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Going With the Flow – Radical Acceptance

Life can be busy and stressful and sometimes we are faced with situations and problems we are unhappy about. What do we do with these unwanted circumstances? Can we change them? How can we cope with situations that we can’t change?


Dialectical Behaviour Therapy outlines four different options that are available to us when we have a problem. One option is to try and solve the problem. See if there are solutions available to resolve the situation, keeping in mind that not all solutions are always ideal. It’s often because we can’t find an ideal solution that we feel stuck in the problem. Be open to trying solutions, even if it doesn’t resolve the situation perfectly.   A second option is to try to change your perception of the problem. Perhaps the issue is that your roommate often forgets to take out the garbage. You could try to change your perception of the problem by thinking about it as a way to practice patience. A third option is to stay miserable about the problem. You might disregard this option, but people often choose this without realizing it. If you find yourself staying upset about a problem, maybe try asking yourself what values do you feel are at stake with this situation? Usually we stay miserable as a way to honor those values when we don’t feel we can do anything about it or don’t wish to try to solve it.


The fourth option is one that many people struggle with: acceptance. Acceptance means you stop wrestling with the situation and allow it to be as it is. This option is useful when there is no solution to the problem, it’s not possible to change your perception, and you’re tired of being miserable. You will be able to accept a situation more easily when you recognize that an alternative solution is not available. It’s important to know that acceptance does not mean that you like what is happening or approve of it. It means that you are aware that fighting it isn’t helping to change anything.


Consider the analogy of swimming and getting caught in a rip-current. If you’ve ever swam in a large body of water, you may be familiar with what is called a rip-current, or an undercurrent. This is a narrow section of water where the current runs away from the shore, in the opposite direction of the rest of the water. Sometimes swimmers get caught in these rip-currents and get pulled out further into the sea. It can be a very alarming and scary experience to be caught in one of these currents. Often, the automatic response of the swimmer is to start swimming against the current, towards the shore. However, the current is stronger than the swimmer, and therefore, many people will exhaust themselves and drown by trying to fight against the current.


Therefore, it’s important not to fight against the current if you’re caught in one. Rather, swimmers are advised to swim parallel to the shore, if possible, or drift along with the current until the current ends. At that point, one can swim towards the shore. In this situation, the swimmer is working with the current, rather than against it.


This analogy is important to understand acceptance. When we are faced with a situation that is unchangeable, to fight against it is to exhaust oneself, and possibly “drown” in the situation, emotionally and physically. Acceptance means to acknowledge the situation for what it is and to allow it to be as it is. Next time you think about acceptance, consider the concept of “flow”, moving and working with the movement of the situation, rather than fighting it.


Karla Reimer, MA specializes in the areas of grief, couples work, addictions and emotional regulation as well as many others. For more information on Karla, her work, or other articles she’s written for Living Well click here to link to her full bio page.