Ingrid Clayton Ph.D.

Emotional Sobriety

Turning It Over

Reflections on surrender and spiritual development

Posted May 13, 2013

I grew up with the following prayer:

Now I lay me down to sleep

I pray the Lord my soul to keep

If I should die before I wake

I pray the Lord my soul to take

It was promptly followed by a list of all the people that I loved in my life: “God Bless Grandma and Grandpa and…”

Later in life, when I was introduced to the practices of prayer and meditation through a 12-Step program, this simple prayer became the foundation on which I built a new relationship to my Higher Power. What I remember most about early recovery was that the words I used to pray didn’t really matter. I was trying to say, “God, I feel lost, alone and terrified. I don’t know if you exist but I sincerely need your help.” Although my childhood prayer didn’t speak precisely to my longing, the earnestness with which I was saying it led to a feeling of deep connection. It was my vulnerability and willingness to ask for help that allowed me to connect, not a particular prayer for a particular purpose to a particular God.

This earnestness and openness only lasted for so long. I can easily fall prey to intellectualization, and so eventually I got “smarter” about what it meant to be in recovery and to cultivate conscious contact with a Higher Power. Consequently, my prayers got “smarter” too. 

With this “advancement” in intellect came a whole host of problems. Prayer was no longer in service of vulnerability and connection. It became a defense against having to feel my feelings. If I couldn’t tolerate frustration or sadness, I could pray for God to take those feelings away (avoidance). Prayer also became a tool for acquisition. If God was all-powerful and could arrest my addiction, why couldn’t he find me a husband or buy me a house? (control). Prayer became a way to identify with the “good girl” side of me―the one who thinks she will be taken care of if she behaves properly. This seductive stance allowed the illusion of discarding the “bad” or dysfunctional parts of me by leaning solely towards the “good” (false self).

The trouble with all of these strategies is that I remained human and whole, powerless and dynamic. Praying to God with the unconscious intentions of avoidance and compartmentalization left me feeling ashamed. My shame grew deeper the more I disavowed my feelings and the complexity of the human condition. The more ashamed I became, the less I could be vulnerable, and I was ultimately moving away from the things I most desired: humility, acceptance, love and connection. In the big picture, spirituality doesn’t render us saints. So, spiritual practice has to return to the earnestness and openness that includes our entire reality, not just the one we are trying to construct. I’ve written a great deal on these ideas as they relate to spiritual bypass in my book, but today I want to talk more about the evolution of my own process as it relates to Step 3.

The essence of Step 3 is to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God, as we understood Him. In short, we are asked to “turn it over.” This begs the question, “what exactly am I turning over?” And the subtext, “what are my opinions and preferences about how I would like things to go?” Of course, I wasn’t aware that this was my process. I truly thought that I was surrendering and opening myself and my life to God’s will―and I was to the degree that it was possible at the time. But when you have no real experience of relinquishing control in a fashion that serves you, it is difficult (and probably unwise) to completely step off the ledge. So, we do the best that we can with what we have at the time. I had to start from where I was and move out from there. What follows are three experiences I have subsequently had on my personal road towards surrender and serenity.

If God is good, He would want me to be good and to have good things.

Trying to wrap my head around a personal relationship with a Higher Power led to some interesting ideas about what I thought God would want for me in any given situation. My thinking was based on ideas of right and wrong, moral codes, spiritual teachings, and of course―my personal opinions. The problem here was that I wasn’t actually turning anything over. I was doing my best to behave “better.” While there is a place for behavior modification in recovery, and in growth and development generally, this orientation falls short when it comes to surrender. When I am deciding what is best (even when it is based on spiritual teachings) I am determining an outcome. This means that I am still trying to control and manage my life and am not, in fact, turning anything over.

We sometimes think that in order to “succeed” in life, we need to play a certain role, or lead with our “best selves.” This is true in certain contexts. It’s suggested that you highlight your strengths on a job interview for instance. But when it comes to recovery and to being authentic human beings on a spiritual path, we have to include all of who we are. I’ve written about giving ourselves permission to be human, and becoming more of who you are in earlier posts. The basic point is that we don’t need to be perfect to be spiritual. We don’t have to overcompensate for our flaws and frailties. We need to acknowledge that one part doesn’t define the whole and that spirituality can be a compassionate container for the entire human experience.

If I really let go, I might have to feeeeeeeel something.

Eventually, I became more open to the idea that there was a Higher Power, and that I wasn’t it. This meant that I ultimately didn’t know what was best for me and could let go of the way I thought things should be. When I looked back on my life and saw how my best ideas had either led me (or would have led me if I had got what I wanted) into a heap of trouble and how the best things in my life were often nowhere on my radar, I began to create a little more room for God to direct my thinking and a little more room for me to exist as a whole person in the process.

