What you can change and what you cannot
— Gaining the wisdom to know the difference
- 1 Introduction
- 2 Objectives
- 3 Things You Can Change
- 4 Things You Cannot Change
- 5 Things you may be able to change
- 6 Vital Distinctions
- 7 Locus of Control
- 8 Agency
- 9 Ambivalence
- 10 Regret
- 11 A Buddhist Perspective on Inner Peace
- 12 The Serenity Prayer
- 13 Further Reading
- 14 Notes
We spend too much time and waste too much energy in futile attempts to change what we cannot change. This is a major cause of frustration and other forms of anger. The rational evidence for determining what we can change and what we cannot is overwhelming, but our behavior often tries to defy this reason and logic. Behavior based on the lower two levels of the architecture for interaction model is impossible to change. Those at the upper levels can be changed. Perhaps this course can help you sort it out, reduce your frustrations, and increase your peace-of-mind.
The objectives of this course are to help you:
- Identify what you can change,
- Stop wasting effort on things you cannot change,
- Reduce your frustration,
- Increase your equanimity,
- Identify possibilities,
- Increase your emotional competency.
This course is part of the Emotional Competency curriculum. This material has been adapted from the EmotionalCompetency.com page on What You Can Change and What You Cannot, with permission of the author.
Things You Can Change
Why waste time in futile attempts to change what you cannot, when there are so many things you can change? Here is a partial list of what you can change.
What you do:
- Your present behavior,
- Your future behavior,
- How you respond to the behavior of others,
- How you spend your time,
- Who you spend time with, the friends you keep, your participation and behavior in relationships,
- How you apply your talents and strengths.
- The strengths you choose to acquire, develop, and apply,
- Your mastery of the moral virtues,
- Initiative, drive, commitment, tenacity, focus,
- Focusing on what matters,
- Who waits for whom,
- The promises you keep, and the people you betray,
- Your level of nutrition and fitness,
- Habits, both good and bad
- The choices you make,
- Preparations and plans you make,
- Impulse control,
- Integrity, authenticity, congruence, reciprocity
- Your intellectual honesty,
- The path you take,
- Your behaviors that annoy others,
- Where you live, where you work, where you play, your career,
- The responsibility you take for yourself, and who you choose to blame,
- When you appease, when you acquiesce, when obey, when you submit, when you rebel, when you protest, and when you blow the whistle.
- Where you shop, how you spend, and how you save,
- When and how you use your power.
- Reappraise, apologize, forgive, let go, and take responsibility for yourself.
- Deciding to do your best, or less than your best.
What you communicate to others:
- What you say, how you say it, who you say it to, and when you say it,
- The authenticity of your expression,
- Your use of dialogue,
- Who you greet, and how you greet them,
- Facial expressions, body language, gestures, posture,
- Grooming, dress, and personal hygiene,
- The attitude you project,
- What you write, say, and share,
- The falsehoods you choose to advance,
- The gossip you spread,
- The rumors you spread,
- Who you include and who you exclude,
- Your public image,
- The topics you avoid, and those you engage, when you are patient, when you show impatience.
- Authentic information or deceptive, manipulative, incomplete, or disingenuous disinformation.
- The promises you make, when you say “Yes”, and when you say “No”.
- Who you like, who you trust, who you dislike, who you distrust,
- Your loyalties,
- The symmetry of the power relationships, including: deference, respect, fawning, condescension, leadership, or disrespect.
- Who you show respect to and who you are disrespectful of,
- What you are willing to tolerate, and what you take a stand on,
- Who you interrupt and who you allow to interrupt you.
- The trust you extend and the trust you earn.
What you know:
- Facts you have gathered,
- The evidence you consider,
- The theory of knowledge you use to choose your beliefs.
- The beliefs you hold.
- Expertise, skills, and how you apply your talents,
- Literacy, logic, quantitative skills, domain knowledge,
- What you study, read, listen to, and learn,
- What you question and what you accept,
- Your self-image, including your understanding of your authentic self.
How you think:
- Your values and goals.
- What you believe,
- The assumptions you make, the questions you ask,
- How you know how you know,
- The ideologies you accept,
- Who you trust,
- The points of view you adopt,
- What you value, how you evaluate information, the priorities you set, what you want.
- The focus of your attention, what you regard as important and what you regard as unimportant, your priorities.
- Your mood, attitude, and point of view,
- Your explanatory style; optimistic or pessimistic,
- The alternatives you generate and consider,
- How you balance inquiry and advocacy,
- Your level of innovation,
- Your compassion, empathy, and understanding of others.
- Your level of skepticism, and openness to new ideas
- Interest, investigation, imagination, and curiosity,
- How you choose friends and who you regard as friends,
- Who you choose as enemies, and who you fear,
- Your willingness or refusal to hate others,
- Who you love and who you decide to hate.
- How you learn,
- Your level of emotional competency.
- The integrated and introjected regulations you maintain and respond to.
What you hope, dream, and aspire to:
- Based on the lists above, identify things you can change that would improve your well-being.
