Overwhelmed by Negative Emotions? Try Radical Acceptance

Yesterday I received a message on my Facebook page from a woman who has struggled with overwhelmingly negative emotions since she was a teenager. She has been on a variety of medications ever since, but stated that she had never come to understand why things were so consistently hard for her and wanted to have more insight into, and control of, her feelings.

I obviously can’t diagnose or give medical advice over Facebook (and would never try to), but in addition to the usual "continue to see your doctors" statement I suggested that something called Dialectic Behavior therapy might give her some insight. There is a Dialectic Behavior Therapy Skills Workbook available on Amazon (by authors Matthew McKay, Jeffrey Brantley and Jeffrey Wood), so I mentioned that to her as well.

Dialectic Behavior Therapy (DBT) is a type of psychotherapy developed by psychology researcher Marsha M. Linehan at the University of Washington. Designed originally to help people with borderline personality disorder, it is now also recognized as a useful tool in treating survivors of sexual abuse, people who struggle with chemical dependency, and various mood disorders. It combines cognitive behavioral therapy techniques that help emotional regulation with mindful awareness and other strategies.

That Facebook conversation lingered with me all day. I have the DBT workbook on my Kindle, but had only glanced at it previously. Last night, I read about a third of it. The concepts and exercises in it are excellent, and one thing really stood out: the concept of Radical Acceptance.

From the workbook:

"Radical acceptance means that you accept something completely, without judging it. For example, radically accepting the present moment means that you don’t fight it, get angry at it, or try to change it into something that it’s not. To radically accept the present moment means that you must acknowledge that the present moment is what it is due to a long chain of events and decisions made by you and other people in the past. The present moment never spontaneously leaps into existence without being caused by events that have already taken place…"

"…it also creates an opportunity to respond to that situation in a new way that’s less painful for yourself and others. In many ways, radical acceptance is like the Serenity Prayer, which says: ‘Grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.’ "

This resonated with me very deeply. I have been struggling with a social situation lately where I consistently get upset and/or disappointed. I am frustrated by how I am consistently treated. I get apprehensive about the encounter prior to it, get predictably upset when the person acts predictably, and then feel angry and resentful afterwards, sometimes on and off for days. It’s not fun, and there’s not much I can do about the situation.

This concept of radical acceptance floored me. First of all, if I radically accept the circumstances (and the way this person is), I won’t be nearly as upset by it when it happens again. Also, when I look at the recurrent dynamic, I can see my own role in opening myself up for attack. My need for approval is part of the problem, and so is my wishing that things would be different.

The workbook suggests coming up with "coping thoughts" to arm ourselves against situations that repeatedly bring up overwhelming negative feelings. It struck me that in this situation of mine, it would be immensely helpful to change my story about it. Instead of hoping things would go well next time (and acting in way that I hope will bring approval and deflect criticism), I could completely change my goals around the situation and just go in with the resolve to make it through and not react.

Of course, the authors of the workbook point out that this isn’t about giving up and accepting bad situations, but sometimes there are situations in life that you have to deal with or get through (like a difficult boss or family member or an unpleasant circumstance that for the moment you can’t change) .

Do you find yourself overwhelmed by emotions because of difficult circumstances in your life that you wish weren’t so? Could radical acceptance make a difference to the pain these circumstances typically cause you?

It makes sense to me to begin by radically accepting a situation as it is, to just accept it without judging it, even if you normally wish with all your heart that it were different. There is such a peace in this, all the usual noise around the circumstance just dies right down. Can you feel the quiet?

Now, from this place, ask yourself what series of circumstances led to this situation. How did you play a role in it, perhaps through choices or behaviors? How did others contribute? (There is a whole series of questions that the book takes you through, to facilitate the process of radical acceptance)

This isn’t about having to fix or change anything at this point. It’s just about accepting what is, without judgment, to help you get through the moment in a different way.  To help you get through the moment in a less distressing way, to help you survive it with less suffering.

What do you think about this? I really love it, it feels beautiful to me.

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3 Comments

  1. Sarah says:

    What a beautiful blog post. I totally agree … recently I experienced this ~ wow! It is powerful.

  2. Rik says:

    I think most of us would be able to identify with this kind of a situation. Its totally true and this will help us remain positive throughout the whole experience – its importance can’t be understated.

  3. Meem says:

    I am dealing with a similar situation. I volunteer for a church activity and have been partnered with a woman who is so depressed and draining with her constant negative talk that I am exhausted after 2 hrs of doing a “good” thing. The people we visit are wonderful so I don’t want to give this up. I have been wondering how to set a reasonable boundary. I will try radical acceptance for now.

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