Distress Tolerance and Radical Acceptance

I feel it’s time to continue discussing DBT and what it looks like to use the tools that it has to offer.  I’ve discussed the topics of Gnosticism and logical fallacies in an attempt to explore two of the primary road blocks why Christians often fear dipping their toes in the therapeutic waters.  While it is true that the human condition has often been pathologized in order to diagnose and medicate following a medical model in many cases, too many people overly spiritualize their trauma and mental health issues which, in turn, hinders them from getting the appropriate help resulting in unnecessary and longterm suffering.  We needn’t be afraid to pursue help from mental health clinicians.  We just need to be wise.  We are careful about who does our taxes.  Not all accountants are good.  It is the same with mental health practitioners, cardiologists, gynecologists, pediatricians, and podiatrists.

On to DBT…

Dialectical Behavior Therapy is comprised of many tools, and the first tool that I am reading about in the Dialectical Behavior Therapy Skills Workbook is distress tolerance.  Increasing distress tolerance starts with radical acceptance.  What does this mean?

“Often, when a person is in pain, his or her first reaction is to get angry or upset or to blame someone for causing the pain in the first place.  But unfortunately, no matter who you blame for your distress, your pain still exists and you continue to suffer.  In fact, in some cases, the angrier you get, the worse your pain will feel.  Getting angry or upset over a situation also stops you from seeing what is really happening.  Have you ever heard the expression ‘blinded by rage’? This often happens to people with overwhelming emotions.  Criticizing yourself all the time or being overly judgmental of a situation is like wearing dark sunglasses indoors.  By doing this, you’re missing the details and not seeing everything as it really is.  By getting angry and thinking that a situation should never have happened, you’re missing the point that it did happen and that you have to deal with it.  Being overly critical about  a situation prevents you from taking steps to change that situation.  You can’t change the past.  And if you spend your time fighting the past–wishfully thinking that your anger will change the outcome of an event that has already happened–you’ll become paralyzed and helpless.  Then, nothing will improve…So, what else can you do? The other option, which radical acceptance suggests, is to acknowledge your present situation, whatever it is, without judging the events or criticizing yourself.  Instead, try to recognize that your present situation exists because of a long chain of events that began far in the past…Denying this chain of events does nothing to change what has already happened.  Trying to fight the moment or say that it shouldn’t be only leads to more suffering for you.  Radical acceptance means looking at yourself and the situation and seeing it as it really is….Keep in mind that radical acceptance does not mean that you condone or agree with bad behavior in others.  But it does mean that you stop trying to change what’s happened by getting angry and blaming the situation.  For example, if you’re in an abusive relationship and you need to get out, then get out.  Don’t waste your time and continue to suffer by blaming yourself or the other person.  That won’t help.  Refocus your attention on what you can do now.  This will allow you to think more clearly and figure out a better way to cope with your suffering.” (The Dialectical Behavior Therapy Skills Workbook 10-11)

I was stopped in my tracks when I read this passage a few weeks ago.  I read it after writing a post on living a lifestyle of acceptance.  I can’t speak for anyone else, but the idea of radical acceptance is positively foreign.  It is not in my nature.  Me? I fight.  I don’t fight people.  I fight myself.  It’s how I’ve survived.  If I see something in my circumstances that needs to be changed, then I focus on it like a laser until it’s different.  I accept nothing.  I forge ahead.  Never stop.  Always, always, always keep moving.  Never give up.  Never, never, never.  But, then, this is not what the passage is saying.  It is telling us not to judge and criticize ourselves and others.  Stop looking back and saying, “It shouldn’t be this way.  How did I get here? Why is it like this?” And, I have to admit, I have been doing that.

So, what does radical acceptance look like then?

How is it done? Well, there are coping statements that one can use, and the workbook has a suggested list.

  1. All the events have led up to now.
  2. I can’t change what’s happened already.
  3. Fighting the past only blinds me to my present.
  4. The present is the only moment I have control over.
  5. It’s a waste of time to fight what’s already occurred.
  6. The present moment is here, even if I don’t like what’s happening.
  7. This moment is exactly as it should be, given what’s happened before it.
  8. This moment is the result of over a million other decisions.

