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 Serenity Prayer
The Serenity Prayer is a pillar of AA and other recovery groups but is known to nearly everyone. I myself have uttered it a time or twelve when I find myself in a downward spiral of denial. One of the reasons why this prayer resonates is because we know, whether we like it or not, acceptance is a major factor in our emotional and psychological wellbeing.
During our conversation a couple of weeks ago (which you can listen to on our website or in our Facebook groups, by the way), Dr. Huser spoke about the idea of acceptance as a way to deal with the high anxiety that surrounds all things COVID. She brought this up after I had asked her and Dr. Fielder if they were encountering any clients who were anxious in regard to wearing masks. Both of them said that they were hearing more clients who were anxious about other people wearing or not wearing masks, and how that made them feel. They both recounted answering the question of “Why won’t they wear a mask?” with “Because they won’t.”
It really is as simple and as aggravating as that.
Both admitted that it was a controversial stance, accepting things that you see other people doing that you may not agree with, but they pointed out that it was a necessary part of our mental health. Acceptance gets a bad rap. It is conjoined with complicity. It is confused with resignation. Especially in the age of social media justice where gangs of like-minded individuals set out to shame a perceived wrongdoer into changing their ways. I cannot ACCEPT another person behaving in a way that is not congruent with mine. Acceptance is often misconstrued as approval. That is why so many of us struggle with it. A great suggestion I received was that if acceptance was too difficult to subscribe to, substitute it with the word acknowledgment.
Acceptance is nothing more than the willingness to fully experience reality as it is instead of trying to alter or control it. It’s taking everything at face value in real-time. The weather is the best example of this. You look outside and see that it’s raining. You don’t try to figure out ways to make it stop. You don’t confront the rainclouds with facts that you Googled on why it shouldn’t be raining. You don’t shout “The weatherman said that there was only a 30% chance of you coming!” You don’t give the outside an ultimatum to bully it into changing in a way that is more suitable to what you want. You take this fact in and adjust to it as it is.
You may be disappointed because the rain ruined your plans, but you also deal with those feelings and reschedule. You may be excited because you love rain and are actually happy about the fact that it means that you can curl up with a good book and a cup of coffee. You come across a situation, you accept/acknowledge the situation and your feelings around it, and you adapt your behavior accordingly.
The moment that you accept a situation, you can work on the one aspect of it that you can control, which is you. You begin to look at everything outside of yourself as a fact instead of a malleable situation and you realize that the only thing that is yours to handle is the reaction to that fact.
Acceptance can be difficult when things around you are hard, and to say that things are hard right now is the understatement of the century! We are quite literally surrounded by uncertainty and that alone is anxiety-inducing. Every day we are hit with more information but fewer answers, and as our lives continue to morph and change, we feel an even deeper need to FIX THINGS and CHANGE THINGS. Ironically, it’s the things that we try the hardest to change which are impossible to alter in the first place. A large portion of our stress and anxiety comes from the fact that we are consistently being confronted with our utter lack of control.
Because of my role at ARC, I am in the unique position of putting a lot of what I learn from Drs. Fielder and Huser into practice almost immediately upon hearing it. The weekend after our conversation, every time I encountered a situation that would normally cause me to act out in rage, I used the same words Drs. Fielder and Huser used to answer their clients’ queries: “Because they are/aren’t/will/won’t“. Depending on where I was or what I was doing, it almost became a mantra. I found that instead of ruminating on someone else’s behavior, I was able to move on quickly. I didn’t spend hours obsessing over some perceived slight. I didn’t feel the need to text six of my friends to vent to them about something that made me angry. I didn’t shame a stranger on social media. I took it for what it was and moved on. I haven’t mastered acceptance, and like most practices, I will definitely backslide, which is when that prayer comes in handy, but when I find myself stuck in a loop of “what they should do is…” I remind myself that I cannot control a thing beyond myself.
The first step in any recovery program is accepting that you are struggling with something. You say the words out loud, you make it official. You are on your way to fixing your relationship with that problem. It is the opposite of denial and provides a profound mind shift when put into use. Acceptance is the first step to true change. We don’t accept things in order to change what’s happening, nor do we do it to feel better about it. We accept it because it’s the only logical thing to do.