What is Radical Acceptance?

Radical acceptance stands as the most challenging and most freeing DBT skill I have ever learned.  Radical acceptance is fully and truly affirming reality, just as it is. This means letting of resisting things you cannot change.  In religious circles, the serenity prayer captures radical acceptance; “grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.”  A less religious depiction of radical acceptance is “$h!t happens.” 


sign reading "it is what it is"Accepting reality can be an extremely tall order when we consider all the grueling and horrendous facts of life.  The loss of a loved one, a cancer diagnosis, systematic racism, getting fired.  When presented with extremely painful realities, many of us encounter the very natural and rational urge to run in the absolute opposite direction.  We humans have employed our immense creative power to develop many and varied ways of avoiding reality (e.g. video games, drugs, excessive work, cat videos on tiktok).  Why would anyone want to deal with reality when you could watch this?! 

That’s an excellent question! Watching a majestic fluffball embody the pinnacle of emotional support may provide some very necessary distraction from life’s pain, and yet it likely does not allow us to truly work through significant losses. Refusing to accept pain leads to suffering.  The first step is figuring out what has to be accepted.  We must accept the facts about the past and present and realistic limitations of the future.  For instance, we must accept our genetic make-up, our current financial situation, and that we cannot predict the future.  When we avoid or reject these realities, we experience suffering.  Common forms of rejecting reality look like asking “Why me?” and saying something “shouldn’t happen.”

Radically accepting reality does not mean that you like it or cannot do something to change it.  In fact, accepting reality allows us to deal with reality.  For example, the fact that your car needs maintenance sucks and is financially painful.  Denying that reality may avoid some costly repairs but will ultimately result in an inoperable automobile.

Flag representing lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer alliesMany political movements require individuals to accept reality to change reality.  When we reject or avoid difficult topics, we cannot respond to them.  I encountered this with Ohio House Bill 454.  If passed, this bill will ban affirmative healthcare for transgender youth including puberty blockers, hormone replacement therapy, and surgeries.  Any school staff such as teachers, nurses, counselor, or principals would be forbidden to withhold any information that a student was uncomfortable with their gender.  When I first learned about this bill, I dismissed it, thinking that it was nothing more than a publicity stunt.  As I came to accept the reality of this bill and impact it could have on transgender teens, I radically accepted that some people support this bill, that it could become a law, and that I could play a meaningful role in determining the outcome.  As I moved to acceptance, I contacted EqualityOhio and found ways to get involved to help LGBTQ+ Ohioans, especially transgender youth.  More information can be found here and hereThe Ohio Psychological Association wrote a clear letter opposing House Bill 454, and I highly suggest you read it.  One of the best ways to get involved is to call your legislator and voice your opinion on the bill.  

Accepting reality can be an extremely painful and long process, and yet it reduces suffering and can help us make meaningful changes in our lives and the lives of those around us.  

About the Author

Samantha Mathews, PsyD (she/her) is a licensed psychologist who specializes in dialectical behavior therapy.  Samantha works with her clients to develop close relationships with themselves and others.  Samantha believes compassionately connecting with emotions is central to building a life worth living.  Click here to learn more about Samantha’s experience and therapeutic style.