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Radical Acceptance: An Alternative to Forgiveness

Updated: Mar 25, 2022

Are you finding yourself holding onto something unforgivable that someone else has done? Almost all of us have these moments throughout our life when forgiveness feels out of reach, and we are too hurt to even think of it. Sometimes trying to move towards forgiveness feels like a betrayal to the self, as if we are “letting the other person off the hook” and condoning the hurt that they have caused.

DBT offers a skill called Radical Acceptance that can be thought of as an alternative to forgiveness in these instances when applying forgiveness just doesn’t seem possible or right. After all, we have all heard the adage that “holding on to anger is like grasping a hot coal with the intent of harming another; you end up getting burned”. Radical Acceptance is NOT something we do “for” the person on the other end of it- it is something we do completely for OUR benefit. In it, we attempt to free ourselves from thoughts surrounding the person/event that keeps us stuck in the past and what “should have happened instead”.

Radical acceptance has a math formula that can help illustrate the point:

Pain + Non-acceptance of Reality = Suffering

Radical acceptance differentiates between the concepts of pain and suffering. It shares with us that PAIN occurs to all human beings throughout the course of life- pain would be things like the death of a loved one, a health diagnosis, losing a job that we loved, experiencing a breakup we did not want to happen, losing a friend over a disagreement, experiencing conflict in our families, feeling betrayal in our relationships, etc. Pain is a part of life, and we will all experience pain periodically. Pain is survivable, thankfully.

SUFFERING is much harder for us to endure. It is when we encounter pain and get stuck in a non-accepting stance. I think of an image of myself foot-stomping/tantrum-ing when I notice that I am suffering. In this picture, I am getting caught up in thoughts like “They shouldn’t have done that to me! This is not fair! This is not how I planned things! I don’t want to change my plan, change my relationships, or change my behavior!”. Some people prefer the term acknowledging as opposed to accepting reality. This would mean that we choose to turn and face our pain, acknowledging that something has happened that we didn’t plan for, that we don’t like, and we now must figure out what to do next.

We cannot cope with what we do not acknowledge- acknowledging there is an issue is the first step to meaningful change. Change won’t cross our minds if we aren’t willing to look around and say we are uncomfortable staying in the same place! In our lives, the problem exists whether we acknowledge it or not, and it is likely to cause us more harm and suffering if it goes unaddressed and continues to influence us.

This skill is an abstract concept to grasp, so let me give one example to try to highlight what “radically accepting/acknowledging” something tough might sound like:

Samuel’s father has always had a temper. Samuel has struggled with sharing vulnerably with his father about their strained relationship without his father becoming emotionally dysregulated and screaming at him. Over the years Samuel has continued to “wish and hope” that his father would one day change and be able to have a mature conversation about the ways in which his feelings have been hurt in the past. Samuel has also tried to work on his delivery many times throughout the years but no changed attempts have led to a different outcome.

Samuel could go down one of two paths:

Non-Acceptance: Samuel continues to try to approach his father to discuss his past hurts and hopes that his father can better regulate or engage with him differently. Samuel continues to feel hurt by his father, victimized, and wonder if something is wrong with him as a son to cause his father’s anger.

Acceptance: Samuel could understand that he has done “his part” in trying to communicate with his father effectively (ie. Working on his delivery strategies), and accept that it is up to his father to regulate his own emotions and be a safe person to talk to. Samuel may come to understand that it is not currently safe for him to try to have a vulnerable conversation about past hurts. Samuel could convey to his father that he wishes he would go to therapy to prepare for a conversation in the future, or that they could try family counseling. Samuel could also work on disentangling the impact of his strained relationship with his father on his self-worth and heal on an individual level.

Acceptance opens the door to doing things differently, understanding our options differently, and getting out of painful loops of behavior when we try to change difficult realities in ways that are impossible. Acceptance does not mean that we are now simply okay with the hurts that have been caused, but that we are committed to engaging in our lives in a different way because of the hurts that have occurred.

I hope this intro to the skill of Radical Acceptance has been helpful! This is a HARD skill to master and one that we must do OVER & OVER (acceptance is not a one-time task), so be gentle on yourself if you try to apply this skill and find it difficult. I offer 1:1 DBT skills training if you are interested in learning more about this skill and others from DBT, as well.

Kelly Birkhold, LCSW (Individual, couples, and family counseling)

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