COURAGE to change the things I can. This is the 2nd line of the Serenity prayer. Unfortunately, for decades, I interpreted “courage” to mean having the guts, the drive, the stick-to-it-ness to keep at it until I got the things not in keeping with how I felt they should be – changed. As you can imagine, that didn’t work out so well.
In my 12-step meetings and through the family group recovery work I did with others at my loved one’s residential treatment center, I learned people embraced the entirety of the Serenity Prayer by turning their lives and their will over to a higher power, as s/he understood it. This higher power could be a supreme being / an entity / the universe / God / life’s energy / nature / the power of the group / whatever one saw or could accept as that “something” that was beyond/greater than themselves, their will, their control.
For me, it took a jump start to break this concept into two – “Courage to change” separate from “the things I can.” And for that jump start, it was learning how the brain worked and understanding the brain disease of addiction and the brain impacts of alcohol abuse that had changed so many of my loved ones; it was learning how the changes in them had, in turn, changed me because of how I’d “learned” to cope. It was then that I could finally do the hard work that begins with “accepting the things I cannot change” and finding the “wisdom to know the difference.” And it was then that I found Serenity, the power of my Higher Power and the “COURAGE to change the things I can” – namely, myself.
Learning and understanding that all of a person’s thoughts, behaviors and actions are governed by how their brains wire from birth and re-wire as they age had a profound impact on me. Understanding that this wiring, in turn, is dependent on outside influences – social environment, for example; inherited influences – genetics, for example; developmental influences – abuse of or dependence on drugs or alcohol, childhood trauma, mental illness (either genetic or developed as a result of trauma), as examples. Not only that, but all of these influences in turn determine how a person interprets incoming and new influences going forward. NOW, that’s a whole lot of brain power over which I have absolutely NO control. And it was that knowledge that finally set me free. It was that knowledge that allowed me to fully believe and embrace that I had absolutely NO control over another person’s brain, therefore another person’s behaviors, thoughts or actions. Yes, I could express my views, in respectful terms, but once expressed, how those views were interpreted were simply beyond my control. “Woo hoo to that,” I say!
Of course it didn’t happen overnight. Darn!
In fact, it took many years to finally re-wire my brain so that my default assumption is not to personalize or internalize or believe I can control an outcome once I’ve said my piece. Should you be looking for help of this nature, here are some of the brain, re-wiring-related “things” I learned through research, therapy, and my own recovery work:
Change Where You “Think”
Believe it or not – changing where you think – moving from “reacting” to “responding” will have a profound impact on your life. Responding allows us to access the thinking part of our brain (the part located in the Cerebral Cortex), and behaviors based on thinking are far more effective than those based on reacting (those which follow the flight-or-fight stress response pathways in the Limbic System).
Reacting = behavior without thinking. Reactions originate in the Limbic System.
Responding = behavior preceded by thinking. Responses originate in the
To buy yourself the moment it takes to move from reacting to responding, consider these suggestions when you feel that anxious, angry, scared, “oh no…” kind of feeling getting started:
1. Breath – and breath deeply several times – brings oxygen to the brain, which the brain must have in order to function [think brain dead, which occurs when the brain is deprived of oxygen] and calms you enough to think before you react.
2. Use a stop word, such as “HALT” or “Think.” Yours can be “Yankee Doodle” – whatever it takes to jar you out of that Limbic, reactionary part of the brain and move to neural networks in the reasoned, thinking Cerebral Cortex part of the brain.
3. Step away, step outside, take a walk – again – something to change your rising “thought” process to buy yourself time to think things through and not just react.
Say What You Mean, Mean What You Say
Learning to speak up for yourself – sometimes called “speaking your truth” – produces amazing results. It is often difficult to do, however, or at least takes a lot of practice, depending on how long you’ve been accepting the unacceptable. For example, have you ever answered a question such as, “Do you mind if I go out?” with something like, “Well, okay if you want to go.”
When you think about it, however, what you’re really saying (without saying it out loud) is, “Yes, I do mind if you go out.” And, if the person asking the question took you at your word and left, you’d likely be mad at them because they didn’t guess what you really wanted them to do. They didn’t read your mind.
In this example, you likely don’t trust that you have the right to ask someone to do something for you. Asking doesn’t mean you’ll get it, but at least you won’t be mad about something that may or may not have happened. For example, if you’d answered the question, with, “I’d really like you to stay with me this evening,” that’s the truth of how you feel. It then gives the person doing the asking the opportunity to either say, “No problem. I’d love to stay here with you.” Or “How about if we spend tomorrow evening together. I really would like to go out tonight.” Speaking your truth gives you the opportunity to receive another’s honest answer.
By the same token, you could be on the flip side of this exchange – the one being asked the question. In that scenario, you might “hear” the question, “Do you mind if I go out?” as “Please ask me to stay.” For listening is the other side of direct communication and speaking your truth. Often in unhealthy relationships, a person becomes an expert at “hearing” their own feelings – the feelings they attach to another person’s words; feelings that are not necessarily those of the person doing the speaking. But in hearing our feelings to spoken words, we are reacting to something that may or may not be true. We are reacting to what we think is being said and then adjusting our truth and our response to accommodate our interpretation, instead of simply taking others at their word. Taking people at their word and asking for clarification if we are not sure what they meant leaves any further explanation up to them to provide and not for us to second guess.
Another example of indirect communication (not speaking your truth), is when something is clearly bothering you (maybe you’re slamming cupboards or have a scowl on your face) and someone asks, “What’s wrong?” to which you reply, “Nothing.” You’ve lied, and they know it. A better answer is to say, “There is something wrong, but I don’t want to talk about it right now. I’ll get back to you when I can.”
Don’t “Take” Offense
This was especially hard for me to grasp, let alone to do. It’s the idea that “taking” offense to what someone says or does is entirely up to me; meaning: I can choose to “take” offense and then argue or feel hurt or lash out; OR I can choose to not “take” offense – the choice is entirely mine.
Here’s an example. Say you ask your husband for help with the children after school. He responds, “I’m working. Can’t you do it?!” Instead of getting defensive (taking offense) and saying something nasty, you can simply “detach” (not “take” offense) and say, “No, that’s why I’m asking. Since you’re busy, I’ll ask someone else.” In this manner, you’ve left his issues with him and taken what’s yours to deal with – finding someone to help with the kids. In so doing, you haven’t gotten yourself all worked up and angry by fighting about whose work or commitment is more important. You’ve “detached” from the emotions of the situation. The following concept was shared with me by my therapist during my early secondhand drinking recovery work and is explored in the book, Tell Me No Lies, by Ellyn Bader, Ph.D., Peter T. Pearson, Ph.D. and Judith D. Schwartz:
Understand that conflict is simply a difference of opinion, and a difference of opinion does not have to mean a fight. Conflicts become fights when the difference of opinion is not managed effectively.
You don’t have to agree with my opinion, and I don’t have to agree with yours. No one has to be “right.” This can be extremely hard to do because we often see unresolved conflict as a reflection on us – as if it’s proof we are somehow the one at “fault.” Therefore, we tend to argue until the other person agrees we are correct. But as time goes on, this need to argue, to be right destroys our serenity and any ability we may have to embrace the other concepts expressed in the Serenity Prayer.
Realize “No.” is a Complete Sentence
You don’t have to explain yourself unless you want to. If pressed to say more, you can say, “No, not now. Please give me some time to think about it.” (Remember: Respond, don’t React.) And, remember, you have a right to choose how and if you wish to respond and that it’s okay to walk away. If you don’t want to talk at that moment because you don’t know what to say or are too upset, and the other person is pressing you to keep going, walk away. You don’t have to stay and fight or talk just because the other person insists on it. Instead, say something like, “I’ll have to get back to you on that.”
For me – it was finally breaking the concept into two – “Courage to change” was one thing – I had that in spades, and “…the things I can” – that was something entirely different. It was learning that the only “thing” I could truly change was myself and for that change to happen, it was learning about the power we exert over our own brains; the power of our existing brain wiring to keep us stuck in our old ways of hearing, responding, reacting, behaving; the absolute lack of power we have over anyone else’s brain other than to be as honest with our own words and actions and not taking offense as we can; and embracing the power of my Higher Power – the HP of my understanding.
I wish you the very best with your own journey and hope these suggestions can help.
© 2012 Lisa Frederiksen