However, there was still a catch. I’m a big fan of instant gratification and so I thought that if I was earnestly turning things over, I should get some instant feedback. If God wanted me to show up in a particular way, He had better immediately change me into the sort of person He would have me be. If God wanted me to make a particular choice, He had better allow me to make it effortlessly, perfectly and without hesitation. Without such clear and direct feedback, I was left in this terrible limbo, which had me feeling like I was far too exposed and potentially “doing it wrong.” There was no room for a process. No room for divine timing. Just a feel-good junkie who still wanted what she wanted, when she wanted it.

In the absence of instantaneous fixes and direction, I was faced with my humanity in a way that was almost excruciating. If I wasn’t aligning myself with something that I thought was “good,” and I was open to eventualities that I couldn’t see coming, that meant I was OPEN. Open to possibilities (and feelings of uncertainty and anxiety). Open to my vulnerability (and feelings of shame, grief and doubt). This meant that I really was powerless over people, places, things, my addiction, my personality, my LIFE―and this was frightening!

But there is good news. Being that open means experiencing the fullness of the present moment, of the great reality, and all of who I am and who I am becoming. I become less fragmented, which gives me greater compassion and the ability to make healthier choices. I’m less likely to swirl down in a shame spiral and more available to be honest with my friends and family. When control is underlying our attempt at surrender, the incongruence becomes more painful then the reality we are attempting to avoid. When we have to disavow aspects of ourselves in order to connect, that’s not real connection. When we have to jump through hoops in order to please, we aren’t in healthy relationship, we are being co-dependent (even with God). Surrender means bringing our whole selves to the table, and being open to whatever comes next, in whatever timing it arrives. That brings us to the third stop on this road to spiritual development.

I may be confused, overwhelmed, and afraid … but I am not alone, unworthy or travelling without great purpose.

With almost two decades of experience with Step 3, I can say that my concept of a Higher Power has changed a million times. My willingness to turn things over perpetually waxes and wanes, but I have consistent proof that I have always been taken care of, that I always get what I need, and when I seek God’s will for my life and make my spiritual pursuits more important than my human desires, my life evolves in a way that is nothing short of miraculous.

I now have a personal experience of Step 3 where I can pause in most circumstances, ask for my Higher Power’s guidance, and immediately trust that I have it. I may not feel differently or receive instant feedback, but I know that I have earnestly sought God’s will and consequently moved out of my own way. I have released my opinions on how I think things should go, which eases my nervous system from a state of fight or flight into conscious contact with the present moment.

I know that God as I understand Him/Her is hilarious, creative, wise, resourceful, abundant, compassionate, efficient, and the list goes on and on. No part of me goes unattended. I don’t have to wrangle for control and try to surrender at the same time because I have no doubt that letting it all go is in my best interest. This doesn’t mean I don’t throw the occasional tantrum (I still have some ideas about what I want for my life and feelings about whether or not I get them) but in the big picture I trust that even my longing has a purpose that is wiser than I.

Step 3 is no longer a particular prayer, or a suggestion that someone makes in the face of my discomfort. It is the way that I live my life. It works me much more than I work it, and for that I am tremendously grateful. And here is where the spiritual paradox comes in to play. As I acknowledge more of my limited perception and personal powerlessness to make things happen, I gain more resources to show up for my life in a very powerful way. I find that God does indeed “do for me what I cannot do for myself.” I can’t stress this point enough. Every time that I truly get out of my own way, and surrender like I did in the early days of recovery, I get just as miraculous a result. When I absolutely could not or would not take an action one day, I have been given the courage and resources to take it the next. Where I have had confusion, I have been given clarity. As I let go of my agendas, I can work with what is happening without trying to manipulate it into something else. This gives me more energy and less stress. However, it can all look a little messy at times. When I’m not working so hard for things to appear “spiritual” and “recovered”–I can look “unspiritual” and “unrecovered.” But there is a large difference between reckless abandon and surrendering your life in a spiritual context. Even when, to the untrained eye, the details could seem to fall in either category.

I wish you well on your continued journey towards emotional sobriety and I would love to hear about your process with turning things over in the comments section. I remain fascinated with the way in which our embodied selves navigate this spiritual path and trust that in decades to come, I will have access to subtleties that remain unavailable to me now.

Ingrid Mathieu, Ph.D. is a clinical psychologist and author of Recovering Spirituality: Achieving Emotional Sobriety in Your Spiritual Practice.

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Copyright by Ingrid Mathieu, Ph.D., 2013. All rights reserved. Any excerpts reproduced from this article should include links to the original on Psychology Today.