a feeling like a burden’s lifted. Usually if you’ve accepted, you feel, well, ready to move on with your life. Sort of feel free, ready to move. So that’s what it feels like. 

Let’s keep going. Pain is pain. Suffering, agony, are pain plus non-acceptance. So if you take pain, add non-acceptance you end up with suffering. Radical acceptance transforms suffering into ordinary pain.

There are three parts to radical acceptance. The first part is accepting that reality is what it is. The second part is accepting that the event or situation causing you pain has a cause. The third part is accepting life can be worth living even with painful events in it.

Accepting Reality for What It Is

So let’s start with the first, accepting reality for what it is. What do we mean by that? Well, I’ll give you an example from my own life. This is a good example because it makes the point that acceptance can actually do you some good. 

I once had this job – I was a clerk typist for a big insurance company. But, I really wanted to be a social worker. So I applied for a new job. I went to an employment agency and I asked them to help me get a new job and I told them I wanted a job in social work. So, they got me a job in social work. So I gave notice to the job that I had, which was a really good job in the sense that the people were fabulous and I got paid at least enough to live on. And I gave them notice, I quit that job and I went to the social work job.

I was so excited I cannot even begin to tell you how excited I was. Ah! I’ve got a job in social work! So I went in, so the first day, you know you have to do training and stuff, so what did they have me do? Well, they had me typing. So I typed all day and I was thinking, ‘Oh well, it’s not so terrible, I’m not going to have to keep typing’.

DBT Radical Acceptance: a close up on a keyboard

But the second day, what did they have me do? I was typing again. So I went and talked to my supervisor and I said, ‘Well, when am I going to get to do the social work?’ She said ‘What do you mean?’ I said, ‘Well, I mean when do I get to do something like social work work?’ She said, ‘What do you mean? Your job is typing.’

And the first thing that went through my mind was that ‘No, that is not true. I took a job with a social work agency. This can’t be true.’

And I actually thought of staying. I thought of staying and trying to make it into a social work job. That would be denying reality. Because the facts of the matter are, it really was a typing job. So what are my options? Well, I could have stayed miserable, I could have gotten hysterical. I could have stayed there, fought, told them that they should make it into social work, how mean they were for not doing that. I could have done a lot of things. 

My other option was just to accept this was not a social work job. I made a mistake. I needed to correct the mistake. And the way to correct that mistake? Well, it was to get another job. So, that’s just what I did. When my next break came, I called the employment agency; I told them I’d made a mistake. I needed another job. They said fine, they looked for it. It took two weeks but I found another job. I was a lot happier.

Now think about your own life. What is the reality that you are denying? What are you not accepting for what it is?

Everything Has A Cause

The second part to accepting is accepting that every event and every situation has a cause. Accepting that every event has a cause is the opposite of saying ‘why me?’

Now there’s another opposite for thinking events have causes and that opposite is when you say things should not be the way they are. Now ‘should not be the way they are’ in non-acceptance. We never say that about things we’re accepting or we like or we want. We say ‘should not’ about things that we think aren’t caused – they should not be this way.

So the opposite of should not is should. And once you think that everything has a cause, then you think reality should be the way it is. Acceptance from this point of view is when you say ‘everything should be as it is’.

So I’m going to give you an example. Imagine that there’s a child on a bicycle. And the child is on a hill, and the child is racing down the hill, really fast on his bicycle. And he goes into an intersection and coming the other direction is a car. And that car is driving, let’s say at the speed limit – that car’s not speeding. But the intersection’s unmarked. There’s not a stop sign, there’s not a stop light and there’s not a yield sign. 

So we’re going to imagine the kid is racing down the hill. The car’s coming the other way and they meet up right in the middle of the intersection. The car hits the kid and the kid dies. 

If you say it should not have happened, I would say ‘well, it should have’. There wasn’t a stop sign. There wasn’t a stop light. There wasn’t a yield sign. The kid was going fast.  The car was going the speed limit. Something blocked the driver’s view. The child was a child. Children go fast. 

If you wanted to say that should not have happened, you would have to create causes for it not to happen. You’d have to do something about all those causes. 