- Choose one or two things from the above list you would like to change.
- Make those changes.
Things You Cannot Change
You cannot change: the past, your history, the laws of physics, facts, the weather, human nature (yours or others), personality traits (yours or others), another person's beliefs or thoughts (unless they choose to change), someone who doesn't want to change, who you are related to, human needs, sexual preference, your talent, and things you do not acknowledge.
Don't waste time and energy trying to change these things. Recognize and accept what you cannot change and move on with your life. Perhaps this amusing story can help you decide when it is in your best interest to change course and yield to an immovable object or accept some permanent condition.
- Based on the lists above, identify things you cannot change that you have not yet accepted.
- Let them go.
Things you may be able to change
You may be able to change another person's behavior if they decide they would like your help in making a change they have decided to work on. Perhaps you can influence them.
You may be able to change social constructs.
Complete the Wikiversity course on Exploring Social Constructs.
You can change what you want, but you cannot change what you need.
You cannot change another person, but you can change how you treat them, how you react to them, your opinions and judgments of them, and your relationship with them.
You cannot change the past, but you can reappraise, apologize, forgive, let go, take responsibility for yourself, learn, purge introjected regulations, change the present and the future, and move forward.
Locus of Control
If you do poorly on a college exam, how do you explain the bad outcome? Perhaps you think: “I did not study long and hard enough. I did not ask clarifying questions in class or seek out the teacher after class. I did not review my notes in depth, this is my fault”. Or you might think: “The teacher is bad and does not care, he does not explain the material or answer questions. The author of the text book is worse; he couldn't write clearly to save his life. Also, why was the test given at 8 am the Friday before the big weekend? Clearly the teacher is to blame.” Finally you might attribute it all to fate and bad luck: “This was just not meant to be. There is nothing I could have done to prevent this outcome. I just seem to get all the bad luck. What can I do?”
This example illustrates the three possible modes or tendencies people have for attributing locus of control—where you tend to assign causes for events in your life. The first example, “I am responsible” is typical of an internalizer. The second, “It is the teacher's fault”, is typical of an externalizer, and the final example, “it is all just luck” is typical of someone who attributes events to chance. In fact, most outcomes actually result from a combination of internal and external causes, and perhaps some chance. However, each of us will tend toward one of these three styles: internalizer, externalizer, or chance, as we explain events. People who are high in the personality trait of conscientiousness tend to be internalizers and take personal responsibility for events, good or bad. People low in conscientiousness tend to be externalizers or attribute it all to chance; it is not their responsibility. Each of these viewpoints are examples of the fallacy of the single cause. Because many causes typically contribute to any outcome, the best determination comes from a careful analysis of the evidence.
A careful analysis of cause and effect can help determine what you can change and what you cannot. Internalizers may be trying to change what they cannot. They may be taking responsibility for events, good or bad, that are out of their control. Externalizers may be frustrated by feeling they cannot change anything and be quick to blame others. They may be avoiding responsibility and overlooking opportunities they have to make useful changes. People who attribute it all to chance are powerless, playing the victim, acting helpless, and behaving like they don't have any choices. The authentic response is based on an accurate knowledge of who you are and what you are capable of controlling. Strike a realistic balance between arrogance—it is all because of me, and victim—there is nothing I can do.
- Recall a time when you blame others for some misfortune.
- Reframe the event from the viewpoint of an internal locus of control.
- Recall a time when you blame yourself for some misfortune.
- Reframe the event from the viewpoint of an external locus of control.
- What story is more accurate?
Agency is your ability to act and get things done. It is your ability to influence people, organizations, and events around you. Agency is exercising your personal power to apply your assets, including nonverbal communication, motility, mobility, physical strength, courage, resilience, creativity, ethos, facts, reason, information, talents, experience, problem solving skills, communication skills, rhetoric, dialogue, speaking truth to power, blowing the whistle, resisting opposing efforts, interpersonal skills, emotional competency, negotiating skills, conflict resolution, organizational skills, friends and other affiliations, social capital, personal network, alliances, wealth, status, positional power, and various other sources of influence, persuasion, and power.
Agency is your ability to effect change. Agency is related to an internal locus of control. Choosing to exercise agency is the ethical alternative to choosing to play the victim with the intent of manipulating others.
- Identify something you would like to change. Ensure the change you are seeking is for the good.
- Identify the assets available to you that can be mobilized to effect that change.
- Exercise your agency to effect that change.
Do you want to stop smoking or not? On the one hand you understand the health risks, costs, filth, growing opposition, and inconvenience of smoking. On the other hand however, you have smoked for years, enjoy the calm it creates, immerse yourself in the rituals it provides, identify with it, and have been physically unable to stop each time you have tried. You have denied the harm, distorted the facts, indulged in confabulation, and almost convinced yourself that smoking is good for you. This is the essence of ambivalence—literally “both feelings”—torn between wanting to change and not wanting to change. Ambivalence is very common; losing weight, seeking medical treatment, changing jobs, limiting drinking or gambling, dumping your boyfriend, getting more exercise, changing jobs, and buying a new car all invite mixed emotions.
