When painful feelings like anger, fear, and shame rear their ugly heads, it’s natural to want to run away from them. But radical acceptance, rather than avoidance, offers the most promising approach for dealing with suffering. In this book summary for Radical Acceptance, you’ll learn about the basics of human suffering and why radical acceptance is the optimal path for making peace with difficult emotions. You’ll also learn why becoming present to your pain enables you to show greater compassion to yourself and others.
Learn how mindfulness and compassion can help you deal with pain.
READ THIS BOOK SUMMARY IF YOU:
- Are interested in some of the basic philosophies of Buddhism
- Sometimes feel flawed, inadequate, or unworthy
- Wonder how compassion and mindfulness can help you through difficult emotions
Feelings of personal inadequacy, basic deficiency, and worthlessness are common human experiences. Most people try to deal with these emotions by avoiding them, but this common approach only makes them worse. The true solution is choosing to compassionately acknowledge and observe these emotions. This path of radical acceptance will make your pain more bearable and teach you how to live a life of increased compassion.
In this book summary, you’ll learn how we all share these human experiences and difficult emotions, as well as the behaviors that we often use to try to avoid feelings of inadequacy. You’ll then explore the basics of radical acceptance and the importance of the sacred pause, wherein you step back from your reactions and give yourself space to observe your emotions. Once you acknowledge your own suffering, you’ll discover the link between personal pain and compassion for others. By embracing radical acceptance, your sense of compassion for yourself and others will grow.
Unworthiness and the Human Condition
As a young college student, Tara Brach, now a psychologist and meditation teacher, felt the perpetual harassment of her self-inflicted judgment. She pushed herself through rigorous academic demands, subjected herself to relentless nitpicking, and struggled with an addiction to food, all because of her deep-seated conviction that something was wrong with her. Brach mercilessly pushed herself to extremes to escape these feelings of inadequacy, but instead of making her feel better, these habits intensified her feelings of loneliness, anxiety, and despair.
Over the course of her career as a therapist and in the various meditation workshops that she led across the country, Brach came to realize that her enduring feelings of worthlessness were not unique to her. Indeed, many people live with the crushing suspicion that they’re irreparably inadequate in some way. This belief that something is wrong with oneself leads many distraught individuals to engage in destructive behaviors, such as developing addictions or chasing toxic relationships. These feelings of basic inadequacy and the fear of being flawed and unworthy are at the heart of human suffering.
Contemporary Western culture, which prioritizes independence and self-reliance, does little to placate these fears. The aforementioned values reinforce the conviction that you must work harder, produce more, and scale an endless succession of heights if you want to be seen as good enough. The competitive nature of academic and professional environments exacerbates this dilemma.
The pain of perceived inadequacy is often too much to bear, so most people do anything they can to prove to themselves and the world that they’re valuable. Perhaps you’ve noticed some of these symptoms in your own life:
- Endless self-improvement. The pain of inadequacy inspires some people to go on a never-ending quest for self-improvement. Perhaps you reassure yourself that you’ll finally be worthy of love once you lose 15 pounds or get a promotion. While these activities aren’t innately harmful, they become detrimental when they’re motivated by the anxiety of never being good enough.
- Holding back and playing it safe. The pain of inadequacy can also cause an unhealthy aversion to risk. For instance, you might fear that any type of failure will remind you of how worthless you feel, so you avoid any activities that could result in a below-average performance. You might not take the risks of being in a relationship, sharing your authentic feelings, or chasing your dreams because you’re afraid that failure will reinforce your worst suspicions about yourself.
- Staying busy. When most people feel inadequate, they tend to seek out distractions to put some distance between themselves and their pain. Every free moment becomes an opportunity to check email, scroll through social media, or watch television. These types of busywork offer a welcome distraction from complex, painful emotions. While these activities might feel soothing, they prevent you from experiencing certain parts of life and from confronting fears and insecurities.
- Withdrawal. As a means of escaping their trickier feelings, most people will do anything to avoid the present moment. Sitting still or enjoying silence are both out of the question. Instead, you might fill your mind with constant preoccupations, like planning for the work week or fantasizing about the future.
