2 Ways To Reconcile The 'Acceptance Versus Change' Paradox

Research shows how acceptance and change, although seemingly contradictory, often go hand-in-hand.

Mark Travers, Ph.D.

By Mark Travers, Ph.D. | April 29, 2024

The paradox of acceptance and change often appears contradictory. How can one accept a situation while simultaneously striving to change it? At first glance, acceptance and change seem like opposing forces, pulling us in different directions. Acceptance may imply resignation, surrendering to the status quo, while change suggests an active pursuit of something different.

However, these processes are not mutually exclusive, they are complementary. Acceptance is actually the prerequisite to meaningful change. It involves acknowledging reality without denial or resistance and making peace with what cannot be altered in the present moment while acknowledging the potential for growth and transformation in the future. Only by accepting our circumstances, no matter how uncomfortable, can we understand our situation and take steps toward change.

Here are two practical ways to navigate this paradox and find harmony between acceptance and change.

1. Practice Radical Acceptance

Built upon the principles of Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT), the concept of "radical acceptance" is a strategy to embrace unchangeable emotions, thoughts and circumstances. Essentially, radical acceptance entails fully embracing reality as it exists, without attempting to alter it or wish it away. It means saying yes to the present moment, even when it brings discomfort or pain, recognizing that resistance only intensifies suffering. This practice demands courage and self-compassion, urging us to confront our deepest fears and vulnerabilities without hesitation.

When we practice radical acceptance, we free ourselves from the exhausting struggle against the inevitable. Instead, we find liberation in surrendering to what lies beyond our control. This doesn't mean passively resigning ourselves to fate. It's the acknowledgement that genuine change begins with acceptance. By releasing the grip of resistance, we create space for clarity and insight, enabling us to discern the most effective course of action.

Embracing radical acceptance thus opens up a realm of possibilities and transformation. It allows us to break free from our ingrained cognitive patterns and expectations, leading to new perspectives and opportunities. With this newfound clarity and freedom, we can take decisive action toward transformation, knowing that we are worthy, regardless of the outcome.

2. Explore Acceptance And Commitment Therapy (ACT)

According to research, Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) centers on the foundational understanding that pain, grief, disappointment, illness and anxiety are inherent aspects of the human experience. Its therapeutic aim is to help individuals adapt to these challenges by cultivating psychological flexibility, rather than employing ineffective methods to eradicate or repress undesirable feelings.

ACT emphasizes six core processes to enhance psychological flexibility and align behaviors with long-term values rather than fleeting impulses. These processes include:

  • Defusion. This addresses the tendency to treat verbal descriptions as absolute truths, which can lead to inflexible responses. For example, someone fearing public speaking might interpret their nervousness as incompetence, avoiding such situations altogether. Defusion techniques aim to reduce the influence of verbal descriptions on behavior, allowing for a more objective assessment of thoughts.
  • Acceptance. This involves willingly experiencing automatic, sometimes unwanted, emotions or sensations without attempting to control them. Research consistently shows that using acceptance-based strategies boosts task persistence, unlike avoiding anxiety-triggering situations, which can limit fulfillment.
  • Being present. Working alongside acceptance and defusion, being present helps individuals respond to current environmental demands rather than getting stuck in past or future thoughts. It involves voluntarily engaging with the present environment, allowing for more effective adaptation and performance.
  • Self as context. This refers to the ability to observe one's thoughts, feelings and behaviors from a detached perspective. It helps individuals detach from negative self-judgments and respond more adaptively to challenging situations.
  • Values. This involves identifying meaningful principles that guide behavior, distinct from goals. For example, valuing family time means prioritizing activities like spending quality time together, communicating openly and supporting each other's growth. Living by these values means making decisions and taking actions that align with these principles, serving as a compass for navigating life's challenges.
  • Committed action. Committed action in clinical practice mirrors traditional behavioral methods, extending valued behaviors within the framework of psychological flexibility. This typically involves setting achievable goals aligned with established values. For example, someone with exercise anxiety may aim to walk for an hour, three times a week, to prioritize their value of maintaining a healthy lifestyle.

Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) thus encourages individuals to learn to live a more meaningful and fulfilling life, even in the face of uncertainty and change. ACT teaches us that acceptance is not about resignation but about making conscious choices that move us closer to the life we want to live.

The paradox of acceptance and change is not a dilemma to be solved but rather a dynamic interplay to be embraced. Remember, true change begins with acceptance—so embrace the present moment, with all its imperfections and trust in the power of change to lead you toward a brighter future.

Do you give in to catastrophizing when you should be more accepting? Take the Anxiety Sensitivity Test to learn more.

A similar version of this article can also be found on, here.

© Psychology Solutions 2024. All Rights Reserved.