top of page

Is it something you can or cannot change? (aka, the wisdom to know the difference)

Great news, friend!

Change is possible.

You certainly can change yourself (whether you choose to is another matter). But you do not have the power to change other people. (In case you missed them or want to refresh on accepting yourself,

If you've processed the first two concepts, taken from the Serenity Prayer (short form below), you're ready to consider the third and possibly trickiest piece: differentiating what you can change from what you cannot change.

"[Higher Power,] Grant me the serenity to

accept the things I cannot change,

courage to change the things that I can,

and wisdom to know the difference."

A certain 12-step old-timer I adore always says “Heavy on that last part” whenever we say the Serenity Prayer together. She's right!

Learning to recognize what I can change versus what I cannot change took time. Even today, I can slip out of my personal role - Lily - and into the director’s chair, attempting to manage and control others, or simply even imagining that I know what’s best for them.

The truth? I do not know what’s best for others, and I only incur frustration and resentment when I tell myself I do.

When I am intent on “fixing” someone else, I’m bound to fail. That individual has to make her own choices, and I cannot force her to change.

We’ve previously discussed accepting ourselves, accepting others, and the resistance that can arise within ourselves when we try to change ourselves. If you find yourself resisting your own attempts at self-change, how much resistance do you think another person feels when you try to change her??

So how do we discern between what we can and cannot change? Truly, the distinction matters for your serenity -- and the other person’s!

It’s pretty simple, actually. Try the below writing exercise.

Write down a list of all the things that you can change.

* * *

Go ahead, I’ll wait.

* * *

Seriously, write them down!

* * *

OK! What did you write?

Want to see my list?

Things Lily can change:

  • Lily’s thoughts,

  • Lily’s words, and

  • Lily’s actions.

Anything not on the above list = something I cannot change.

If that seems overly simplistic, let’s delve deeper with a recovery scenario.

While it is a joy to work with other women on their sobriety journeys, their paths may be fraught with relapses, back-tracking, and sometimes even death. I know multiple people who have died alcohol-related deaths; I know others who likely will die from alcoholism – some sooner, others later.

It’s heart-wrenching to see someone you deeply care for slowly (or quickly) killing herself with drugs and alcohol. The alcoholic may not realize how greatly her behavior is hurting her loved ones, and her loved ones would do anything to save her.

When I see someone back-sliding towards a drink or who has relapsed, here’s what I can do:

  • Thoughts: I keep her in my thoughts.

  • Thoughts: I pray for her.

  • Words: I tell her how much I care for her and that I’m concerned.

  • Words: I remind her of the potential consequences (illness, jail, loss of friends and family, death, etc.) if she continues.

  • Words: I offer support, including a ride to detox or a peer-support meeting.

  • Words: I encourage her to seek treatment.

  • Words: I reach out if she goes quiet.

  • Actions: I answer if she calls and respond to her communications.

  • Actions: I’m available to help if and when she wants help.

They aren’t listed above, but I also have less effective options. I have the option to worry non-stop over what will happen. I can take it personally, thinking she’d change if she really cared about me. I can rant and rave to others. I can drive to her house and try to drag her to treatment. I can beg, plead, nag, and threaten, attempting to persuade her to stop, seek help, or do something – anything—to save herself.

In short, there is plenty I can think, do, and say. Some of it may help, but the harder I push, the more likely I harm myself and my relationship with the person struggling. And if I damage my relationship with her, she is less likely to seek my help if and when she’s ready.

Finally, the hardest part: I begin moving towards acceptance of whatever happens.

Remember: accepting something I cannot change, and that I cannot change it, does not mean I like, endorse, condone, or support it. Acceptance is an act of self-care. By beginning to accept what is beyond my control, I prioritize my own sanity and well-being. If I’m not sane, I cannot help others. I have to put on my oxygen mask before I help you with yours. If I die, how can I possibly save you?

*There’s a lot more I could write about serenity related to addiction. If you’re struggling to accept and lovingly detach from a loved one’s addiction, I understand. I’m available to help you, and peer-support groups for loved ones of alcoholics and addicts, including Al Anon, can be tremendously helpful.

Addiction is a disease, and it is the only deadly disease that must be self-diagnosed and self-treated. While the addict often needs outside support and treatment from doctors, therapists, peer-support groups, and her family, she is the one who must work to create lasting change.

Family and close friends can absolutely help. They can maintain an alcohol-free home or abstain from drinking around the newly sober person, but they are not required to do so. Even if family and friends create the “perfect” environment conducive to the alcoholic’s ongoing sobriety, she still must take the necessary actions to heal and stay sober.

Finally, as with most of the topics I write about, the foregoing is not limited to relationships with addicts! The wisdom to know the difference between what you can and cannot change applies to all relationships!

Practical application: Where have you been trying to impose your will on others? How can you lighten your grip this week?

  • Reflect on someone or something you want to change.

  • What, if anything, have you done to try to change it/her?

  • Is there anything on your “I can change” list to be done?

  • If you’ve done everything you can do, is there a way you can introduce self-care or acceptance into the situation?

With so many holidays and family events approaching, you’ll probably have myriad opportunities to practice distinguishing between what you can and cannot change!

Let me know how it goes. I'm rooting for you. Contact me directly or schedule a complimentary clarity call to go deeper!


Recent Posts

See All

Why do you struggle to change?

One way to define resistance is: “the refusal to accept or comply with something; the attempt to prevent something by action or argument.” Oxford English Dictionary (emphasis added). As a visual and

Accepting that I cannot change others

Reminder: Acceptance (to me) does not entail endorsing, condoning, or approving of a behavior, person, place, or thing. Rather, it is the process of not resisting what you may find objectionable. Why

Acceptance is key.

How would your life improve if you accepted yourself, exactly as you are today? Regardless of whether you identify as spiritual or religious, you've probably heard or read the Serenity Prayer at some


bottom of page