Radical Acceptance: How to Not Cry Over Spilt Milk
“Don’t cry over spilt milk” is a common phrase we hear when we get upset over something that we cannot control… but this is definitely easier said than done. Radical Acceptance is an idea advanced by Marsha Linehan in her Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT). She posits that all persons experience pain but when we try to fight it we create suffering – and suffering is not necessary. Radical Acceptance is the process of accepting reality – “Life on Life’s Terms,” if you will. To be clear, accepting is not agreeing with the situation, but rather accepting what the situation is so that we can address it in a helpful way. Acceptance becomes “Radical” when we are able to accept the situation completely, body, mind and soul.
Linehan discusses the difference between a Willful Attitude (think stubborn child) and a Willing Attitude (this is the one with the acceptance). When we are Willful we are refusing to accept reality. Things aren’t the way they “should be.” The situation “isn’t fair.” “The milk should be on the counter, not the floor.” Etc. Etc. This attitude causes distress because we are fighting what is actually going on and we are not able to deal with the situation. A Willing Attitude instead accepts reality and allows us to move forward, with the least suffering and distress possible. “The milk has spilt… it’s a waste… and a hassle… but not worth losing any more time over.” We can sit with the feelings for a few mminutes but then clean it up and carry on. Easy. Right? 🙂
Choosing a Willing Attitude is difficult and it is a choice that we will likely have to make time and again in the situation until we are able to move through it to the other side. Not judging ourselves as we practice this skill is important as anger, shame, frustration etc. will all just increase suffering, distress and resistance. To assist with shifting our attitude, Linehan also outlines some skills for helping us to internalize the Acceptance. These are the Half Smile and the Willing Hands.
- The Half Smile involves turning the corners of our lips up ever so slightly. This breaks up the tension in our face to move our bodies towards more of an accepting position. “Where the body goes, the mind will follow.” So, we can almost trick our body into thinking that we are okay with the situation until we are able to get through it. Studies have actually shown that moving our lips to a position close to a smile leads to an improvement in mood.
- The Willing Hands is my favourite. For this you turn your palms up towards the sky and hold them out or in your lap. This opens up our bodies to the energy around us to help us move towards a more accepting mindest. Next time you are stressed out and needing to accept something – try it!
As with any skill, Radical Acceptance takes practice to become better at it and to show yourself that it is possible for you to get through difficult situations without becoming overwhelmed or making it worse. You can do it. And you deserve it. Open your hands. Open your heart. And turn your mind.
Ready. Set. Breathe.
Reference: Linehan, M. (2015). DBT Skills Training Manual, Second Edition. New York, NY: Guilford Press.