One of the most rewarding parts of my long (28 years!) career as a gay men’s specialist therapist and coach is the variety of guys that I’ve had the pleasure to work with. There is so much variety to their initial issues or challenges that they are presenting to treatment with, and yet often I see threads, or commonalities, among them. One of these is about change: we seem to all want to change our lives for the better, usually in a personal way, a professional way, or some combination of both.
I derive inspiration from my training as a therapist, in undergrad, grad school, and continuing education, but also from constant reading, conferences, seminars, and just anywhere I can get exposed to inspirational material that I feel might help clients in my work.
One of these areas is AA, Alcoholics Anonymous. I’m not in AA, but I’ve worked with many guys who are, either because they are in recovery from alcohol or a drug, and I’ve helped many guys who don’t use AA but they use alternatives to AA to overcome a drug or alcohol problem, and I’ve seen success with both. Some gay men have been so burned by religious abuse that they want nothing to with a program that says it’s about a “god of your understanding,”, but then uses the Lord’s Prayer and uses “He” and other indicators of a very strong bias in favor of Christianity. Different things work for different people, as I have learned in spades. But AA is famous for having just incredibly practical, useful adages and sayings that I use with clients to help guide and inspire them in easy-to-remember sound bites that embody sometimes much larger concepts, and I think even people outside that program can benefit from some of them.
One of the AA traditions is what they call the Serenity Prayer: “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.”
A secular version might be “May I have the serenity..”
Let’s break those phrases down, and what the implications might be in therapy or coaching, when it comes to assessing and coping with stressors, and our interest in changing them.
When we accept something, we are realizing that fighting to change something that for whatever reason cannot be changed is healthy. Certain Laws of Nature – let’s start with sexual orientation, for example – cannot be changed. We might not recover exactly the same way after a severe injury, such as a veteran who has lost a limb in combat, or the death of a loved one. Even accepting a social or economic reality can be healthy, such as realizing we probably are never going to be, in this lifetime, a billionaire, or an Olympic athlete, or a movie star, or President. Sometimes it’s accepting that we might not ever be coupled, or recover from a so-called terminal illness.
As easy as it may be to become depressed at these thoughts – we will always whatever, or we will never whatever, or at least it’s not likely – indeed, these are sometimes called “depressogenic” states, or the origin of a situational depression, when we feel helpless to change our circumstances despite our efforts.
But that’s when what we call a paradoxical effect can happen; by practicing Acceptance, we actually change our circumstances by transcending them. A veteran who has lost his leg will never grow back another leg, but if he accepts that, maybe he can learn to use a prosthetic leg, and be ambulatory that way. Maybe we accept that we will never be a movie star, but we can find other ways to express our creativity with a lower bar of entry, and maybe not be loved by millions of “fans,” but maybe enjoy the love of our friends, family, neighbors, and coworkers instead.
When we accept, we aren’t weak; we are strong because we are – as another saying from AA goes – “living Life on Life’s terms” – meaning that we are applying actual brain adaptation, “neuroplasticity,” to cultivate the ability to adapt to our environment and continue on our journey. Darwin said it wasn’t necessarily the strongest species that survive, but those who are best at the ability to adapt.
Acceptance can be liberating from the tyranny of trying to change something that just can’t or won’t. Even things like trying to convince a homophobic loved one to be more tolerant might not ever happen. Or accept that a partner with a severe drug or alcohol problem who refuses help is someone that we cannot have a relationship with. Or even an acceptance that we will never progress in our current workplace environment, and will need to move on in order to grow. I see these kinds of examples in my office almost every day.
When we practice Acceptance, we can be liberated, and we can take our power back, and stop struggling, but learn to take a different approach that is a “workaround” for the problem. Acceptance is a relief, and is ironically self-empowering. We say to ourselves, “OK; given that, how else can I cope with this situation?”
But now, let’s look at the other side of that serenity statement, the “courage to change the things I can.” There are several key words there: “courage”, and “can”. Once we have determined that we “can” change our situation – we can alter a relationship, we can make alternative plans, we can apply our power of influence over others at times but mainly toward ourselves – then we have to look at whether we have the courage to do it.
I love “The Wizard of Oz.” Think of the character, the Cowardly Lion. That’s named for an irony; because we think of lions as strong, carnivorous, at times playful but also dangerous animals if we were their prey, so a cowardly one is an ironic or, as in the movie, a comic character. He seeks courage because he is tormented by irrational fears. When I work with a client in my office using Cognitive Therapy, we are identifying and then modifying, or re-framing, those irrational fears. As the Wizard character says, “it is an unfortunate delusion that simply because you run away from danger, you have no courage; you’re confusing courage with wisdom.” Courage is the ability to assess a situation and know when we need to work to change it, because is somehow amenable to change. We can walk away from a relationship that doesn’t serve us, either because we have become irrevocably unhappy, or maybe we’re being mistreated or abused. We can work hard to change a job, to move away from an environment that is abusive or just stagnant or has the wrong values for us. We can summon our own self-empowerment to change our circumstances, such as if we are in poor health from bad habits of being overweight, smoking, eating too much junk, or spending in a way that risks bankruptcy or undermines our financial health and stability. In my book, “Self-Empowerment: Have the Life You Want!,” I talk a lot about making empowered changes in our mental health, health, career, finances, family, and community.
Sometimes we have to “muster up” courage, or have someone help us with that – such as a therapist or coach; that’s a lot of what I do, helping guys to identify, supercharge, and implement the courage to make real and lasting change for the better, in so many areas a guy might face. And this takes time – behavioral change is a process, not an event. And in my favorite theory, Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy, it takes sustained effort and support to really change our thoughts, feelings, behaviors, and ultimately our circumstances.
But then there’s wisdom: “the wisdom to know the difference.” How do we know this? Sometimes, a therapist or coach can do what’s called “reality testing” to help you clarify your thinking on whether a situation is something you have to accept, or something you can change – and maybe some of both, for different angles or aspects or components of what you’re facing. It takes a careful assessment of what’s going on, and challenging yourself to understand whether something is even possible – through the Laws of Nature – or, just human nature, or something social, like laws or culture – to change.
The experience of assessing and determining what can be changed, versus what can’t, is an ability that likely increases over the course of the lifespan. This is why some developmental psychologists like Erik Erickson say that “with age, comes wisdom,” or someone reaches a “wise old age.” Over the course of a lifetime of lots of trial and error, we get better at this.
In another model of the practice of psychotherapy, that was in part based on CBT by Dr. Marsha Linehan, Dialetical Behavioral Therapy (DBT) takes on the seeming paradox, or two-poled dialect, of this. One of its adages is, “I accept myself as I am…but I can do better.” And then through this, she teaches its practitioners to teach their clients a series of just “life coping skills” that help to reduce stress. Because that’s what building wisdom, and our increasingly ability to cope with life’s stressors and challenges, losses and setbacks, is all about: building skills over time, especially with help from all kinds of sources.
Internal and External Resources
I’ve written in my “Self-Empowerment” book and other places about “internal and external resources”. Internal resources that we need to change are things that are within us that can be cultivated just by thinking about them, focusing on them, really honing in on them. Things like courage, determination, hope, confidence, determination, resilience, stamina, cleverness, creativity, focus, commitment, and even spontaneity.
External resources are the sources of help we need to proceed with pursuing our goal. A personal trainer that helps our fitness. A book that we use for reference. A conference we attend. Teaching or mentoring we receive. A website. A podcast. And, I’d like to say, a therapist or coach!
The other thing we want to consider in this is what I call Temporal Issues: things that are related to time, and in part to place. The same challenge that we have today might not be a “thing” tomorrow; and sometimes we need to develop adaptive coping strategies for things today that we just didn’t have to deal with in the past, such as physical changes related to aging, or the changes in society, like a new Presidential administration, or changes in the top management at work, or cultural or technological shifts. We always have to remember that Temporal context, in addition to where we are in the developmental psychology phase of our own lifespan, and also in the context of the nation, community, or culture where we live.
Somebody trying to get where they are going in 1912 by horse and buggy when their horse is sick is very different from someone trying to get where they are going in 2020 when their GPS isn’t working properly.
Reflection and Creative Thinking
Ultimately, trying to cope with change is a lot about self-reflection to determine the things you must label as unchangeable, or not likely to change, and accept, versus those that might respond to our applying the force of our internal and external resources to change. We all change over the lifespan; that’s what makes it fun. We are always learning and growing, and while that can be fun or downright painful, it’s usually meaningful, and certainly educational.
If you’d like help to self-reflect, or identify/cultivate your internal and external resources, consider therapy or coaching, either in my office in Los Angeles with me, or one of my associate clinical staff, or online via phone or webcam. Making desired changes can feel isolating, but you’re not alone. You’re much more capable than you might think.
For more information on my practice services, call/text 310-339-5778, or email Ken@GayTherapyLA.com.