In parenting and in life, you will experience countless challenging and upsetting situations that you just can't change. Radical acceptance can help you cope. Dr. Nanika Coor explains what radical acceptance is, how it can help when parenting gets hard, and 7 steps to putting it into action.
Whether your child is a newborn or just graduated from college, you’re going to deal with situations that, as a parent, you simply cannot change. From questionable personal style and daily annoyances to mental and physical health issues, disappointments, divorce, death, random disastrous acts of nature, and even global pandemics!
So it’s natural that you’ll sometimes find yourself stuck in a spiral of thoughts like “How could this be happening?!” and “Why do such unfair things happen to me?!” One way to pull yourself out of the anxious agitation that clouds your ability to cope is to draw upon the practice of radical acceptance to reduce your feelings of discomfort.
A therapeutic tool taught in Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT), radical acceptance can help you tolerate life’s distressing moments. When we wish or expect that things will be different than what they are, suffering and distress result. Denying, fighting against, or trying to avoid reality won’t change it, but not accepting that reality will transform what would otherwise be ordinary pain into suffering.
This isn’t about approving of what’s happening, ignoring what you really need, or giving in and giving up. This is about an intentional choice you make not to waste energy railing against the reality of what is. It means letting go of what you’d have preferred or what you want and acknowledging that things are what they are.
Put your energy toward what you can do rather than who and what you can’t control.
Parents can use radical acceptance in three ways:
Accept the reality of who you are
Parents who’ve grown up in Western hyper-individualistic upbringing and culture have gotten direct and indirect messages about the ways they're not measuring up to a harder working, more successful, more ideal standard. To be acceptable, you have to somehow be different than who you naturally are. Humans have universal biological, emotional, and spiritual needs, but when self-reliance and independence are prioritized in your culture, being aware of your own needs can cause self-criticism and anxiety about being weak. It can feel easier to focus on what you consider faults than to see your gifts and your worth as a person.
Instead of giving yourself a hard time, being defensive, or in denial about qualities in yourself you wish were different, accept yourself totally and without judgment—the good and the bad alike—exactly as you are. Your desires to change for the better can exist right alongside your acceptance of who and where you are right now. You don’t make yourself do better by making yourself feel worse. And the more practice you have at accepting yourself completely, moment by moment, the more skilled you will be at accepting your child nonjudgmentally as well.
Accept the reality of who your child is
When your child senses that you wish they were different, it damages their self-esteem and their self-worth. What your child most needs for healthy development is a deep connection with you. It might not be easy if you’re very different from your child. You might have difficulty understanding their perspective of the world, their personality, or their identity.
But fully seeing and accepting your child’s true self and how they uniquely show up in life from moment to moment—in whatever way that is—is a priceless gift to your child. This means understanding that you can’t control, change or "fix" the way your child thinks, feels, or behaves and that it’s not your job or responsibility to do so.
When you try to change them, it’s damaging to your relationship with your child. Remember that your relationship with them is your most powerful parenting alternative to control! A strong relationship with your child will give you influence with them, as they’re more likely to voluntarily consider your opinions and concerns.
Accept the reality of your circumstances
In distressing parenting situations, fully accepting the reality of what’s happening in the moment can help you feel empowered to assess the facts and choose an appropriate response. Focus on identifying, communicating, and empathizing with underlying needs and unexpressed emotions, both your own and those of whomever you’re interacting with. Put your energy toward what you can do rather than who and what you can’t control.
Focus on the facts of the situation, not the story you're telling yourself about those facts.
Instead of losing yourself in judgments and resistance, remember that people do well if they can. Everyone’s doing the best they can to get their needs met with the mental and physical bandwidth, skills, and development they have. From this stance, you’re more likely to lead with empathy and connection rather than damage your relationship with criticism, shame, and blame.
Practice accepting reality with these 7 steps:
- Notice your non-acceptance in the form of resistant internal complaints like: “This is an embarrassing, terrible, horrible, no good, very bad disaster and it shouldn’t be like this!”
- Label the feelings that come from these non-accepting thoughts. Rage, irritation, frustration, and agitation are common emotions when you’re resisting something.
- Notice how the frustration is showing up as sensations in your body. Are you holding tension in any muscles? Take another deep breath and consciously release any clenched muscles as you extend your exhale as long as you can.
- Allow the benevolent and friendly “witness” part of your awareness to acknowledge and make space for your internal experience exactly as it is. Direct compassion and validation toward these thoughts, feelings, and sensations.
- Consciously decide to accept reality. Imagine you’re standing at the intersection of two roads, one leading to acceptance and one to non-acceptance. Intentionally and willingly turn toward the road to acceptance.
- Focus on the facts of the situation, not the story you’re telling yourself about those facts. Accept that this moment is happening because of millions of tiny decisions and happenings that came before it, whether or not you know what they are.
- Use mantras and self-talk. Explain to yourself: “I don’t like what’s happening, but I accept that it is, in fact, happening. Instead of insisting that it shouldn’t be happening this way, I will choose to respond constructively.” Or repeat a single sentence to yourself: “I have no control over other people.” “This is a hard moment. I have survived hard things before and I can survive this.” “There’s nothing I can do to change the past.”
For the next 30-90 days use these 7 steps as often as you can. Notice any changes in your relationship with yourself, your child, or the challenging circumstances you find yourself in. Let me know how it goes!
Move toward growth and progression rather than getting stuck in a spiral of clinging to the past or ruminating on things you can’t change.
You have thousands of opportunities every day to practice turning toward the road of acceptance. Letting go of the struggle and allowing yourself to experience difficult feelings can lead you to a feeling of groundedness that actually increases your bandwidth for parenting, and builds your ability to survive the difficult parenting moments to come.
When you accept yourself just as you are, your child just as they are, and a situation exactly as it is, you can see the reality of what you’re dealing with. You can move toward growth and progression rather than getting stuck in a spiral of clinging to the past or ruminating on things you can’t change. You can intentionally choose thoughts, words, and actions that improve the situation—or at least don’t make things worse. You can plan proactively for what you’ll do in the same situation in the future to make things less frustrating for both you and your child.
Being a parent means you’ll sometimes be overcome by your anger, fear, or helplessness. Practicing radical acceptance is a powerful way to cope during these challenging parenting moments. You’ll have a better chance of reducing your suffering and learning from the challenging nature of the situation. You’re able to turn down the volume of difficult emotions, and there’s more internal room for you to connect to yourself, to others, and to the present moment. So as long as no one’s life is in immediate danger, embrace your family’s chaos—the good, the bad, and the ugly. Don’t fight it—instead, breathe deeply, and lean in! When you accept and embrace what is, life becomes less stressful, and you have the potential to experience so much more joy!