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How Radical Acceptance Helped Me Process My Diabetes Diagnosis

Living Well

May 28, 2024

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Photography by Ivan Andrianov/Stocksy United

Photography by Ivan Andrianov/Stocksy United

by Sarah Graves, PhD


Medically Reviewed by:

Kelly Wood, MD


by Sarah Graves, PhD


Medically Reviewed by:

Kelly Wood, MD


Dealing with chronic illness is tough. It can involve a host of negative feelings. But it’s possible to move forward by practicing radical acceptance.

I’ve been living with type 2 diabetes for 17 years, and during that time, I’ve felt a lot of feelings — everything from disappointment to grief to anger and a persistent sense of unfairness.

I’ve written, for example, about my continual attempts to “cure” my type 2 diabetes with just about every diet program that made such promises.

But while my sister was able to put her type 2 diabetes into remission simply by following a low-carb diet — after two decades of trying nearly everything there was to try — my diabetes has only progressed. Hence, the sense of “unfairness.”

My inability to fix the situation left me no choice but to accept it. However, rather than promoting an attitude of “giving up,” acceptance had many positive mental and physical health benefits.

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What is radical acceptance?

Radical acceptance is a dialectical behavior therapy (DBT) distress-tolerance skill introduced by American psychologist Marsha Linehan, Ph.D., in 1993 to help people learn to use mindfulness and regulate their emotions.

In its simplest terms, radical acceptance is a way of learning to accept the things we cannot change. 

At first, I had trouble with this idea because I thought it meant agreeing with the situation or saying everything was OK. But radical acceptance doesn’t mean you and I have to like having a chronic illness or that we shouldn’t feel our feelings.

Instead, I learned it’s about processing our emotions so I don’t get stuck in a place of pain and suffering.

Painful feelings like grief, distress, and disappointment are a part of life. But if we don’t process and move through the feelings, they can become a cause of ongoing suffering and lead to chronic anxiety, depression, and addiction, which is often a way to cope with unprocessed painful emotions. 

On the other hand, practicing radical acceptance allows us to process our feelings to move forward.

After all, we may be stuck with a chronic illness for the rest of our lives. But when we can accept what we can’t change and move on, we can find joy and happiness even in the face of this kind of challenge.

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How radical acceptance helped me

Chief among the benefits of acceptance is the preservation of my mental sanity. I no longer make myself crazy trying to change something I cannot change. As a result, I can be more present and find little moments of joy in my everyday life, even when I have to take special care of myself because of my condition.

I no longer buy into the false promises of each new miracle diet cure.

Even though I’m far from giving up on taking care of myself, acceptance has granted me the ability to truly care for myself.

For instance, I no longer buy into the false promises of each new miracle diet cure. Now, I take a much more balanced approach to food rather than persisting in extreme dieting, which can come with negative health effects that worsen my diabetes.

Additionally, letting go of the constant pursuit of a “cure” has allowed me to focus on the things my body tells me I need rather than the next fad diet or influencer  — things like rest, healthy food, exercise, and participation in activities that bring me joy and feed my soul.

So, it may seem like we’re giving up, but it’s the opposite. Accepting what we cannot change might be one of the most powerful things we can do for our overall health.

How I apply radical acceptance

I practice radical acceptance in several ways based on the original overview of it by Linehan. Here are some steps to help you get started:

Acknowledge the present situation

It’s OK to admit that our current situation sucks. Because it does. But it’s also the hand we’ve been dealt, and it will best help us move on if we can look at the present nonjudgmentally. In other words, radical acceptance is first and foremost about accepting the situation as reality.

Let myself safely feel my emotions

To move past our negative feelings rather than allowing them to evolve into chronic anger, anxiety, and depression, we need to feel our feelings. It’s OK to grieve for the life we had before our diagnosis or the life we could’ve had without chronic illness. 

Notice my thoughts and let go of judgment

I pay attention to how I talk to myself about my illness. For example, I’ve often caught myself thinking, “It’s not fair,” or “Why is this happening to me?”

But none of us want to get stuck in this kind of internal loop because it will keep us from moving on with our lives. The first step to shifting it is to notice your thoughts without judgment, as though you’re witnessing what’s happening in your mind.

Then, after the thoughts pass, I chase them with an accepting statement such as, “It is what it is.”

I use mindfulness practices to understand my feelings

I often use journaling to help me understand and process my feelings. You can also try talking to a trusted friend or therapist. 

I remind myself that I can’t control the situation

This might be a tough step for people who like feeling a sense of control. But by acknowledging that a situation is out of my hands isn’t giving up. Instead, it can be the very thing that I need to move on.

After all, if I can’t control it, there’s no sense in making myself miserable over it.

Imagine what things would be like if I accepted the situation and acted ‘as if’

It can help me move on by focusing on who I would be—what I’d think, feel, and behave—if I accepted the situation.

Maybe you’ll ask yourself, how would my life be different? Then, act as if you’re thinking, feeling, and doing these things until it becomes a reality.

I use breathing exercises

I’ve read that holding negative emotions creates tension in our bodies. Relaxation techniques or mindfulness practices can help relieve this tension. For example, when I’m experiencing anxiety, I take a few deep belly breaths.

I practice all the time

The most important thing to remember about radical acceptance is it’s a skill that takes practice. We have to be patient with ourselves and know that we may continue to experience grief or disappointment about our chronic illness. But the more we practice radical acceptance, the more capable we’ll become at moving forward.

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The takeaway

Life is full of unexpected challenges, many of which are out of our control, such as a chronic illness like type 2 diabetes. It can be hard to move past negative feelings about your condition, especially if you’re dealing with symptoms that cause physical pain or disability or otherwise impede your ability to live “normally.”

It also doesn’t help when you’re doing everything you’re supposed to, and a chronic illness gets worse anyway. I’ve been there.

You don’t have to like it. But allowing yourself to process your negative feelings and accept the things you cannot change means you can continue focusing on the things that bring your life meaning and joy, even in the face of chronic illness.

Medically reviewed on May 28, 2024

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About the author

Sarah Graves, PhD

Sarah Graves, Ph.D. is a Columbus-based writer, English instructor, baking enthusiast, and mom to a superhero in training. She was diagnosed with type 2 diabetes in 2007 and is passionate about dispelling myths and sharing her experiences living with this condition. Her words have appeared all over the web in publications like USA Today, Healthline, and Tiny Beans, where she’s written on diverse topics such as education, parenting, personal finance, and health and wellness. Connect with her on Instagram or through her website.

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