“What do you mean I have to accept that this happened!? Why do I have to accept it and move on when they won’t even acknowledge the stress they’ve caused? I didn’t ask for this!”
The above quote, or some variation of the sort rings at a high volume throughout any psychotherapeutic milieu, particularly with those healing from traumatic stress. And it’s almost always a speed bump in the initial exploration of the fact that although we do not cause most of our problems in life, we are still 100% responsible for solving them if we wish to do so. When discussing acceptance with those who’ve endured pain and suffering due to the actions of others, it is often misinterpreted as needing to approve of those actions and the ensuing circumstances. This can become a rather large roadblock to clients gaining a more adaptive sense of how their experiences have shaped them.
Denying reality and all its unpleasant facts only causes us to try and enact change on circumstances that don’t objectively exist, hence nothing actually changing. And this is muddy water in which to be stuck, as the “woulda, coulda, shoulda” statements cycle through our narrative. From what we know about the brain through modern neuroscience, there isn’t much difference, if any at all, between imagination and actual experience when it comes to how those mental formations drive secondary emotions, and further illusory story telling by the ego. So, spending time in an imaginary space thinking of a different version of the past trying to avoid pain, gradually causes us to respond to that information as if it is real. This makes it even easier to feel disconnected from the world, further driving pre-existing anxiety and despair.
Radical acceptance is an element of the distress tolerance module from Dialectical Behavioral Therapy (DBT), which has evolved over the years to include more trauma informed approaches to complex PTSD and what we negatively connotate as personality disorders. Two of the biggest pillars of DBT are balancing acceptance with change and tolerating multiple opposing realities that don’t cancel each other out. Marsha Linehan, the main pioneer in the fusion of a psychodynamic worldview, cognitive behavioral principles, and Eastern spiritual elements to create DBT, claims herself that the missing ingredient to getting the most out of life is radical acceptance. This means to accept all the way, completely and totally. When it is said that the mind, heart, and body must accept reality, this is where it can get complicated. Because radical acceptance is a practice, not just a conscious decision. It’s not enough to simply state that you accept a circumstance, you must process reality to accept it. And that process is a happening, not just an intangible thought.
EMDR Therapy Processing and Radical Acceptance Overlap
Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) provides scientific basis and protocol for assisting in radical acceptance, and shines light on one of the areas that modern psychology and principles of Buddhism overlap. When we process the things that happen, the experience first enters a part of your brain in fragments – the 5 senses, visceral manifestation in the body, emotions present, and the beginning of the established meaning of that experience. Typically, that information is encoded in a different geographical region in the brain focused on long term memory containing various files to be implicitly used in navigating future experiences and adding to the story of “us”. When the brain is only concerned with survival, it has little to no need for indexing our experiences in the form of a story. Then again, the story can’t be told if the organism isn’t alive to tell it. But it’s the sense of the experience being in the past that allows us to acknowledge that the present is a different reality. So, when trauma keeps those fragments stuck before they can be time stamped by the other parts of the brain, it becomes evident how easy it can be to spend time ruminating about the what ifs.
It’s difficult to feel connected to the present when your perceptual landscape includes an illusion that certain felt emotions and behaviors by others are still occurring. Technically, the mind is playing a trick to ensure survival but prevents moving forward in an adaptive way. If you’ve fully processed an experience, it has been received and accepted by the nervous system, so efforts to engage with life will be made based off a clearer sense of the current reality, not as clouded by the perception of the past. EMDR helps rewrite the brain’s coding to essentially have an acceptance of reality and prevent future situations from getting stuck in the same manner.
Imagining different past scenarios where things may have seemed like they’d turn out better is a thought process that is missing a much bigger picture – that nothing is without influence from what is decided immediately beforehand. Everything from the big decisions like where you attend college, to smaller ones like deciding to run back into a store to grab 1 more item, can have drastic influence on the events that follow. When we are in the present thinking of how something years ago would have led to a different reality, we’re ignoring every single occurrence that may have differed and created many unseen forks in the road. It’s an impossible feat to figure out exactly where you’d be if you had only said or done something different. The constant act of letting go is often practiced at wellness retreats and monasteries through being assigned various odd jobs like sweeping the floor or dusting the windows for a given time. Instructors at these retreats insist that if the bell rings and you’re mid sweep of a broom, to just drop it to the floor and move to the next task. The daily practice of such can stack up and build a much stronger ability to shift attention, handle changing environments, and be of more efficient service. You can search for radical acceptance focused guided meditations, practice mindfulness meditation to apprehend an enriched sense of the present, or move task to task in as much of a clean break from one to the next as possible.
Finding a way to allow practices of radical acceptance and letting go into your life can lead you to a future of self love, transformation and fulfillment.
Reach out for help today if you are not sure how to start your healing journey.
Sean O'Connor is a licensed mental health counselor (LMHC) at Peaceful Living Mental Health Counseling in Scarsdale, NY.
Sean helps adults and athletes overcome anger, anxiety, stress and trauma and feel focused and empowered again.
He practices a combination of several evidence based therapies, including, EMDR Therapy for Trauma & Sports Performance, Dialectical Behavioral Therapy (DBT) for emotion regulation, Mindfulness and Meditative Science, and Neurofeedback