I was recently introduced to the concept of “radical acceptance.” It means exactly what it says — when you are presented with a situation or a person or a set of circumstances, you wholeheartedly accept whatever is in front of you, just as it is.
This sounds so easy, doesn’t it? Clearly, we all accept what’s obviously in front of us, don’t we? Upon further reflection, perhaps maybe not. There are so many times that life literally is unbelievably painful or we are faced with situations that go against strongly held beliefs about what should be or what must be. Most of us turn quickly to denial to manage this conflict.
As I started to turn this concept of radical acceptance over in my head, I was overwhelmed by how often my reaction was denial. I could almost hear the words I had said running through my mind: “No, she didn’t do that.” “No, he would never….” “This can’t be real.” “I don’t believe this is happening.” “There must be some other explanation.” “You don’t really want that.”
In thinking about how many times I’ve been in denial about what was happening right in front of me, I started to rationalize it — after all, why not be in denial for a little bit? Why not hold onto an idea or ideal or a version of a person that makes me feel happy or safe for just a while longer? What is the harm in taking the time to adjust to something that doesn’t feel comfortable or good?
The answer, it turns out, is because staying in denial—even to hold onto something we thought was good—keeps us pinned to the misery of losing whatever it is that isn’t real. The real work in life is accepting your reality, as difficult or painful it may be, and making the best choices that you can, given the facts on the ground.
A friend recently told me that she was constantly living her life as if she was going to be wealthy. Instead of accepting her reality and making the best choices she could in the moment, she was making decisions for the reality she wanted to be true. She was living as if she was able to afford an extravagant lifestyle. This obviously plunged her in debt, living in fear of creditors, and without any savings or money to buy even the essentials. If she had just accepted her reality, she could have lived a nice, albeit simple, life, and had everything she really needed and none of the stress that came from denial.
I now wonder how often I have created more pain and stress for myself in denying reality than I would have felt if I had just accepted the truth immediately and made decisions accordingly.
What if I stopped being angry about a friend who is never on time, and simply accepted that she would be late and made plans with her only when I can accommodate that? What if I stopped wishing my child wasn’t addicted to Minecraft and accepted that if I want to engage with him, I better learn how to play? What if I stopped wishing a loved one would treat me better and instead made choices about when and if to spend time with that person based on reality?
It is mind-blowing to think of how much time we spend on “I wish” or “she should” or “I can’t believe that,” when we could accept what is right in front of us and work toward making choices that are based in reality and still will make us happy. And I have to wonder how many more relationships would remain intact if we practiced radical acceptance for our kids, our partners, and our friends, instead of willing them to be something they probably never will be?
This Thanksgiving, I am going to try to practice radical acceptance as a form of giving thanks for the blessings right in front of me, as imperfect as they sometimes may seem to be.