The theologian Reinhold Neibuhr wrote the first version of one of the most famous prayers in America: “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.” Though most often associated with Alcoholics Anonymous, this prayer is useful advice, whether or not you’re religious, and whether or not you have any sort of mental illness.
With depression, in particular, it’s important to take stock over what degree of power you have to change your life. Sometimes, we have very little that we can change. Other times, we find ourselves in a position where, if we try hard, we can change almost all of the external factors contributing to our depression. Randy Paterson Ph.D. at Psychology Today calls this “Column A” and “Column B,” but he also says that it’s more of a continuum. For most of us, it’s in between.
The things that we have the most power to change are the same things that a depressed patient might be advised to do in therapy. Most of this change starts with our own bodies. This includes things like:
- My diet
- Whether I exercise
- What I do with our free time
- The way I rely on technology
- My depression treatment plan
It also includes factors within our own minds, such as:
- My expectations of other people
- The values I choose to prioritize
Most of the things that we absolutely cannot change are locked in the past. This may include things like:
- The opportunities I’ve let pass
- My relationships with people who are now gone out of my life forever
- Chronic conditions I suffer from
- Genetic factors contributing to my mental illness
As Dr. Paterson says, we’ll never be able to get rid of everything that’s “causing” our depression. But because a depressed state usually arises out of a number of factors working together, we might be able to eat around the edges of these “big” problems until they become emotionally manageable.
In the middle of the “two columns” are lots of problems that are somewhere in the middle. These are things that we theoretically can change, but not without enduring great pain and stress; it often isn’t feasible to think about changing these things right away. This can include things like:
- My romantic partner/living situation
- My choice of career/level of education
- My choice of doctor/therapist
- My relationship with my family, friends, and colleagues
Here’s where Neibuhr’s “wisdom” comes in. Are these really things you can change, and if you can, would you want to? What emotional and financial state would you want to be in before you quit your job? Would spending more time with your parents make you feel better or worse? If you conclude that a source of stress is going to be part of your life for the foreseeable future, that may help you learn to accept it. If you decide that something needs to change, think about creating a long-term plan or goal, like, “I want to move out before the end of the year.”
If you’re not sure, continue to think about it now and then. Our lives are changing all the time, even when we don’t realize it, so you might come back around to an issue and see an open door that you didn’t see before.