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The Skill That Helped Me the Most With Borderline Personality Disorder

When I first heard about this thing called “radical acceptance,” I thought it had to do with accepting myself unconditionally. But I soon discovered it had nothing to do with that at all. Radical acceptance is one of the cornerstones of dialectical behavioral therapy (DBT) and it is the gold standard treatment for people diagnosed with borderline personality disorder (BPD). DBT works where most other treatment protocols have failed. Why? Because it teaches vital coping skills many of us with BPD never learned when we were growing up.

At first, I thought that practicing radical acceptance meant I had to agree with everything that had happened in my past. I thought practicing radical acceptance meant giving my approval for past events and/or traumas. I saw it as a way of excusing what had happened to me. But I learned that this thought could not be further from the truth.

Practicing radical acceptance means simply that I acknowledge the reality of what has happened or what is happening in the present moment. It means that instead of fighting the reality of the situation I accept it. It means that instead of passing a judgment on it, I accept it for what it is. That doesn’t mean I cannot work to change it, but I accept it so that I can stop wallowing in my misery and angst. It helps me curb my emotional response to whatever it is that is provoking me.

When I pass a judgment on a situation I am saying, “Why me? or “That’s not fair!” Pain is inevitable. Everyone experiences pain at various times in their lives. Pain is a fact of life but I believe suffering is optional. When I practice radical acceptance, I am saying I am not going to suffer because of what has occurred. It helps me stop victimizing myself.

This mindset applies in the case of losing a loved one. When my husband died, I was more able to accept his passing which subsequently allowed me to move on and focus on my grief and learning how to cope with it. It also allowed me to remember the sweet times I shared with him in a way that was very healing for me. It helped me process his passing in a productive and meaningful way and not become stuck in my grief.

Does radical acceptance mean that you just throw in the towel?

On the contrary, when I practice radical acceptance, I position myself in a unique way to be able to move toward change. Because it allows me to ask myself, “How can I change this situation?” radical acceptance leads me down the path toward active problem solving. That is because if I accept something and acknowledge I don’t like it, I can then start to look at the steps needed take in order to change it. It allows me to take my power back because instead of ranting and raving about something that I may or may not be able to change or fix, I have the tools to focus on what is needed to change it.

Having BPD and learning how to practice radical acceptance was the best way to start to learn how to modulate my feelings so that they became less intense and did not last as long. It helped reduce the fight or flight response. It was, by far, the most difficult DBT skill I had learn but, for me, the biggest benefit is that it allows me to put the kibosh on my almost instinctive “best defense is a good offense” coping mechanism — something I practiced for most of my life.

Practicing radical acceptance also helps me decrease the amount of time I spend brooding about problems I can’t solve immediately and it also helps decrease my emotional triggers to the situation I am being presented with.

How difficult is it?

I learned that learning how to practice radical acceptance was like learning anxiety-busting techniques. It was relatively easy to learn the nuts and bolts of how to do it, but it was far more difficult to master it. It took a lot of practice to really get the hang of it, but once I got there, I knew I never wanted to go back to my old way of being. It definitely felt strange and foreign at first. I just had to remember it was all about acknowledging my current reality. Today I see radical acceptance as going hand in hand with mindfulness, being in the moment and being present where I am.

Getty Images photo via PongMoji