Radical Acceptance - You're OK Today

Do you ever feel anxious because your life isn’t as you envisioned, or it doesn’t look as good as those Facebook posts of people celebrating the great moments of their lives? Do you have trouble feeling good about yourself and your life?

You’re not alone. It’s a big club.

I was on a meditation retreat some years ago, one of the teachers quoted Suzuki Roshi (founder of the San Francisco Zen Center) on the nature of enlightenment. He said, “Realization is imperfection without anxiety.”

Realization is imperfection without anxiety.

Those words struck me. They echo a theme I frequently come back to with a simplicity that I greatly admire.

In therapy, I often see people struggle to just accept themselves as they are, and liberate themselves from the gnawing feeling that they are not OK because they have unresolved issues, or unhealed grief or difficult life circumstances. Their lives aren’t perfect. I’m not diminishing the pain of those issues. But I’m suggesting we can learn to know we’re OK, even when we’re uncomfortable.

Truth is we’re not perfect. Our work isn’t perfect. Our relationships aren’t perfect. Our lives are just plain not perfect. Unfortunately, this is a very difficult truth for a lot of people.

I’ve been reading a book lately called Radical Acceptance by Tara Brach. In it, she quotes Mother Teresa, who after a life time of working with the poor and the sick said, “The biggest disease today is not leprosy or tuberculosis but rather the feeling of not belonging.” Brach offers the idea that in this society, self-acceptance is, indeed, a radical idea. I agree.

In therapy sessions, I frequently see people struggling to accept and love themselves, despite the imperfections in their lives. But what if it turns out to be true that we are fine right now, just the way we are, not in spite of our imperfections, but with them?

During the Holidays I was struck by the number of people who got grievously stressed because they felt they needed the holidays to be perfect and they couldn’t achieve that.

After all, perfection is not achievable.

Sure, many of us give great lip-service to the idea that we’re not perfect, while at the same time suffering the symptoms of some form of perfectionism, i.e., imperfection with anxiety.

Some people I talk to suggest that Radical Acceptance is a slippery slope. They view it as a form of resignation, or just accepting our limitations. I’ve heard people say that if they accept themselves, they’ll lose incentive to grow and improve their lives. None of that is true.

In her book Brach takes on the argument that acceptance is a form of resignation. She argues we can only begin to change when we accept ourselves as we are, and not exclude any aspect of ourselves from our gaze. We must look directly at the difficult aspects of our lives. Only then can we grasp what we want to change and move forward.

Nor does Radical Acceptance simply mean accepting our limitations with an “oh well” shrug. Radical Acceptance involves looking right at our limitations, without rebuke, and refusing to give in to the fear that we can’t grow and change. We fully honor our fears and anxiety about our perceived limitations. We accept ourselves, not in spite of them, but with them. Then we can engage the work of change and growth. Self acceptance does not offer an opportunity to withdraw, but to engage, even when we’re scared and the outcome is uncertain.

Before I went back to school to study psychology, I worked for newspapers as a journalist. During my last few years in that field, I really started to dislike newspaper journalism and hate my job. But I felt trapped, because I thought I had no other skills — stymied by my perceived limitations and unaware that I could use my skills for other endeavors. I later discovered that the skills that served me well as a journalist — the sense of inquiry, interviewing and communication skills, listening and discernment skills — were easily applicable to psychotherapy. My background as a journalist serves me very well as a therapist and I love doing psychotherapy.

Radical Acceptance is also not about passivity. I’ve heard people say that if we accept injustice, the pains and imperfections in our lives, then we lose the motivation for change. But when we experience the outrage of injustice or the grief of witnessing abhorrent behaviors, like child abuse or domestic violence, we can accept those feelings in ourselves, including our sense of hopelessness, and channel those feelings into a passion to effect change. When we see how our own behavior and and that of others create suffering or injustice, we can feel compelled to act for change. But first we have to accept the truth of those conditions.

For a long time I felt paralyzed by the enormity of the issues of child abuse and child sexual abuse. Early in my career I worked in a clinic that specialized in working with families where there had been sexual abuse. I felt helpless, faced with the enormity of this social malady. But as I learned to accept my despair, I also found a new passion to do what I could. So I went to work in child and adolescent crisis intervention for a period of time, worked with incarcerated teenagers, and in a psych facility for severely emotionally disturbed teens who had experienced severe abuse and trauma.

Now I have a private therapy practice where one of my specialties is helping people recover from childhood trauma.

It’s not perfect. But I’m learning to be OK with that. Radical Acceptance – self acceptance — is not a destination. It’s not something we achieve and then we’re done. I believe it’s a process that we engage that moves us forward toward healing and growth, towards a better appreciation of ourselves and our lives.

In her book, The Earth House, Jeanne Duprau writes eloquently about facing her fears, accepting her imperfections and learning to be OK in the midst of difficult times. It’s an on-going process that we must visit very day:

“And so I remind myself, as often as I must, which is quite often: hold still. Stay here. Put the groceries away, turn on the lights, get dinner ready. Try to remember: there is nothing to fear in this moment, and this is the only real moment there is,” she wrote. Later on she wrote: “Nobody who has tried it says this path is easy. It’s just better than the alternative...”

In other words, it’s not perfect. It’s never been perfect, and the chances are it’s not going to be perfect. The question is: can I be okay with that. Can you?

What if we all decided today that we’re okay the way we are — not in spite of our imperfection of our lives, but with the imperfection of our lives. What if we could accept our imperfection without anxiety and accept ourselves just the way we are in this moment. What would that be like? It’s worth contemplating.

If you’re struggling with anxiety, perfectionism, struggling to accept yourself, I’m here to help. And if you need help other with difficult issues, or you think it’s time to talk to a therapist, feel free to call me at (812) 371-6330, or email me at ken@insight-counseling.org.