All of us struggle at times to accept the reality we have been dealt. Sometimes reality is so painful we would rather pretend that some things do not exist or never happened. However, there are many reasons why it is a good idea to accept reality—just as it is. First, it is just not possible to avoid all forms of pain; pain is simply an inevitable aspect of life. In fact, rejecting reality can sometimes make the situation even worse. In addition, denying reality does not change reality. On the contrary, we can’t change reality until we first accept it! Finally, acceptance of reality may indeed increase our sadness at first, but eventually it leads to peace and freedom (Linehan, 2015).
Trauma survivors have even harsher realities to accept than most people. Just accepting the trauma itself is hard enough! But that’s not all. You also have to accept how the trauma has affected all aspects of your life: your thoughts, your emotions, your behaviors, and your relationships. Healing from trauma requires you to accept (NOT agree with—but accept) not only the trauma itself, but all the ways that the trauma has affected your life now.
Sometimes reality is so harsh that we simply cannot accept all of it at once. That’s when we gradually process reality in stages. Sometimes we pass through several phases of non-acceptance before we finally reach a place of acceptance. This is perfectly normal and healthy—as long as we are progressing towards full acceptance. Unfortunately, life only gets much more difficult when we get stuck for too long on any of the forms of non-acceptance. Nobody that I know is going to tell you that acceptance is easy. But one thing I can assure you: Non-acceptance is even harder!
There are five well-known stages many of us go through as we attempt to process reality (Kübler-Ross, 2014).
1. Denial – Sometimes traumatic events are so horrendous and so unexpected that our first reaction is shock and disbelief. In other words, denial! What happens when you have a surgery and the pain of the operation is too difficult to bear? The medical staff will administer some sort of numbing agent. The numbing agent doesn’t remove the source of the pain; it just temporarily blocks the pain. Denial is like a drug that numbs out reality when it is too painful for us to deal with. Denial is actually our mind’s way of protecting us when we can’t handle a full dose of reality yet. While we sometimes need this “mental anesthesia” (at least initially), too much denial can obviously create additional issues of its own. Trauma survivors sometimes engage in activities or consume substances that further numb the pain.
- Example: My boyfriend beats me because he loves me. This is how he shows me that I am his woman.
- Connections: Remember the Thinking Mind, Feeling Mind, and Balanced Mind? When an individual is in Denial Mode, all three minds are de-activated. While this complete shutdown may be temporarily appropriate, it is not a good long-term solution! Do you also remember our previous discussion on blind spots? Denial is a great example of not seeing information about ourselves that other people do.
- Reality Check: What sorts of problems can happen when you are in Denial Mode?
2. Anger – What happens when the anesthesia wears off after a surgery? Now you feel the pain, don’t you? The same exact principle applies once our denial or “mental anesthesia” wears off. Now we feel the emotional pain triggered by the situation. In other words, we feel anger! Anger is like another drug which also has an important function, within limits. For example, anger provides us with the impulse and energy to change the traumatic situation. But what if the original situation can no longer be changed? Now what’s going to happen to all that anger? Not surprisingly, too much anger also can create additional issues of its own. Trauma survivors tend to have lots of anger simmering just beneath the surface—a simmer which quickly turns to boil when triggered.
- Example: The next time my boyfriend lays a hand on me, I am going to cut myself to show him how ticked I am! (This would be an example of turning anger towards yourself, which can be common among trauma survivors).
- Connections: Remember the Thinking Mind, Feeling Mind, and Balanced Mind? When an individual is in Anger Mode, the Thinking Mind and Balanced Mind are both deactivated, but the Feeling Mind is in full throttle. While this arrangement may be temporarily appropriate, it is not a good long-term solution!
- Reality Check: What sorts of problems can happen when you are in Anger Mode?
3. Bargaining – Once both of these “drugs” wear off (anger and denial), we become slightly more rational.
Bargaining is when we try to scheme, negotiate, compromise, or manipulate our way out of the situation.
While this may sometimes be a good strategy, what if no amount of scheming, negotiating, compromising, or manipulating will change the original trauma? The problem with too much bargaining is that it is full of unrealistic, ineffective, and wishful thinking or plans. That’s why too much bargaining can also create additional issues as well.
