Health Matters: Hacking the Serenity Prayer

HM NashBy Mark Nash | Contributor

Most of us are familiar with the Serenity Prayer. In essence, it suggests that if we focus on things we have some control over and accept or release the things we don’t, that will bring us greater peace.

This is wonderful advice, but it gets a little fuzzy at the end when it mentions having the wisdom to know the difference. It doesn’t offer much guidance on how we’re supposed to figure that part out. As it happens, there’s a pretty simple formula, and it goes something like this: Things we can control: Our actions (and, sometimes, our thoughts). Things we cannot control: Everything else.

Okay, perhaps that’s a bit too simplistic. Let’s break it down a little.

Our actions. Hard to argue with this. We choose what we do. Walking across the street? You did that. You made the conscious choice to go, and you’re the one doing the walking. No one made you do it. Even if you had the proverbial “gun to the head,” it’s still your choice to walk.

But think of all the times you’ve said, “I am doing this thing, but I have no choice.” Is that actually true?

In fact, you could make a different choice, and that choice would bring with it different consequences. But there’s nothing keeping you from making a change other than your willingness to accept one particular set of challenges over another.

How, then, does this understanding lead to greater peace? By reminding us that we are not victims of our circumstances. Plenty of things can complicate our choices, but for better or worse the actions we take are our responsibility, and knowing that can be empowering.

Our thoughts (sometimes). We experience two kinds of thoughts on a regular basis. There are random thoughts that just show up, unbidden, constantly coursing through our minds. These are the thoughts we have very little control over. Then there are thoughts that we consciously consider. These include our opinions, judgements and perspectives. And while some of these thoughts may be strongly influenced by our upbringing and our cultural context, they are still within our power to change.

Think about the times you’ve had a strong opinion about another person’s actions, and then, perhaps for the good of the relationship, you’ve shifted that opinion. Maybe it was forgiving someone or suddenly seeing things from their perspective. In those situations, you made a choice to change your thoughts. And if you can do that sometimes, you can learn to do that anytime.

And that’s it! We have control over our actions and (some of) our thoughts. Which leaves a pretty long list of things over which we have no control, including:

Our feelings. They’re automatic, and they change over time of their own accord. Sometimes they change based on our thoughts, but it’s our thoughts that we are controlling, not our feelings. If you doubt this, choose a time when you are feeling especially sad and force your emotions to change to happiness. Let me know how it goes. (We do have some control over how we behave in response to our feelings, but that’s another article.)

Other people’s actions. We can influence other people’s actions, but in the end the choices they make are entirely up to them, just as your choices are up to you. So when anyone says, “You made me do such and such,” they’re trying to make you responsible for their choices. Not cool.

Other people’s thoughts. Same as with actions—unless you’re adept at mind control. And yet consider how often we think it’s our fault that someone has a negative opinion of us. But it’s not. If it were, then how could two people have completely different takes on something we do? Maybe it’s not what we did that’s the issue, but their opinions.

Other people’s feelings. Think of these common phrases: “You’re making me angry.” “She made me feel so guilty.” “He made me fall in love with him.” This way of thinking suggests that our feelings are controlled by others. And that sense of lack of control can bring up a lot of anxiety, as does the belief that we cause feelings in others.

While we may influence others› feelings, is it really true that we can control their emotions or any other aspect of their life? Or that they can control ours? This may seem like a subtle distinction, but this is just what the Serenity Prayer is getting at.

Taking responsibility for what we can control, and only what we can control, may seem challenging at first. But ultimately, it allows us to focus our time and energy on what we can actually change and let go of the things we can’t. And that can be truly liberating.

Mark Nash is a Charlotte resident with a mindfulness-based psychotherapy practice in Burlington. For comments or questions about this article, contact Mark through his website,