Why the “Serenity Prayer” is Not Healthy in Recovery

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Why the “Serenity Prayer” is Not Healthy in Recovery

By Marc Kern PhD 11/03/16

If you’re in a bad marriage or terrible job—or a fusion of both—saying “I can’t change this” as in the Serenity Prayer leads you down the road of self-destruction.

Image: 
A metal coin with the serenity prayer on it
Given the near infinite complexity of the world, how can people in recovery know what they cannot change?

The Serenity Prayer is inextricably associated with AA and 12-step programs, and several elements of the short prayer, beyond the core message, are key aspects of 12-step recovery. The concepts of powerlessness and acceptance are clearly represented in the prayer. Dr. Marc Kern, an Addiction Psychologist and the President of Moderation Management, examines the historical impact of the Serenity Prayer and argues that its widely-accepted precepts can have a deleterious effect on recovery…Richard Juman, PsyD

While many assume that it came from AA, the Serenity Prayer is attributed to American Reinhold Niebuhr who wrote it in the 1930s for a church sermon.

“God, grant me the serenity

to accept the things I cannot change,

the courage to change the things I can,

and the wisdom to know the difference.”

The full text is here:

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.

God, give me grace to accept with serenity

the things that cannot be changed,

Courage to change the things

which should be changed,

and the Wisdom to distinguish

the one from the other.

Living one day at a time,

Enjoying one moment at a time,

Accepting hardship as a pathway to peace,

Taking, as Jesus did,

This sinful world as it is,

Not as I would have it,

Trusting that You will make all things right,

If I surrender to Your will,

So that I may be reasonably happy in this life,

And supremely happy with You forever in the next.

Amen.

The problem with the Serenity Prayer is that it creates an either/or, black-and-white dichotomy, as if all of the situations and challenges that a person in recovery is confronted by can be neatly placed into one or the other bucket. Of course it makes sense to accept the things that we cannot change—but how do we know if a particular situation is truly unchangeable, cast in stone? Given the near infinite complexity of the world and of human relationships, does it really make sense for people, especially those in early recovery, to be encouraged to make such categorical decisions? I don’t think so.

As George Bernard Shaw noted: “The reasonable man adapts himself to the world; the unreasonable one persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore, all progress depends on the unreasonable man.” Aren’t all innovations and inventions the result of somebody looking at a situation that others define as something that “cannot change” and saying “I can”? For example, we would not have the inventions of bifocals or the lightning rod without the commitment and passion of an elementary-school dropout by the name of Benjamin Franklin. Imagine how history might have changed if he had decided to stop feeding his curiosities because his parents couldn’t finance his education after his 10th birthday? Luckily, this “unreasonable man” chose a path that led him to become one of the Founding Fathers of the United States.

This is obviously not about Ben Franklin, but about hidden colors between the black-and-white thinking that can come from a strict adherence to the Serenity Prayer. There are a multitude of options besides a "yes" or a "no." We would probably all agree that there are many aspects of the world that are beyond our ability to change, and that when you find yourself in a situation like this, the best course of action is to go with it. Or, if there’s something I can change, I should try to change it, or at least consider trying. When we apply this strategy to ourselves, the potential for substantial change is enormous. For example, when a patient says something like “It’s impossible for me to be in the same room as my stepfather without exploding,” this is obviously false. Of course it is possible, and a good part of psychotherapy’s efficacy is first convincing our patients that the way they’ve acted in the past can change, and then showing them how. Our historical tendencies regarding the way that we think and act in the world can always be incrementally modified or adapted; to purposely or naively approach something as either black or white is setting the stage for important missed opportunities.

Think of it as a light switch. There is the old fashioned on and off switch, which is consistent with the Serenity Prayer, and then there is the dimmer switch, which tones up or tones down the lighting in any particular room. The Serenity Prayer should therefore not be looked at as “either-or,” “black-and-white,” “yes or no,” “right or wrong,” but rather in a way that accepts that most everything can be modified or adapted to a degree, even if it’s not complete.

For example, if you’re in a bad marriage or terrible job—or a fusion of both—saying “I can’t change this” leads you down the road of self-destruction. We can modify mostly everything to some degree and it is important that you don’t throw your hands up and say you’re powerless. If the reality is that you are only able to change something to a degree, it is not helpful in your recovery to minimize incremental growth and change. Recovery is a process of incremental change. And as we change, things that may have previously seemed impossible to change can and should be examined with fresh eyes.

