I don’t know how many times I utter the Serenity Prayer in a day, but it’s well into the double digits. In fact, the words penned by the late theologian Reinhold Niebuhr may very well be imprinted on my plastic brain because its message is so central to my mission of chasing after sanity. I want so desperately to be able to let go of all the stuff I can’t change, to take charge of the things in my life that are under my control, and to distinguish, once and for all, the difference between laziness and illness, between persistent and stupidity, and between doable and “leave it the hell alone.”
Here are just a few ways I “do” the Serenity Prayer in my life: techniques that help me separate the unchangeable from the changeable … a half-dozen steps I regularly take toward serenity.
1. Go to a happy place.
What do you do with the stuff you can’t control, with the gunk that is keeping you from peace and happiness? Try to swap it–the bad memories and phobias and fears from your past–with some snapshots from your childhood or adolescence where you felt loved, whole, even sane!
In his bestseller “Home Coming: Reclaiming and Championing Your Inner Child,” John Bradshaw explains that our lives are filled with old anchors, the result of neurologically imprinted experiences that we keep replaying when a situation resembles our childhood. However with some meditation and what he calls “anchoring,” “we can change the painful memories from childhood by putting them together with actual experiences of strength acquired in our adult lives.”
To do this we have to create a happy place, where we re-experience those moments in our lives when we were accepted, welcomed, and loved, and we swap them for the bad memories. Most of my happy places are outside. There I greet my inner child, give her some snacks, and strongly nudge her to release her fears so that she can grow up to be normal.
2. Don’t go to an unhappy place.
After you’ve made a visit to your happy place and emerged as a balanced and centered person, you will better know what kinds of events and things to avoid next time … um, supposedly.
After twelve years of therapy and 21 years of hanging out in twelve-step groups, I think I have finally located my triggers: Irish bars loaded with inebriated folks, super-sized Wal-marts with over 100 aisles of products manufactured in China, Chuck-E-Cheese restaurants with life-sized rodents singing melodies to screaming children, and conversations with people who think mental illnesses are like mermaids–not real–and that absolutely every health condition can be fixed with the right thoughts plus a little acupuncture.
I have compiled a list of these places, persons, and things in my mind that I can’t change (like the life-sized rodent) so that I know to keep away in the future, because we don’t want more bad memories, do we? That would require another session in the happy place.
3. Hunt down unrealistic expectations.
You’re never going to be able to distinguish between the unchangeable and the changeable unless you hunt down unrealistic expectations. These bad boys are the obnoxious cousins of perfectionism–which can disable your body, mind, and spirit faster than anything else I know because perfectionism ensures that your self-esteem and self-confidence stay down where the submarines are: below sea level.
I identify unrealistic expectations every week in therapy. There I will jot down irrational goals like “penning a New York Times bestseller in my half-hour of free time in the evening,” “being homeroom mom to 31 kids and chaperoning every field trip while being the primary breadwinner for the family,” and “training for a triathlon with a busted hip.” Then my therapist and I arrive at some realistic options, like “aiming to chaperone two field trips a year” and “working out a few times a week but saving the triathlon for after retirement.”
4. Color in the zebra.
Not only does perfectionism hand out unrealistic expectations, but it blinds you to color, so that you’re left with black and white vision. Like many people who struggle with depression, I have to pull out my palette of colors to remind myself that just because something didn’t turn out the first time, doesn’t mean that it’s destined to fail every time I try it. David Burns offers 15 ways to untwist distorted thinking in his “Feeling Good” that can add oodles of shades to your perspective. The result is that you take several situations out of the “can’t control” category and you place them into the “I’ll give it a good shot” file.
5. Take baby steps.
By now you might have a better idea of what you can, indeed, change. You can see it in the distance. But how do you get there?
Break the job down.
Tackle one task at a time.
For example, as I was beginning to ascend out of the abyss of my severe depression, I was overwhelmed by everything–a sink full of dishes, a menacing diaper, a doctor’s appointment. Decision-making was especially painful: for me and for the person asking the question. And I didn’t have a clue as to how to restart my career. Every time I thought about it, I began to shake with anxiety.
My great aunt Gigi, who had suffered her own nervous breakdown at age 35, coached me along the way. “Itsy-bitsy steps,” she’d remind me. So I signed up to be a writing tutor at the Naval Academy for three hours a week, just to see if I could manage my emotions for that long.
I succeeded! Except for the morning I burst into tears because I couldn’t concentrate long enough to read a midshipman’s boring paper about history of the Tripoli Monument.
Then I asked my editor at the news outlet where I had worked pre-breakdown if I could resume my biweekly column. That step was harder, especially on the weeks where I’d sit at a blank computer screen for an hour or more, waiting for my words to come out from hiding. But I forged on. I continued to write, a little article here and there, which eventually lead to Beyond Blue, a leap, but one I was able to take because of the smaller steps that came before it.
6. Rip the tags off.
Here’s another way to change the things you can: rip off all the (figurative) sales tags in your life.
By that I mean getting involved and investing yourself into something–your family, your passion or career, your vision–moving yourself from the sidelines into the game. And positive psychologists such as Martin Seligman purport that getting involved and dedicating our time and energy to a higher purpose or cause is one of the strongest antidotes of depression and paths to happiness or SERENITY.
I try to rip off as many tags as I can today because I know, by experience, that having a cool wardrobe of never-worn skirts–of blowing off invitations to socialize with and meet fellow moms, neighbors, bloggers–further propels me down the depression hole. When I want so badly to isolate and build a nice, comfy fort in life like the ones out of chairs and blankets David and Katherine build in our family room, I’ve got to get out the scissors, cut the tags off, and show up for that coffee hour that I committed to. I’ve got to take a chance on the dress and invest myself into my community.