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Finding Relief in Circumstances Beyond Your Control

Use the Serenity Prayer to help you cope with problems beyond your control.

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God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,

The courage to change the things I can,

And the wisdom to know the difference.

—Reinhold Niebhur

The Serenity Prayer goes to the heart of so much fear and suffering. Being human means that we are frequently faced with forces greater than us that cause pain. It just seems so unfair when demands are higher than we feel we can meet; we are overwhelmed by national crises; diagnosed with a debilitating illness; or are victims of hateful prejudice. While our inclination is often to hide, ignore, or rail against that reality, such responses only cause more – and self-created – suffering. So, when you are facing more than you feel you can bear, it is worth considering what each line of this prayer means for you.

God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change

I’ve seen many people reject this phrase for two main reasons. First, some are turned off by the appeal to God. If that’s you, don’t stop reading. Simply skip over that reference – it has no effect on the powerful wisdom offered by everything else that follows.

Next, many people have strong objections to the idea of “accepting” that they cannot change some things. In Alcoholics Anonymous (where this prayer is often cited), accepting relates to people being “powerless” over their addiction. The problem here is that people think that they are being told to be okay with something or to believe that it is a good thing. For instance, someone might think, “How can I accept that I have breast cancer?”

But “acceptance” makes sense when you think of it as just acknowledging reality. You accept that the current circumstance exists. Rather than refusing to accept that you have breast cancer, an addiction, or some other problem that is beyond your ultimate control, you accept that the problem exists. By doing this, you are free to feel your emotional reaction to the circumstance, such as anger, sadness, or fear. You can also then focus your energy on doing what you can to deal constructively with the situation, which leads to the second sentence.

If you recognize a need to accept what is but are having difficulty doing it, then you at least know where you need to focus. People with greater acceptance are often compassionately self-aware. They are better able to attend to their pain with self-compassion. Fortunately, compassionate self-awareness is a skill that you can learn and nurture.

The courage to change the things I can

Looking directly at a painfully difficult situation takes courage. You must overcome the desire to ignore, run, or reactively battle against the problem. It requires you to face the painful situation – to feel painful emotions, determine what to do next, and then do those things.

And the wisdom to know the difference.

Unfortunately, whether or not you can change a situation is not always clear. Sometimes the confusion is caused by being so upset that it is difficult to emotionally accept a given reality. Sometimes the line between whether or not we have the power to effect change is truly blurry. When it comes to addiction, many explain that people need to “hit bottom” before they accept that their problem is beyond what mere willpower can overcome. At that point, they can also accept that recovery requires outside help.

Using a different example, consider the fact that couples who seek therapy are unhappy for an average of six years before getting help. When they finally choose to get therapy, their relationship has often come so undone that it may be beyond repair. They must ask themselves: Is it time to accept that the relationship is over? If not, can we muster the strength and courage to work through the problems? And, which option matches our reality better?

Together, the three lines of the Serenity Prayer can guide you through powerfully difficult times. When you are suffering and have a sense that you’ve lost your bearings, reflect on this simple prayer. It may provide you with just the right guidance for how best to proceed in your life.

To learn more about nurturing acceptance through compassionate self-awareness, check out this brief video:

(If you don't see the video, click here.)

Making Change blog posts are for general educational purposes only. They may or may not be relevant for your particular situation; and they should not be relied upon as a substitute for professional assistance.

Making change through compassionate self-awareness