Recovery is not a function of “yes” or “no”, which leaves out all the incremental changes that can be achieved. The Serenity Prayer is the core, principal reminder that is recited or whispered in AA rooms throughout the world; it is a cornerstone of the acceptance and practice of lifelong abstinence leading to a long, healthy and effective recovery. Although short and simple, the Prayer can be a difficult message to grasp to some of those battling their own dependencies. Without delving into the deeper psychology of why one “uses,” the connection between the Serenity Prayer and the notion that all drugs and alcohol are categorically in the “cannot change” realm can make people feel stripped of their personal freedom. Like a parent taking away candy from their crying child without explanation, this will cause further outcry. But if the parent provides an explanation of why the child shouldn’t have any more candy for the day, the child will understand, even if they don’t like it. During my journey of recovery, the traditional abstinence-based dogma of AA kept me unhappy and dissatisfied. I thought, “There has to be something else.” Instead of accepting the things I thought “I cannot change,” I dedicated my life to studying the spectrum of colors between the traditions of black-and-white mentality within the addiction field and its community—I developed a non-12-step, harm reduction-based approach towards treatment. There is an effective, stable, and happy medium that frames repression as something not as oppressive, and freedom as something not as liberating. There can be a golden mean.

Things can be changed to a degree. Yes, there are things that cannot be changed, such as what time the sun comes up or the law of gravity. But the vast majority of situations—especially when you’re dealing with yourself or another human being—can be modified. You should not throw your hands up and say “It can’t be changed,” give up and stop trying. The truth is, you can modify your behavior enormously without changing it 100%.

Life is all about these incremental modifications—without moving step by step you are missing a vast array of options that may be present beneath the surface. It is nonsense to tell someone they can’t improve upon and influence their behaviors. We mustn’t feel stuck and not give credence to the truth that we all as human beings are free, and can modify most of our behaviors to a certain degree. If you are told that you cannot change something, you can get depressed, become oppositional, or feel hopeless. It is horrible that the Prayer continues to dominate the recovery community because it’s a lie.

We have this historical poem that we all fall back on that falsifies life. The Prayer relieves you of responsibility. If you simply throw up your hands instead of gauging the nuances of a situation, life will inevitably become diminished.

Research supports the idea that at college age, many Americans could be considered alcoholics. Yet most just simply grow out of it. If you tell someone that they are powerless, you put your hands in your pockets and leave them with no options and guidance to develop. It is destructive. Therapy is built on a person’s capacity for gradual change as opposed to all-or-nothing, immediate change. We as a society have to move away from the Serenity Prayer that was developed thousands of years ago. In Western and Eastern societies, a young man or woman battling substance abuse is automatically shamed as an “addict,” a very bold word that showers countless preconceptions onto whomever it latches itself onto. This young man or woman has accepted the things they cannot change, that they are an “addict”—thus damaging their self-esteem, inhibiting achievement, and possibly crushing their life’s pursuit.

The black-and-white mentality within the Serenity Prayer leaves no room for modification, experimentation, or nuance. Life isn’t that way. It is about discovering and understanding the many hidden colors between the black and the white—the array of options that can lead us to creative progress, empowerment and self-discovery.

Dr. Marc Kern is a Licensed Clinical Psychologist and the Chairman of the Board of Moderation Management. Dr. Kern serves as the Clinical Director of Alternatives Behavioral Health, LLC. He also regularly speaks at national and international professional conferences, conventions and workshops. Kern's practical self-help book “Take Control, Now!” is a do-it-yourself blueprint for managing unwanted habits. His work has been published in professional publications, including the prestigious International Journal of the Addictions.

DrKern@AddictionAlternatives.com

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Dr. Marc Kern is a Licensed Clinical Psychologist and the Chairman of the Board of Moderation Management. Dr. Kern serves as the Clinical Director of Alternatives Behavioral Health, LLC. He also regularly speaks at national and international professional conferences, conventions and workshops. Kern's practical self-help book Take Control, Now! is a do-it-yourself blueprint for managing unwanted habits. His work has been published in professional publications, including the prestigious International Journal of the Addictions. Email: DrKern@AddictionAlternatives.com or find Dr. Kern on LinkedIn or Twitter.

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