That’s an example of accepting reality as it is and accepting that reality has causes. Now, do you think I approve of this? Do you think you think I think it’s good? Is acceptance saying it’s good that the child got hit by the car? No. Is that what I want? No. I were the child’s mother am I going to go on a campaign, get stops signs put there or make the speed limit lower? Yes. Will I teach my child not to race down hills? I will certainly try.

But, until the causes are different, that event should happen. It was caused.

So think of a situation in your life. Can you think of one? Can you think of one where you’ve been saying ‘why me?’ or ‘it shouldn’t have happened’? See if you can think of one. 

What’s acceptance? Radical acceptance? Radical acceptance is not necessarily knowing what the causes are. Like in the example with the car. Well, alright, I don’t if the problem was that there wasn’t a stop sign or if the speed limit was too fast. I don’t really know. But I accept that there was a cause, even if I don’t know it.

So think of a situation in your life. See if you can radically accept that even though it’s not clear what the cause is, there is some cause.

Think back in your life, something either about yourself that you found hard to accept or something in someone else that you found hard to accept but it’s not really a catastrophe. Alright. You got it? Now think through. What caused that event to happen? So what you want to go through in your mind is just be thinking, ‘now why did that happen? What caused it?’ ‘Cause often when we don’t accept something, you know you say ‘it shouldn’t have happened.’ 

Like somehow the rules in the universe should be different. So the first thing you want to say when you’re trying to accept is to say ‘wait a second, the rules of the universe are the rules of the universe.’ Then you try to figure out what caused it. 

DBT Radical Acceptance: a purple tinted photo of the night sky with a shooting star

Now you know, most times when people don’t accept things, they start saying things shouldn’t be the way they are. Have you ever noticed that? You say that? ‘This shouldn’t be that way.’ We all do it. So if what you are trying to practice is acceptance, you’re going to try to go the other way. You’re going to try to say everything is as it should be. 

That’s the way you practice. First you think what caused it. And as you notice what caused it, you’re going to notice that what happened, should have happened, given those causes. 

Sort of sounds like I’m saying if you can change your thinking everything will be alright. Right? Does sound that way but it’s not true. Now acceptance is a lot easier if you can change your thinking. But that’s not all there is to it, especially not with radical acceptance.

The whole idea in radical acceptance is you’ve got to accept all the way. You accept with your mind, accept with your heart, you accept with your body. Now how would you do that? Well, the short answer is you practice. What do you practice? Well, what you want to practice is ‘letting go’. 

You’re going to let go of tension, tightness, let go of your muscles. You know how when you are not accepting how you get all chunks: your face gets tense, your arms get tense, your hands get tense. Have you ever noticed that? People get sick to their stomach when they’re not accepting. I mean, it’s all around – your whole body just tightens up.

So, if you want to accept, start with just letting go. You can start letting go of your forehead, letting go of your eyes, letting go of your cheeks, letting go of your jaw, let go of your shoulders, let go of your arms, let go of your stomach, your legs, your calves, your feet. Just start letting go. 

Sometimes when people start letting go they say ‘No! I don’t want to!’ You tighten back up. It’s alright. Don’t worry about it. That happens, start over. Just start relaxing again.  Just keep letting go. 

You know acceptance, it’s all about the word ‘yes’. It’s yes to reality; it’s yes to the moment; it’s yes to just what is. 

So another way to practice it is you could just walk outside, maybe late a night, look up at the stars and you could just say the word ‘yes’. It’s yes to the universe. You could go out and practice every night. You could say yes two times a night. So there are lots of ways to practice. You might think of other ways you could practice them. Lets go back to the program.

Accept That Life Can Be Worth Living

So what else do you have to do? You have to do one final thing. You have to accept that life can be worth living, even if really painful events are in your life.

What’s that mean? Well, it means that you have to find a way to not say that life is a catastrophe.

How about if we take an example. You get thrown in jail for a crime you didn’t commit.  You are innocent. And now it’s gone to the Supreme Court. And they didn’t overturn your conviction. So it’s looking like not only are you in jail…Let’s imagine you’re in there for something really serious so you’re in there for life. What are your options?

Well, you certainly can not solve that problem. You’re not going to get yourself out of jail. And to be honest, it just doesn’t seem to me it’s going to be possible that you’re going to start being happy that you’re an innocent person in jail. So I think we’re going to rule that one out. So what are your options? 

