You may be familiar with a version of what is often called the ‘serenity prayer’ by Reinhold Niebuhr.
Here is what it asks for, in order to live a good life:
The serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
Courage to change the things I can,
And wisdom to know the difference.
That last line, knowing the ‘wisdom to know the difference’ between the things you can and cannot change, is the biggest challenge.
Often we need help distinguishing between those two things.
Start by locating your problems with others
In counseling practice, it is very common for clients to come in and talk almost exclusively about someone else’s behavior and speculate about someone else’s problems. They are astonished, and sometimes quite upset, when the counselor says that he or she cannot do anything to change those other people. They are not even present!
Hearing this unwelcome truth is often the first step to dealing with what you cannot control in your life.
Is it mine, is yours?
Here is a simple but very effective test: if you can say ‘my’ in front of the issue you are facing, you can control what is going on, at least to some extent. You can work towards changing your behavior, your situation, and transforming your life.
If the issue has the word ‘other’ in front of it, then you can not change it, at least not directly. You don’t have that power. You are not inside another person’s mind and you cannot control their actions.
The responsibility for change lies with them. For some people, this is hard to accept.
What does acceptance mean here?
The word ‘accept’ can mean so many things.
What it means in this case is ‘recognize as outside reality’.
What it doesn’t mean is that you have to support, approve, enable or participate in other people’s actions or behavior in any way if you don’t want to.
This is very important – if you worry a lot about other people and what they might or might not do, then you may also feel that you need to control other people’s actions in order to feel safe. And if you can’t, you feel helpless – a feeling that is very hard to live with.
Human interaction is not a zero sum game between control and helplessness. It is, on the contrary, a constant interplay of your needs and wants and those of other people.
You can’t change other people, but you can change your response to them
And that’s the good news.
If you accept that other people are other people, not you, you’re better off. Understand that you have no direct mind control over them, then it is easier to recognize that you, too, are an independent agent in the relationship. They, in turn, cannot control you.
You have the freedom to respond to others in any way you want.
You can disagree, refuse, question, make constructive suggestions, take a break, or even disconnect from actions and relationship dynamics that you don’t want. You can initiate the actions and interactions you do want. Then, you can respond to the feedback on the other side.
Maybe your worry is really a deep fear of not being able to hold your own against anyone else. Maybe you are afraid that you cannot get what you want if you have to fight for it. Perhaps you think you will be overruled, disregarded, even forced into things you don’t like, because you are too weak.
If you are letting fear take control of your life, it may be time to seek therapy to address the source of these issues.
But what if another person’s actions really do have overwhelming power over you? What if you feel you really can’t do anything in response that will change their course of action?
If this is how you feel, you may be in an abusive relationship. In reality, no adult has this kind of power over another adult. If you feel this is happening to you, you are in a toxic cycle and you urgently need to reach out for professional help.
The wisdom to distinguish between the things you can and cannot control is a daily practice. As you develop the confidence to accept life as it comes, enjoy the ride!
Let worry fade and embrace the fun and fulfillment you’ve been longing for.