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By Kristin Snowden MA, LMFT

In previous posts to this site, I have explored how Step 1 and Step 2 of the 12 Steps of recovery can help non-addicts live a better life. This post is focused on Step 3. Step 3 reads as follows:

Made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understand God.

You might also be familiar with the three-line Serenity Prayer that is widely used in 12-Step recovery (and elsewhere):

God, grant me serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
Courage to change the things I can,
And wisdom to know the difference.

I had the Serenity Prayer posted up on my corkboard growing up. I didn’t realize it was used by the 12-Step community until decades later. I just thought it sounded nice.

As a lifelong (and exhausted) control freak, I remember being drawn to the allure of what the Serenity Prayer suggested. I remember thinking how lovely it would be to allow myself, for once, to relinquish control to a Higher Power – to let go of the steering wheel and move over to the passenger seat for a while. I remember also thinking that sounded like both paradise and a nightmare; relinquishing control to a Higher Power might provide some form of relief, but it would also expose me to the chaos and uncertainty of a crazy world – chaos and uncertainty that I wanted to believe were somehow preventable or manipulatable by my own will and behavior.

So, I happily welcomed the Serenity Prayer when I found myself feeling hurt, rejected, or like a failure, but I would quickly forget about the prayer when I was feeling on top of things (when I was feeling in control of my life and the world around me). At those times, I was determined to remain in the driver’s seat, believing that as long as I had my hand on the steering wheel and I was driving down some known path, I was protecting myself from the uncertainty of life.

Unfortunately, the harder I held on to that wheel and the faster I charged down my chosen freeway, the more exhausted, fearful, ashamed, and resentful I became. My attempts at controlling and mitigating my risk got me nowhere. Well, nowhere that provided authentic peace, joy, and contentment.

That is why (only in retrospect and after years of personal work) I have been able to find gratitude for my countless trials and tribulations. Faced with a string of personal crises that brought me to my knees, I was finally able to hear the true context of Step 3 and the Serenity Prayer. I was finally able to understand that turning my will and my life over to the care of my Higher Power meant turning over all of my life and will, not just the parts I didn’t want to control on my own. So simple, so liberating, yet completely lost on me for a very long time.

Humans love the illusion of control. Yet there’s one truth I’ve had verified time and time again in both my personal and professional life: The most controlling people are the most miserable people. It often appears on the outside like they’re the ones who are winning the game of life. They are often the ones with financial and professional success. They usually look like they’ve got it together. Their relationships seem ideal. But this is only because they are controlling the optics of it all. They expend so much time and energy on that task that they forget to enjoy themselves.

In his book Breathing Under Water, Richard Rohr writes, “We each have our inner program for happiness, our plans by which we can be secure, esteemed, and in control, and [we] are blissfully unaware that these cannot work for us for the long haul without our becoming more and more control freaks ourselves. … [This] does not create happy people, nor happy people around us.”

Yes, we can do our best to monitor our emotions, to vet our reactions to life’s ups and downs, and to choose healthy coping skills, but we will never be able to control any other person or any event that happens beyond our personal being. Every moment we try to predict and control life by manipulating our circumstances or denying our truth, we are exhausting ourselves, continuing our suffering, and avoiding the true work of life: surrendering that which we cannot control and choosing to show up and be seen by others as our true selves (owning our good and bad, our light and dark).

Examining Control

As we explore Step 3, it’s important to explore how control manifests. It can be quite subconscious and insidious. For example, addiction and other maladaptive coping skills are often forms of controlling behaviors. Let me explain: We are neurobiologically wired to want to connect with other humans. We aren’t built to go it alone. However, we also have to face a scary world where people hurt us and bad stuff happens. (Experiencing early-life trauma magnifies this subconscious fear.) As a consequence, we develop traits, talents, and skills to manage our fear and discomfort related to our need to connect with others. We create a protective façade to mitigate our exposure to uncertainty.

These go-to traits, talents, and skills are our drugs of choice. They may be shots of vodka, hits from a vape, casual/anonymous sex, masturbating to porn, eating too much chocolate cake, over-working, compulsive spending, or some other form of emotional and psychological escape. They might also manifest as some form of control, such as isolation, manipulation, people-pleasing, etc. The list goes on and on.

Either way, these are superficial ways we seek relief in a world that is uncertain and filled with flawed people. We control our emotions or we try to control others and the world at large. And we do this to manage our vulnerability instead of facing it so we can get the support we really need. We become control freaks because we are afraid of being hurt. These go-to coping skills, no matter how destructive they become, are sought out and used by us all, desperately and sometimes compulsively. And each of these traits, talents, and coping mechanisms works until it doesn’t.

Steps 1 and 2 help us realize what, exactly, isn’t working anymore. Step 3 provides us with a pathway toward relief. In my next posting to this site, I will explore Step 3 in further detail.