Radical acceptance allows us to see ourself and the situation we are in as we/it truly is so we can live life to the fullest. Rather than avoid situations that may trigger difficult emotions, distress tolerance increases confidence and self-esteem. As we learn to manage challenging emotions, we discover a reservoir of inner strength, and our enthusiasm for life is restored.
While it is wise to try to anticipate and avoid difficult situations, despite our best efforts life will inevitably throw us a curve ball – an unexpected and/or unwanted situation that is impossible to avoid.
Many people who have unpleasant experiences develop beliefs about themselves that cause them to use avoidance as a coping mechanism. While it may reduce anxiety in the short term, in the long term avoidance increases fear and anxiety, and causes self confidence to plummet.
To say that Mary feels really uncomfortable in unfamiliar social situations is a huge understatement. Mary’s interpretation of previous experiences that didn’t go well have left her convinced that she is “unfit” to be in most new social situations. Thoughts like “I suck at this!”, “Nobody here is interested in me”, and “Why do I bother?” sabotage Mary’s confidence.
Mary manages her anxiety by going to extreme lengths to avoid feeling out of control in social situations, such as calling in sick, making up excuses, or declining invitations. She’ll do anything to avoid the experience of racing thoughts, pulsing heart, cold sweat, and the feeling that the walls are closing in on her.
Mary’s closest friends reinforce her avoidance behaviours by doing everything they can to keep her out of control emotions at bay. When Mary’s emotions do arise, she is accustomed to hearing the following messages:
“Forget about it!” = Emotions are bad – ignore them.
“Don’t dwell on it” = Feeling what you feel is a bad idea.
“Act tough” = Emotions make you look weak
“Put on a happy face” = It’s not ok to have difficult emotions – replace them with more acceptable emotions.
“Have a beer, it’ll pass” = Use substance to numb emotions.
“Let’s go home” = Remove yourself from situations in which difficult emotions arise.
“It’s Sally’s fault!”= Other people are responsible for my difficult emotions.
All these messages amount to avoidance because they hamper our ability to acknowledge and respond effectively to difficult emotions.
When we manage our world with avoidance, hypervigilance, or chronic efforts to avoid emotional triggers, results, and our ability to experience pleasurable emotions is also compromised.
With Dialectical Behaviour Therapy (DBT) the focus is to address emotional sensitivity and reactivity with radical acceptance. Rather than avoid difficult emotions by distracting, fighting, numbing, obsessively problem solving, or blaming, we learn to manage our emotions with distress tolerance and mindfulness skills.
Using Radical Acceptance, Mary can:
- Focus on the present moment
- Acknowledge and let go of the past.
- Recognize what she can and cannot control.
Distress Tolerance can help Mary to:
- Manage difficult emotions with strategies like “TIP” – change body temperature, practice interval breathing, and paired muscle relaxation.
- See that the more she practices distress tolerance, the less anxiety she feels.
- Increase her confidence and self-esteem
With Mindfulness skills, Mary can:
- Recognize judgements, interpretations, and reactions
- Become more curious, trusting and compassionate with herself.
- Become more flexible in her responses.
Avoding difficult emotions, and the people, situations, and behaviours that trigger them only undermine self confidence and heighten anxiety. Radical acceptance and mindfulness help us to stay in the now, and recognize what we can and cannot control. When combined with distress tolerance skills, DBT can help individuals move past debilitating coping strategies, and discover their true potential.