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How to practice radical acceptance during the pandemic

At the moment, with the effects of Covid-19 taking over our daily choices and decisions, there are so many situations and scenarios that we don’t have control over. 

It can be scary when we realise this, particularly as it’s the design of our brain to problem solve and fix.

In moments like this – when we have very little control or choice – radical acceptance can be a transformative skill to utilise.

Radical acceptance is simply the acknowledgement of reality as it is – not as we wish it were nor as we think it should be – but as it is in the present moment with all of its flaws. Because however much we wish things could be different in the moment, it doesn’t change the reality of the situation. 

To be clear, radical acceptance does not require that you have to like or endorse this reality. It simply means acknowledging what’s happened or what’s currently happening. 

After all, fighting reality only intensifies our emotional reaction – and as Jung put so well, “what we resist, persists”.

When applied correctly, radical acceptance removes the added tension that comes with judging a situation as good or bad or right or wrong. Instead, it allows us to put our energy towards assessing our resources in the moment. 

We often try to fight reality by judging the situation. We might say, It should or shouldn’t be this way,” “That’s not fair!” or Why me?!” 

But if you don’t like something, you first have to accept that it is the way it is before you can try to change it. If you don’t accept something, you’ll be so busy fighting that reality that you don’t have the energy to put towards changing it. 

Fighting reality only creates suffering. While pain is inevitable in life, suffering is optional and suffering is what happens when we refuse to accept the pain in our lives.

Once we accept reality, we can consider if we’d like to change it. We can say: 

“OK, this exists. This is happening. How do I want to handle it?” 

In other words, practicing acceptance actually leads the way to problem solving. For instance, if we are sent a bill for something that we ordered but didn’t arrive, our initial response might be: 

“This is ridiculous. It can’t possibly be right. How can I pay for something I haven’t got. How am I going to deal with this, I want to scream at them. This is so unfair!” 

However, by fighting the reality, we’re not able to focus on what we can do to change the situation. By ranting, judging and blaming, we waste physical and emotional energy and get nowhere. Instead, we can try to accept the situation: 

“OK, I have been charged, that doesn’t seem right, but I can contact customer support and send them an email explaining it and then carry on with what I am doing”.

Practicing radical acceptance can be accepting our partner for who they are right now. The reality is they might not ever change, in which case we need to decide if we’re willing to continue the relationship. 

If we’re going to remain in the relationship, we need to decide how much (if any) energy were going to put into asserting ourselves, versus accepting it and not trying to change it. 

Remember, all relationships are under added pressure at the moment so we may be even more aware of old habits and behaviours from our partners that didn’t necessarily bother us before. 

We can also see radical acceptance as an alternative to forgiveness. Because, unlike forgiveness, radical acceptance has nothing to do with the other person. It’s about reducing our own pain. 

So, why accept reality? 

  • Rejecting reality does not change reality (this is something we are all struggling with in one way or another now). 
  • Changing reality requires first accepting reality. 
  • Stress and emotional pain cannot be avoided; it’s nature’s way of signalling that something is wrong. 
  • Rejecting reality turns short-term emotional pain into longer term suffering. 
  • Refusing to accept reality can keep you stuck in unhappiness, bitterness, anger, sadness, shame or other painful emotions. 
  • Acceptance may lead to sadness but deep calmness usually follows. 

Radical acceptance takes practice. Initially, it might feel strange and hard. But remember that radical acceptance is about acknowledging reality – not liking it or contesting it. 

Once you acknowledge what’s really happening, you can change it or start to heal. Radical acceptance has nothing to do with being passive or giving up. To the contrary, it’s about channelling your energy into moving on.

Some benefits of radical acceptance:

  • Radical acceptance of the present moment helps you move toward planning and problem-solving. It helps you take responsibility for what you can do, and let go of the rest.
  • Radical acceptance doesn’t preclude you from offering feedback or making suggestions. It actually offers clarity to help you assess what’s needed. It helps you take stock of your situation, utilise your skills and prioritise your resources
  • By practicing radical acceptance, you still react but your reactions are less intense, and they don’t last as long as they would if you focus on fighting.
  • Another benefit is that you typically spend less time thinking about the situation. And when you do think about it, it tends to trigger less emotional pain. People often describe a feeling of being ‘lighter’. 

Here are some steps to practicing Radical Acceptance 

  1. Observe that you’re questioning or fighting reality (“it shouldn’t be this way”).
  2. Remind yourself that the unpleasant reality is just as it is and cannot be changed (“this is what is happening at the moment, I need to find a way to accept and manage this. It is not our fault that Covid-19 started, it was a random act by one person, but there is nothing we can do to change that now. All we can do is manage it from this point forward”).
  3. Remind yourself that everything has a cause (including events and situations that cause you emotional pain and suffering). 
  4. Practice accepting with your whole self (mind, body, spirit). Use accepting self-talk, relaxation techniques, mindfulness.
  5. Attend to body sensations as you think about what you need to accept.
  6. Allow disappointment, sadness or grief to arise within you (for many of us, this is likely to come and go during Covid-19).
  7. Acknowledge that life can be worth living even when there is pain.
  8. Create a pros and cons list if you find yourself resisting practicing acceptance.
  9. Remind yourself that “it is what it is” for now, but it won’t last forever.

No one’s saying that radical acceptance is easy. In fact, it’s probably one of the most challenging of all the possible skills for managing difficult emotions.

However, it can make a huge difference to all sorts of difficult situations in life – not just for managing Covid-19 – making it a key skill that’s well worth learning and practising.