I love the Serenity Prayer. Essentially, it tells you to change what you can. I have a version that I use as a mantra. Some people see it as a religious prayer; some people use it without the “God” part; some people edit it to include a word like “universe” instead of God — whatever works! The primary focus of this “prayer” is a cornerstone of quality coaching — coaching helps you focus on what you can change.
So often, clients come to coaching feeling frustrated and at an impasse with a goal they are trying to achieve or a change they’re trying to make in their lives. The specifics vary from person to person, of course: surviving a challenging transition, improving their overall health and wellness, or working out how to support their ‘big kids’. Regardless of what brings the person to coaching, I find that in the vast majority of cases, part of the problem is that the client is trying to create change in a domain where they actually have no power. For example, imagine someone wants to advance their career, but they have a boss who doesn’t recognize their achievements. Every time there’s a training opportunity, the boss overlooks the client and gives the opportunity to someone with less experience in the field. On top of this, the boss is rude and disrespectful. The client’s coworkers are praised and even get credit for the client’s work. The client may come to coaching thinking their goal is to get their boss to recognize their contributions.
It’s natural for the client to feel frustrated and like they want to change their boss, but they actually have no power over their boss’ behavior. There are other things they can do, though. They can advocate for themselves, they can contact HR for help, and they can apply for new jobs. Each of these action steps focuses on something the client can control rather than their boss’ behavior, which they can’t control.
It’s not always obvious to differentiate between the things you can and cannot change, especially in challenging situations. How do you know if you’re trapped in this cycle? If I find myself thinking things like, “Well they need to…”, “They can’t….”, “They have to…”, that’s usually a sign to me that I’m focusing on things I can’t change. I may WANT someone to do something or not do something, but unless they’re breaking some sort of work policy or a law, people can behave however they choose to behave.
Once you realize you’re trapped, what do you do? Ask yourself: “If I woke up tomorrow and the problem was gone, what would the day look like for me?” Write about your day in detail. Step by step. What do you do? How do you feel? Is the focus of your story that your boss is nicer to you? Did they finally acknowledge your work at the team meeting? Responding to this question usually helps to identify the things that you cannot change.
Next, ask yourself: “If I woke up tomorrow and the problem was gone, how would I be behaving differently than I am now?” Again, write about your day in detail. Step by step. What do you do? How do you feel? This usually helps people focus on what they can do and aspects that they can control. Let’s imagine you worked with HR who met with you and your boss. During that process, you were able to present clear details about your accomplishments and advocate for yourself about why you wanted to go to the next training. Your argument and your achievements were crystal clear. This thought exercise may help you identify key support systems that can help you deal with problems you have, like contacting HR, and take small steps towards making a change in your life. In this case, maybe you get to go to the next training. Of course, your boss may not change, and this may still be a problem for you. Now, with the new training on your resume, you start looking for another job.
No matter how much we might want to, we can’t force others to change. But you can change patterns of your own behavior to try to achieve your end goals. Maybe you can improve your communication, be more assertive, ask for what you want more clearly, and improve your coping skills. Maybe in the process, your boss will realize that you’re not feeling satisfied at work and they’ll change, but you can’t make that happen.
When you are struggling with something, look carefully at what you are trying to change. Is it something within your control? Where are you putting your energy?
If you are focused on changing yourself or doing certain things to take action in your own life, then that’s great! Move ahead as planned! Otherwise, perhaps say a version of the Serenity Prayer that works for you, refocus, and redefine your goals so that you can move forward with a focus on the healthy things you CAN do to make changes in your own life.