A joke I read on the internet goes, “When I was a kid I used to pray every night for a new bicycle. Then I realised that the Lord doesn’t work that way so I stole one and asked Him to forgive me.”
When I read this joke, I think about therapy. I mean, these days there are very few things I can read without thinking about therapy – it gets under your skin like that, which I suppose is sort of the point – but anyway, when I read this joke, I think about something very particular relating to therapy: radical acceptance.
Radical acceptance is taught as part of DBT, as a “distress tolerance skill.” If you look beyond the jargon, it means total unflinching acceptance of the way things are, and the way things have been. If that sounds like a lot of stuff to accept, it’s because it is, so this is going to be a series of posts. For now, I am going to focus on self-acceptance, and come back to acceptance of other people or external situations another day. For a long time I struggled to see what was so radical about the whole idea, because it seemed like such a cliché. Oh good, I thought, another mental health professional dropping platitudes on my head from the lofty height of their superior wellness. Have you tried accepting all this stuff about yourself that you really hate? About as helpful as the time the crisis house support worker looked me in the eye and asked, with huge and patronising sincerity, “Have you tried… looking at the positives?”
But. Time has passed and I have practiced and I am beginning to see it. What this probably means is that therapy’s effectiveness depends on the relationship between the therapist and the client – that the key factor is someone staying with me long enough to show me how to do it, rather than telling me what to do – but that is perhaps a discussion for another post. The “radical”, according to my DBT textbook refers to the fact that the acceptance is “all the way, complete and total.” But actually, self-acceptance is a new enough concept to me for it to be radical in every sense of the word: it is politically radical, in a culture hell-bent on making you buy stuff to fix everything that is wrong with you, to refuse to accept the premise of the adverts; it is radical in the newness of it, the depth to which it requires a shift in how I talk to myself on a day-to-day basis. It is absolutely exhausting.
If I am starting to get it, though, there is a long way to go before I am completely sold on the idea, which brings me back to the bicycle joke. Accepting myself, and accepting things I have done which I regret, feels so much like letting myself off the hook. The textbook says, “Radical acceptance is not approval… or against change.” But still, it feels like if I accept the things I have got wrong – never finishing my degree, saying that stupid thing which upset someone, making a mistake at work – then it will be easier for me to allow myself to repeat the behaviour. I’ll start thinking it’s fine to steal bicycles because I can just ask myself for radical acceptance.
 Yeah, therapy is basically being back at school – they set homework and everything