Remember the Serenity Prayer? “Grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change”. What’s difficult about this is that we often believe that certain things shouldn’t be happening in the first place, but as author Shari Barr puts it: “Expecting life to treat you well because you are a good person is like expecting an angry bull not to charge you because you are a vegetarian.” In other words, life is unfair. So for anyone with a strong sense of right and wrong, judgments about the world around us occur almost automatically. However, such judgments are known as the royal road to suffering, because we tend to get angry when we judge others, and we tend to get depressed when we judge ourselves, and serenity goes out the window.
The key to staying serene in the face of uncontrollable circumstances is to take a step back from our thoughts, and practice what Dialectical Behavior Therapists call “Radical Acceptance”. This means accepting life on its own terms and finding effective strategies to cope with life as it happens. For some, this might mean giving up the”hope for a better past,” for others, it means letting go of how the world should be in order to deal better with the way it is. The trick is not getting stuck and debilitated by the things you can’t change, so you have the emotional reserves to take on the things you can.
So how can we achieve that? I’d like to introduce you to two ways.
1. Describe What’s Happening
Whether you think about yourself, your relationship with another, or anything else, try to approach it with objectivity and curiosity, much like a scientist studying a fascinating phenomenon. Being serene doesn’t mean closing your eyes and pretending that bad things aren’t happening, that’s called denial! Rather, look closely at the situation. Notice your reaction to it (what you sense, feel, want), and describe this in detail. If emotions come up as a result of this, acknowledge and name these, too. The goal is to focus on describing what you discover rather than on judging it. When you describe something, you take the stance of an observer, looking onto the situation, and while you’re still able to see everything, you are also gaining some distance. Distance and serenity is something we naturally gain after some time has passed, but observing and describing helps you gain that perspective much sooner.
To put this another way, when you think of your relationships with others, face them as honestly as you can without getting emotionally dragged into it. Spend more time on identifying what you feel (disappointment, rejection, etc.) than what the other person did wrong. When you’re not debilitated with resentment, this enables you to do something about it. Similarly, when you look at yourself, own your responsibility in creating a situation, but don’t beat yourself up. Find the balance between empowering yourself to get out of the victim’s mindset on the one hand, and being merciful with your current limitations on the other hand.
2. Apply Coping Thoughts
Another way to keep your serenity in a situation is to deliberately change the message that your circumstances seem to suggest to you. In other words, a lot of your happiness will depend on how you frame what is happening in your life. We all benefit from a friend’s encouragement, so why not help yourself that way? One way to do that is to have some thoughts handy that help you accept situations outside of your control. Not every statement will work for everybody, so spend some time finding of ones that make sense to you. Here are some to start you off:
- This is really hard, but I can handle it. I’ve been through worse before.
- I can’t do anything about this til Monday, but I can decide to stop worrying about it right now.
- This sucks, but it’s only temporary.
- My circumstances don’t define me, I do.
The art of facing the uncontrollable without being overcome by it needs to be practiced. The good news is that you’ll probably get a chance to practice it every day. Try it with smaller things first before you move on to the ones that keep you up at night. Next time you’re stuck in traffic or hear an upsetting story in the news, take a deep breath and try to observe and describe what thoughts, feelings and body sensations you’re noticing. Use a coping statement. Remember to be patient with yourself, changing the way you typically react will take time.
(c) 2010 Julia Flood