Today we’re talking about radical acceptance. This is a concept I mentioned briefly in my book Fewer Things, Better, as well as Awakened: Change Your Mindset to Transform Your Teaching. But I wanted to do a deep dive on how it actually works, because it’s a tricky principle for a lot of people.
Radical acceptance is a useful approach in our inner dialogue or self-talk when there are certain things about our work — or any aspect of your life, for that matter — which we cannot change.
Practicing radical acceptance doesn’t mean you approve of the problems you’re facing or deem other people’s inappropriate behavior as okay. You don’t have to let people walk all over you, ignore a problem, or tell yourself it’s okay that something awful is happening or has happened to you.
It means you stop wasting energy resisting reality. You stop complaining and bemoaning how terrible things are. You need all your strength to teach, and practicing radical acceptance will keep you from draining your energy with perpetual outrage.
Radical acceptance allows you to deal realistically with the facts of the situation (rather than the story you’re telling ourselves about the fact) and sitting with the discomfort of the present moment instead of insisting it shouldn’t be happening.
I’m going to talk about how to apply this principle to a couple of different things: radical self-acceptance, radical acceptance of other people, and radical acceptance of circumstances.
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I want to begin with radical self-acceptance because I believe that when you can practice this principle toward yourself, it makes it so much easier to extend that acceptance toward others.
Radical self-acceptance is being brave enough to see ourselves and accept ourselves exactly as we are. You may not like certain things about yourself, but you can accept that those things are part of the reality of being you. That’s different from denying it, being defensive about it, or hating those qualities about yourself.
Even as you let go of behaviors that aren’t serving you well, you can accept each stage of that journey. The goal is to see yourself for who you really are, without judgment, and without labels, so that you can work with what you’ve got.
Many of us are trying to work with an ideal version of ourselves that doesn’t actually exist and we never feel like we measure up. Or we’re working with the worst possible interpretation of ourselves and feel bad about who we are.
Radical self-acceptance is seeing all of you and accepting all of you. You don’t have to love everything about yourself or everything you say and do. You’re simply accepting reality rather than fighting it. You’re not expending any energy wishing things were different or complaining, judging, or shaming yourself about it.
When you practice accepting yourself exactly as you are, you’re able to let go of those thoughts that make it harder for you to be your best. You’re no longer working against your own thoughts. Self-acceptance also gives you a model to follow when you need to accept others.
Radical acceptance of other people
Radical acceptance of other people requires accepting who other people are. It’s knowing that you cannot change them and it is not your responsibility to do so. We can influence them, but we cannot control them. We can believe the best about them and believe in their capacity to do better, but we cannot change them.
We can only change our thoughts about other people, and how we choose to respond to them. So even when we are in situations where we cannot leave their behavior unaddressed, we still need to approach things with the understanding that we cannot control how other people think, feel, behave, or act. This is part of radical acceptance: Seeing others fully for who they are without taking on the responsibility for “fixing” or changing them.
This is a difficult principle to apply with your students, particularly when you see the potential for greatness in them and sincerely want to help them be their best. But I promise you will actually have more of a positive impact on them when you practice radical acceptance about who they are because you’re able to see them for their true selves instead of giving into beliefs that they should be different somehow.
I want to emphasize that what I’m teaching you here today is not a tool that you should expect others in your district to have. You will need to practice radical acceptance about the fact that your supervisors don’t practice radical acceptance. In a sense, you are being evaluated on how much you are able to change your students: how much do they learn, how do they behave when they’re with you.
Learning to practice radical acceptance of your students will keep you from internalizing this pressure, and shift the way you see your role in the classroom. It’s a tool to keep you from internalizing a toxic system for dealing with problems, in which you are mentally carrying the responsibility for things that are out of your control.
Just because someone places that weight on you does not mean you have to carry it; just because they say it is your responsibility does not mean that you have to believe it is.
You have influence over your students, not control. Your choices in the classroom can escalate or deescalate problems. You can make things better for kids or worse. So we want to use radical acceptance as a tool to move us back into a place of empowerment, where we have a healthy and realistic assessment of the understanding of the situation so we can then choose how best to respond.
When you accept the student exactly as they are and the situation exactly as it is, you can then say, “Here is the reality of what we’re dealing with. What thoughts, words, and actions can I choose to make the situation better? When this particular incident happens again, what response can I choose that will be less frustrating for me and more helpful for the student? I don’t like that it’s happening and I don’t believe the behavior is okay. But I accept that it is happening. I accept that this is my reality right now and I am choosing to respond to it constructively instead of insisting that it should not be happening this way.”
You can practice radical acceptance toward your students’ families, as well. Rather than criticize their parenting skills or the social norms of the community you teach in, practice radical acceptance. It is what it is. Any energy you expend insisting that things “should be” different is wasted. You want to shift from a place of resisting reality to accepting it. Then all that frustration and anxiety can be directed toward something useful, which is improving the situation.
