Facilitating Acceptance, Part II: 
The Serenity Prayer

The Serenity Prayer

The serenity prayer is central to 12 step programs, such as Alcoholics Anonymous and the various other “anonymous” groups.   Outside the context
of 12-step as well, the prayer helps many people to handle daily life issues.  With the prayer’s concepts, one learns to “live life on life’s terms” and cope with reality.   Instead of using a substance, a process, or a relationship for instant gratification and to escape unwanted realities, the participant learns how to manage reality, either through hard acceptance or by working to change it when possible. 

The final request of this 3 part prayer is for the “wisdom to know the difference,” to be able to discern and determine which realities are unchangeable and should be accepted, and which of them could be changed and therefore require change efforts. The importance of this cannot be overemphasized; trying to change what can’t be changed is a recipe for frustration and misery.  Similarly, accepting what could be changed results in selling ourselves short and settling. Therefore, it’s important to gain clarity and wisdom about which battles to fight and which ones to surrender to.  Incorrect judgment in making this determination leads to great turmoil.

Acceptance within the change

When reading the Serenity Prayer, it might seem that the “changeable” realities require only change efforts, and that acceptance is relevant only to the “unchangeable” ones.  However, even those realities that we “can change” could benefit from some acceptance. 

Most change takes time; weight loss takes months or even years in order to reach the goal.  For much of that time, the dieter may be upset and disturbed that he or she is still overweight.  Ideally, this disturbance should capitalized upon and utilized to motivate change efforts; no change will happen unless we are unhappy with the way things are.  More often than not, though, our emotional upset is excessive and even counterproductive, such as leading to hopelessness, depression, despair, and giving up. 

We need wisdom in order to walk the tight rope between how much disturbance and how much acceptance to employ.  On this tight rope, we can accept that things are the way they are, at least for right now, and that they haven’t changed yet.  At the same time, we shouldn’t give up hope that tomorrow will hopefully yield desired change.   “Ok, I’m overweight today, and that’s not going to change right now.  I will choose to accept this, so it won’t bring me down (into disturbance).  However, I won’t give up hope about change for the future; I’m going to continue my work towards my goal.  I will allow myself to be somewhat unhappy about the situation, so that this can motivate me to keep trying.  But, I will keep that unhappiness in check, so it won’t sabotage my efforts.”

Change within the acceptance

Acceptance isn’t a process that just happens.  It requires change as well.  Why was someone in disturbance yesterday, yet today he or she is at peace with reality.  Perforce, something must have changed between yesterday and today, such as in the person’s perspective.  Therapeutically, we can identify and develop these targets for change, which can facilitate greater acceptance, such as:

Changing expectations

Typically, we justify our expectations: “I’m not asking for too much?  I mean, it’s normal for parents to be at least a little supportive (for example).  I’m not asking for what’s unreasonable.”  This justification emboldens us to hold onto our expectations.

Yes, our expectations may truly be reasonable.  Of course, we’re not asking for too much.  Everyone else might indeed have what we feel we deserve too.  All of this may be very true!  But, the cold fact is that when our expectations don’t line up what reality gives us, whether reasonable or not, then disturbance results.  In a certain sense, one could even say that our expectations are irrelevant; expectations of what should be have no bearing on what the reality actually will be, despite the fact that they are valid and reasonable.  Holding onto our so called reasonable expectations comes at the price of making us more upset than we have to be.

The task, therefore, is to modify what we expect, so that it will better match reality.  For example, if someone does have unsupportive or critical parents, does continuing to expect them to be different make sense?  It’s completely illogical to hold on to our unrealistic expectations after we have seen time and again that they conflict with the reality in front of our face.  However, when we expect things to be as they are, we feel confirmed and less angry, saying, “That’s just like you, isn’t it?  I just knew you were going to do/say that!” 

Acceptance eludes us, and can be difficult to attain and maintain.  However, it is markedly easier to expect, rather than accept, unwanted realities.  By expecting what is unpleasant and objectionable, we are simply making a statement that “this is (or will be) the reality.”  In other words, we can expect it, even if we don’t want or like it.  In fact, expecting actually helps us get our foot in the door and on the path to greater acceptance.

Modifying expectations in this way might not make the reality any more pleasant to us.  It’s not going to make us wake up one day and say, “I now love having unsupportive and critical parents!”  But, it can help us to lessen our investment in wanting and expecting things to be different.  What we do come to accept, however, is that such expectations are futile and a waste of our energy.  After this shift occurs, we are then able to invest in our lives, in the present moment, and in the realities that life does give us.