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The Courage to Change the Things I Can

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It is the directive of the Serenity Prayer: change the things I can.

What Needs Changing

In moments of difficulty and crisis, we begin to see things in our lives that need to change. In the case of AA, or for me, Al-Anon, we must take back our own agency, our own ability to decide what we are going to do differently. Not in response to others, but in response to ourselves and what we want our life to become.

I was initiated into the 12-step programs by the early version of Adult Children of Alcoholics at about sixteen years old. So, for forty-five years I have been repeating these phrases from the serenity prayer. The courage to change is a powerful call to arms. If you are ready to change, you alone have the ability to get right with yourself and right with the world. It sounds like a pipe dream when you are down in the mud. As you grow, practice, pray, get better, and continue to “change the things I can” you can realize improvements.

The first part of the Serenity Prayer has another powerful instruction: accept the things I cannot change. That is the healing part of the prayer. Forgiveness for yourself. Forgiveness for the damage you have done. Forgiveness for the things you regret. And an awareness that you cannot change the past or predict the future. And most of all, you cannot cause another person to change. Wanting someone else to behave differently is one of the biggest traps we can get caught in. People only change when they want to. (What’s the benefit to me.) Or when they are forced to. (How can I stay out of jail or rehab.) We’ve got to let go of others first.

My Plan Is About Me

I want things in my life to work out. I want my kids to be happy and healthy. I want my primary relationship to thrive and continue to feed my heart and soul. And I want my work to carry some meaning beyond the money to survive. What I know I cannot control: 1. the behavior of others, 2. things that have already happened, 3. how things work out. I can only control two things: my own actions and my own words. My response to others (my kids, my partner, my work colleagues) is 100% up to me. I may not like the actions of my manager. What I can do is make changes in myself and my own actions. I can take 100% of the responsibility for my own actions and behave accordingly. My actions have consequences.

In digging my way out of a marriage that became increasingly toxic, and a co-parenting relationship that became adversarial, I learned this lesson in a concrete way. Initially, when my ex-wife would stir up discord I would respond in kind with more animosity. I learned, however, that my response was my choice. I decided to stop responding to her anger and accusations. I chose to mute the text messages that would come pouring in. I learned that my response was 100% up to me. I simply stopped responding to her *bs* and only responded to the actual logistics required to co-parent our two children.

I lost a lot in the divorce. 70% of the time my children were away from me. In that time, they were with their narcissistic mom and her new spectrumy husband. They were not shown how a healthy relationship looks. They were not given the “feeling” side of life, as both of these adults are devoid of most emotional access. On a scale of 1 – 10, my ex-wife being a 1 on the feeling scale and me being a 10, my kids came out a little below center. I wish I could’ve been with them more. I wish my optimism and hope had been more prevalent in their lives. AND, that’s it. Those are wishes.

I had control over how I would behave to both my children and my ex-wife. I gave everything thing I had to my kids when they were in my care. I also learned to defuse their mom’s antagonism by not giving her the response she was looking to stir up in me. I’m not sure why a parent would sabotage their co-parent. I learned to focus on what I could do, actions I could take, and how to be the best dad I could be in the time I was given.

As We Move Away

My kids are nearly finished with college. In the time they have been out of their mom’s house, I have been able to pick up the pieces and renew the thread of love that was never diminished, only restricted. Now, our time together is voluntary. As it was in the last years of high school, my kids would accept a dinner or a vacation if it fits with their needs. That’s okay. I learned to stay in my lane as a parent as well. Ask for their time, yes. Then let go of the outcome. If they had other plans or didn’t want to go to the beach in the summer, that was their choice, not mine.

A parent’s role is to be a good role model for our kids. I have worked hard to stay in my lane. I don’t offer advice unless it has been requested. I try and follow through on all of my commitments. I am showing them what a healthy relationship looks like, both in my relationship with my partner and also in my relationship to them. I do not demand their compliance. I offer support for their plan, I don’t try to make them follow my plan. I try and live the powerful message of the Serenity Prayer.

My actions and words are all I can control. My goal is to always do my best. And give everyone around me their own agency to make plans, change plans, and find their own way forward. I don’t know about anyone else but myself. I might think I have insight into what someone is going through. I have some knowledge of my own path down the dark night of the soul. I do not know how it feels to be you. I will sit beside you and support you when you find your next objective. That’s what I’m here for. I am here to help you achieve your goals, not mine. And ultimately, I am here to help myself and my own goals. I can only control myself and my actions. It is hard sometimes to stay out of the way. What our kids need to know is that I am here to support whatever you decide to do, even if I don’t agree with it.

Always Love,

John McElhenney – life coach austin texas
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good dad's guide to divorce - john oakley mcelhenney

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