DBT Distress Tolerance: Mindfulness and Radical Acceptance

Radical acceptance is a DBT distress tolerance skill that relies on mindfulness to help us accept the reality of situations and experiences we can’t change. And when we’re able to accept reality, although we still may feel some pain, we reduce our suffering.

Mindfulness and Radical Acceptance in DBT

This transcription was auto-generated by YouTube. I’ve only added minimal editing, so I apologize for any errors, run-on sentences, etc.

When we talk about acceptance in the context of mindfulness, what we mean is a need to accept those things that are outside of our control, the way that they are in the present moment. This includes external things outside of our control: things going on in the world around us; past events and things that have already happened; other people’s actions and behavior. We also need to accept our internal experiences: feelings and emotions, spontaneous thoughts and memories that arise, and certain types of pain and body sensations.

The reason we need to accept these things is because they’re outside of our control. And so there’s nothing we can do to change them. So we have two choices: accept them the way that they are; or to struggle with them and resist them, or get angry or frustrated or annoyed by them, and fight against them in a battle we have no chance of winning and end up making things even harder on ourselves. And so acceptance is a way of limiting the negative impact or effect of any unpleasant experiences we have that are outside of our control.

In an earlier video we looked at the parable of the two arrows and how the way we react to our negative experiences often ends up making things worse:

When touched with a feeling of pain the untrained person sorrows grieves and laments beats their breasts and becomes distraught. And so they feel two pains. Just as if they were to shoot someone with an arrow and then right afterwards were to shoot them with a second arrow so that they would feel the pain of two arrows. The first arrow causes us pain, and the second arrow causes us to suffer.

Now that first arrow isn’t something we can avoid. If we can accept the fact that we’ve been struck by that first arrow, our acceptance acts as a shield that protects us from being hit by that second arrow. And so our acceptance inoculates us from the suffering that that second arrow can cause.

And it’s important to realize that acceptance is different than resignation. Resignation means giving up. You’re resigning yourself to the way things are without any hope that they’ll ever be different. You’ll tolerate them but you’re not happy about it, and you wish things didn’t have to be this way. People resign themselves to all sorts of things, being stuck in a job that they hate, or in an unfulfilling relationship. Some people even resign themselves to the fact that they could never be happy again.

But acceptance isn’t like this. Acceptance doesn’t mean giving up. It isn’t the loss of hope or resigning yourself to things. Acceptance is simply the willingness to see things the way that they actually are, whether we’re accepting our internal experiences of thoughts feelings and emotions and body sensations, or accepting our external experiences and the things going on around us. Acceptance is simply an acknowledgement of how things are in this particular moment in time. It says nothing about how things are destined to be in the future, only that this is how things are right now.

By accepting things that are outside of our control we limit the impact they have on us, as we experience them only as they are without making them any stronger or adding any additional layers as we would if we refuse to accept them and tried to fight with them instead. And so once we learn to accept our experience in the present moment, whatever it is, even if it’s something we don’t like or that we wished we didn’t have to accept, our acceptance of what we can’t change, at least not in this moment, tends to make even our unpleasant experiences more manageable, more tolerable and can often lead them to subside. Now acceptance, especially of things that are unpleasant can be difficult and so in the next video we’ll learn how to practice acceptance by allowing and letting be.

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