You have an opportunity to write your own.  I wrote this:

  • I can change my future, but I must accept the present.

I don’t like to feel stuck in the moment.  So, my statement has to have some sense of empowerment.

The authors of the workbook provided an exercise in which we were to practice not being judgmental or critical.  They are:

  1. Read a controversial story in the newspaper without being judgmental about what happened.
  2. The next time you get caught in heavy traffic, wait without being critical.
  3. Watch the world news on TV without being critical of what’s happening.
  4. Listen to a news story or a political commentary on the radio without being judgmental.
  5. Review a non-upsetting event that happened in your life many years ago, and use radical acceptance to remember the event without judging it.

Radical acceptance is the first tool used in distress tolerance.

We humans are resilient.  I encourage you to begin the practice of radical acceptance.  Don’t be afraid to discover what lies beneath your own criticisms and judgments.  Allow yourself to feel.  It’s an act of self-love.  Once we are able to nurture ourselves in this way we are finally able to offer that nurturing to others.  Loving ourselves is part of how we learn to love others, and that is indeed part of every person’s destiny.

2 Comments on “Distress Tolerance and Radical Acceptance

  1. Hey You!.. still working on my reply to The Borderline Church ..your post was so rich..my head popped.. actually my response has a lot of theology in it ..so I cant just blast it out there..Anyways..good stuff going on here.. You have a beautiful mind..seriously..I love to follow your thoughts and reasonings.. It’s not a typical
    garden variety brain u have my dear.. I know u know that.. but damn it sometimes it’s good to hear someone else say it… I want to share this with you.. I think it is very cool.. even if you don’t agree..I think it is a fascinating thought..

    I was teaching on.. people who have a “greif story”.. how the damn thing gets repeated over and over and sometimes sprouts legs and all kinds of shit..depending on who you are telling it to.

    I was encouraging my hearers to turn that old victim story into a victory story.. It may be very painful but one must re visit the scene of the grief story.. and using various tools..develop a few different perspectives on the original story

    I hate Bob Dylan..I know..thats a little strong..He is a self admitted pouser ..however, his last 4 CD’s are incredible..now that his crappy voice really sucks..he ruins all his old songs my doing new arrangements..they sucked anyways.. He did a huge interview in Rolling Stone in March.(yea that old “rag” is still around) where he dropped my all time favorite quote. He was talking about how Bob Dylan has been transfigured…and the guy who wrote “Like a rolling stone” and all those hits is dead..Bob Dylan is saying yea..man..THAT Bob Dylan is Dead.. The interviewer is a complete dolt and doesn’t get it .. asking Bod to elaborate Dylan says…

    “You can’t change the present or the future… all you can change is the past… We do it all the time.”

    Think about that statement in terms of a grieving story that “handcuffs” a person to their past..

    “He who controls the past… controls the future” ~ George Orwell (from the novel 1984)

    What Dylan is saying is that by adjusting your perspective of the past.. one actually does change the present and the future. We cant change the facts of a dysfunctional past.. but by broadening our perspective on the past, one can make their story work positively for them rather than negatively against them.

    You past is so messed up.. you should be a complete basket case.. however, when I read your posts.. I do not get the feeling that this is the work of a person who luxuriates in their victim status. When I read your stuff, I hear a woman who has taken all that negative shit from the past, transformed it, and because of some miraculous move of Gods grace, you appear to be empowered by it.( your shitty past)

    I don’t know you and should not speak for you, but even if you are a basket case..no one would know by reading your work. ( only your husband really knows)
    You have been hurt many times, horrifically, It would have been so easy for you to spend the rest of your days being a jaded, negative ass. The pain we suffer can become an opportunity to help many others heal, where we walked alone..they will not have to.

    To me you are a beautiful example of what old Dylan was saying… I encourage my Anger Management clients to re write the past.. so they can be released from it.

