DBT Stories: Radical Acceptance

Radical acceptance is the route to recovering from life’s inevitable blows. In other words, Pain happens.  But suffering is optional.  This is intrinsic to DBT.  

Essentially, it means that painful things will happen, how we respond to them makes all the difference.  When we fight reality, it hurts even more.  Radical Acceptance doesn’t mean condoning what’s happening.  We can still hate what is happening. 

Radical Acceptance means we are accepting reality as it is, allowing us to face the reality that we are in. Instead of being stuck wishing for things to be different.

House on Fire

‘Six months to the day since my last suicide attempt.’ Leila felt weirdly smug about this accomplishment. She had nearly succeeded. In therapy terms, “completed” the suicide. After six month of DBT,  once again, she was preparing for end of semester exams.  She felt proud of how well she was handling the stress this time.   There would be no broken vodka bottle.  No jabbing at her own arms with the shards.  Sometimes that felt like an entirely different life.  Or a different person. 

Driving home for some serious grading time, the stacks of essays in the backseat swayed slightly with each turn.  “Oh hell yeah!  I am on point with time management!”  She cheered herself on. 

Stopped at a red light, her cell phone rang and she glanced at the screen.  Her roommate.  She would be home soon enough. She didn’t pick it up.  But when her roommate rang a second and third time, Leila answered the phone.

“Leila, there was big fire.  The house burnt down.  The cats are okay.  But everything else is destroyed. No one is hurt.”

It felt like being in an elevator that drops too quickly, as though gravity had released her and then its force had surged adding massive weigh to her body. Or as though an ocean was stealing her breath and flooding her lungs. Her vision sharpened and zoomed out.  Her skin prickled and her mouth soured.  She spoke into the phone, “I am dissociating. I need to pull over.”  She watched herself hang up the phone and maneuver the car to the side of the road. 

Her thoughts scrolled past her like a news ticker.  “Skills, skills, I need skills.  Okay check the facts.  The house burned down.  My house. Our house.  Cats are safe. Everything I need to grade is in the car.” She wondered how it was the cats were safe.  How did her roommate know this?  How had the fire started?  What did it mean?  She would need to call back, but not yet. 

She gripped the steering wheel.  Breathing. Breathing.  Gentle inhale, and a prolonged exhale.  “In through the nose to the count of two, out through the mouth count of 4.”  And now the tears came. It was amazing how easily she let herself feel the grief.  Later she would tell her therapist, “A year ago, I would have just been angry and blaming everyone and then hating myself for being such a loser.  I would have been thinking, why do these things always happen to me!”  

But that wasn’t her experience today. In this moment, she said goodbye to her bed and her books and her clothes and her home.  And wondered where her cat was and how he was being kept safe.  But she wasn’t ready to call.  She could barely speak for sobbing.

For about fifteen minutes, her mind rambled around her room and the house and the idea of loss, while tears coated her face.  Slowly, she felt as though she was moving back into her body.  She kept repeating to herself that she was safe. And she could get through this.  The emotions broke over her, wave after wave until she just felt tired.

She thought of the zen koan “The Barn burnt down, now we can see the moon.” Hm. It wasn’t that there was some benefit to the house burning down.  She could not see a benefit, just a lot of logistical and nostalgic challenges. Yet there was a sense of seeing something more than her current misfortune.

She had finished crying.  She wiped her face with her t-shirt.  She sighed and thought, “This is radical acceptance.  This thing.  It has happened.  Now I need to figure out where I will spend the night.”  

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Diana is a licensed professional counselor based in Nashville. She has been teaching DBT skills for the last ten years after writing her master's thesis about making DBT skills training interesting and engaging. She loves using story telling to help illustrate how skills can be used.

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