Radical acceptance is a lesson that I continually find eye-opening with groups. I also find we keep coming back to it over and over in my coaching with individuals. One of the misunderstandings of mindfulness, meditation, Buddhism, and positive psychology is that it avoids negative emotions or pretends they don’t exist. Tara Brach, a teacher of meditation and Buddhism and a counseling psychologist, explains the power of Radical Acceptance of all human emotions and the power of this acceptance to bring greater peace, connection, and agency into our lives, our relationships, and our communities.
1. Radical Acceptance = Mindfulness & Compassion
As Brach says here radical acceptance is “clearly recognizing what we are feeling in the present moment and regarding that experience with compassion. Carl Rogers wrote: ‘The curious paradox is that when I accept myself just as I am, then I can change.”
2. Taking a Sacred Pause (Mindfulness)
Emotions we avoid, like anxiety, fear, and hurt, can bring a desire to speed up and go faster to accomplish more or to outrun these emotions. What we resist grows. Instead, Brach suggests taking a sacred pause when these emotions come up. In this pause, we can notice the emotion and the experience of it. For example, when feeling anxious about an impending conflict, I often feel tempted to avoid (run from it) or over-rehearse the conflict in my head (perfect it, so I’m safe). These habits often only increase my anxiety over impending conflict. Radical acceptance encourages me to take a sacred pause instead and notice with real curiosity my emotions and how I feel them. “Huh. That’s what it feels like to be anxious. [more pause] I experience that in my chest with a tightness. [more pause] It feels like cobwebs in my chest constricting everything and getting in the way.” In this sacred pause, I might notice that underneath my anxiety is a fear that the conflict will end the relationship (fear of rejection or abandonment) or that I might have messed up (fear of not being good enough). Then I might pause to notice where those fears are in my body. This pause allows the emotions to be fully engaged, recognized, and understood. This presence of difficult emotions may result in a shift in these emotions. Either way, it can lead to change, healing, wisdom, and compassion.
3. Allowing Yourself to Befriend Yourself (Compassion)
Many of us have an inner monologue that is very unkind. Our inner critic berates us for not getting up early enough, for checking social media too much, for wasting time, for being irresponsible, not being smart enough, and ultimately for not being good enough (just me?). If these sound familiar, imagine the genuine curiosity and compassion you would offer a best friend who shared this inner monologue. Could you offer yourself this same friendship, grace, and compassion? Befriending yourself allows you to offer yourself compassion and presence. This doesn’t excuse, ignore, or pretend we don’t make mistakes, but it does offer us space and perspective. When we offer and accept this compassion and presence with ourselves, we can offer it to others. This compassion and presence with others allow for connection. This connection is the antidote to our fears grounded in our separation (past, present, or anticipated).
A part of being a best friend to ourselves is forgiving ourselves for our imperfections (radically accepting them) so that they have less power over our lives. Many of our self-destructive behaviors are parts of cycles that forgiveness can interrupt. Do you drink too much and then feel bad about yourself, which leads to drinking too much? Or perhaps you could replace drinking in that sentence with eating, disconnecting, exercising, working, or yelling. Forgiving yourself allows you to break the cycle by accepting your imperfections and stemming your need for more self-destructive behaviors.