The Serenity Prayer
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.
Take your power back
Life is very simple. We get back what we give. We create our lives through our thoughts, feelings, and actions. No person, situation, or experience defines our lives unless we give it the power to do so. When we blame a situation, we put that very situation in charge of our lives. When we blame a person, we are giving that person control.
We each have power over our own lives through the choices we make. However, when we blame either our situation or others, we give that power away. We become the victim. On the other hand, when we choose to take accountability for our choices, thoughts, and behavior, we are then putting ourselves back in control. We are free to define our own lives when we put ourselves in charge of the situation instead of someone else.
It is much easier to assume the victim role instead of taking accountability for what we create in our life. On a basic intuitive level, most people understand this. That inner knowing is what makes the simple message of the serenity prayer so popular. Taking accountability for what you can change and letting the rest go takes you out of the victim role.
Cami was a young 16-year-old who worked at a local grocery store. When she first got the job, she was very grateful because there weren’t many jobs for young people in her town. The store manager had explained that he usually gave the job to a boy because of the lifting and moving involved. She was excited she got a job that was usually given to boys, but the store manager had agreed to “give her a try.”
However, after a few months she started complaining about her job and how unfair it was. One day in session she moaned about having to move heavy boxes. With great energy she explained how stupid it was. She complained that the boys should have to move the heavy boxes. Cami had worked hard in therapy to connect her thoughts with her feelings of low self worth and anxiety, but she saw this situation as different.
She felt she was the victim, and the manager was picking on her. She took moving the boxes very personally. We discussed how she could move into a place of accountability. At first, she could not see in this situation how that applied. I talked to her about how her feelings would change if she told herself something like, “I accepted this job. I knew what was included in the job when I took it. This is part of the job. I am sure glad I have a job.”
When we talked through this, she laughed at herself because she said it was so obvious how to take responsibility instead of the victim role. Even though it is simple, blaming others or our circumstances is a lifelong habit for most people and thus hard to recognize.
In a discussion about this subject with another client, she told me something her grandfather often repeated to her, “When you are pointing the finger at someone else as the source of your pain and misery, there are three fingers pointing back at you.” In her grandpa’s wisdom he was teaching her that you can’t do anything about the one you are pointing the finger to.
The great thing about this visual image is that the three fingers pointing back at you are actually in your control because this is your part. A young woman once told of how her husband would play x-box for hours on end. She became very resentful of the Xbox to the point that she considered divorce. Through the discussion of path from victim to accountability she learned that her husband used the Xbox as an escape from her constant barrage of criticism and nagging. That she was a contributing factor in his excessive play was a surprise to her. She sobbed with understanding that she was creating a toxic an environment for him with her high expectations as she unknowingly communicated that he was not enough. This was very reminiscent to feelings of falling short that he had grown up with from his own mother. In the visual image of pointing the finger at her husband she began to look at the three fingers pointing back at herself. She apologized to her husband and worked very hard to be less critical. He in return engaged more with the relationship and spent less time with the video games.
Many were raised on blame–making it a habit to ‘pass the buck’ to others or the circumstances in which life has placed you. The alternative to blame is accountability. When you blame something outside of yourself for a situation in your life, you give control of your life to that same thing which is outside of yourself where you have no control. When you really take accountability for your choices, thoughts, feelings, and actions, you feel a deep sense of empowered living and peace. It should be noted that there is a big difference between assuming the victim role and actually being a victim. When you are actually being victimized you bear no responsibility such as abuse, discrimination, or the victim of a crime. But you are responsible when you present yourself as a victim in order to excuse or justify your own behavior. Terry Warner, in his book “Bonds that Make Us Free”, calls this behavior “self-betrayal”.
There are many things that happen in our lives. We may fall victim to health concerns. We may experience abuse or judgement from another. We may be the victim of a crime. There are things that happen outside of our control. Taking accountability suggests that, even though you can’t control everything that happens in your life, you are responsible for the choices you make within your situation. You are responsible if you eat healthy, gossip about others, or stay in the victim role to your abuse. Instead, take your experiences, learn from them, and move on with confidence that life is teaching you.
Maya Angelou gives us an example of this healing in her book, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. In her autobiography, Angelou confronts her painful childhood experiences of abuse and racism. Even though her life gave her every reason to adopt a victim stance, she turned her painful journey into one of triumph and hope. She learned to not carry responsibility for others choices but at the same time to take accountability for her own choices (some not so good) even within her difficult life circumstances. She sums up moving out of the victim role when she says, “The caged bird sings, even within the cage, because it can. The caged bird has a choice, and he can choose to sing.”
One client demonstrated the power of letting go of blaming others. His nephew passed away in a car accident. My client and his siblings agreed to pay for the headstone, thinking of the price of a modest one. The grieving mother chose a very elaborate and expensive headstone. When the family members were told what they owed to cover the cost, they responded in anger. They worked themselves up, became enraged, and blamed their sister-in-law for choosing such an expensive headstone. They flung insults towards the sorrowing mother for wasting their money and taking advantage of their loving generosity. However, from years of therapy, my client had learned the road from victim to accountability. He could see that they had not told their sister-in-law what they had in mind for a price range. They had left it open. He accepted responsibility for his choice of not making it clear what they were expecting to spend. Instead of seething in blame and destroying family relationships, he chose to ask himself, “what can I learn from this experience?” rather than “why did my sister-in-law do this to me?”
Although it was a much bigger sacrifice than he had intended, he took responsibility for his lack of setting boundaries. He learned that you can’t just assume the other person knows what you are thinking. He experienced peace and freedom simply by taking accountability instead of the victim role. Some of his siblings felt very victimized resulting in a strained relationship with their brother and sister-in-law that has not healed.
Many of my therapy clients have been sexually abused. One question I ask at the beginning of therapy is, “what will it take for you to heal from this trauma?” Very often I hear a response that includes the perpetrator being convicted and sentenced in order for healing to occur. I am careful to validate the evil of such a crime and that true justice would include such outcomes as expressed by the client. However, I also point out the error to this type of black and white thinking. “If you listen carefully,” I tell my clients, “what you are actually doing is reinforcing your victim role by giving away your power to heal.” This is confusing to my clients. I help them to see that they are making their healing conditional upon a decision that someone else will ultimately control. The judge may not invoke a sentence. There may be insufficient evidence for the prosecution to gain a conviction. A perpetrator may never confess or apologize. The only condition upon which healing is dependent is the choice of my clients to decide to heal despite what someone else may do or decide. You are in charge of your healing, and you do not need anyone else’s permission or decision to do so. Healing is your choice, regardless of what others say or do.
The allure of the victim role is very enticing. Being in helpless pain can become an identity of sorts. You may feel “If I am not a victim then who am I?” You can blame others and then not have to take responsibility for your life, but this is a position of helplessness.
Even in the extreme circumstance of the concentration camp, Victor Frankel teaches that when he took responsibility for his thoughts, he felt a measure of peace. This was a place the guards could not control. They could take everything else from him, but he was still in charge of the meaning he gave to his experience within his own mind. You ultimately are the creator of your life. Putting your energy towards personal responsibility for those parts of your life of that are within your control instead of putting your energy towards getting others to take responsibility for that which is within your control. Don’t work at controlling others. Problem solve what is within your control without attempting to take responsibility for others choices. May God truly grant you the ability to accept the things you can’t change along with the courage and strength to face that which is within your control.