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The Rational Wisdom of the Serenity Prayer

By Andrew McNaughton, LCSW, CADC
Symmetry Counseling Chicago

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.

Nearly all of us know the Serenity Prayer, if not by heart then at least in some paraphrased version. We may have said it aloud as an affirmation to ourselves or in the company of others seeking mutual support. We may even say it to ourselves as part of our inner dialogue. The Serenity Prayer asks for the ability to recognize the difference between things in our lives over which we have direct control and those which we do not, and then act accordingly.

It is a brilliant concept, a staple of Alcoholics Anonymous and other 12-Step programs, through which we ask God or some other Higher Power to grant us serenity, courage, and wisdom to aid in achieving balanced lives. Although the prayer invokes God, we can all still benefit from its message even if we do not hold spiritual beliefs. The concept can be broadly applied to everyday life, not just to the treatment of Substance Use Disorders, and is greatly enhanced through learning and practicing Rational Emotive Behavioral Therapy.

REBT tells us we have control over our thoughts, feelings, and actions, but not those of others. Still, we frequently allow ourselves to get mad about the actions or inactions of other people, leading us to damn and/or dismiss them for not living up to our irrational expectations (“they must always listen to me, respect me, acknowledge my qualities and hard work, etc.”). It is okay to want to be heard, respected, acknowledged, and otherwise validated, but the key word here is “want”, which is a preference, instead of “need”, a demand. We can strongly prefer fair and dignified treatment, but cannot demand it, otherwise we will experience frequent and significant emotional distress.

Consider this scenario: My boss at work yells at me in front of my colleagues for a mistake I made. I react by making myself feel ashamed, but also by making myself feel angry at my boss. I tell myself that my boss is a horrible person and I must be treated with respect all the time. I also tell myself I cannot stand feeling ashamed, especially in front of colleagues. There is, however, no rational evidence to suggest that I must always be treated with respect, nor is there any proof that feeling shame is intolerable, because I cannot control how my boss treats me or how colleagues view me. My boss is not a horrible person, though I may experience the behavior as being horrible. Likewise, feeling shame in the eyes of colleagues is regrettable and disappointing, but not intolerable. I have effectively used REBT to identify and dispute my irrational beliefs.

By following this model, I can learn to cope by acknowledging my preferences while accepting that I will survive if they are not always met. This opens opportunities to make rational decisions about how to react. I may choose to forgive and forget, seek social support, or plan to engage in healthy self-soothing. I would certainly benefit from identifying my contribution to the problem and changing my behavior accordingly to decrease the likelihood of a reoccurrence. I can even choose to find a new job if my preference to be treated with respect is not being met. I am practicing rational thought to identify the things I can change and using my courage to carry them out. I am using REBT to achieve what I am seeking through the Serenity Prayer.

This is not to suggest we complicitly accept or ignore negative actions of other people. Feeling annoyed or concerned is healthy and rational. Feeling angry or anxious is not. Remember, we are not in control of others, only ourselves, and are all capable of developing insight to know the difference. In viewing the Serenity Prayer through this rational framework, the concepts of serenity, courage, and wisdom become even stronger tools for recovery, therapy, and living a balanced life.

You can learn more about recovery and REBT by contacting Symmetry Counseling Chicago.

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