Experiencing negative and painful emotions is unfortunately a part of our life. Many of us are never taught how to accept or cope with these emotions, so when we do experience them, we feel out of control and ill-equipped to face them. When we experience an intense emotion, such as rage, frustration, or sadness, we are often overwhelmed and begin to make unhelpful choices, such as self-harm or using substances. Often we get stuck thinking about the situation that is causing us pain- or how to escape the situation- instead of focusing on problem solving and effective coping.
If a situation is causing us emotional pain or discomfort, and our goal becomes to escape that pain, that’s when we lose focus, forget our tools, and start making decisions based on escaping the pain- and not on coping effectively.
When we experience pain and refuse to accept that we are experiencing pain, we create suffering for ourselves. Acceptance of the pain can help turn the situation from unmanageable and unbearable, to manageable and tolerable. If we can learn to tolerate the moment, even if it is uncomfortable, we can avoid making impulsive decisions that can be harmful to ourselves and our loved ones. The goal is not to make the emotion go away, but rather to “surf” the emotion until it’s intensity decreases.
One of the tools that can help us cope effectively is Radical Acceptance. Radical Acceptance is the idea of accepting reality without condition. Radical Acceptance comes from a grounded place within you. Let’s look at what Radical Acceptance is, and what it is not. Radical Acceptance is not: agreement, withdrawal, weakness, resignation, giving in, pretending, or judging it “good.” Radical Acceptance does not mean you are destined to live in pain daily.
Radical Acceptance means making a choice to accept a situation at face value. Radical Acceptance is a choice, is a tool, and is a decision you may have to make over and over and over throughout the day. Radical Acceptance means accepting that reality “is what it is.” Refusal to accept that life “is what it is” creates more pain and discomfort. Instead of focusing on statements such as “life isn’t fair, it shouldn’t be like this, if only…” you are free to be kind to yourself for experiencing the pain, practice self care, and make effective decisions.
Working with a therapist and participating in group therapy is very important when learning how to cope with painful emotions. It is not enough just to “accept” reality, the next step is to learn tools to cope effectively now that you have “surfed” the emotion. Once you decide to face the emotion and stop doing unhelpful behaviors to escape the emotion, it is crucial to have helpful skills to replace the old behaviors.
Adapted from Marsha Linehan’s Skills Training Manual for Treating Borderline Personality Disorder. Guilford Press. 1993.