The Difference Between What We Can and Cannot Change
Wisdom for Living Well: Knowing the Difference Between What We Can Change and What We Can’t Change
This line from the Serenity Prayer has been a key for me in learning how to live to well in spite of bipolar disorder:
“The serenity to accept the things I cannot change; courage to change the things I can; and wisdom to know the difference.” (Serenity Prayer by Reinhold Niebuhr [1892-1971])
After being diagnosed with bipolar disorder in 1995 I spent a lot of time focused on things I could not change. Which led me to becoming frustrated, hurt and angry. This “side-trip” on my road to wellness took me down a path that had the power to make me bitter and resentful. Which was holding me back from getting better.
Thankfully my therapist at the time was able to help me get back onto a path that led to wellness and the key was in knowing the difference between the things I could change and those things that I could not change.
For instance, some of the things I could not change were:
- I couldn’t change other people’s reactions to my mental illness including those close to me. (This was a big one for me!)
- I couldn’t change the fact that I had (and still have) bipolar disorder and I couldn’t “will” it away.
- I couldn’t change my past.
- I couldn’t change the fact that I would need medicine.
This list could go on and on. But, I think you get the point.
The first one on the list was a BIG one for me to accept and come to terms with; not being able to change people’s reactions and opinions regarding my having bipolar disorder. I had lived my life with a lot of “people-pleasing”, so it really mattered to me what other people thought and said about me. So, I spent a long time and energy spinning my emotional wheels around this issue and what other thought or said was simply not something I could change and nor was it was my responsibility.
As I focused on the things I could not change I found myself not changing the things I could change!
Strangely enough, that which occupies your thinking is also the direction you go. So, as I focused and obsessed on the things that I could not change I started to become frustrated, angry and bitter about them. There certainly was neither serenity nor peace for me.
The key for me in accepting the things I couldn’t change was to change my focus to the things that I could change. And as I focused on the things I could change I began to get my life back. I know that whatever I focus on in my thinking is “where” I’m headed. I began to make a list of the things I could change and began to work on and think about those things. It took a lot of will power at first. I continue choose to focus on the things I can change so that I might live well.
Some of the things I can change:
- I can change how I respond to others in spite of how they have reacted to my disorder.
- I can find those who do understand and are supportive in spite of those who do not understand and not supportive.
- I can change learn from my past and take what I have learned and apply it to today and my future. I don’t need to beat myself up over past mistakes.
- I can choose to live life well in spite of having bipolar disorder. In other words, my whole world is not wrapped in having bipolar disorder. It is just a part of my life, not the whole of it.
- I can change my doctor or therapist if they are not helpful
Again, this list can go on and on too.
I believe that knowing the knowing difference between the things I can change and the things that I cannot change and focusing on the things I can change has been key to my living well in spite of having bipolar disorder.
How about you? Have you or are you learning the difference? What can you change? What can’t you change? Are you focusing on the things that you can change and letting go of the things you can’t?