Not everything that happens to us in life is something we signed up for. There are some things in the past we desperately wish never happened to us. There are other things in the present we desperately wish we could change. In fact, there are even people we desperately wish we could change.
Extreme Acceptance means accepting something that you emphatically do not like. Extreme Acceptance does not mean that you approve of or agree with the situation—but it does mean that you will acknowledge and embrace the situation anyway. Extreme Acceptance is the exact opposite of denial. As we learned in a previous blog, denial is adaptive when we are still in shock and the brain needs to protect us from information that we cannot handle yet. But denial is no longer adaptive when we constantly have blinders on that prevent us from seeing realty how it really is. Long-term, ongoing denial is basically when we lie to ourselves—and then believe our own lie! Extreme Acceptance, in contrast, means we see reality exactly how it is—no better, and no worse.
Why should we learn to practice Extreme Acceptance? Well, here are a few reasons to consider. First, just because you deny reality does not mean that problems just go away. In fact, the opposite is true: The more we make an ongoing habit of denying reality, the worse our problems get—not better! Another reason to practice Extreme Acceptance is because pain cannot be avoided anyway. Pain is simply a fact of life. We all have pain. A baby’s first emotional response to life is to cry. Why? Because coming into this world is painful…just ask the mother! And even death is sometimes painful. And then there’s plenty of pain in between. So in short, it’s not possible to avoid all that pain, no matter how hard we try. Another reason to practice Extreme Acceptance is something we have already seen: We must accept reality before we can change it! Accepting reality is indeed painful, since we are becoming more aware of painful things that we would prefer to ignore. But eventually, Extreme Acceptance leads to peace and freedom. Why? Because Extreme Acceptance puts us in a better position to deal with reality (Linehan, 2015).
Since Extreme Acceptance can be such a difficult idea to grasp, here are two formulas that help me understand this concept better:
- Pain + Extreme Acceptance = Healing
- Pain – Extreme Acceptance = Suffering
There are several important lessons we can learn from these two simple formulas. I apologize ahead of time if an example from Algebra will be triggering, but you can think of these two equations this way: Pain is the constant, while acceptance is the variable. As we have already seen, pain is a given: Both of these equations include pain! However, our response to pain is what determines the outcome of this equation. If we demonstrate Extreme Acceptance of the pain, we are now on the path to healing. Of course, as we have already seen, the path to healing can itself be painful…but at the very least, things will eventually start to get better. But when we do not practice Extreme Acceptance, that pain only gets worse! When pain gets worse instead of better, we will experience suffering rather than healing.
Something else we can learn from these two formulas is that pain is required, but suffering is optional. Let me explain what I mean by this statement. First of all, I do not mean that everything you have suffered in your life is your fault. However, now that you are learning new skills and new insights in this blog series, the pain in your life does not have to keep piling up or getting worse. By demonstrating Extreme Acceptance, you really can start to turn the tide on your suffering. You can switch from the path that leads to suffering—to the path that leads to healing. Both paths will still have pain. But the pain on the healing path is bearable, while the pain on the suffering path is not. And that’s an important difference!
Something that helps us to better accept pain is to understand how much we need it. Yes, you heard me correctly! Let’s use a physical example to explain what I mean. Pain is obviously a very uncomfortable experience—and that’s precisely why it is such an important wake up call. Pain is a signal that something is wrong! If our minds did not send us such a loud, clear message, we might not get it. Pain allows us to heal, learn, and grow from our experiences. Think about it: You probably would not have survived childhood without it. There are indeed children who do not physically experience pain, and they actually have really high mortality rates. Why? Because when they are injured, they have no signal from their brain telling them to stop, get help, or pursue a different course of action. I for one would never have survived childhood without pain…in fact, I barely survived with it! The same principles apply to us emotionally: We need emotional pain to heal, learn, and grow. The more we can understand the benefits of pain, the easier it becomes to demonstrate Extreme Acceptance.
There are three basic scenarios in which we need to practice Extreme Acceptance:
1. Situations from the past that cannot be changed.
2. Situations from the present that cannot be changed.
3. Situations from the present that can be changed.
Perhaps you were raped as a child. That’s an example of a situation from the past that cannot be changed. As much as you wish it did not happen, that does not change the fact that it did happen. Perhaps you have some sort of permanent disability. That is an example of a situation from the present that also cannot be changed. As much as you wish you did not have the handicap, that will not change the fact that you have it. But sometimes there are situations from the present that can be changed. For example, perhaps you are involved in an abusive relationship. Perhaps you have tried to change your abusive partner—and could not. But there’s still another option that perhaps you have ignored: Get out of the relationship!
In all three cases, Extreme Acceptance is not easy (to say the least). However, as we have already seen, failing to demonstrate Extreme Acceptance would not help any of these scenarios. Pain would only become suffering. Extreme Acceptance is precisely what we need in order to deal with each of these scenarios. Therefore, Extreme Acceptance is emphatically not a passive process, although at times it may seem that way. As we have seen, some situations in life can be changed while others cannot. Regardless, Extreme Acceptance always provides you with the opportunity to change what can be changed. For example, you cannot change the fact you were raped—but you can change how you decide to relate to men now. You cannot change the fact that you have a disability, but you can decide to optimize your life regardless of the disability—and perhaps even because of the disability! And maybe you cannot change an abusive partner—but you can decide whether or not you remain in that relationship.
For practical exercises to learn more about Extreme Acceptance, please refer to my new workbook: DBT Skills Workbook for PTSD: Practical Exercises for Overcoming Trauma and Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder!