Lately, I’ve been thinking about the meaning of the Serenity Prayer. Although I was raised Roman Catholic and still practice occasionally, I appreciate the depth of the Serenity Prayer from a psychological perspective.
The Serenity Prayer is packed full of meaning and psychologically validated wisdom in just a few short lines. It is useful for persons in recovery from addiction, but also for anyone struggling with situations beyond their control.
What is the meaning of the Serenity Prayer?
The Serenity Prayer means letting go of situations beyond your control and taking action toward things within your control. It also means being able to know when things are within your control and when things are beyond your control.
Let’s take a look at the Serenity Prayer, itself.
Written by the American theologian Reinhold Niebuhr, It is most commonly quoted as the following:
“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.”
The Serenity Prayer is based on four virtues:
Let’s take a closer look at the meaning of these virtues from the Serenity Prayer and how you can apply them to your own life.
The meaning of serenity
Serenity is the first virtue mentioned in the Serenity Prayer and is presented as the primary goal.
Serenity comes from the root, serene, meaning calm, tranquil, peaceful, and clear/ unclouded. Serenity is a state of mental calm and clarity, where you feel at peace in the present moment, able to focus on what matters.
Being in a state of serenity is the opposite of a state of anxiety.
Anxiety pulls you out of the present moment, clouding your mind with thoughts of the past, and worries about the future. It is a state of tension and chaos.
Like anxiety, serenity is a perspective through which you view the world. The world does not need to be perfect to have mental clarity. With practice, we can approach uncertain situations through the mental lens of serenity.
As described by
“Learning to sit with ambiguity can be a very important start at a life liberated from anxiety—and the way to do it is to resist the urge to chase answers to questions that may actually be unanswerable.”
Learning to adopt a serene perspective takes practice. Although it takes work, the Serenity Prayer gives us direction on how to develop it.
The first step in developing serenity is acceptance.
The meaning of acceptance
In the Serenity Prayer, acceptance means letting go of things outside of your control.
We spend a lot of our lives worrying about things outside our control. A state of anxiety pulls us into not accepting reality as it is and trying to change it through constant worrying.
Mary Schmich illustrates this when she states:
“…worrying is as effective as trying to solve an algebra equation by chewing bubble gum.”
Worrying about things outside of our control does not actually help solve the problem. Instead, it can further entrench the problem by putting us into a state of anxiety rather than a state of serenity.
Which state is more useful amid chaos?
Although anxiety does help keep us safe by maintaining high alert for threats, it is no longer useful when spinning out of control.
If you find yourself spinning out of control, fighting with your anxiety is also counterproductive.
“I can’t feel this way!… I need to feel happy… oh no, am I getting anxious!?”
These thoughts only serve to strengthen the anxiety. Fighting with something only gives it more power over you.
So what is the most helpful approach?
Russ Harris, one of the key thinkers in the practice of Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT), states:
“Stop trying to control how you feel, and instead take control of what you can do”
This is where the third virtue in the Serenity Prayer comes in. Let’s take a closer look at courage.
The meaning of courage
In the Serenity Prayer, courage means having the strength and determination to do what is within your control.
When faced with an obstacle, we can have one of two reactions. We can claim we are a helpless victim of circumstance, or we can take ownership of the things we do have control over.
Have you ever found yourself complaining about a bad manager? This outwardly directed blame keeps us focused on the things we do not have control over – the manager’s behavior.
Rather than pointing fingers, having the courage to look inward allows you to take responsibility for the things you do have control over. You cannot control the actions of a bad manager, but you can control how you respond. You can also control whether or not you stay in that job.
The courage to take an appropriate action does not mean the absence of fear. It means noticing the fear and carrying it with you as you take action, despite it.
Courage means living on purpose.
Not taking action is its own form of action. By not taking action, you’re allowing your life to be dictated by external forces.
As Kelly Wilson states:
“Many people live their lives by circumstance rather than on purpose.”
Courage is about taking responsibility.
See my article on Why Responsibility Is So Important for an in-depth exploration of the meaning of responsibility.
Although responsibility is important, not everything is your responsibility. In the workplace example above, it is not your responsibility to change your manager.
Also, many people have experienced traumas, marginalization, and injustices that were not their responsibility.
But as I state in my article on responsibility:
If you’ve experienced trauma leading to mental health issues, you are not responsible for the problem, but you are responsible for being part of the solution.
The key is knowing the difference between something that is your responsibility and something that is not.
This brings us to the final virtue in the Serenity Prayer: wisdom.
The meaning of Wisdom
In the Serenity Prayer, wisdom means knowing what is within your control and what is not within your control.
Therefore, wisdom allows you to know when to practice acceptance and when to practice courage.
You can ask yourself, “Is this something within my control?” If not, you can then ask yourself, “what is within my control?”
The wisdom to know the difference is often clouded by anxiety when we are immersed within our thoughts. Rather than having the wisdom of clarity, our thoughts might lead us astray.
Our minds often lie to us, leading to what is referred to by psychologists as Cognitive Distortions. One of the most common includes black and white thinking. This means the tendency to overgeneralize, having thoughts consisting of “always” or “never.” For example, “I’m always treated unfairly by my manager.”
The key to wisdom is the ability to look at your thoughts as if you are a third-party observer.
As stated by ACT founder Steven C. Hayes:
“What we need to learn to do is to look at a thought rather than from thought.”
Having the wisdom to know when a thought is clouding your judgment requires being present to the moment.
As Daniel J Siegel states:
“Mental presence is a state of being wide awake and receptive to what is happening, as it is happening in the moment, within us and between the world and us. Presence cultivates happiness.”
Presence gives you the clarity to step back from your thoughts and see the bigger picture. Wisdom allows you to then distinguish what is your own responsibility in the matter.