by Katie K. May
With warm weather in full swing and fun in the sun at the pool, I’m reminded of two summers ago when my son broke his arm. He was six years old and had just learned to swim. He loved splashing around in the water and swimming to each end of the pool. Then, a camp monkey bar accident and a full arm cast put a stop to his pool fun for the rest of the summer.
I can remember others’ remarks like, “That’s awful!” and my son’s tearful plea, “Why did this have to happen?” Not only was he in physical pain, but he also experienced emotional anguish every time we drove past the placid blue water of our pool.
An important idea in Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT) is pain vs. suffering. When you don’t accept reality as it is, it leads to greater suffering. Alternatively, when you can accept reality, or what is, you may still feel pain, but you can avoid suffering. As a DBT therapist, I call this concept Radical Acceptance.
Radical Acceptance means accepting what you can’t change so you can spend your time and energy on what makes your life worth living. It means understanding reality for what it is. Once you understand what you can and can’t change in your life, you can accept reality for what it is.
If we look at my son’s experience in the context of Radical Acceptance, we can understand exactly why it happened. Understanding the logistics is the first step to Radical Acceptance: He was climbing across the monkey bars, which put him in a precarious situation. He fell mid-way across and kept his arms too stiff as his body made impact with the earth.
Next, consider what you can’t change in the situation. My son was not allowed to get that cast wet. Period. So…swimming was not an option for the summer. It was something we could not change. Continuing to focus on the “can’t” in the situation would have led to greater suffering. If we talked about NOT swimming every day, it would remind him of something he loved that he could not have.
Finally, you CAN choose to use skills and act effectively or focus your attention on ideas and events that serve you. Well let me tell you, with water not being an option, we went to every museum and park that summer and changed our summer vacation from the beach to Washington D.C., and it was all amazing!
It’s important to remember that acceptance does NOT mean that you’re giving up or agreeing with a situation or incident that is difficult. It doesn’t mean putting up with a situation or relationship that is harmful for you. It means focusing your energy and taking action on what will help you move forward in your life.
When you practice Radical Acceptance, you shift your focus from “Why did this happen?” to “What can I do now?” It’s this shift that allows you to take ownership of your personal experiences and begin making choices about how to create your path to happiness.
Katie K. May is a Licensed Teen Therapist who specializes in offering groups. A new session of Teen DBT Skills Group will begin in August. Contact Katie@creativehealingphilly.com to explore whether this group will best support your teen.