Coping with a Pandemic: Radical Acceptance

Is suffering inevitable?

Is pain inevitable?

In DBT, we teach that pain in life is inevitable but that suffering is not. Suffering, from this perspective, happens when we experience “ordinary life pain” and then reject that pain or the circumstances causing it. 
This concept has been a focal point in therapy and in my consulting practice as a tool for guiding people through the pandemic. 

Covid challenges us in unprecedented ways. Most of us are not fond of widespread change, especially when it threatens our sense of stability and safety. We fight reality. We say “this shouldn’t be happening.” We challenge new rules and ask in desperation “why me?” It is important to feel your emotions, to observe the loss and fear and anger and boredom that invades your space. It is also important to notice where you are fighting reality, where you are not open to feedback, and where you are refusing to accept the facts as they are.

Now before I go further, I want to highlight that all behaviour, including fighting reality, has a FUNCTION. It is HARD to accept painful circumstances. It is frightening to tolerate uncertainty. It is uncomfortable to sit with intense emotion….so we avoid, fight, and reject our realities and pain becomes suffering.

Radical acceptance is the willingness to accept or acknowledge reality for what it is. It means fully embracing, working with, and integrating the facts of the present moment or a given situation.  It does not mean that you LIKE or APPROVE OF reality and it does not mean that you are helpless, powerless, or “giving up” in the face of your reality; quite the opposite, actually. Reality acceptance is a potent skill for managing intense emotions and facilitating positive change. Ironically, the change we so desperately seek typically begins when we can look at our circumstances constructively and openly. We are propelled forward by holding the facts up to the light and generating solutions. When we reject or chronically avoid reality, we get stuck in the fight and cannot see the way through. 

I know so many are in pain as a result of the pandemic. I know others are at a loss knowing how to help and still more are angry and fighting to go back to “normal.” I also see much suffering. Radical acceptance provides a framework for coping with uncertainty and the things we do not like. For example, I don’t like that I can’t see my family or provide treatment in person and I am afraid of loss in many ways AND it is my reality so I have to choose how to work with it and not against it.

To practice this skill, observe a situation that brings tension or intense emotion. Notice the parts of the situation that you accept and the ones you fight. If you keep fighting reality, what is the impact on your emotions? your mental health? If you practiced reality acceptance, how does that impact your emotions and mental health? Which stance (acceptance vs fighting reality) gets you closer to what you want? Practice accepting the facts and see what that feels like in your body and your behaviour.