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    Addiction Treatment, Addictions

    Understanding radical acceptance and how it aids addiction recovery

    Published on September 15, 2022

    Many of us struggle to accept the traumas from our past or come to terms with challenging life events that trigger sorrow, pain, and heartache.

    Difficult experiences can be tempting to avoid but much harder to accept or forget. Thus many of us adopt specific coping skills that help to soften the blow or numb the edges of a painful experience.


    Some of us may beat ourselves up over a terrible situation or event we feel we could have prevented or done more to stop it from happening. As a result, we may struggle with intense shame and remorse as our lives spiral out of control.

    Trauma often affects people that way; it can cause many to slip into a realm of denial and shame, where they struggle to come to terms with reality.

    A lack of acceptance

    A lack of acceptance prevents a person from moving forward and can dip them into destructive patterns of addiction and other risky behaviours.

    Addiction specialists say there are various ways to move forward despite a person’s history of trauma, some of which involve radical acceptance. This approach allows people to face reality and accept the things they cannot control.

    What is radical acceptance?

    Seeing beyond what is happening amid trauma or crisis can be challenging.

    Whether you have been involved in a car accident or some other tragic event, the rug has gotten pulled from underneath you. 

    As a result, the possibility of resuming ordinary life can seem impossible.

    The power to change

    Can you keep your job and attend rehab

    However, when times get tough, we often forget that we can control specific aspects of our life, for example, our agency over our thoughts, emotions, and behaviour.

    At any moment, we have the power to change the way we think, feel and behave, regardless of what might be happening around us.

    This is where radical acceptance can help, an approach used in various therapies such as Dialectical Behaviour Therapy.

    According to some researchers, radical acceptance is ”the complete and total acknowledgement of reality, including the recognition of what you can and cannot control” (What is radical acceptance, and how can I use it? Sanvello, April 28, 2020).

    How radical acceptance can help with the recovery process

    Whether you are struggling to come to terms with a traumatic past or an alcohol or drug addiction problem, radical acceptance encourages you to focus on the things you can control while letting go of the things you can’t.

    Radical acceptance cultivates empowerment, allowing a person to accept that they cannot control everything that happens around them. For instance, we cannot control other peoples’ behaviour or attitudes or a global pandemic.

    Dialectical Behaviour Therapy

    Radical acceptance is formally used in some therapeutic approaches, such as Dialectical Behaviour Therapy (DBT).

    DBT aims to teach people specific coping skills.

    For example, during periods of stress or crisis, a person uses the skills learned in DBT to stay present and focused.

    Radical acceptance is a core skill taught in DBT that helps people to accept reality and develop healthy coping skills for stress.


    Various myths surrounding radical acceptance can be extremely unhelpful, especially for those recovering from alcohol or drug addiction.

    It might be helpful for you to know what radical acceptance isn’t rather than what it is.

    Radical acceptance does not mean you agree with what is happening. It does not mean you are giving up. And it definitely doesn’t mean you need to sacrifice your values (What is radical acceptance, and how can I use it? Sanvello, April 28, 2020).

    Accepting reality

    man looking down at a glass of alcohol

    Accepting reality does not mean that you agree with whatever happened; radical acceptance doesn’t mean that you agree with or condone the situation or events that led to your pain.

    It means that you recognise the facts of the event or situation in their entirety, including the pain they have caused you (Radical Acceptance in Addiction Recovery, Boris MacKey, January 26, 2020).

    What radical acceptance means for alcoholism and drug abuse treatment

    According to the research literature, people with a history of substance abuse are more likely to engage in drug and alcohol abuse when challenging or traumatic events happen.

    Such individuals are at a higher risk of relapse during stressful periods, for instance, if the person gets made redundant at work or a serious relationship ends.

    Letting go of suffering

    However, there is a difference between natural pain and suffering; pain is inevitable in life, whether it’s due to grief, job loss, or heartache. Pain is an unavoidable aspect of the human experience.

