Radical Acceptance

“Pain is not wrong. Reacting to pain as wrong initiates the trance of unworthiness. The moment we believe something is wrong, our world shrinks and we lose ourselves in the effort to combat the pain.” – Tara Branch

There is a sense of freedom in accepting things as they are. A sense of liberty is felt when we stop resisting reality, accept the facts and allow ourselves to feel and let go. We often confuse acceptance with approval of what is or what was. When we approve or reject our past or present, we hold on to the regrets of the past or the worries and expectations of the future. When we accept our present as it is, we free ourselves of the burden of what was and how we wish our present was or how our future should be. We just surrender to what is.

Radical acceptance is a psychological concept inspired by the teachings of Buddhism. In simple terms, radical acceptance is the acceptance of our past and present, fully feeling our emotions and letting them go without getting caught in the web of regret, blame, guilt, expectations, and wishful thinking. We often tend to spend months and years wondering what could have been and what should be. When we reject our present and past, we enter a state of lack. A state that tells us that we’re not satisfied with what we have. While it’s normal to feel dissatisfied from time to time, constantly thinking about what is gone or what is missing is a thought pattern that makes us feel stuck with no way to move forward. When we tie our happiness to how we imagine our past “should” have been or how our future “should” look like, we limit ourselves to our idea of a happy life without permitting ourselves to just be and make the most of what we have. Who knows our future might turn out to be even brighter than what we imagined? We won’t know that until we allow ourselves to get there.

A few months back I met someone who helped me realize the importance of maintaining boundaries. Their resilience and charisma are unmatched. Add to that their networking and relationship-building skills and they will make a great asset to any team that they are a part of. One thing, however, I find myself struggling with is the constant complaints of their current circumstances, the lack of willingness to change their situation, and the lack of appreciation of things that are good. While I enjoy certain aspects of my conversation with this person, I feel drained and get a stomach ache every time they start with their complaints. I tried everything from helping them improve their situation when asked for advice to just providing a listening ear when I could. But, it doesn’t help that every time I interact with this person, I feel drained as soon as they get into their complaining mode which seems to never end. As per them, everyone and everything around them is acting against them. Everyone has a hidden motive and no one cares about them. I started to feel myself getting sucked into their world of cribbing and I didn’t like what I experienced. So, a few days later, when the same thing happened again, I asserted my stance to maintain a boundary and decided to not engage whenever this person complains about their lives. I realized that there was nothing else that I could offer to help this person without getting demotivated myself. It took me a while but I realized that their complaints didn’t come from the dissatisfaction of their circumstances rather their complaints come from their affinity for struggling and victimizing themselves.

You see unless it’s a life-threatening situation or unless we’re limited by our capabilities, we always have a choice. If a marriage/relationship/job does not meet our expectations but we continue to be in one, we’re making a choice to stay. This choice is not easy and the alternative normally involves a lot of emotional and mental pain, fear, guilt, confusion, uncertainty, and unwanted judgment from those around us. However, it’s still a choice. If we continue to remain where we are at to avoid dealing with the hurdles that come with the alternative, then, that’s a choice that we consciously make for ourselves. If it is a conscious choice where we have decided not to take any action, then, why crib? Why not accept it and our circumstances for what they are and take whatever actions we can take to make the best of the situation? The same goes for any other aspect of our lives. At any point, if we have decided to not take an action towards changing something even when we are dissatisfied with how the present looks like, then, that’s us telling ourselves that our circumstance is out of our control. If something is out of our control, then, we can’t influence it anyway. If we don’t have any control or influence over a situation, then, why spend time and energy crying over something that cannot be changed? Instead, why not focus on aspects of our lives that we can influence to make something better for ourselves?

Radical acceptance is the acceptance of what is, what was, what’s in our control and what’s not. At the end of the day, all we have control over is our thoughts, emotions, and actions. Nothing beyond that is in our control, it never was. We can influence a situation but that’s all that is – an influence. It’s not a directive for our situation or for people around us to change to meet our needs. If we tie our happiness to the presence/absence of someone/something beyond ourselves, we make ourselves a prisoner to the mercy of those around us or to our external circumstances to provide for our needs. But it’s not up to someone else to make us happy. No one beyond us can even know what makes us happy. We have to meet our needs and we have to take responsibility for our actions. And for us to meet our needs, we first need to see and accept our reality for what it is.

Something happened during my childhood that had resulted in a trauma whose influence followed me around until recently. Without going into the details of what happened, I would like to share the impact of that experience on my life. To start with, I had blocked out that memory for years until one fine day my someone took the initiative to ask me about my deepest insecurities and provided me a listening ear to talk about what I had never talked to myself about. It’s been years since I first opened up to someone about this experience, however, it took me 6 years to finally come to a point where I could allow myself to fully remember the experience, feel the depth of emotions that had been lingering around in darkness since the last 26 years of my life and come to terms with the fact that I am finally ready to move on.