- Criticism. Feelings of inadequacy might inspire you to become your own worst critic. Perhaps you berate yourself for not being productive enough at work, or you give yourself a hard time for experiencing certain emotions. You might also become more critical of other people and feel tempted to blame others for your emotions. The more insecure you are, the more difficult it becomes to take responsibility for your actions and admit your faults. It’s easier to lash out at others than to own up to your shortcomings.
While all these behaviors are used as strategies for avoiding your feelings of inadequacy, they inevitably make your pain even worse. Avoiding the risks that might lead to failure reinforces the conviction that you must be flawless to be valuable. An endless string of dieting schemes feeds the fear that you must somehow prove your value. Trying to impress other people only deepens the neural pathways that create your sense of inadequacy. Avoidance and escapism can’t heal the deepseated fear that you’re somehow deficient. The only solution is radical acceptance.
The Basics of Radical Acceptance
Freedom from the burdens of unworthiness and self-loathing is possible, but it requires creating new habits and patterns of thinking. For most, self-criticism and avoidance have become second-nature. Practicing radical acceptance means relearning how you think about yourself and your emotions. It also means developing different reactions to pain.
Radical acceptance begins when you accept everything about yourself and your life. Instead of resisting the life events that trigger your pain, radical acceptance calls you to simply recognize and acknowledge their presence. Radical acceptance happens when you realize that a spouse’s well-intentioned comments have hit the most sensitive parts of your ego, but instead of lashing out, you simply observe the pain. It happens when the possibility of failure triggers your feelings of inadequacy, but instead of running away from risk, you choose to take note of your emotions.
One of the big lessons of radical acceptance is that pain and sorrow don’t necessarily require action. You might experience difficult emotions, but you don’t need to run away, pick a fight, or get drunk because of them. You don’t need to escape your pain to survive it. Instead, you can choose to regard your emotions with clarity, respect, and compassion.
Radical acceptance has two components: a clear awareness and compassion. Clear awareness, or mindfulness, is the process by which you come to accurately see your emotions. It occurs when you realize that your tendency to overwork yourself is caused by fear of inadequacy, or you see that you’re overly critical of your children because your parents were hard on you. Mindfulness is crucial to peace because you can’t honestly accept your emotions if you don’t see them for what they are.
Compassion is the moment when you choose to hold yourself in a tender embrace to help yourself cope. Most people tend to think of compassion as the process of relating sympathetically to other people, but it’s just as important to relate sympathetically to yourself. When you experience difficult emotions, you might feel the temptation to criticize yourself for feeling them. You might chastise yourself for overreacting or for being silly enough to get so upset. However, when you’re in the throes of emotional turbulence, it’s counterproductive to blame yourself for your feelings. Instead, try treating yourself the same way you’d treat a close friend. Give yourself permission to feel sympathy and tenderness for yourself.
The Sacred Pause
Radical acceptance requires space. In moments of turmoil, it demands that you step away from your reactive impulses and observe the emotions that make you want to punch a colleague or guzzle a bottle of vodka. Slowing down in these highstress moments isn’t easy, but it’s essential for the process of making peace with your pain.
To experience the necessary space for radical acceptance, begin a practice of taking a sacred pause. When your emotions feel overwhelmingly strong, and you feel compelled to react, the sacred pause calls you to step back. What might happen if, instead of rushing from one acting-out behavior to the next, you took a moment to observe the events of your inner life? What if you spent a little time watching your emotions instead of simply reacting to them?
Meditation is the space in which you can strengthen your sacred pause. It allows you to practice the action of stepping back from your thoughts rather than running off with them. Think of meditation as your training gym: It’s the space where you can strengthen your sacred pause muscles so that you’ll have them in times of need. If you can train yourself to simply pause and observe your emotions for 10 minutes a day, you’ll be able to react in healthy ways to life’s provocations. When your mother’s comments touch a nerve or the risks of failure make you want to curl into a ball, you’ll know how to slow down and see your feelings — instead of picking a fight or falling into a tailspin of self-hatred and regret.
