Radical Acceptance: Not for Destructive Behaviors

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "Radical Acceptance" by Tara Brach. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

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Does accepting yourself mean accepting your destructive behaviors as part of who you are? What does Radical Acceptance say about facing your failures?

There are many misconceptions about Radical Acceptance. Radical Acceptance is about freeing yourself from judgment, so many take that as permission to continue harmful behaviors. However, Radical Acceptance teaches you that it’s impossible to change yourself without first knowing yourself. 

Continue reading to learn why Radical Acceptance is not an excuse to continue destructive behaviors.

Radical Acceptance Isn’t About Accepting Destructive Behaviors

Radical Acceptance is so much the opposite of how we’re trained to think about ourselves that people can get confused about what it actually is. If your Radical Acceptance leads you to “accept” and continue destructive behaviors and habits, you’re not practicing it correctly.

Some people come away with the idea that accepting yourself as you are means giving up on personal growth. However, Radical Acceptance isn’t an excuse to say “this is who I am, and that’ll never change.” Instead, it’s an opportunity to recognize who you are currently, and who you’d really like to be—rather than who society says you should be. In short, it’s impossible to change yourself without first knowing yourself. 

Radical Acceptance Isn’t An Excuse for Self-Indulgence

Accepting that you have a desire for a destructive behavior and acting upon it are two different things. For example, a habitual smoker would recognize not only that she has a craving for a cigarette, but the reasons behind that craving. She would recognize the physical and emotional tension that comes with it. She would read the warning label and accept that smoking is a harmful and destructive habit. 

If she does decide to smoke, she wouldn’t try to justify her decision or struggle against her guilt; she’d accept the feelings just as she accepted the craving that led to her decision. Hopefully, in time, recognizing the truths behind her actions will lead her to better decisions. 

Radical Acceptance Isn’t About Being Passive

Many people think that accepting something means you no longer work to change it. For example, they say that accepting something like racism, or global warming, means allowing it to progress unchecked. 

However, Radical Acceptance is about what’s happening internally, not externally. It begins with examining our own outrage, fear, guilt, or whatever we’re feeling about those injustices. Before we act or react to what’s happening, we have to understand and accept how it’s affecting us in that moment. With that kind of self-awareness we’re able to act wisely and effectively, rather than blindly and desperately. 

Radical Acceptance Isn’t About Limitations

Some people think that Radical Acceptance means accepting that there are things they can’t do, or aren’t suited for. For instance, someone who’s been in a string of failed relationships might look at himself and conclude that he’s not suited for intimacy. That is a self-destructive way of thinking and that’s not what Radical Acceptance is. If anything, this behavior is damaging and the exact opposite of Radical Acceptance: He’s giving power to the fearful voice in his head that says he’s not good enough. 

Radical Acceptance means looking honestly at your failures and successes alike, and accepting that you don’t know what the future holds. It means putting your full effort into everything you do, and learning and growing from every experience.

Radical Acceptance Isn’t About Accepting a “Self”

This problematic behavior is specific to Buddhism, which teaches that there’s no such thing as a true self—what might be called a soul. Many students of Buddhism point out that accepting yourself as you are seems to imply the existence of such a “self,” which is incompatible with Buddha’s teachings.  However, Radical Acceptance is really about the mental and physical sensations you’re currently experiencing. It’s accepting yourself as you are in the moment. By doing so, you’ll recognize that those experiences are temporary and impersonal, not some core part of who you are. This will help free you from the illusion that you’re a limited being, defined by your experiences.

Radical Acceptance: Not for Destructive Behaviors

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Here's what you'll find in our full Radical Acceptance summary :

  • How to live your life fully experiencing everything
  • Why you need to let go of judging yourself or your experiences
  • How you can acknowledge and welcome any experience

Hannah Aster

Hannah graduated summa cum laude with a degree in English and double minors in Professional Writing and Creative Writing. She grew up reading books like Harry Potter and His Dark Materials and has always carried a passion for fiction. However, Hannah transitioned to non-fiction writing when she started her travel website in 2018 and now enjoys sharing travel guides and trying to inspire others to see the world.

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