Resolving ambivalence is the first step toward change. People do not change when they are stuck in ambivalence. Clarifying the discrepancy between alternatives is essential for resolving ambivalence. When people assess for themselves the benefits of change over the status quo, they begin to resolve their ambivalence. When we can clearly see for ourselves the benefits of the new path over the old we become ready for change. The choice has to originate from within; attempts to coerce change typically fail.
People change when they are ready, willing, and able to. People are willing to change when they firmly decide to leave the past behind and make a new future. This happens when they understand the discrepancy between their goals and their present state and they autonomously choose to close that gap. They overcome denial and resistance and now are committed to the new outcome. People are able to change when they believe they are competent to perform the work necessary for the change. People are ready to change when the change becomes very important to them; when this is their highest priority.
- Identify some condition in your life you are ambivalent about.
- Work to resolve your ambivalence.
- Act based on this clarity.
We all make mistakes and when we reflect on our lives, we may identify mistakes we regret. These mistakes often represent some loss or hurt to ourselves, people we care about, and perhaps even people we have never met.
Regret is often painful. If we ruminate and brood on the mistakes we made, replay over and over again the bad choices we made, wish we could have a chance to make a different choice, bemoan the lost opportunity, blame ourselves for not foreseeing our errors, and wallow in shame, it can be very hurtful.
It is useful to learn from our mistakes. It is helpful to recall the situation, the decisions we made, analyze our reasoning, the alternatives available, and consider why we made the choice we did. What can we learn from this? What can I change now and, in the future, to reduce the chances of making a similar mistake? How can this experience be used to make me a better person? Take effective action now based on what you have learned from past mistakes.
If our actions caused harm to another person, it is helpful take responsibility for contributing to this harm and to apologize fully and sincerely to all the injured parties. The Wikiversity course on apologizing provides background and guidance for apologizing. Apologize for harm you have caused.
If someone harmed you, or if you hold yourself responsible for causing some harm, then it is often useful to forgive. Forgive those who have harmed you and forgive yourself for causing harm. The Wikiversity course on forgiving provides background, guidance, and justification on forgiving.
If you have learned from your mistake, apologized to those harmed, and forgiven those who you can forgive, then your work here is done. Let go of the mistake, let go of this incident from your past, and move on.
A Buddhist Perspective on Inner Peace
Buddhists believe that inner peace is the only peace, there is no other kind. What would external peace be? It is fruitless to pray for peace because it is already within you, you already have it, it cannot be given to you. Peace is only achieved by removing obstacles to it. Sanskrit prayers usually end with the chant “Om, shanti, shanti, shanti” Shanti is the Sanskrit word for “quietly” or “peace”.
Peace comes from removing obstacles in three areas:
- Disturbances from other people — you cannot change other people
- Disturbances not from other people (e.g. natural disasters, events in the past, today's weather)
- Disturbances you cause yourself — these you can change.
Understanding what you can change and what you cannot change is the simple but often difficult path to inner peace.
The Serenity Prayer
As the original prayer: 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. ~ Reinhold Niebuhr.
As a request: May I have the serenity to accept the things I cannot change; the courage to change the things I can; and the wisdom to know the difference. ~ Adaptation by Meryl Runion .
As an affirmation: I have the serenity to accept the things I cannot change; the courage to change the things I can; and the wisdom to know the difference.
Students interested in learning more about what you can change and what you cannot may be interested in the following materials:
- Seligman, Martin E.P. (January 9, 2007). What You Can Change and What You Can't: The Complete Guide to Successful Self-Improvement. Vintage. p. 336. ISBN 978-1400078400.
- Miller, William R.; Rollnick, Stephen (September 7, 2012). Motivational Interviewing: Helping People Change. The Guilford Press. p. 482. ISBN 978-1609182274.
- Johnson, Spencer (June 1, 2006). Who Moved My Cheese?: An A-Mazing Way to Deal with Change in Your Work and in Your Life. Vermilion. p. 95. ISBN 978-0091816971.
- McGraw, Phil (May 6, 2003). Self Matters: Creating Your Life from the Inside Out. Free Press. p. 336. ISBN 978-1615522637.
- Haidt, Jonathan; Lukianoff, Greg (September 4, 2018). The Coddling of the American Mind: How Good Intentions and Bad Ideas Are Setting Up a Generation for Failure. Penguin Press. p. 352. ISBN 978-0735224896.
- This material is adapted from the EmotionalCompetency.com website with permission from the author.
- See, for example Motivational_interviewing
Studying Emotional Competency • Dignity • Recognizing Emotions • Resolving Anger • Overcoming Hate • Appraising Emotional Responses • What you can change and what you cannot • Attributing Blame • Coping with Ego • Apologizing • Forgiving • Communicating Power • Earning Trust • Practicing Dialogue • Candor • Understanding Fairness • Transcending Conflict • True Self