Remember, avoidance and escapism only strengthen your inner demons. When you shun the difficult emotions that trigger your pain, you give them greater power over you. The more you try to control the circumstances of your life, the harder it will be for you to experience contentment. Carl Jung observed that the unfaced and unfelt dimensions of the human psyche are the ones that are responsible for all suffering. To heal the pain of your fear and shame, you must practice pausing, stepping back, and observing.
Throughout his life, the Buddha was visited by Mara, a personified form of all temptation, suffering, and distress. However, instead of fighting with Mara, the Buddha met him with unconditional friendliness. He made Mara a cup of tea and served him as an honored guest.
Most people have developed the habit of being a fair-weather friend to themselves. Maybe you’re capable of liking yourself, but it only happens on the rare occasion when a raise or recent weight loss causes you to feel temporarily successful and worthy of affection. However, once radical acceptance becomes a habit, you’ll have the ability to be kind to yourself in any moment. Like the Buddha, you’ll simply acknowledge the sources of pain and adversity in your life and show yourself compassion in any circumstance.
Unconditional friendliness can be experienced in the simple act of saying “yes”. For instance, if you’re in the middle of a meditation session, you might experience all kinds of distractions: a sore knee, financial angst, or festering resentment. When you practice unconditional friendliness, you choose to affirm the existence of such irritations rather than escaping them. Saying “yes” means that you intentionally acknowledge your stress or resentment, and you accept that these parts of life exist instead of trying to suppress them.
Pain and Compassion
The ability to experience pain is intertwined with the capacity for compassion. Compassion is the power to feel with another person. It’s the ability to comfort a friend who has lost their job, or the willingness to accompany your sister to her chemotherapy treatments. Just as you can feel the pain of other people, you also have the power to feel your own pain. Embracing suffering is an invitation to be present to yourself, as you would be with a cherished friend. The visceral tenderness of suffering is also the tenderness of love. This is the hopeful message of the Buddha: When your heart is touched by suffering, your power for compassion increases. Experiencing pain and demonstrating compassion are two sides of the same coin.
To demonstrate self-compassion, begin by naming the source of your sorrow. Be explicit and tell yourself that you’re sorry for your suffering, just as you might apologize to a dear friend who has experienced a recent loss. Remind yourself that you really do care about your own suffering. This process may be easier if you can identify a physical manifestation of your pain. Does financial anxiety take root in your tense shoulders, or does the heartache of a breakup cause your chest to feel tight? Put a hand to your heart or give yourself a little shoulder massage as a reminder that you care about your suffering.
Your ability for self-compassion also builds your capacity to show compassion to other people. As you identify your emotions and hold them gently, you’ll realize that your emotions are not solely your own. Many people experience the pain of a breakup, the upheavals that follow the death of a parent, or the disappointments of a failed business venture. You’re not the only person to experience these forms of despair. Once you know how to compassionately engage with your own suffering, you’ll have the power to do the same for others.
Everyone experiences the same basic fear: the deeply ingrained suspicion that you’re not good enough. Even the most mundane aspects of life can trigger these intense fears. Critical feedback from colleagues, an innocent remark from a spouse, or a conflict with a friend can cause feelings of deficiency to flare up.
In these moments, the natural response is to react: lash out and set your colleagues straight, force your spouse to sleep on the couch, or call your friend on his hypocrisy. But these reactions fail to solve the issue at hand because they don’t address the true culprit of your difficult emotions. Instead, they create a distance between you and your emotions that only fuels their fire.
However, you have choices when it comes to dealing with these difficult feelings. Instead of practicing avoidance, you can use radical acceptance to become aware of your emotions and hold them with compassion. By drawing nearer to your pain instead of resisting it, you can increase your compassion for yourself and for the people around you.
About the author
Tara Brach’s clinical psychology practice blends Western psychology with Eastern spiritual practices. She has conducted meditation workshops across the country, and is the founder of the Insight Meditation Community in Washington, D.C.