“Pain is not wrong. Reacting to pain as wrong initiates the trance of unworthiness. The moment we believe something is wrong, our world shrinks and we lose ourselves in the effort to combat the pain.” – Tara Brach
“Life is painful.”- Buddhism’s First Noble Truth
No matter how hard we work on ourselves, how powerful our intentions are, what caring and loving things we do for others, life is inevitably going to give us something that we hadn’t bargained for that we are bound to find overwhelming. At those moments most people succumb to the inevitable “life sucks” mindset. Whatever the challenge is naturally creates a flood of negative thoughts and feelings. These feelings become engrained, depending on how intense the pain and suffering the life event evokes. Some people get more than their fair share of this type of pain, others not as much. It is, however, inevitable that everybody is going to have to cope with pain and suffering at different points of their lives. Illness, deaths, physical pain, the loss of jobs and relationships, and the declining capacity of the self due to aging are the suffering that all endure. The way that a person processes these events may hold the key to leading a happier and more fulfilling life.
It’s natural for humans to bond with others through difficult times. We visit the sick, attend funerals, and bring food to friends and family when they are suffering. It’s inevitable that someone is going to offer some kind of consolation, well intentioned, but definitely off the mark.”It’s for the best.” “You’ll get over it someday.” “This too shall pass.” (See also “Going Tribal” http://mindbodycoach.org/going-tribal/ )
Life’s pain is not always for the best and it’s not always distributed evenly. Some are fortunate and get a bearable amount, others get more than can be reasonably carried by anyone. Anyone who has lost a child, suffered a life altering illness, or experienced post traumatic stress knows that it is not for the best. The pain will not, and in some cases should not, ever go away entirely. Life’s challenge is to accept what has happened. Radical Acceptance means to accept, not necessarily agree with or like, what has happened.
Radical Acceptance is a concept taught in Dialectical Behavior Therapy, borrowed from some basic teachings of Buddhism. The context in which the word radical is used is complete and total acceptance of a disturbing or painful event. Acceptance, not liking or agreement, but acceptance. Acknowledging this event as something that has happened and must be endured. Life has given you, for whatever reason, a bad deal. Radical Acceptance begins with that moment when you realize you have essentially two options:
1. Resist, deny, bargain, and argue with it, thereby making yourself miserable.
2. Accept what has happened as a reality. Not anything that you like or want to happen, but something that has, or is, indeed happening.
Radical Acceptance occurs when one stops fighting reality, and accepts it for what it is-reality. Trying to figure out whether or not you have any control over the situation is a critical component to acceptance. (See also “Acceptance And True Wisdom” http://mindbodycoach.org/acceptance-true-wisdom/ ) If there is something you could do to improve or better the situation, then obviously you need to pursue that. If not, it may be more healthy to realize that acceptance of this reality is the only logical way out of the pain and suffering that this event is bringing you.
Reality is very much like that cucumber which becomes a pickle. Once it becomes a pickle, it can never be a cucumber again. Accepting of this is the the most important factor in whether or not one continues to needlessly suffer through an incredibly painful event. With many disturbing life events, such as the death of a loved one, acceptance is the beginning of healing. Once one can accept the loss of a loved one, the next challenge is to find spiritual meaning and significance in the suffering that you are going through. Many use spirituality as a way to cope with pain in a very healthy way, making the loss something that, while never going away, brings meaning to themselves, others, and the memory of their loved one. The Susan B. Komen Walk for a Cure, the ALS challenge, and various other fundraisers are examples of healthy and spiritually meaningful ways that people engage in Radical Acceptance.
Having been a practicing psychotherapist for the past 18 years, I’ve noticed that there are two general ways that people respond to pain and tragedy. Some people are destroyed by, made bitter, and often are never the same. Some people come out of the transformative event seemingly even stronger, and often, despite never entirely letting go of the pain, seemingly finding life more meaningful on a much deeper level. Anyone in my position couldn’t help but ask the same question that I’ve often asked myself, what’s the difference in people who do come out the other side hurt and in pain, but a little bit better, and those that are utterly destroyed?
Those that emerge stronger intuitively process the events in a way that leads towards acceptance that it is a reality that they must deal with, changing it is out of their control, and somehow they are going to make the best of it. Yes, initially both types of people go through the same process of shock and denial, but one group breaks free of these paralyzing emotions, while the other gets stuck in an endless loop of pain and suffering. Both experience pain, but the group that processes a little bit more healthily is able to push through the suffering portion while learning to live with the pain. The pain never goes away for either group, those that come out the other side of the suffering are transformed by it and, in the process of letting it go, seemingly become stronger.
The basic principles on which Radical Acceptance are pretty hard-core. Radical Acceptance teaches us that when faced with painful problems, we have for choices that we must choose from:
1. Solve the problem
2. Change how you feel
3. Accept it
4. Stay miserable
Honest, blunt, but the hard-core reality is that these are the only options one has. Radical Acceptance teaches that, after the inevitable initial shock and denial, we must make a choice among these four possibilities. If you analyze painful events that you yourself have experienced, or those of others, you’ll come to the realization that these truly are the only choices that we have. Either be transformed, or destroyed.
“Pain is inevitable. Suffering is optional.”- Haruki Murakami
Ultimately, a person comes to the realization that their life, although touched by pain and suffering, can still have meaning and be worthwhile and worth living. You don’t need to look to historical figures, celebrities, or fictional characters defined concrete examples of people who have practiced Radical Acceptance, and practice it well. All of us have people that we know personally, family, friends, and acquaintances, who have come out the other side of horrific pain and tragedy as better people. Learn from these examples and hope that, whatever you face in life, you will be able to do the same.
“Life is a series of natural and spontaneous changes. Don’t resist them; that only creates sorrow. Let reality be reality. Let things flow naturally forward in whatever way they like.”
– Lao Tzu
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