    Although suffering is different, for instance, we may suffer intensely as a consequence of life’s disappointments and tragedies, and of course, all this is expected. However, some argue that we get to choose how long we allow ourselves to suffer.

    Getting unstuck

    Addiction specialists say that prolonged suffering often results in unhealthy coping mechanisms, where people often gamble or turn to alcoholism, drug abuse, and other risky behaviours to cope.

    A core component of suffering is a lack of acceptance or an unwillingness to accept one’s complicated past. When people fight their reality and are plagued by constant ”what ifs” they cannot move forward. 

    Unfortunately, suffering is the result.

    Addiction treatment

    Many addiction specialists believe that suffering is the cause of relapse as opposed to the natural pain that follows after a tragedy or disappointment.

    Hence, Dialectical Behaviour Therapy is often recommended to those with substance abuse issues since radical acceptance is an integral component of therapy that helps people cultivate acceptance and control.

    Radical acceptance and the recovery process

    Stop alcohol concept. Person refuse to drink alcohol.

    Radical acceptance allows people to put themselves in a position of logic and calm where they get to make choices that benefit them instead of turning to substances or other risky behaviours.

    Additionally, individuals with a history of drug abuse or alcoholism are far more likely to avoid relapse and enjoy a fulfilling and sober future by practising radical acceptance.

    The dangers of denial

    Denial is a core aspect of addiction – many people who have suffered intensely in the past often experience life as painful or unbearable.

    Such individuals are consumed with regret, rage, and remorse about the pain they have caused themselves and others; they grieve the life they could have had if only addiction didn’t take hold or if the traumatic events that led to substance abuse hadn’t happened.

    Addiction programs such as Narcotics Anonymous (NA) and Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) teach acceptance as one of the first steps to recovery, accepting that there is an addiction problem and facing the reality of the pain caused by substance abuse.

    Moving beyond a painful past

    Moving beyond a traumatic event or experience might not be easy, but moving forward and accepting the past with proper support and treatment is necessary.

    Radical acceptance means learning to accept how things are regardless of your feelings and judgements and letting go of the idea that you can control what already is (Radical Acceptance in Addiction Recovery, Boris MacKey, January 26, 2020).

    Treatment and support

    For those in addiction recovery, treatment primarily involves accepting that there is an addiction problem and that you need help to overcome it and move forward.

    All this can happen with proper support and treatment, and of course, acceptance on your part.

    Acceptance doesn’t minimise the severity of what happened in your past but helps you understand that these traumatic experiences can be reprocessed, acknowledged, and conquered.

    Moreover, acceptance allows you to explore the nature of addiction and the emotional and spiritual wounds you have endured.

    Finding recovery

    man wearing a gray hoodie in counseling

    Radical acceptance can help you move forward with your life and integrate your past experiences; it can also help you to:

    • Accept and move beyond anger, depression, and guilt
    • Apply difficult lessons to future experiences allowing you to cultivate better decision-making
    • Cultivate empathy for yourself and others
    • Open your heart to personal forgiveness and forgiveness of others
    • Assess and appraise your life in an honest way
    • Learn from past mistakes

    Contacting White River Manor

    Acceptance is one of the keys to addiction recovery.

    However, the White River Manor team understands how challenging this concept can sometimes be. Hence our recovery programs are tailored to each person and their unique life experiences.

    We treat various addictions and mental health disorders, including depression, anxiety, dual diagnosis, and substance abuse.

    Our team is always on hand to lend a friendly ear. Contact us today.

    Useful Resources

    1. Radical Acceptance in Addiction Recovery: Boris MacKey, January 26, 2020
    2. What is radical acceptance, and how can I use it?: Sanvello, April 28, 2020

    About Giles Fourie

    Giles Fourie is the director and co-founder of White River Manor. He is dedicated to providing the best care for clients seeking recovery from substance abuse, anxiety, depression, or co-occurring disorders.