The Power in Accepting What You Can't Change
Persia Lawson and Joey Bradford have written The Inner Fix, a guide to help young women of their generation navigate life and look after themselves. Here they write about powerlessness, and the need to accept that you cannot always change your circumstances, or other people.
From the outside, my childhood may well have looked enviable. I lived in a nice little terraced house in the suburbs with my parents and two siblings, went to a good school, got good grades, had lots of friends and spent my weekends riding horses at the local stables. Materialistically speaking, I was extremely fortunate compared to much of the world, and I knew it. From the inside, however, my childhood didn’t feel anywhere near as good as it looked. Most of the time, it felt frightening, uncertain and piercingly sad. My parents – who on the outside appeared to be the epitome of glamour and success - were also high-functioning drug addicts, and desperately tried to juggle their habit alongside paying a mortgage and taking care of three small children. They were as lost and afraid as I was.
Addiction doesn’t care how much money you make, how talented or beautiful you are, or how much you love your family. It is more powerful than the sum of all those things put together. And yet, being the naïve and headstrong child that I was, I convinced myself that addiction had met its match in me. I thought that if I could just make my parents proud of me, I could somehow mend our broken family. It’s the only thing I really knew how to do back then – achieve. Unlike my sister, I wasn’t very good at being kind and generous – not in the context of my family life, anyway. I was too angry.
I believed with every fibre of my soul that being the best at things (grades, hobbies, socialising) would win me the validation and attention I so craved. However, like a mirage in the desert, as soon as I arrived at each victory, the joy I was so certain I’d feel receded into the distance – to some other accomplishment I had yet to master. And one painful truth started to become strikingly apparent: nothing I could ever ‘achieve’ would be enough. Addiction had my parents in a headlock, and only they had the power to release themselves from its grip.
For as long as I can remember, I’ve felt drawn towards helping and advising people in need. I suppose I inherited my ‘fixer’ tendencies from my mother, who in turn got it from her own. I come from a lineage of caring women who ‘worry’ about others, and make it their mission to solve the problems of those they most care about.
This all sounds rather pleasant, and it could have been in a healthier context. The problem was that, for most of my teens and half of my twenties, my fixing efforts were focused almost entirely on people (mainly men I was romantically involved with…) who hadn’t actually asked for my help. And who definitely didn’t want it.
Emotionally unavailable or troubled lovers were a magnet for me, and I would enthusiastically bestow onto them their (so far) untapped potential, and then spend huge amounts of energy trying to get them to embody it.
Investing so much of my headspace on someone else, perhaps inevitably, resulted in neglecting my own life in the process. As anyone out there who’s gone through something similar might have discovered: controlling someone else often doesn’t have the outcome you were hoping for. In fact, it tends to have the opposite effect: it pushes them away until you lose them completely.
When you’ve built your world to revolve around this person, this isn’t a particularly comfortable place to end up.
One of the most painful yet life-changing lessons we’ve learned over recent years is that we are all powerless over pretty much everyone and everything, except ourselves. In our experience, this ‘a-ha’ moment usually hits when you’re at your very lowest - when you feel so desperate and hopeless, that surrender becomes your only option.
Worrying, obsessing, controlling, and manipulating are all pointless activities. They deceive you into thinking you’re being productive and making progress, but what you’re really doing is pushing all the things you really want away, because you’re coming from a place of fear. Coming from this anxious energy, it’s very difficult to make rational decisions, and so you often end up making an already trying situation even worse.
Whilst it may be your last resort, coming to accept your powerlessness turns out to be a huge relief and blessing, because it means that you can finally stop trying to swim against the tide. When you stop meddling in other people’s affairs, you free up a load of energy to focus on what you want for your own life, and personal clarity is an incredibly creative and productive force.
One way of practicing powerlessness is by striving to live our lives one day at a time. We are powerless over the future, except to the extent that the choices we make today will affect it. Life becomes much more manageable when, instead of letting ourselves become totally consumed and overwhelmed by the magnitude of a situation, we focus on what small action we can take today to move us in the direction we want to be heading in.
Whenever we’ve found ourselves feeling anxious about the future, we bring to mind the famous serenity prayer written by American theologian Reinhold Niebuhr. These words always help to calm us down and shift our perspective:
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.
No matter how big or trivial a problem we may face, we must accept what we are powerless over, relinquish control, and strive to change only the things that can be changed in this moment.