Changing My Mind: Radical Acceptance

I used to be really against the notion of radical acceptance.  Or, indeed, any kind of philosophy that counseled not getting upset about bad things or not stressing out over your own flaws.

The reason why is that I don’t like the loss of distinctions.  “Science” means “to split.”

If you dichotomize  “justice vs. mercy”, “intense vs. relaxed”, “logic vs. intuition”, and so on, I’m more attracted to the first category. I identify with Inspector Javert and Toby Ziegler. I admire adherence to principle.

And there’s a long tradition of maligning “intense” people like me, often with anti-Semitic or ableist overtones, and I tend to be suspicious of rhetoric that pattern-matches to those associations.  There’s a pattern that either frames intense people as cruel, in a sort of “Mean Old Testament vs. Nice New Testament” way, or as pathetic (“rigid”, “obsessive”, “high need for cognitive closure”, etc).  “Just relax and don’t sweat the small stuff” can be used to excuse backing out of one’s commitments, stretching the truth, or belittling others’ concerns.

There’s also an aesthetic dimension to this. One can prefer crispness and sharpness and intensity to gooey softness.  I think of James Joyce, an atheist with obvious affection for the Jesuitical tradition that taught him.

So, from where I stand, “radical acceptance” sounds extremely unappealing. Whenever I heard “You shouldn’t get mad at reality for being the way it is”, I interpreted it as “You shouldn’t care about the things you care about, you shouldn’t try to change the world, you shouldn’t stand up for yourself, you shouldn’t hold yourself to high standards.  You’re a weird little girl and you don’t matter.”

And of course I reject that. I’m still passionate, still intense, still trying to have integrity, and I don’t ever want to stop caring about the difference between true and false.

But I do finally grok some things about acceptance.

  • It’s just not objectively true that anything short of perfection is worth scrapping.  I can be a person with flaws and my life is still on net extremely worthwhile.  That’s not “bending the rules”, it’s understanding cost-benefit analysis.
  • There’s a sense in which imperfections are both not good and completely okay.  For example: I have a friend that I’ve often had trouble communicating with. Sometimes I’ve hurt his feelings, sometimes he’s hurt mine, pretty much always through misunderstanding.  My Javertian instinct would be to feel like “This friendship is flawed, I’ve sullied it, I need to wipe the slate clean.” But that’s impossible.  The insight is that the friendship is not necessarily supposed to be unsullied.  Friction and disagreement are what happens when you’re trying to connect deeply to people who aren’t exactly like you.  The friendship isn’t falling short of perfection, it’s something rough I’m building from scratch.
  • “Roughness” is a sign that you’re at a frontier. “Mistakes are the portals of discovery.”  Even the most admirable people have experienced disappointment and tried things that didn’t work.  Life doesn’t have to be glossy or free of trouble to be glorious.  Getting through hard times, or making yourself a better person, are legitimate achievements.  Optimizing for “build something” is life-giving; optimizing for “have no flaws” is sterile.
  • Hating injustice, or hating death, is only a starting point. Yes, bad things really are bad, and it’s important to validate that.  Sometimes you have to mourn, or rage, or protest. But what then?  How do you fix the problem?  Once you’ve expressed your grief or anger, once you’ve made people understand that it’s really not all right, what are you going to do?  It becomes a question to investigate, not a flag to raise.  And sometimes people seem less angry, not because they care less, but because they’ve already moved on to the investigation and strategy-building phase of the work.
  • One idea that allows me to grok this is the Jewish idea that G-d chooses not to destroy the world.  Is the world flawed? Heck yes! Is it swarming with human beings who screw up every day?  You bet!  Is it worth wiping out?  No, and there’s a rainbow to prove it.  Which means that the world, in all its messy glory, is net good.  It beats hell out of hard vacuum.

4 thoughts on “Changing My Mind: Radical Acceptance

  1. This is the most Sarah thing I’ve read in a while, and on the margin seems clearly to be very good. In my mind, what you were previously doing could be described as Radical Rejection – if there exists a property P of X that you do not fully approve of, reject all of X. Radical acceptance is, as I understand it, the contrapositive – if you accept X, then for any property P of X, you fully accept P as well. Of course, now that I type it out, I realize they are the same rule, but in practice the people advocating them take very different actions: An accepter would use their non-rejection of X as a reason to modify to accept P, whereas a rejector would use P as a reason to then reject X. A mix of both is certainly better than always doing one or the other!

    On the other hand, I don’t agree with the rule in either phrasing: I think that for any X of similar or greater complexity to a human, the probability it contains a property P that should be rejected is, at a minimum, 1 minus epsilon. Love the sinner, hate the sin, as it were, except if sin didn’t exist and was just standing in for “thing you would prefer was otherwise.” Especially key is what you suggest above about moving on to investigation and strategy – the typical advocate of Radical Acceptance (in my experience and based on their writing that I have seen) wouldn’t investigate or strategize, just Accept, the same way your old instincts would be not to strategize or investigate, but rather to, as you put it, wipe the slate clean.

    • As far as I can tell this comment is talking about something completely different than the radical acceptance I know (and Sarah’s post seems to be using it). From

      “There are three parts to radical acceptance. The first part is accepting that reality is what it is. The second part is accepting that the event or situation causing you pain has a cause. The third part is accepting life can be worth living even with painful events in it.”

      This has nothing to do with liking/valuing a part because you like/value the whole, which is how you seem to be using “accept”. And it doesn’t necessarily mean not trying to change things (“reality is what it is” includes that many things can be changed).

  2. It seems common to equate acceptance with resignation (so much so that acceptance is probably not the best word). I like to think of improper resignation as insufficient acceptance: a failure to accept that some things *are* within the scope of your potential to affect and that ultimately it’s on you to affect them if you want a certain outcome. In my mind acceptance is intimately linked with the serenity prayer (, and its first two stanzas are two sides of the same coin.

  3. I sometimes think “radical acceptance” is a bit misleading, since it can come off like “no need to feel pain, just accept it” when it’s really about “no need to *not* feel the pain”. It’s about caring about the world enough that you don’t divert your eyes when it hurts with. It’s about not lying to yourself that “it *can’t* be!” and stories that this perpetual state of ostrich-heading conflict is somehow virtuous.

    The actual acceptance of the world as it is comes almost as a byproduct, and yes it’s a *very nice* byproduct, as is the increased effectiveness to actually do something about it all.

    Still though, the main point as I see it is to aspire for the courage it takes to take everything head on not just “even though” it hurts but *because* it does. That framing also makes is a bit easier to understand why you’ll inevitably fall short of perfect “radical acceptance”

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