In practical terms, this is the difference between saying, “I can’t believe parents these days, they just don’t care, they should be supporting me instead of ignoring me or criticizing me,” to saying:
“I accept the reality that my students and their families are living in. I refuse to waste my time mentally replaying how I think things SHOULD be. I’m not going to let my energy be drained away by complaining about their lifestyle or choices. Instead, I’m going to recognize that my thoughts about this situation are creating suffering for me. They make a tough situation even harder.
“I’m going to focus on what I can do to help kids get the best outcome possible. I’m directing my frustration toward solutions: I’m looking for ways I can meet their needs in these circumstances rather than blaming them or focusing on how impossible the circumstance is. I’m going to offer support without judgment. What thoughts, words, and actions can I choose that will make things better?”
You cannot change the students who have been assigned to your classroom or their family dynamics. As long as you repeat to yourself, “This kid should not be in my classroom. It’s so unfair that I have no support and can’t believe I have to deal with this,” then you are allowing your energy to be drained away. You are forfeiting your personal power at that moment and fixating on our beliefs about how things “should be.”
That’s an okay place to go from time to time — we all need to wallow a bit and vent. But you can’t stay stuck there. I know from personal experience that many of us, as educators, DO stay stuck there. We complain about the same things every day for the entirety of the school year, worry about and dread those things all summer, and then on the first day back in the next school year, begin anticipating the same problems, waiting for them to happen, and ready to start complaining again.
Radical acceptance of circumstances
Complaining is an unproductive form of resistance. It’s not the same thing as examining a problem from multiple perspectives to understand it better. There’s nothing wrong with talking about inequitable school funding, lack of resources, and systemic problems. In fact, I believe these critical conversations are an important part of radical acceptance. It’s very difficult to accept something you do not understand. It’s incredibly hard to tell yourself, “This thing I perceive as terrible is happening and I don’t know why, it doesn’t make any sense, but I choose to accept it.”
This is why many of us get stuck in that trap of talking about problems over and over. We’re trying to make sense of them. Our brains are pattern-seeking — we naturally want to make connections between different incidents and look for meaning.
I think it’s important to work with this natural tendency. When you can begin to make sense of the things that are bothering you by exploring the root problems, it is much easier to practice radical acceptance. You’ll find yourself moving from a place of judgment to curiosity. It’s the difference between saying, “I don’t understand why things have to be like that,” and saying, “What am I not understanding about this situation, and how can I learn more?”
This is particularly useful in our work in schools, given how many of our frustrations center around bureaucracy: testing, paperwork, overemphasis on data, lack of resources, and so on. The better you understand how these systems were created and the way they run, the more empowered you begin to feel to make a change.
You’re no longer helplessly repeating to yourself, “This is so unfair, this is just not right” because you begin to understand the motives of the decision-makers, the constraints of the system, the inequalities and biases in the structure of our schools and government.
That knowledge is power. That understanding prevents you from being complicit with the status quo and allows you to instead, consciously disrupt it.
In other words, radical acceptance is a principle you can practice to lay the groundwork for productive resistance. Being angry does not create change unless you channel that anger into something productive.
It can be helpful to examine those thoughts that are creating our suffering and practice radical acceptance.
We can take constructive steps to improve working conditions, but do so while practicing radical acceptance of your current reality.
We can change our self-talk from, “I can’t believe this is happening,” to “It IS happening, and I accept that reality for the purpose of being able to address it in the healthiest, most productive way possible.”
My challenge to you this week is to notice when you are resisting your current reality and creating additional stress, frustration, and suffering for yourself because of it. Just notice when those negative feelings arise and consider the thoughts that precipitated them. Usually, when I’m feeling miserable, I’ve been thinking thoughts like, “This is ridiculous–I should not be having to deal with this.”
When you notice those thoughts, it’s an opportunity to practice — and I do mean PRACTICE because it takes repetition before it gets easier and more natural — but practice radical acceptance. Practice shifting to thoughts like:
“I can believe it’s happening, because it is. This is my reality right now. Not forever, but right now, I accept that this is the situation I’m dealing with and I want to see all the circumstances as clearly as possible. My thoughts that these things shouldn’t be happening the way they are, aren’t helpful to me. The situation might not be okay with me, and I don’t have to approve or condone the situation while practicing radical acceptance. I accept reality rather than resisting it. What am I not understanding about this situation, and how can I learn more? What thoughts, words, and actions can I choose that will make things better?”
“Accept — then act. Whatever the present moment contains, accept it as if you had chosen it. Always work with it, not against it. This will miraculously transform your whole life.” –Eckhart Tolle
- What it Really Means to Practice Radical Acceptance
- Three Blocks to Radical Acceptance
- The Importance of Practicing ‘Radical Acceptance’
- Practicing Radical Self Acceptance
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This episode is sponsored by UL Xplorlabs, a free STEM-focused experience to build scientific knowledge and passion among middle school students. UL Xplorlabs makes it simple to implement hands-on investigations in the classroom and is aligned with NGSS. Get your students solving real-world problems by going to https://ulxplorlabs.org/.