Radical acceptance

Free yourself from the tentacles of pain with radical acceptance | Aeon  Essays
Photo by Paolo Pellegrin/Magnum

The painful feelings you avoid grow twisted in the dark. By facing your sorrows and struggles you can take back your life

Joshua Coleman is a psychologist in private practice and senior fellow with the Council on Contemporary Families. His books include The Marriage Makeover (2004), The Lazy Husband (2005), When Parents Hurt (2007) and Rules of Estrangement (2021).

Edited by Pam Weintraub

Terrible things can happen. You get diagnosed with an incurable disease. Your accident changes your ability to do the activities that made life fun and meaningful. Your spouse decides that they want someone else. Even if you’re lucky enough to avoid huge life-changing events, you’re going to be faced with disappointments, hurts or humiliations that require you to make sense of the many ways that existence can be painful.

The inevitability of suffering is written into every aspect of our shared past. It has preoccupied philosophers such as Aristotle, Socrates, the Stoics, the Epicureans and the Cynics. Religious leaders have instructed the faithful in the meaning of suffering since humans first conceived of spirits or gods. The belief that our interpretation of events determines our experience of pain was seen in the writings of the 7th-century Buddhist Dharmakīrti and the 11th-century Islamic polymath Ibn al-Haytham. The universality of suffering is made palpable through works of art such as Michelangelo’s unfinished sculpture the Rondanini Pietà (1552-64), or J S Bach’s Chaconne in D Minor (c1710s-20s), to name only a few.

Despite all of that accumulated wisdom and perspective, I am still at a loss for what to say to some of my friends or clients in pain. There isn’t a new body for the woman diagnosed with Stage 4 ovarian cancer. No new spine for my friend who had a severe spinal cord injury from a skiing accident. There are also no straightforward solutions for the parents whose adult children no longer want them in their lives – an area in which I’ve been specialising for the past 15 of my 40 years as a psychologist. It’s not uncommon for such people to ask: ‘Will I die alone in a hospital bed with no children or grandchildren to comfort me? Who will bury me? Will my children even miss me once I’m gone?’

Nobody trained me for these questions, and I’m sure I responded clumsily and ineffectually in the first few years when I began to be flooded with referrals after writing my first book on estrangement, When Parents Hurt (2007). But after working with so many estranged parents over the past 15 years and doing my own research through the University of Wisconsin Survey Center, summarised in my new book Rules of Estrangement (2021), I slowly discovered something important: the more we try to evade or avoid painful realities, the more entangled we become in the tentacles of their embrace.

I found guidance in the research of the psychologist Marsha Linehan, the founder of dialectical behaviour therapy. ‘The path out of hell is through misery,’ Linehan wrote. ‘By refusing to accept the misery that is part of climbing out of hell, you fall back into hell.’ The path out of hell is through misery. What’s that supposed to mean? It means that you have to start by ‘radically accepting’ where you are right now. Radical acceptance means that you don’t fight what you’re feeling in this moment. You feel sad? Feel sad. Don’t judge it, don’t push it away, don’t diminish it, and don’t try to control its passage. Turn toward the feeling rather than turning away from it.

I learnt this lesson the hard way. Part of my interest in estrangement started with my own daughter cutting off contact with me for several years in her early 20s. I had been divorced from her mother for some time, but eventually remarried and had more children, an act that caused her to feel displaced in ways that I hadn’t fully understood until she was an adult. During those terrible years of my estrangement, I found myself daily rehearsing every parental mistake I’d ever made. Tender memories that had seemed impervious to revision became infested with doubt and self-criticism. The times when I knew that I’d been far from my best parenting self were thrust into a torturous spin cycle of ‘If only I hadn’t said that, done that, written that.’ At some point, instead of continuing down this path I thought: ‘Your daughter might never talk to you again. Ever. Last time you saw her? That might be the last time you’ll ever see her. You’re going to have to accept that.’ It wasn’t a harsh or critical voice – more like wise counsel from some censored part of me. And the allowance of that gloomy reality was oddly, paradoxically, reassuring. It helped me to stop fighting something that wasn’t changing. It freed me to be more open to facing the ways that I’d let her down, an act that led to our eventual and blessed reconciliation…

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