Therapists will tell you that the holiday season is rarely one of cheer for clients, students, and patients. Family stressors, financial demands, social pressures, and grief anniversaries abound during this time of year. And of course, the losses in this particular year are too great to enumerate. This holiday season, it seems particularly relevant to share why acceptance of the things we cannot change is vital to all of our mental health.
When I first meet my clients, I am very clear about setting some particular boundaries. The first being, that I believe each person is their own best therapist. That they have an inner counselor who learns from the wisdom of their experiences and receives counsel along the path of life through many interactions with others. My job is to facilitate that growth and create a space of safety to allow that process to flourish. The second thing, and probably the most pertinent to this post, is that each person is in a constant state of recovery.
Most people think of recovery as belonging strictly to people who “suffer” from addiction. While there is a much longer conversation about maladaptive coping and trauma, I would like to make a clear statement here surrounding recovery: recovery is the work we all do to get back to our authentic or true self. Since that may be the journey of a lifetime, we may always be in recovery, unearthing our wise and kind selves, discovering our angry and powerful natures. We may always need to accept the terrible truth that we cannot truly control, nor can we ever truly know anyone or anything. And through that complicated process, we may accept and love ourselves and deepen our sense of belonging with one another in spite of the almost overwhelming biological imperative to control and define it all.
Acceptance and Commitment Therapy teaches us that it is the things we hold the deepest connection with, our values, that guide us into meaning and connection with the world around us and the life we are given. We accept pain and darkness and seek commitment to our values through awareness. While I do not profess to have an addiction that necessitated a twelve-step process, as a survivor of childhood trauma, poverty, abuse, and neglect, I can say that I connect deeply with the concept of controlling and avoiding pain. Also as a survivor, I recognize the fruitlessness of those actions. Rarely does the avoidance of pain yield the outcome we think it will, but often I find that as people overcome their fear of it, they find they are much stronger than even they imagined. They can feel pain and they can recover.
Perhaps my childhood experiences left me with a misguided optimism, but I honestly believe, everyone can make their recovery (blame my PBS dads, Bob Ross, and Mr. Rogers). However, each person must also be able to honor the limitations that their life has placed around them while testing those boundaries constantly. So what do I mean by that? Well, let’s turn to the serenity prayer and examine it for the wisdom it offers to all who would sit with their own pain and mistakes:
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 (Neibur, R., 1932).
The first request: there are things I cannot change. I most especially cannot change others. I most likely will not be able to change for others. Things are different from people, there may be things I can change. There are definitely things I can not. If there are things I can change, they will not reside in the past. They may not reside in the future. The most likely things to change are in the present. As I sit with this awareness, I may feel peace as I accept what is and what cannot be otherwise.
The second request: the things I can change will require my courage and bravery to alter. I might encounter great fear as I seek to understand these things. In the face of that fear, I will need to honor my own desires for deep connection and meaning in my life and move past or through my fear. My desire for control is because of my fear and if I let go of needing control, I may use my courage to feel my fear as I alter and change the things I can.
And the third request: I will need the wisdom to determine how to proceed with each dilemma. Regardless of your belief in a higher power, each person is granted a measure of intuition and awareness of the world around them that helps them navigate the complexities of their relationship with others. In moments of crisis, the ability to be thoughtful and intentional seems like an unattainable goal. For that reason, I encourage you to spend many moments connecting with your deep awareness. Allow it to become a familiar friend, one that you can turn to when hard decisions face you. From a place of awareness, you can see without judgment or criticism the choices that will align more closely with your values, with the most authentic version of you.
This time of year can tax us in many ways. As you attempt to navigate these relationships this holiday season, I hope you will offer yourself the opportunity to reconnect with who you are and who you want to be in those relationships. This year, with all of its tribulations, may offer us one last gift: the space to see and the time to reflect.
As you go forward, I would offer you gratitude for taking the time to allow me to share, from my counselor to yours, the wisdom that has been passed down from so many others. If you would like to spend more time reading about acceptance and Commitment Therapy, you can find resources here. Also, if you need help with sobriety, there are meetings everywhere. Finally, if you are in crisis please don’t suffer in silence, there is help for all who would seek it. Please call the national suicide helpline or 911, in the event of an emergency.