Ok. You could be miserable, distraught, upset. You could cry every day for the rest of your life. Or, you could accept it and figure out a way to build a life worth living inside a prison. 

To go from unendurable agony to endurable pain, you’re going to have to accept that you can build a life. Because if you don’t accept it, what will happen? You’re not going to build a life. And building a life worth living actually takes a fair amount of work. Believing that you can’t do it makes it almost impossible. Believing that you can do it makes it a lot easier, so the chances are a lot higher that you’ll actually do it – you’ll build a life worth living.

So what gets in the way of radical acceptance? Lots of things do. The most common thing that gets in the way is the belief that if you radically accept that means you’re approving, you’re going to be passive, you’re resigned. 

People I’ve worked with, they almost always so this. They say, ‘what are you talking about? Me? Radically accept? I thought you were trying to teach me to stand up for myself. How could I do that by radically accepting?’

Other people say, ‘Are you kidding? That’s the problem with the world. We accept to much – the world is going to hell in a hand cart and no-one is doing anything about it.’

If you want to change something, you have to accept it first. You can’t change something you don’t accept. If you don’t face the reality as it is, if you deny it how are you going to change it? If you think there is no cause, it just happened magically or fate or luck, how are you going to change it? 

So, acceptance is required. 

Don’t believe me, huh? Alright, I’ll give you an example. Imagine the following. You’re a person who is buying a new house. And you finally found the house of your dreams.

There’s only one problem with the house. It’s purple. And you hate the color purple.  So you say when you buy, ‘Alright, I’ll pay you this much money’ and you get it signed, sealed, delivered. When you get to that house, it is not going to be purple. Fine. The big day comes, so exiting, you get your keys, you go to the house – not only is the house still purple, but the owners have moved and you don’t even know where they are. 

DBT Radical Acceptance: purple shutters on a purple wall

Alright. Who do you think would get that house changed the fastest? The person who walks in and says, ‘Ah! I can’t stand it! This is a disaster. Oh God! Where are those people? We’ve got to get this…Ah! So mad! Well I’m just not going to tolerate this! I just can’t believe…’ And that person goes on and on and on. Maybe they storm out, get in their car, leave, they say, ‘We’re not buying that house.’ But can you get out of it? No. That’s one person.

Now imagine the other person. They go in and say, ‘Ah, so disappointed. I didn’t want the house purple. Alright, where’s the nearest paint store?’

Who’s going to get it changed first? The person who accepted that the walls were purple or the person who threw a tantrum? What do you think? Well it’s the person who accepted.

So if you want things to change, accept them. Then change them. Because when we talk about accepting reality as it is, we’re not saying, ‘Accept reality as it is and believe it can never change.’ Reality is always changing. If you want to have an influence on how it changes, you see your interest is to accept how it is right now. 

It’s really easy to accept things you like. And when you’re happy, you don’t even think about accepting it. When things are going your way, they’re what you approve of, what you want, acceptance is really easy. 

So when is acceptance hard? Well, it’s the hardest when you hate what’s happening to you. Or your really disapprove of it. Or, it’s causing you a lot of pain. So the bottom line is, the higher the pain, the harder the acceptance. 

Let me give you an example. You get married to a nice guy. Then you discover this guy has lots of wonderful qualities that you had actually never noticed. He’s completely different than you thought. He’s ten times more wonderful than you thought. Do you think that would be easy to accept or hard to accept? Right!  Easy.

Well, let’s take another case. You marry a guy, he’s a nice enough guy. Now you’re married. You get to know him. And you discover he has lots of negative qualities. In fact, he’s got a lot of things about him that you had not known and you do not like. Easy or hard? Hard. 

Now why do you think that is? Why is it harder to accept really painful things? Generally, it’s because secretly, somewhere inside us, we actually believe that if we refuse to accept something that we don’t like, all we have to do is throw a tantrum or refuse to accept it.

This text is the unofficial transcript of Behavioral Tech, LLC.
Chaos to Freedom Skills Training Video. Posted with permission from Behavioral Tech.
Transcribed by Sylvia James, May 15, 2006