While there are several reasons behind why it took me so long to allow myself to heal from this experience, two primary reasons were my lack of trust in myself to handle my emotions and the rejection of what was a past and what is my present. When my therapist had first tried to help me uncover those memories and the emotions associated with them, I had accused her of causing me pain. During a session of EMDR, I had taken out all my anger on her. She had to stop the session and ask me to do some air boxing to let out my anger. Once I cooled down, I started to cry not because the memories came back but because, for the first time, I realized how much pain I had been carrying with myself since I was a kid. It took me two more years to bring those memories to the surface, accept what had happened, feel all the hidden emotions, acknowledge the impact that the experience had on my psyche and accept the changes that I had gone through over the years.

A wonderful miracle happened the day I lived my past and allowed myself to grieve over the years I had lost. I broke down and accepted what had happened. I accepted not just the past but also the way the experience had shaped me over the years without judgment. I accepted why I am the way I am, I accepted my mistakes, and above all, I accepted myself for who I am. For the first time, I realized that the safe place that I had been desperately searching for throughout my life was within myself because I had been my biggest strength and supporter throughout those years. I saw how I had fought for myself, how I had never given up on my dreams, how I had continued to protect myself, and how I had continued to inspire myself to be a better version of myself. The day I accepted my past was the day I freed myself from my past and embraced my present.

My acceptance of an experience that was completely out of my control, freed me of the anger, pain, regret, fear, and sadness that I had been carrying around throughout my life. It freed me from constantly wondering “why me” and brought me to a place where I can say that my past does not hold me back anymore. It allowed me to liberate myself from the disappointments I had faced along the way, the energy that I had spent blaming myself and those around me but above all, it allowed me to fall deeply in love with myself. My choice of not running away from my reality and working on myself to heal my wounds gave me the freedom that I had been searching for since I was a kid. 

One thing that I have realized from my experiences and from talking to those around me is that change cannot happen from wishful thinking or from only pointing out everything that’s wrong with a situation or blaming others for how they did us wrong. It happens through action. And we can’t know what actions to take without accepting ourselves, and our past and present for what it is. Anytime we get caught up in the web of can’t, shoulds, fair vs not fair, wishful thinking, blame games, assumptions, and self-victimization, we give away our power to heal and move on. We tell ourselves that we’re victims of what has “happened to us” and forget what we can do in the present moment to deal with whatever it is that life throws at us. Anytime we choose to ignore our fears and pain, we make a conscious choice to abandon ourselves. We can blame the world for causing us pain but the reality is we’re the ones to blame if we choose to continue to live in ignorance, avoid feeling our emotions, and not do what we can do to make the required changes in our lives. It might not be possible to completely change our circumstances today but a single step towards our dream brings us closer to the life we want to create for ourselves.

When we’re stuck in a job/relationship where we have no influence over our environment, the best we can do is accept the situation for what it is and decide to either continue and make the best of the situation or put an end to what’s not serving us anymore. If we lose a job unexpectedly, crying or feeling angry over what’s gone is a normal human reaction. If a relationship does not work out as expected, feeling sad and upset for feeling abandoned is completely normal. However, continuing to keep these feelings within us without fully engaging with them, blaming ourselves or others for what happened, not taking responsibility for our actions, not taking an action to make any changes, telling ourselves the “if onlys” of what could have been, and cultivating imaginary scenarios of what “should be”, makes us a prisoner of our past and a hindrance to our future. Radical acceptance is a tool that lets us accept what happened in the past or what is there today without the need for us to approve it. It’s not us surrendering to our suffering, it’s not even forgiving others if we’re not ready rather it’s us liberating ourselves from what’s causing our suffering. It’s a way to see the situation for what it is without being clouded by our emotions or our desires, an opportunity to identify what’s not in our control, and permission to ourselves to take actions in areas (if any) where we can have an influence so that we can finally start to heal and be happy with our present.

Dear Reader,

What is that in your past or your present that you wish was different? What is that you’re struggling to come to terms with? Is it a relationship, friendship, job, or a long-held dream? I ask you to allow yourself to see things for what they are without judgments and assumptions. Take things at the face value without letting your emotions cloud your vision. Permit yourself to feel all those emotions that come to the surface when you accept the situation for what it is. Ask yourself what you can do to make it better and what’s not in your control. If you can take an action to make it better, then, do it for your happiness. If nothing is in your control, allow yourself to grieve and, then, let it go. I ask you today to not create imaginary scenarios of what could have been and what should be. I ask you to take your power back and stop being the victim of your circumstances. Your present is when you can choose to either take actions to make it better or to completely accept it for what it is. The fact is, you don’t know what could have been because that never happened and you don’t know what should be because that is yet to happen. Your expectations of what should be will continue to evolve with your experiences. Be present and surrender to the reality of what is while allowing yourself to heal. See the magic of accepting your truth. You deserve to be happy and only you can make yourself happy. The future is bright but to live it, let go of whatever it is that’s holding you back from experiencing what’s waiting to happen.

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