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Should You Control Your Life? (The Serenity Prayer)

Finding the balance between control and responsibility can be difficult. When you or someone in your life is in recovery from mental illness and/or addiction, part of therapy will be to learn how to address personal responsibility. Most therapists will help you learn how to take responsibility for your environment, your thoughts and feelings, and your actions.

But responsibility isn’t about being slavishly controlling. Once you begin walking the path of personal responsibility, it’s time to learn the healthy way to relinquish some control.

This might sound like a counterintuitive and even paradoxical course of action, but it is a very important step. Relinquishing control does not mean relinquishing personal responsibility—it means recognizing that you are not always able to control events. You are only able to control (at least most of the time) yourself.

For some people, relinquishing control may have to come before taking responsibility; for others, taking personal responsibility for what is in your control may have to be the first step. Together you and your therapist will be able to determine your priorities.

By accepting that there are limits on your ability to control everything, you will begin to come closer to understanding what your overarching life mission is. Like the Rolling Stones used to sing, “You can’t always get what you want, but if you try sometimes, you might find, you get what you need.”

Sometimes allowing things to happen and accepting the outcomes is a skill that can make life less stressful.

This recognition can be humbling, but is essential to maturity. Seemingly negative events can even conspire to educate or enlighten you. Don’t insist on total control or perfection—otherwise you’ll definitely miss opportunities for growth.

When you’re able to recognize your own power limits, you will begin to recognize that you have a personal responsibility to improve what is in your power to do. This viewpoint has been condensed into a generalized prayer known as the “Serenity Prayer.” It has been used by Alcoholics Anonymous and other 12-step programs, and most people have heard of it:

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.

This nondenominational prayer is not a substitute for – but an adjunct to- your belief system. It acknowledges the existence of God and our relationship with Him. If this is not comfortable for you, go ahead and instead acknowledge a universal higher power or even the higher power of the best inner-self you can possibly be.

Start from where you’re at and don’t contort yourself into psychic pretzels to embrace a belief unless you are ready to do so. Your therapist shouldn’t place demands on you to believe in something you aren’t ready to believe in. And if you find difficulty with the concept of prayer in general, then go ahead and call it the “Serenity Affirmation” rather than the “Serenity Prayer.”

The “Serenity Prayer” aptly describes what each and every individual’s most fundamental, positive, psychospiritual goals should be: first, the ability to accept what we truly cannot change about ourselves, others, and the world. Next, we must understand there is a higher power at work in our lives. The prayer also posits that we should have the gumption and sense of personal responsibility to go inward (or reach outward) to make positive change.

Don’t be fooled. The use of the word serenity here means freedom from mental and emotional pain—and that is a good thing. Serenity in this instance does not mean the state of mind/being in which we are unaffected by the world around us.

Some people mistakenly believe that the goal of therapy (or even the goal of life) is to be protected and insulated from our own and others’ tribulations. Yet, I believe the finest part of what makes us human is to be touched by the world, moved by it, in all its turbulence.

Should we not weep when others are suffering or rejoice when others are happy? Would we ever be inspired to attempt to change things if we only bliss-out and serenely accept others’ suffering? Would great injustices like slavery ever have been stopped if those who felt them to be wrong decided to serenely accept them as inevitable rather than fight for change?

Perhaps in some instances we have the right to choose the serenity option. Certainly, when it concerns our own suffering, we may want to accept it to a certain extent—and view it as a growth opportunity. But when it comes to the suffering of others, we must feel compassion, and, if possible, help. But it’s okay to begin with yourself if you’re not in a place where focusing on others seems possible.

Based on Therapy Revolution: Find Help, Get Better, Move On (HCI Books)

Should You Control Your Life? (The Serenity Prayer)

Richard Zwolinski, LMHC, CASAC & C.R. Zwolinski

Richard Zwolinski, LMHC, CASAC is the author of Therapy Revolution: Find Help, Get Better, and Move On Without Wasting Time or Money and is licensed in addiction and psychotherapy with over 25 years experience as well as a consultant to organizations and companies in the fields of mental health and addiction. He is the executive director of an outpatient behavioral health program. Learn more about Richard here.

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APA Reference
& C.R. Zwolinski, R. (2019). Should You Control Your Life? (The Serenity Prayer). Psych Central. Retrieved on November 29, 2020, from


Last updated: 4 Jan 2019
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