Many people struggle with the idea of acceptance, but those of us afflicted with addictions seem to be fighting more of an uphill battle in this area. It may seem paradoxical, but although recovery is all about making positive changes, we can only incur those changes once we accept our present circumstances.
The concept of Dialectical Thinking sums this paradox up rather well. Dialectical Thinking is based on the fact that everything is interconnected somehow – even those things which appear to be direct opposites from one another.
A dialectic, the key concept of Dialectical Thinking, consists of opposite ideas that come together in harmony to create a greater whole. It is, essentially, a dialogue between two conflicting points of view. But unlike an argument or debate, where there may be a clear “right” or “wrong,” a dialectic holds both points of view as equally valid – coming to an understanding that there is an integral relationship between the two sides.
Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT), Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) and the 12 Steps all employ the dialectic of acceptance and change – acknowledging the healing ability of accepting one’s present circumstances while taking action toward healthy change wherever possible. The Serenity Prayer is an ideal representation of this dialectic.
The power of the Serenity Prayer
The simple words of the Serenity Prayer ring clear in the hearts and minds of those suffering from substance use disorders throughout the world. For many, this prayer serves as a daily touchstone, reminding us that in order to achieve serenity, we must approach each moment with a certain degree of acceptance, surrender, wisdom, and courage.
“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.”
We could argue that what blocks many of us with addictions from achieving serenity in our daily lives is our intense desire for total control – one that is simply not possible for human beings, but which we strive for regardless. We often attempt to deal with the actions and opinions of others, as well as our own feelings, by self-medicating them with drugs and alcohol. Both of these strategies, we have found, are doomed to failure. Yet, the cycle continues until we surrender to the circumstances we cannot change.
The Serenity Prayer as a tool
The Serenity Prayer is a valuable tool that can be useful to people of all faiths and backgrounds. Not religious? No problem! I specifically recall an atheist friend in recovery saying (and I’m paraphrasing here), “I don’t believe in God, so I don’t ask that He grant me anything. But, I do strive for wisdom, and I believe the serenity prayer encompasses the framework to find it.”
The Serenity Prayer creates a kind of mental flow chart in our minds that easily breaks down each situation we encounter in life.
Can I change this? > No > Acceptance.
Can I change this? > Yes > Courage.
Can I change this? > Don’t Know > Wisdom.
Acceptance & change
If we stop and think about it, everything in life can be placed into one of two categories: things we can change, or at least influence in some way, and things we cannot change or influence. When we are up against a challenge or unsettling situation, taking some time to analyze it from this perspective can help us compartmentalize our circumstances into groups, making our lives more manageable.
If the challenge is something we cannot control, the issue then becomes how to facilitate acceptance. In contract, if we can change our situation, how do we take action to better our circumstances in healthy and purposeful ways? We will often find that what we can control is our response to a situation, not the situation itself.
Wisdom to know the difference
The last section of the Serenity Prayer is perhaps the most interesting – and the most difficult to implement: “…the wisdom to know the difference.” It is essentially, in my opinion, the most succinct and personal judgment-call ever written. Simply put, it’s a way of asking ourselves, “Should I try and change this?” It’s a tough call, without a doubt, but it gets easier with sufficient healing and self awareness.
Dialectical Behavioral Therapy focuses on finding the “wisdom” piece of the puzzle – that point of balance that isn’t always smack down the middle. Think of it like learning to ride a bike: you frequently swerved to the left and right before you found your equilibrium. The “wisdom to know the difference” is quite similar. We can find ourselves moving back and forth between acceptance and change – like a pendulum – before we determine our center.
Overall, the Serenity Prayer is a valuable resource to keep on hand – helping us co-exist more peacefully with what we can’t control, as well as exercise greater conscious choice over how we act when presented with the need for change.