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(April 2007)

God grant me the serenity…

Everyone is familiar with the Serenity Prayer written by Reinhold Neibuhr, or at least the first stanza which reads:

God grant me the serenity
to accept the things I cannot change;
courage to change the things I can;
and wisdom to know the difference.

When I recite the first three words, most of the women whom I see in my psychological practice can recite the rest of the initial stanza.  But they do so with a certain air of resignation.  Oh, yeah…THAT! 

Intellectually they understand that there are things they cannot change; they probably wouldn’t be sitting in my office if that were not so. 

But there is a deep-down resistance or inability to internalize this acceptance and truly know that they are powerless over persons, places, and things and that for that reason their own lives have become unmanageable (the first of the Twelve Steps from the Anonymous programs).    

They hold on to the hope that they are only temporarily powerless and will yet come across just the right words or hear the right advice to change a loved one’s behavior.  Sometimes they argue that such behavior is unacceptable so how can one be expected to accept it.

To accept the things I cannot change…

My first reminder is that we are not accepting the behavior, as in approving of the behavior.  We are accepting the reality of that behavior or the reality that a certain person is made up the way he/she is made up, or the reality that some event has or is going to take place despite all of our wishes to the contrary.

By doing Twelve Step work, people discover the power of the powerlessness that is described in the Serenity Prayer.  Accepting reality is the first step to better coping with reality.  Acceptance becomes a signpost in our own personal deserts of desperation and despair. 


The next phrase has to do with courage, the courage to change the things we can change.  And the Twelve Step programs have a great definition of courage.  Courage is fear that’s said its prayers.  

Many times women are so focused on others that they cannot even draw their attention back to themselves to determine what could be changed for the better.  Sometimes only changing their hair color or their nail polish color comes to mind.  Or they come up with changes like getting a divorce or finding a new job that are simply too overwhelming in their scope and difficulty to even think about. 

After I make suggestions about what could change and getting back excuses about why each is not possible, I carefully list all the things they feel then cannot change.  Then I ask them for one small step they think they would be willing to take. 

To change the things I can…

In a recent meeting of my women’s midlife support group (which I have been co-leading for 16 years), we were discussing getting more exercise, which is so effective in relieving symptoms of depression and anxiety.  One woman described how she tried to visualize how pleasant the walk might be, similar to the behavior we engage in when we anticipate what we’re going to order at our favorite restaurant.  Another woman noted that when she was depressed, she couldn’t imagine anything being pleasurable.  I asked her if she was willing to get dressed in her walking outfit.  She thought she could do that.  I asked if she was willing to stand outside her front door.  Another yes.  Then I guaranteed her that she would take her walk if she could do those two things.  It rarely fails.

Even that small step takes courage.

Once we get past the first two parts, the easiest part comes next, although many women tell me that the wisdom to know the difference, for them, is the most difficult part. 

…and the wisdom to know the difference.

Which things do we need to accept and which things do we need to change.  It’s simple.  We call it the knee test.  Sit down.  Locate your knees.  Everything that’s beyond your knees is what you need to accept.  Everything that is on this side of your knees is what you can change.  But that’s just me, you say!  Yes, that’s just you.

Homework Assignment:  Take one problem area of you life and do the knee test.