What is Radical Acceptance and How Can We Apply It to Health and Fitness?

Haley
What is Radical Acceptance and How Can We Apply It to Health and Fitness?

“Whenever we reject a part of our being, we are confirming to ourselves our fundamental unworthiness.”
-Tara Brach, Author of Radical Acceptance: Embracing Your Life With The Heart of a Buddha

Feeling unworthy or ashamed of ourselves is a powerful inhibitor to living well as humans. Many aspects of the fitness industry profit off of these feelings of unworthiness; if we reject and/or buy into the idea that our bodies should be different, then we will continue to seek out (often through purchasing goods and services) means to change our bodies. Pause for a moment and imagine what life would be like if you could let go of the idea that you should be, or wish to be, anyone or anything different than who you are in this exact moment.

Interesting, right? Well, this kind of thinking is actually a tool widely used in newer cognitive therapies like Dialectical Behavioral Therapy (DBT) and Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) (Linehan, 2015). It is called “radical acceptance” and involves an absolute acceptance of our current reality (in any given moment) with all our body, mind, and spirit. At its core, this concept suggests that if we resist, reject, or shut out our inevitable pain, we only increase and intensify the experience of that pain (Brach, 2004). This can be incredibly difficult for so many of us, as we have learned along the way that the pain or discomfort signals something is wrong. 

Within DBT, radical acceptance is one component of the larger strategic goal of distress tolerance (Linehan, 2015). Through radical acceptance, an individual’s mindset is able to shift from wanting relief from their distress toward tolerating that distress as this is a normal part of the human experience. In turn, this mindset shift enables individuals to engage in behaviors consistent with their goals and values (Weiss et al., 2013). This acceptance frees up some of the cognitive resources and gifts them with the ability to problem-solve and utilize their coping strategies effectively. 

We know that these are some complex concepts, but stick with us. There are some interesting applications of radical acceptance, including how we meet our health/fitness goals.

Misconceptions about Radical Acceptance
Many people are incredibly resistant when they first hear about this concept of acceptance. After all, doesn’t accepting our pain and faults mean we are okay with it? Doesn’t it mean we resign to the pain? 

Current research is incredibly clear—radical acceptance is NOT the approval of, love for, or passivity against changing our problems. It is simply the letting go of our fight with that reality. It isn’t the fact that we are stuck in traffic that causes us to feel angry and miserable, but rather our reactions to and fighting against the reality that we are in a traffic jam. We desperately want (or need) to be somewhere else, leading to a storm of emotions and questioning of everything that led up to this point. However, with radical acceptance, we can acknowledge that we are in a traffic jam and recognize the need to call our partner or boss and tell them we will be late. While we don’t approve of or like the situation we may be in, the acceptance of the world as it currently is helps us to take actions based on our current needs. 

Second, many people are afraid of having to accept the things we believe about ourselves as reality. If, for example, you believed “I’m unworthy,” that is not a fact about yourself, but rather a judgment. Separating facts from beliefs and judgment is critical for the successful practice of radical acceptance. We do not have to accept our judgments, only the facts.

Finally, similar to other psychology and health-related concepts, radical acceptance is not an outcome to be achieved, but rather a daily practice. This is incredibly difficult to sustain. However, the great thing about that practice is that it is already within our reach. We don’t have to achieve significant insight or get rid of any pain before we start practicing it. In fact, a great starting point is to accept the positive and/or neutral things in our lives. That way, we get to build our practice of radical acceptance in a low-stakes way. 

Application to Health/Fitness
When it comes to our daily wellness goals, radical acceptance can be a powerful tool for helping us to make positive decisions. For example, rather than fighting or denying our hunger, we can acknowledge and honor that hunger by listening to what our bodies need. It is when we reject that hunger, when we ignore our internal signals, that we become out of touch with our bodies. This can result in eating anything we can get our hands on or even doing physical damage to our bodies through starvation. By honoring hunger as it occurs, we can make decisions that serve us in that moment and long-term.

Similarly, we can practice radical acceptance when we are in a workout and want to be able to lift heavier or do one more rep, despite knowing in our bodies that we are at our limits. By acknowledging our limits as they occur within our workouts (and in life), we can set boundaries that enable us to keep a sustained workout practice over time. Remember those gentle requests to “listen to your body” from Kelli and Daniel? Related: How to "Listen to Your Body" During a Workout — When to Stop & When to Keep Pushing.

Usefulness of Radical Acceptance
While it is incredibly difficult to accept things that we don’t like or feel shame about, when people are able to practice radical acceptance, it has been shown to decrease all sorts of mental health concerns (McCracken et al., 2005). In particular, it can be helpful for the treatment of binge-eating disorder (Burton et al., 2020) and for chronic pain (McCracken et al., 2005; Weiss et al., 2013).

For folks with binge-eating disorder, for example, the practice of radical acceptance tends to reduce the urges to engage in binge-eating and mindless eating (Burton et al., 2020). The practice of radical acceptance allows people to acknowledge the situational factors that tend to trigger a binge, acknowledge and accept any urges, and finally make other decisions to cope with those urges. 

Additionally, for folks who experience chronic pain, the practice of radical acceptance shifts the focus away from only being able to think about the pain toward being able to acknowledge and problem-solve despite the pain. Radical acceptance frees up mental space to be able to engage in self-compassion and make decisions consistent with our goals (McCracken et al., 2005). People with chronic pain who practice radical acceptance and stop “fighting” against their pain report decreases in psychological distress, improvements in the functioning of their bodies, and general wellbeing (Viane et al., 2003), which can also lead to reductions in that pain. 

In conclusion, often the first step toward working through feeling stuck or unworthy is to acknowledge the reality of our current experience. I encourage you to pause, acknowledge your emotions, and accept your current reality right now. This simple (but difficult!) moment of reflection might be just what you need to be able to engage in behaviors that help you meet your goals!

Would you like to hear more about radical acceptance? We’re committed to providing as much solid, helpful content as possible, so let us know.

Written for Fitness Blender by Haley S, PhD
Licensed Psychologist

References

Brach, T. (2004). Radical acceptance: Embracing your life with the heart of a Buddha. Bantam.

Burton, E. T., Kamody, R. C., Pluhar, E. I., Gray, E., & Abdullah, S. (2020). Radical acceptance and obesity-related health conditions: A case report. Journal of Clinical Psychology in Medical Settings, 27, 217-225. 

Linehan, M. M. (2015). DBT skills training manual (2nd ed.). New York: Guilford Press.

McCracken, L. M., Vowels, K. E., & Eccleston, C. (2005). Acceptance-based treatment for persons with complex, long standing chronic pain: A preliminary analysis of treatment outcome in comparison to a waiting phase. Behavior Research and Therapy, 43, 1335-1346. 

Viane, I., Crombez, G., Eccleston, C., Poppe, C., Devulder, J., Van Houdenhove, B., & De Corte, W. (2003). Acceptance of pain is an independent predictor of mental well-being in patients with chronic pain: empirical evidence and reappraisal. Pain, 106(1-2), 65-72.

Weiss, K. E., Hahn, A., Wallace, D. P., Biggs, B., Burce, B. K., &  Harrison, T. E. (2013). Acceptance of pain: Associations with depression, catastrophizing, and functional disability among children and adolescents in an interdisciplinary chronic pain rehabilitation program. Journal of Pediatric Psychology, 38(7), 756-765.