    I may have read too much into Dylan..He may be senile and not know what the hell he is sayin or even where he is.. but damn it.. It does make sense doesn’t it?

    I need an e’mail where I can contact you… some cool stuff is happening with some public figures you might know.. I dont want to mention their names publicly..

    Take Care!

    • I loved your reply. Made me smile. You know, I don’t know much about Bob Dylan, but you are right about how we view our past. I call it The Narrative. And, I do have to thank you for seeing that I’m not a victim. I used to be. I don’t exactly know what happened, or when it happened. It might have been a slow transformation. But, one day, I wasn’t a victim anymore. I stopped seeing myself as “the girl who got away”. That used to be what I called myself. Not anymore. I really don’t feel like someone who has been victimized much anymore. Sure, there are some old tapes in there, and whenever I hear one playing again I know that it’s time to address how it got there. I know that I know that I know that God is kind. And, I don’t mean that in a religious way. I mean that He is intensely personal and intimately involved in every detail of our lives and story–past and present and into the future. And our Narrative belongs to Him just as much as it belongs to us. So, when we go back and look at the intense places in our lives where we have been traumatized or hurt or betrayed or labeled or what have you, we have this privilege to bring the Holy Spirit with us. We know what others have said to us. We know what has been done to us. We know what has been believed about us. We know what we might believe about ourselves. BUT, what does God say is true about us? What is the most powerful truth that can be applied to that story? What is REALLY true because there is true, and then there is truth. Yes, I was molested, beaten, and abused for most of my childhood. Yes, I was abducted, broken in, and starved among other things. BUT, what does God say about this? Who does God say that I am? I already know who others say that I am? I’m the “woman with the problem” or “dirty” or “defiled” or “beyond redemption” or a “whore” or “worthless”. I’ve heard it all and more. You know what I figured out? We get to choose what we keep in our Narrative. You are exactly right. This is how we control our past. What is the most powerful Truth? Romans 8: For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons,[a] neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, 39 neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord. Not even the shame and defilement of being raped, molested, and photographed. You know what else is powerful? Psalm 27: Though my father and mother forsake me, the Lord will adopt me as His own. And this, Isaiah 62: You shall also be [so beautiful and prosperous as to be thought of as] a crown of glory and honor in the hand of the Lord, and a royal diadem [exceedingly beautiful] in the hand of your God 4 You [Judah] shall no more be termed Forsaken, nor shall your land be called Desolate any more. But you shall be called Hephzibah [My delight is in her], and your land be called Beulah [married]; for the Lord delights in you, and your land shall be married [owned and protected by the Lord] We all have a gorgeous story and identity in God’s eyes. Who we really are is in no way influenced by the events that have happened to us. We can only be made better according to God’s intention. We are so free to enter into a beautiful collaboration with the Holy Spirit to rewrite a Narrative that reflects who we are according to His intentions towards us. And, this is what has saved me. Coming face to face with this truth repeatedly and riding out the waves when I *feel* like nothing is true and everything that has happened to me is stronger than what I know is true. It is a process, isn’t it? And it is taking one step, one breath, one moment at a time and learning to enjoy the place I’m in.

      I have also learned about starting points. If my starting point is always–God is immensely enthusiastic about me, my present, my future and equally enthusiastic, intentional, and loving towards the person facing me at this moment–then every thing happening in that moment has to line up with that. My view of myself, my view of the other, and my view of circumstances has to begin to line up with the infinite kindness of God. It makes living day=to-day VERY interesting. Never a dull moment, and never a moment anymore for believing that I’m a victim anymore. Only time for empowerment because we were made for empowerment. It’s in our DNA. It doesn’t matter if someone tried to steal it from us or even broke us. IF we are alive, then we can be healed. If we were robbed, then we can be repaid.

      My email: bangitinthere@gmail.com

      Thank you for commenting and reading and encouraging me. I don’t think of myself at all as you’ve described me except that I’ve tried to shrug off the victim thinking. That’s been one of my life goals. So, I really appreciate it.



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