Radical Acceptance opens New Pathways

Learning Objectives

  • Understand the concept of radical acceptance in psychotherapy
  • Recognize the role of forgiveness and self-forgiveness in personal growth
  • Explore the importance of letting go of attachment to unattainable futures

The following case illustrates the importance of radical acceptance and forgiveness in recovering from unfortunate circumstances. The case is synthesized from several similar cases in my practice. The details have been changed to protect the identity of the clients.

Jessica is 12 years old. She is training to be a pianist and is already very accomplished. One day in class, a mean boy aims a paper airplane at her head. He throws it as hard as he can. Completely unsuspecting, Jessica is hit. The tip goes deep into her ear, piercing her eardrum. She is taken to the school nurse, who promptly calls her parents. Jessica cries and cries. Her mother finally arrives and takes Jessica to the emergency room. The doctors are confident that Jessica will make a full recovery.

After the eardrum heals, however, Jessica notices that the piano just doesn’t sound the same anymore. Notes seem distorted, flat.

Many medical scans and tests later, the doctors are stumped. Nothing seems to explain Jessica’s symptoms. Months go by with no improvement. Jessica has no choice but to give up music completely. For years she remains resentful, angry, and depressed.

Then one day, quite by accident, Jessica, now age 26, picks up a pencil and starts drawing. She surprises herself and begins to feel she might have discovered a new talent. She shows some of her drawings to close friends and receives compliments. She begins to draw more and more. One day she realizes that she’s starting to feel some of the same passion for drawing that she once did for music.

Each time she feels this budding passion, however, resentment soon takes over. When this happens, she throws the pencil down and retreats to her bed to cry. The truth is that Jessica thinks about the piano every day. She know that as a pianist she could have been famous. As an artist, she is merely good.

Eventually the depression, anger, and resentment become too much and Jessica consults a psychologist. The psychologist suggests forgiveness. “But how could I ever forgive that boy?”, she asks. “He ruined my life. He destroyed my enjoyment of music!” The psychologist explains that she will never really fully develop her talent at drawing until she gives up her resentment toward the boy who threw the paper airplane. Part of her “energy” is still attached to the boy through her resentment. To be fully present, to become totally immersed in her drawings, she must reclaim this energy. Furthermore, Jessica must also give up her attachment to the destiny she imagined for herself in music. As long as she holds onto a future in music that is unattainable, she will never excel in her artwork. Paradoxically, the destiny she imagined as a pianist has now become the greatest hurdle to her own happiness.

Together, Jessica and her psychologist design a guided imagery. In the imagery, she meets the boy as a young man. She explains to him that music “sounds ugly” now, and that the paper airplane destroyed the future that she had imagined for herself. In her imagination, the young man is stunned, and filled with regret. He shares that he has his own passion now—flying—and that he cannot imagine his career as a pilot being suddenly taken away. Jessica explains to the young man that she has decided to embrace forgiveness. He remains responsible for what happened, she explains, but she has decided not to waste any more time wishing for something that cannot be. She imagines herself deeply immersed in her drawing, she imagines looking at completed works and explaining to crowds of admirers the emotions that inspired them. Here, Jessica uses imagery in order to practice acceptance, letting go of the music dream that once guided her, but now imprisons her.

In the weeks that follow, Jessica notices that her passion for drawing has begun to exceed her passion for music. A new and more creative phase of life opens for her. In the coming years, her drawings are exhibited nationally and win awards. Part of her even begins to feel a weird sense of gratitude toward the boy, because without him, she would not have developed a passion for drawing at all. One day she notices that she doesn’t think about the boy anymore. He’s disappeared from her thoughts. The resentment disappears, too, along with the anger and depression.

Notice a couple of things. First, at no point does Jessica approve or endorse what the boy did. Forgiveness is not approval. Forgiveness is something Jessica did for herself. The boy’s actions remain forever wrong. Nor does the boy apologize or ever make amends, at least not in real life. In reality, he doesn’t even remember Jessica, having moved away long ago. Instead, Jessica simply recognizes that to be spiritually whole, she must reclaim all the energy invested in hating the boy and the sad life he created for her. That’s the path forward. That’s forgiveness. Jessica produced a change in herself because she wanted to be more involved and present and passionate about life. That became more important than devoting any headspace to either resenting the boy or longing for a life that had become impossible. Through imagery, Jessica shed two negatives—resenting and longing for what cannot be—and gained a positive—a new dedication to her artwork—all at the same time.

Second, notice that Jessica could have said to her psychologist, “Yes, it’s true that I’m good at drawing, but piano was my passion and I want piano!!!” This may be 100 percent true, but it’s also a 100 percent trap…not only is it a trap because it keeps Jessica focused on the past, it’s a trap because DRAWING IS WHAT JESSICA HAS. The piano is forever gone. Jessica gives up / let’s go / accepts the loss of the piano and clears a path that lets her become a truly exceptional artist. If she continues to hold on to her possible future as a great pianist, she will be tortured by what might have been. If she embraces what she has, her soul is at peace, and she can develop a sense of pride and accomplishment. Acceptance brought Jessica’s sense of personal loss to closure and let her envision and realize a new identity and new future for herself.

Although the story is about forgiveness, at its heart is the notion of radical acceptance, the idea that we cannot fight what cannot be, and must instead accept what is real to open a new path for ourselves. Many clients with anxiety have the experience of feeling that their lives have been stuck for years. They blame anxiety, of course, much in the same way that you would blame a mugger for robbing you. But they also blame themselves, and sometimes intensely. Here, radical acceptance means self-forgiveness, which means giving up any attachment to possible futures denied to oneself because of the symptoms—letting go of what life could have been—and instead focusing and committing to the fullness of what life can yet be.


Reading Comprehension Questions

1. What is the central idea behind radical acceptance?

  • A. Fighting what cannot be
  • B. Letting go of unattainable futures
  • C. Holding onto resentment
  • D. Seeking approval from others

2. In the case of Jessica, what talent does she discover after giving up music?

  • A. Dancing
  • B. Singing
  • C. Drawing
  • D. Acting

3. What does the psychologist suggest to Jessica to overcome her resentment?

  • A. Ignoring the boy’s actions
  • B. Seeking revenge on the boy
  • C. Embracing forgiveness
  • D. Forgetting her passion for music

4. Why is holding onto the possibility of a future as a pianist a trap for Jessica?

  • A. It keeps her focused on the past
  • B. It prevents her from trying new hobbies
  • C. It hinders her artistic development
  • D. It causes resentment towards herself

5. What does radical acceptance mean for individuals with anxiety?

  • A. Blaming others for their symptoms
  • B. Holding onto unattainable goals
  • C. Self-forgiveness and letting go of attachment
  • D. Focusing on what life could have been

Answers

1. B. Letting go of unattainable futures

2. C. Drawing

3. C. Embracing forgiveness

4. A. It keeps her focused on the past

5. C. Self-forgiveness and letting go of attachment