Why Practicing Acceptance is an Essential Part of Recovery

“Radical Acceptance is the willingness to experience ourselves and our lives as it is.”
– From Radical Acceptance by Tara Brach, Ph.D.

Back in 2011, when I was in my second rehab and freaking out over being there, an addiction counselor told me to practice acceptance. “Acceptance is the answer to all of your problems right now,” she said. “Especially this one.”

I had no idea what she was talking about and, quite frankly, I was insulted by the suggestion. How dare she minimize my pain and suffering? If it were that easy, don’t you think I would have done it by now?

I’ve since come to understand that while it’s not that easy, it is that simple. 

Because at that moment back in 2011, I was resisting reality. Despite some very strong evidence to the contrary (including my own words in a drunken blog post), I refused to believe I belonged back in rehab. I was hemming and hawing about how my family overacted and I could get sober on my own and how dare they force me to go to treatment in the middle of winter in freezing-cold Pennsylvania. 

And how dare that counselor suggest that acceptance was all it would take to fix this dumpster fire of a situation I was in.

But that counselor wasn’t telling me that practicing acceptance would suddenly fix all of my problems. She wasn’t even saying that practicing acceptance would fix my alcoholism. What she was saying was that, if I was willing to accept my current circumstances for what they were at that moment — I was in rehab and every person who loved me believed I should be there — I might be able to calm my immediate emotional distress. I might be able to stop “freaking out.”

I was not even close to achieving that level of understanding back then, so I continued to hem and haw for quite some time. But I often think about that counselor now and I’m grateful to have that moment as a reference point. 

Because acceptance is HARD. Like gratitude, it’s a skill that I need to practice regularly to achieve. The book Radical Acceptance by Tara Brach has been a huge help. It was recommended to me by my therapist (another key player in my acceptance practice) and has changed the way I relate to the world and how I perceive daily life challenges.

I also love this PDF of radical acceptance coping mantras, which I often turn to when struggling to come to terms with something. I used to think that saying things like “It is what it is” or “I have no control over other people” meant that I was weak, pliant, or at the very least, lazy and apathetic. But I’ve learned the exact opposite is true because acceptance is not passive. It takes effort and it takes practice. And when I can accept a situation for what it is — rather than fixate on how I want or think it should be — I’m much more at peace during my day-to-day life. Here are a few more ways acceptance has helped enhance my recovery.

Letting Go of Shame

Shame is one of the most powerful drivers of the addiction cycle. All too often, it prevents people from coming to terms with their problem and getting the help they need. Learning how to accept my alcoholism for what it is — i.e. a treatable illness and not a moral failure — has taken an enormous emotional weight off my shoulders. I feel less ashamed when I look at addiction this way and it’s easier for me to take the steps I need to get help and change.

Learning from Life Lessons

Practicing acceptance in recovery has made it possible for me to see valuable life lessons in every experience — even the ones that are painful. Because more often than not, I experience the most growth when I endure difficult situations and come out stronger on the other side. And I can’t learn from my mistakes if I deny they exist (something I am very good at doing!). When I finally acknowledged my addiction and was willing to get the help I needed, it became easier for me to face the negative consequences and move forward.

Setting Reasonable Expectations for Yourself

It’s also helpful for me to remember that recovery is not a linear process. There are ups and there are downs and it’s easy for me to get frustrated and discouraged when I hit a roadblock. Understanding that struggle is part of the process allows me to let go of judgment as I learn how to live life sober. It enables me to set realistic expectations for myself and show myself (and others) compassion when mistakes are made. No one is perfect, after all.


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