We got interested in psychotherapist Marsha Linehan after a reader told us that it was she, not Tara Brach (whom we wrote about here) who first used the Buddhist concept of Radical Acceptance as a therapeutic tool in psychotherapy. It was a groundbreaking approach, as were the treatments she pioneered for patients who were previously written off as hopeless.

Decades into her legendary work, Linehan revealed that as a young woman, she had been one of those “impossible” patients herself, institutionalized, kept in isolation, subjected to shock treatments and high doses of medications, barbaric treatments in response to her repeated self-harm and suicide attempts.

Her memoir, “Building a Life Worth Living” lays out the remarkable story of how she found her way through mental illness to develop a therapy that she realized in hindsight “provides the things I needed for so many years and never got” and that tangibly helps her clients, many of whom are suicidal. Challenges in her own life led her to formulate specific practices to navigate them; they would become Dialectical Behavior Therapy, treatment tools that are widely used today. Radical Acceptance is its foundation.

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Hers is the story of of a deeply resourceful and creative person who wove all of her experience —the profound suffering of her early years, her rigorous studies, her spiritual understanding, her acute self awareness — into a completely unique formulation that shattered the idea of “hopeless”.

The development process was more a gradual evolution…[that] involved much trial and error, false starts, unexpected insights, and lucky breaks as the many different components of the treatment steadily coalesced into a coherent therapy.

Her description of how Radical Acceptance came about gives a sense of her creative path, as does this article in the New York Times. In this compelling series of short videos, she talks about the many components of her work and the techniques she developed.

Radical Acceptance

Acceptance is acknowledging or recognizing facts that are true, and letting go of fighting your reality (and of throwing tantrums). Radical acceptance is accepting all the way, with your mind, your heart, and your body—accepting something from the depths of your soul, opening yourself to fully experiencing reality as it is in this one moment.

…acceptance is the first step toward change. In order to change who/what you are, you must first accept who/what you are. You have to accept reality in order to change it. Reality is what it is. If you don’t like it, you can change it. 

The next skill that’s involved with radical acceptance is “turning the mind.” Radical acceptance is not something you can do just once. You have to do it over and over and over. You have to practice turning the mind toward acceptance. It’s a little bit like walking down a road, and you keep coming to forks in the road. One direction: accepting. The other direction: rejecting. Turning the mind is when you keep turning your mind toward the acceptance road. It can be very hard. You have to practice, over and over and over. It’s like walking through a fog, seeing nothing, nothing, nothing. And then suddenly you emerge into sunlight. The good news is that if you practice turning the mind toward acceptance, eventually you’ll practice acceptance more often. And if you do that, what happens? Suffering gets less intense. Suffering goes down to being ordinary pain.

With thanks to Chris Pulley for alerting us to the amazing roots of Radical Acceptance in psychotherapy.

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