Mental Health

DBT Skills: Radical Acceptance

Hello friends, and welcome to 2015. With the new year comes changes here at TS. This is my final post on DBT, and this one is going to be a challenge for the more skeptically minded among us. I have to admit that I still struggle with this skill, which often seems counter intuitive. You might remember that our last post was about pros and cons, and that we’ve been moving through distress tolerance.

The final skill we’re going to talk about is radical acceptance. Don’t be put off by the name. The concept is simple: one of the things that causes the most pain in our lives is when we try to convince ourselves that things aren’t the way they are or that we can change things when we can’t. The creator of DBT, Marsha Linehan, suggests that there are four reactions we can have to a distressing situation:

1. The person tries to change the circumstances.
2.The person tries to change his or her emotions toward the circumstances.
3.The person continues to be miserable.
4.The person accepts the circumstances.

Radical acceptance is the right skill to use when you can’t change what is happening (or has happened) and when your emotions make sense and can’t be changed. It’s most applicable for big, unpleasant situations, such as a family member dying or losing out on something you really wanted. It is basically exactly what it sounds like: seeing reality for what it is and fully accepting that reality. This doesn’t mean half-assing it and holding on to all the resentment you have about the situation. It is complete.

Interestingly, one of the underlying ideas of DBT is that you need to accept the way things are before you can make any changes. This might seem to be a contradiction, but it fits fairly well with skeptical principles: until you know how things actually are, you can’t react to that. Other times, it’s the strong need to change things that causes a great deal of distress, and while you might still be sad, angry, or hurt about a situation,  you can reduce some of the other related feelings by recognizing that you can’t change things.

From Marsha Linehan: “There are three parts to radical acceptance.  The first part is accepting that reality is what it is.  The second part is accepting that the event or situation causing you pain has a cause.  The third part is accepting life can be worth living even with painful events in it. ”

It’s important to recognize that radical acceptance doesn’t mean never doing anything to change your life. Instead, it’s to help you accept certain facts that can’t change. A good example of this is someone with an eating disorder who will have to radically accept that they need a certain number of calories and that their body will probably never be the weight that they want it to be.

For many people, radical acceptance becomes a larger life attitude that lets them be more forgiving of the things that upset them. For others, it’s something to be applied in the right, extremely distressing circumstances. No matter how you use it, it can be extremely effective when used in combination with mindfulness and interpersonal skills that allow you to know when you can make changes.

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Olivia is a giant pile of nerd who tends to freak out about linguistic prescriptivism, gender roles, and discrimination against the mentally ill. By day she writes things for the Autism Society of Minnesota, and by night she writes things everywhere else. Check out her ongoing screeds against jerkbrains at

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