For the longest time, I thought I could fix everything… my marriages… my addictions… my looks… my life. In reality, I couldn’t fix anything beyond my control, and by not understanding that… I couldn’t fix anything!
Anyone who has been to a 12 Step program has heard the Serenity Prayer…
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.
The biggest part of this prayer is understanding “the difference” … that’s often difficult to face.
Why waste time in futile attempts to change what you can’t, when there are so many things you can change? Here is a partial list of what you can change.
Your present behavior
Your future behavior
How you respond to the behavior of others
How you spend your time
Who you spend time with, the friends you keep, your participation and behavior in relationships
This is just part of my list… Yours will differ… but you get the point I’m making.
Things You Cannot Change
You cannot change: the past, your history, the laws of physics, the weather, human nature (yours or others), personality traits (yours or others), another person’s beliefs or thoughts (unless they choose to change), someone who doesn’t want to change, who you are related to, human needs, sexual preference, your talent, and things you do not acknowledge.
Don’t waste time and energy trying to change these things. Recognize and accept what you cannot change and move on with your life. To accept the things we cannot change, we need first to understand that we can’t control everything. Until we explore this idea, most of us think we can control many things that we have no control over at all.
For example, many people think we can change another person, if we just try hard enough. We believe that if we can just find the right words, or use the right amount of coercion, we can make others do what we want them to do. Sometimes we might even resort to shaming someone to “make them change.”
But the truth is that we can’t make another person do anything against his or her will. We can talk and talk in the hope of persuading the person to do things our way. We may try to coerce the person by using force or perhaps employ a form of emotional blackmail. Or we might attempt to show the person how foolish he or she is for not following our beliefs or doing what we want.
But we live on a planet of free will, and the only time people change anything is when they make the decision to change. As human beings, we always have choices.
Believing that we can make someone else change is a common mistake that many people make. If you look closely at the dynamics involved in this type of interaction, you will see that you have no power over anyone who does not choose to give that power to you. If you did… would you really want it? I wouldn’t I’m not that qualified to run the world.
Do you want to stop smoking or not? On the one hand, you understand the health risks, costs, filth, growing opposition, and inconvenience of smoking. On the other hand, however, you have smoked for years, enjoy the calm it creates, immerse yourself in the rituals it provides, identify with it, and have been physically unable to stop each time you have tried. You have denied the harm, distorted the facts, indulged in confabulation, and almost convinced yourself that smoking is good for you. This is the essence of ambivalence—literally “both feelings”—torn between wanting to change and not wanting to change. Ambivalence is very common; losing weight, seeking medical treatment, changing jobs, limiting drinking or gambling, dumping your boyfriend, getting more exercise, changing jobs, and buying a new car all invite mixed emotions.
People change when they are ready, willing, and able to. People are willing to change when they firmly decide to leave the past behind and make a new future. This happens when they understand the discrepancy between their goals and their present state and they autonomously choose to close that gap. They overcome denial and resistance and now are committed to the new outcome. People can change when they believe they are competent to perform the work necessary for the change. People are ready to change when the change becomes very important to them; when this is their highest priority.