Radical Acceptance—Part 1: Saying goodbye to the way of life we once knew

November 13, 2020 - 7 min read

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Appreciating life on life’s terms

Navigating the hallway between two doors

In my experience, most people are creatures of habit. We like predictability and familiarity. We build routines, consciously and subconsciously. And while we may tell ourselves otherwise, we crave structure because it fulfills a basic human need: security. By and large, we like to believe we are in control, and should therefore be able to influence, even assure, life will work out how we want. We plan for this, we work toward this, and — as a result — we usually expect our desired outcome to become reality. Of course, this is not how real life works.

Suddenly in 2020, nothing was familiar or predictable. Our routines were dramatically altered. We quickly lost that structure and sense of control. Because we were in uncharted territory as a whole, no one was adequately prepared, or knew exactly what to do. And no one understood what would happen next or when. Normal became a slippery subjective descriptor and a highly desirable, yet increasingly elusive, state of being. 

Yes, we did our best to play along, pretending everything was going to be okay and that we were still in control. On our Zoom calls and socially-distanced meetings, we speculated around when everything would get back to normal. We shifted our focus forward and away from our occurring reality. But, most of us had no tools, or experience, for navigating so many unknown variables, at the same time. 

Many organizations seemingly overreacted, spreading blankets of concern, hope, encouragement, and support, around their workforce. Staying well-connected, remotely, became the new normal, but there was nothing normal about our new reality. And as the weeks became months — and there were still more questions than answers — we grew weary, even frustrated. We yearned for our routines. We missed normal. And, importantly, we lost our perceived sense of control, holding on to what was and resisting change even as it became clear that there was no going back to what used to be normal. 

Appreciating life on life’s terms

Radical acceptance is a conscious choice to accept something as it is; to fully accept life on life’s terms, not our own. Radical acceptance does not necessarily signify agreement or approval, but rather complete acceptance of a situation or scenario that you cannot change. In other words, it is what it is. When we truly acknowledge our inability to change a life variable, and relinquish any sense of control, we have arrived at radical acceptance. 

Radical acceptance, however, is often not an automatic response for most people. But the good news is it can be practiced, learned, and mastered. And resilience is key in this process. Resilience is the ability to cope and recover from adversity; to bounce back into positive action. Let’s look at a concrete example, COVID-19, to explore the role of radical acceptance and resilience as a way of navigating change. 

Coronavirus, and its rippling impact, is currently a life variable that we cannot change today. I think it would be fair to say  real, it is problematic, we do not like it, and we cannot control it. Radical acceptance, and the principles of resilience, provide us with the tools to effectively navigate through this dilemma. 

Initially, connecting with members in their makeshift home offices quickly altered our relationship dynamics. Authenticity, appreciation, and even vulnerability, increased measurably and favorably. Almost immediately, members shifted their focus to developing coping skills while essentially parking their progress on professional development goals. The energy, urgency, and focus changed, and for many members, the emphasis shifted to developing skills for navigating the new normal. 

Struggles around balance, isolation, and overwhelm, replaced effective workplace behaviors or the pursuit of a promotion. Members pivoted to seeking more advice or guidance, perhaps recognizing that they did not know how to handle certain situations or manage unknown variables. There was frustration, exhaustion, confusion, fatigue, concern, fear, and ultimately, resistance. Why? Because members were clinging to what used to be. People got stuck in the problem, questioning why or how it was happening, unable or unwilling to accept, let go, adjust accordingly, and move forward. 

As you can see, or perhaps experienced yourself, radical acceptance was not widespread early on. To maintain a sense of security, many needed to believe that this disruption was just temporary. Although resilience was a professional capability many members relied on routinely at work, transitioning these behaviors within this COVID-19 context was challenging, and not automatic. 

Navigating the hallway between two doors

Recently, most members are moving into shades of acceptance, showing up authentically and owning where they are on the continuum of change, radical acceptance, and resilience. It is becoming clear that our current new normal isn't simply a holding pattern, yet we don’t know what the future will look like. 

There is the old expression about “when one door closes another opens” in the context of disappointment and opportunity, but no one talks about the hallway in between these two doors. The current hallway can be dark or light, our ability to practice radical acceptance and resilience illuminates the difference. Coaching can provide a shift for members to navigate this hallway effectively and optimistically. 

  • Coaches can help members reframe thoughts, beliefs, or actions. Change is incremental as people are still adjusting, discovering how to reinvent, reimagine, or even replace behaviors, attitudes, and perspectives. Members are exploring and learning when to let go of scenarios they cannot control and where to practice the principles of resilience.
  • The active practice of gratitude can also shift our point of view. The simple act of creating a gratitude list can be transformative. For many, the intensity of life has changed as what we value also evolves.  
  • For some, this chapter is a welcome opportunity to show up differently, to contribute, to encourage and enable others. We see leaders really engaging with how to extend empowerment out of necessity in the remote world in a way they might have resisted before. Leaders and managers have come face-to-face with the need to let go of old processes or tools and find new approaches to nurturing innovation and inspiring creative flexibility. 

Slowly, many of us are realizing and appreciating life on life’s terms, we are reconciling our mindsets toward possibilities, not problems. The practice of radical acceptance, with the incorporation of the principles of resilience, provides a pathway forward and the opportunity to redefine — and continue to redefine — normal

Read part 2 of Radical Acceptance here.
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Published November 13, 2020

Rick Reddington, MS, PCC

BetterUp Fellow Coach & PCC

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