- Example: Maybe I just need to be a better girlfriend. Maybe I just need to learn to not tick him off so much. Maybe if I can make it up to him, this won’t happen again. Maybe…
- Connections: Remember the Thinking Mind, Feeling Mind, and Balanced Mind? When an individual is in Bargain Mode, the Feeling Mind and Balanced Mind are both deactivated, but the Thinking Mind is in full throttle. While this arrangement may be temporarily necessary, it is not a good long-term solution!
- Reality Check: What sorts of problems can happen when you are in Bargain Mode?
4. Depression – Once our attempts to bargain have failed, we feel helpless and hopeless. We feel we are stuck, with no way out. We feel like things will never ever get better. We even start to feel worthless, like we somehow deserve to be in this situation. In other words, we feel depressed! Depression feels the worst but is also the closest to acceptance, because we finally start to see just how bad the circumstances really are. Remember, “it’s always darkest before dawn.” Of course, too much depression can create further issues as well. One problem with depression is that the situation that we’re in, as awful as it might be, can now seem even worse. For example, depression tends to make things seem more personal, permanent, and pervasive than they really are. Personal means that bad things happen to me because I am a bad person. Permanent means the bad things will never go away. And pervasive means everything is now dark and bleak—not just the trauma! Another problem with depression is that we lose the ability and energy to deal with the rest of life.
- Example: This is just how he is. He will always be abusive. I will never be good enough for him. But of course, I was never good enough for him in the first place. I guess I should just be thankful that at least some guy wants me. This is all I deserve anyway…
- Connections: Remember the Thinking Mind, Feeling Mind, and Balanced Mind? When an individual is in Depression Mode, the Feeling Mind and Thinking Mind are both activated, but the Balanced Mind is not! And since the Balanced Mind is not active, negative thoughts and negative emotions continue to feed off each other, resulting in a dark, gloomy cyclical cloud of depression. While this arrangement may be temporarily appropriate, it is not a good long-term solution!
- Reality Check: What sorts of problems can happen when you are in Depression Mode?
5. Acceptance – Acceptance happens when we fully acknowledge and embrace the circumstances just as they really are (no better and no worse). It has been said, “acceptance…is the only way out of hell” (Linehan, 2015, p. 420). When we finally face reality as it is, we can actually do something about it!
- Example: My boyfriend is abusive. This is an abusive relationship. I have options. I deserve better than this!
- Connections: Remember the three minds? When an individual is in Acceptance Mode, now all three minds are active: Thinking Mind, Feeling Mind, and Balanced Mind! Since we have access to the Feeling Mind, we still feel that pain of the trauma, but it is no longer so overwhelming. And since we have access to the Thinking Mind, we see the facts a little more clearly and rationally. But most importantly, since we have access to the Balanced Mind, we know how to accept the trauma, deal with the trauma, heal from the trauma, and move on with the rest of our life!
- Reality Check: Life is never perfect, even when we have mastered the art of acceptance. What sorts of problems can still happen even when you are Acceptance Mode?
Of course, nobody progresses through the five stages perfectly. Sometimes we do not go through these stages in this exact order. Sometimes we experience more than one stage at the same time. For example, you might experience anger and bargaining at the same time; even denial and depression can overlap. Sometimes we regress in the stages. And sometimes one of these stages is our default response to any life trigger.
Learning acceptance does not mean you will never experience any of the roadblocks of denial, anger, bargaining, or depression. Rather, the key to acceptance is learning what your particular roadblocks are, and learning how to overcome those roadblocks. Remember, each of these forms of non-acceptance is normal and has its place—but none of these roadblocks are healthy places to camp out long-term. So the next time you experience denial, anger, bargaining, or depression, ask yourself: Is this a roadblock keeping me stuck—or is this a stepping stone leading me towards acceptance?
For practical exercises to learn more about the stages of acceptance, please refer to my new workbook: DBT Skills Workbook for PTSD: Practical Exercises for Overcoming Trauma and Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder!