Courage to Change the Things I Can

Courage to Change the Things I Can

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.

Courage to Change the Things I Can

COURAGE to change the things I can.

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.
= behavior preceded by thinking. Responses originate in the
Cerebral Cortex.

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 Liesby 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.”

Bottom line…

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

Lisa Frederiksen

Lisa Frederiksen

Author | Speaker | Consultant | Founder at
Lisa is the author of hundreds of articles and 11 books, including "If You Loved Me, You'd Stop!," "Addiction Recovery: What Helps, What Doesn't," and "Secondhand Drinking: the Phenomenon That Affects Millions." She is a national keynote speaker with over 25 years speaking experience, consultant, and founder of She has spent more than 14 years studying 21st century brain research in order to write, speak, and consult on substance use disorders prevention, intervention and treatment; mental disorders; addiction (aka substance use disorders) as a brain disease; adolescent addiction treatment vs adult addiction treatment; effective treatment for co-occurring disorders (having both a substance use and mental disorder); secondhand drinking | drugging; help for the family; and related subjects. In 2015, she founded SHD Prevention, providing training and consulting to companies, public agencies, unions, nonprofits and other entities to address the workplace impacts of employee secondhand drinking and alcohol misuse.
Lisa Frederiksen

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38 Responses to Courage to Change the Things I Can

  1. Excellent article, Lisa! Thank you for always providing such priceless information and suggestions. I especially like #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.” This can be used for everything! Bless you!

  2. Martha Giffen says:

    And I say woo hoo to this post!! You have such a good way of explaining the process. So many people on the “other side” of the addiction have no clue that they have become sick as well while dealing with their loved ones addiction. Thank you for sharing your own obstacles in understanding and adopting the serenity prayer. Blessing to you~

  3. BarbaraJPeters says:

    Great article. We all need to have more courage to stand up for the things we believe in and for what we need in our lives. Believe in all that you are and what you have to offer. We don’t all have to agree and it is definitely ok to have your own thoughts and opinions.

  4. Sherie says:

    Lisa, such an excellent post and you have covered so many points that are so critical for people to understand. “Say what you mean and mean what you say” is so spot on. This is such an important distinction in communicating, isn’t it? Love it, so much valuable info here!

    • I agree, Sherie and it’s so scary at first because we’re so conditioned to couching our words to fit what we think the other person wants / can hear. Very freeing when we do, though! Thanks so much for your comment!!

  5. The serenity prayer is one of my favourite statements that has kept me going through both sides of the addiction process! Your post makes great reading for anyone dealing with an alcohol issue but especially if you are the family or friend.
    I love your explanation of respond versus react. I never knew the brain science behind it!
    Thanks Lisa!

    • I love it too, Carolyn, and so glad the science part was of help / interest. Don’t know if you know the second half of the Serenity Prayer, but I love it, as well:
      Grant me PATIENCE for the things that take time,
      APPRECIATION for all that I have,
      TOLERANCE for others with different struggles,
      and the STRENGTH to get up and try again, one day at a time.
      Thanks for your comment!!

  6. Great post Lisa! It took me awhile as well. I wanted things changed to the way I thought they should be and it takes time to let go of that!! When we try to control others, we set ourselves up for disappointment and frustration. Great explanation on not taking offense and No is a complete sentence. It is especially important for all of us women to understand this concept and accept that we do have the power over ourselves. Wonderful!!

    • Thank you, Cathy!! And you make a very good point about this concept of power over ourselves being such an important one for women to embrace. We often are so enmeshed in the caretaker role as mother and wife that it’s really hard to see a separate self. Thanks so much for your comment!!

  7. Susan Myers says:

    LOVE this post. I have struggled with “Say What You Mean, Mean What You Say” for many years. It’s been a learning process to get it right.

    • Thank you, Susan! And it sure is a learning process. The hard part for me is that it was so grooved the other way that it was always so easy to fall back. Eventually, we do get into our new grooves, though, through practice and practice – whew!

  8. Terree Rola says:

    I can appreciate about how the brain needs to be “re-wired.” I had often been told that alcoholics needed to take up where their path of development had stopped when they got into their addiction. Your explanation makes it easier to understand what they had meant by this. Thank you for explaining this so well!

    • Thank you, Terree! I remember being told that, as well. Understanding brain development – especially that which occurs around the time most addicts/alcoholics start drinking heavily (ages 12-early 20s) – helps explain the impact of substance abuse/addiction on their emotional / cognitive development. The best part, however, is it can be re-wired once substance use is stopped and brain healing activities embraced.

