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How ‘Radical Acceptance’ Builds a Bridge Between the Gulfs of Who I Am

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Editor's Note

If you struggle with self-harm or experience suicidal thoughts, the following post could be potentially triggering. You can contact the Crisis Text Line by texting “START” to 741741. For a list of ways to cope with self-harm urges, visit this resource.

This morning I journaled a really difficult, painful week. Instead of simply doing a recount of events, people, and problems, I decided to try to write from where the pain was really coming from. I took inspiration from a New York Times article on Marsha Linehan’s own personal experience of the most unbearable psychological pain caused by “the gulf between the person she wanted to be and the person she was [which] left her desperate, hopeless, deeply homesick for a life she would never know. That gulf was real, and unbridgeable.”

And this is what I came up with about my own 10 current gulfs which also left me desperate, hopeless, and desperately homesick for a life I don’t know:

1. The gulf between who I wanted to be and who I actually am.

2. The gulf between my vocation and my calling.

3. The gulf between the loving romantic relationship I wanted to be in and its absence.

4. The gulf between my gifts, personal magnetism, and my condemnation of my worth.

5. The gulf between my attractiveness and how deeply unattractive I feel.

6. The gulf between the strength of my feeling for others and the strength of their feeling for me.

7. The gulf between how easy things appear for others and how excruciating they are for me.

8. The gulf between the impact I want to have and the tepid response I get.

9. The gulf between the validation I am desperate for and the invalidation I have received in my past.

10. The gulf between how I appear and how I am.

Where does the gulf come from and how did it develop?

I can’t speak for others who experience such a gulf but for me, my answer is twofold. This past week, a message from my ex-boyfriend catapulted my gulfs back to the surface and made the pain overwhelm me. While the pain of a breakup is nothing to be messed with, the real source of the gulf between who I wish I was and who I feel I am goes much further back.

I have previously written about the sources of my unstable sense of self and abandonment. I believe the shameful invalidations from some of my childhood and my difficulty reconciling my gay and Christian identities certainly are at play here. They created defectiveness and shame at my very core at crucial developmental times. So as a young adult when setbacks happened, where my dreams were not immediately actualized, I reacted in a very all-or-nothing way, with all being the realization of my dreams and nothing being a pervasive sense of failure and the manifestation of my core gulf.

This setback interpretation and reaction led to my first episode of depression and undiagnosed borderline personality disorder (BPD). Much later, when I read about schema therapy, I immediately recognized the maladaptive core belief schema of unrelenting standards as being a further cause of the irreconcilable gulf. The gulf between what I wanted to achieve and had not achieved was severe and punitive — another maladaptive core belief.

The quotation from the movie “Magnolia” rings true: “We may be through with the past but the past ain’t through with us.”

What is the best way to treat the gulf?

It is no accident that Marsha Linehan designed a therapeutic technique for people who experience such gulfs rooted in her own experience while locked up in a secluded hospital unit, self-harming and wanting to die, so devastating was the gulf in her own life.

For me, the dialectical behavior therapy (DBT) skill that most directly addresses the gulf is radical acceptance. When I did DBT, it was the skill that I found the toughest but also had the most profound results unlocking the most breakthroughs. It went to the center of many of my wounds.

And with the gulf of imagined versus reality, it goes right into the wound’s core. Through skills such as turning the mind, letting go of past wrongs or devastations, and willingly coming into the now by accepting the present moment, the gulf between two states can be addressed. It is guaranteed to be painful, you may be kicking and screaming against accepting the now for what it is, not for what you wished it was. And you may also be kicking and screaming to let go of your idealized view of who you were in the past, or alternatively the past dream of what your current reality would be. You have to let go of how you imagined your life would turn out and accept that your life is a very worthy life as it is now, and even that it could get better.

Here is how I would apply radical acceptance to my current gulfs:

1. Gulf between who I want to be and who I actually am.

This is tough! I want to be more successful in my career. I want to suffer less and be less reactive. But who I currently am is a beautiful thing too.

2. Gulf between vocation and calling.

Certainly, there is a gulf between what I am currently doing and what I want to be doing. But let go of pity and take steps toward that calling in the now, even if it is tough in the beginning.

3. Gulf between a romantic relationship and being single.

It takes time to heal past hurts. And then, when ready, try again. It is still possible.

4. Gulf between gifts, talents, personal magnetism, and my condemnation of my worth.

Again, this is so tough to overcome that punitive self-critic. But give grace, be forgiving, focus on the affirmations of others, and do not discard them. Read them again. Accept all compliments. Challenge your punitive critic and expose him for the judge he is and the lack of evidence he uses.

5. Gulf between attractiveness and feeling unattractive.

Many people comment on this about me and yet I often look in the mirror and can’t connect with what I see. I also counter that we as a society focus too much on physical attractiveness. Again, accepting affirmations and compliments from others is crucial. See ourselves the way others see us.

6. Gulf between my feeling for others and their feeling for me.

This is classic BPD and can easily lead to splitting on loved ones if we are not self-aware. Again, we need to give people grace and the consideration that people’s depth of feeling for us may be as worthy as ours for them. Also, it is not a competition.

7. Gulf between things being easy for others but excruciating for me.

This is easy to dispel. How do we really know how things are for others when still in most societies we are discouraged from saying how we really are? And what about those who are desperately unhappy but cannot bear to be vulnerable with anyone? Most people are struggling.

8. Gulf between the impact I want to have and the tepid response I get.

Full disclosure: Sometimes I feel like this with my published Mighty articles. For a time, I will feel validated by the comments and likes but then other times I feel that if I had written and published a book, I would have had more impact. The solution is to keep writing for myself and keep doing whatever it is you love for everyone else.

9. Gulf between the validation I am desperate for and the invalidation in my past.

This needs radical acceptance. We must deal with our past invalidations, for sure, but then we also need to let go of them, to the extent we can and come into the present to open ourselves willingly to receive new validations.

10. Gulf between how I appear and how I am.

This is really difficult and not limited to BPD. The way we present a good, happy, brave face to others versus the deep pain we are in privately. I still really struggle with this. In fact, when I was in the hospital recently, I was told I was always so perky, which showed me I still have this gulf. The main solution is to try and show more how we really are or answer really honestly when someone asks how you are or how your day has been, especially if they are wanting to genuinely know.

Photo by Darius Bashar on Unsplash

Originally published: October 7, 2021
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