Saturday, 18 October 2014

What is RADICAL About Acceptance?


One of the hardest things to do is to stand still. 'Traffic Lights' and 'Statues' are two childhood games based on the skills needed to do just that, physically. How much harder though is the emotional or psychological need to stop thinking and worrying about things that have either already happened or may never happen?

After years of constant striving to escape my internal struggles, I have found myself living through a hiatus lasting more than two years to date. During this time I have had to learn to be patient, to wait, without any assurance of 'having a plan'. Who said I had to always have a five year plan anyway? Acceptance has become a necessary skill.

I have had to accept a diagnosis that seemed to tell me there was something fundamentally wrong with who I am. I don't think this is what is intended by the professionals who work within the restraints of diagnosing emotionally sensitive people. I think this is because the condition I suffer from is too complex for simple labels. I have a good understanding of what it means to live with BPD (Borderline Personality Disorder), but it seems to be exceptionally difficult to make it understandable to those around me. What I have had to learn to do is to accept regardless of the label placed on it, I struggle with symptoms which mean that I am unable to sustain the levels of achievement I have aspired to all my life. Despite outward appearances to the contrary.

Seen simply I have achieved a lot. Three completed degree courses with the accompanying professional status conferred by them. Trained, qualified and experienced Teacher and Probation Officer. A former successful competitive swimmer. Since the age of 13 until the age of 45 I have had a job. I have even managed to work for considerable numbers of years in challenging careers. On the surface, I have been exceptionally successful within those professional spheres - until my emotional and psychological instability (undiagnosed for over forty years) would cause me to come to a sudden halt. What is not so obvious is the cycles of breakdown and recovery during which I have managed to achieve these things.

I am now learning, in my current period of recovery, to accept, that even though I am capable of achieving a reasonable level of responsibility and income from any job I take on, I need to consider sustainability, given my diagnosis. In other words I need to accept that I am limited not in terms of ability, but in terms of sustainability, if I keep trying to achieve to the extent of my abilities. Instead of stretching myself to my limits, I need to accept that I have to work well within them, if I am to be able to maintain any level of stability in my working life.

Above all, I need to accept that I struggle with things in life that most other people don't have to even consider. It has taken me some time to realise this.

I am an exceptionally determined person, I have needed to be. For a long time when I was introduced to the Radical Acceptance skills in DBT (Dialectical Behaviour Therapy) I believed that to accept the limits of my BPD was to stop fighting it - to give up - to surrender. Given what I have battled all my life, this felt like admitting defeat. However, my way of fighting clearly had not worked over a lifetime of trying. In using acceptance I have been able to stop putting my energy into trying to achieve things that were impossible for me to achieve.

Acceptance means admitting that there are things in life that I am powerless to change or affect. It may seem crystal clear in the cold light of day, that there is nothing I can do to change the past and there is nothing I can do to affect the outcome of the future. However, in my behaviour and what I call 'paralysis of thought', I spent most of my life trying to relive and undo the past, or trying to predict and control the future, in the process, spending any emotional assets I possessed so I was unable to enjoy the present.

What is so radical about this acceptance? I don't know what the clinical explanation of radical acceptance is, but I do know that this level of acceptance of reality is radical in terms of its impact on my mind and feelings. As with all the DBT skills I need to keep coming back again and again to remind myself to stop fighting in the old ways and to become more familiar with using my new skills.

I have been familiar with the story of Don Quixote and the idea of 'tilting at windmills' for a long time. It is only recently that I have realised most of my energies were taken up with battling against things that only I perceived as injustices as well as real, but unwinnable battles against wrongs done to me and others. In learning DBT skills I have been able to refresh my understanding of the Serenity Prayer. It reminds me to accept my limits and learn that life doesn't always have to involve strife to make me feel 'alive'. I can learn to give up battles against unbeatable foes, so that I can begin to enjoy winning the war against my emotions. I used to believe that it was good to struggle, because it showed I was still living - still 'kicking'.

'Kicking against the pricks' is a saying which comes from the fact that in Roman times some harnesses for horses contained sharp pointed pieces called goads or pricks, which were designed to keep the horses in line. When horses kicked against them too much they could cause themselves injury.


Wisdom, for me is knowing when battling, struggling and kicking against the difficulties of life is going cause me too much pain and injury. Acceptance is learning what is wise for me to put my energies into, so that life is less about struggle and more about meaning and purpose. If I can accept that it's ok sometimes to feel pain, it's ok sometimes to be sad, it's ok to be me and it's ok for the moment, not to do anything other than enjoy what can be enjoyed in the here and now, then I am somewhere along the road to living a radically different life to the one I lived before.