  9. Estelle says:

    Great Post Lisa – the brain science is so fascinating – and for me a key to making changes. thanks for sharing.

  10. Sharon O'Day says:

    Your willingness to share — through vulnerability — is obviously so valuable to people dealing with addictions. And the recommendations are equally valuable to those who aren’t. Thank you, Lisa!

  11. Alicia Jay says:

    Hi Lisa,

    Wow, so much info in this post! I may have to come back again to soak it all in. The “say what you mean, mean what you say” section is really resonating with me right now. Thanks for all of this great information!

  12. You always write such informative posts, Lisa. Loved that “No.” can be a complete sentence and the whole discussion of indirect communication.

  13. Amazing as always. i love that.. no is a complete sentence. you don’t have to explain it! Love it! I always feel I must explain my no..;0 ! Love your Work! Thank you for sharing this with the world! You are an amazing lady!

    • Thank you so much, Elizabeth!!! I was the same with my “No’s…” and often the more I tried to explain, the more I had to explain (or keep track of). I really appreciate your support and compliment!!

  14. Anita says:

    Love the serenity prayer! Love how it makes a person reevaluate a situation 🙂

  15. Anita Doyle says:

    Hi Lisa,
    I am awake in the middle of the night struggling with feelings of helplessness over a family situation and looking for help on the internet. I Googled “the Courage to change the things I can” and this post came up.

    Although I never quite put it in those words, I too “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.” It was so helpful to have you put this problem into words.

    I have also struggled with the notion that the only thing I can change is myself. This notion makes perfect sense of course, but I have acted as if changing myself was something that I should be able to do with enough effort, and because I wasn’t changing all that much in my opinion, I felt as if that meant I lacked the courage.

    Your words are helping me get my head around the incremental nature of the changes that need to happen. This is where I turn to steps 6 and 7 to rely on my Higher Power to provide the means to change when I provided the willingness.

    In AlAnon we use the phrase “little by little – one day at a time. This helps me have patience with the process and with myself.

    Thanks for this post. It was what I needed to read today.

    • Hi Anita – I’m so glad to hear this post helped and really appreciate you letting me know it did. That’s wonderful you’ve found Al-Anon – it sure helped me immeasurably – especially during the earlier years of my work to heal myself. Wishing you all the best!!

  16. Cher says:

    Lisa, Thank you for explaining this so clearly. I’m ending a 7 year relationship and I know I reacted too many times when I should have responded. However it may be too late now to salvage what we had which was not all bad. The communication between us was poor and he always had to be right. That gets old and when I voiced my opinion, it didn’t matter. We had a lot of different opinions. I’m not sure we can salvage what’s left but I would like to try by working on me right now. Is there a good book that I could read to help?
    Thanks, Sunbunny

    • You’re welcome, Sunbunny – I’m so glad you found this site and that particular article. Not to pitch my own book, but I wrote “If You Loved Me, You’d Stop!” for people like you (and me when I was going through what you’re going through) to share the science and then provide tools for what to do next. It’s short, too, which was also important for me when I started down this healing route. Please feel free to give me a call with further questions – my office # is 650-362-3026 and email is I wish you all the best!

  17. Sandi Benner Tinsley says:

    12 yrs 9 mo on my journey of recovery & I am still so excited when I get to learn how individuals interpret the steps, traditions, the serenity prayer, etc. I do not believe there to be a right or wrong way. What I do know, is that I learn & grow from it every time. Thank you Lisa, for sharing yours. It was very informative & candid. Once again, from being on the addicts side of the fence….it opens my eyes even more to exactly what hurt & damage the addict can do to his/her friends/family.
    This disease truly is cunning & baffling to say the very least. I am so very grateful there are precious souls like you that are willing to research it & try to find out the why & how to treat it. And just as importantly, you are willing to educate the public.
    Thank you, my friend.

    • Thank you so much for this, Sandi – you’ve made my day! I totally agree with you that there is no one, nor right, way to “do” this whole addiction and/or secondhand drinking | drugging recovery process. I really appreciate you stopping by and taking the time to add your thoughts to the conversation. Take care, my friend, and congratulations on your 12 years 90 months recovery – woot!!

  18. keith says:

    thanks lisa , im sober since june 1979 one day at a time , and have lived much of what you are shareing , from australia with love, god bless you all and keep us sober one more day , thankyou xx

  19. Lisa says:

    I’ve hear the serenity prayer spoken this way and I’ll never forget the truth that it rang for me
    Grant me the serenity
    To accept the people I cannot change
    The courage to change the person I can
    And the wisdom to know
    That person is me.

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