Accept What You Cannot Change


Accepting reality enables us to live in reality. What does this mean? When life pleases us and flows in accord with our needs and desires, we don’t think about acceptance. But when our will is frustrated, or we’re hurt in some way, our displeasure causes us to react, ranging from anger to withdrawal. We try to change things to our liking and needs.

Denial is more common than we may realize. Everyone alters reality somewhat by perceiving events per our personal biases.

We might deny or distort what’s happening to lessen our pain or blame others or ourselves.


Although in some circumstances, denial is a useful coping mechanism, it doesn’t help us solve problems. Nor does blame, anger, or withdrawal. Sometimes we unconsciously use the defense of denial to make reality more palatable. Examples are:


  • Minimizing
  • Rationalizing
  • Forgetting
  • Self-deception
  • Repression

Denial helps us cope with a potential threat or uncomfortable facts and feelings, such as I and my loved ones will die. We also deny reality when the truth would put us in conflict with someone else or ourselves. Although denial may be helpful temporarily to cope with stress, a better defense is suppression, which is the conscious decision to not think about something. For example, a cancer patient may be served by deciding not to think all the time about dying, so that she can find the courage to undergo difficult treatment.

Denial is a core symptom of codependency and addiction. We have a distorted relationship to reality – often acting against our best interest. Addicts and codependents use denial to continue addictive behavior. Meanwhile, we endure the destructive consequences and painful relationships, partly due to denial and partly due to low self-esteem. Try to convince an attractive woman, who thinks she’s not, that she is, an anorexic that she’s too thin, an alcoholic that he or she drinks too much, or an enabler that he or she is perpetuating their child’s drug addiction. The last three examples illustrate how such denial can be viewed as resistance to change. Many people leave when they come to Al-Anon and learn that the program is to help them change themselves, because at first, most go mainly to “help” (change) an alcoholic.

Codependents also typically repress their feelings and needs. This denial also postpones real acceptance of a situation. Pretending to ourselves that something doesn’t bother us prevents us from taking constructive action, setting boundaries, or finding solutions to the problem.

Facing Facts

Paradoxically, all change begins with acceptance of reality. Herein lies our power. Facing facts, including those we dislike or even abhor, opens us to new possibilities. Acknowledging a painful truth is not easy for most of us, especially if we’re used to denying or controlling our feelings and our circumstances.

We often associate acceptance with submission and acquiescence. But acceptance of a situation or person can also be an active expression of our will – a conscious decision based upon the knowledge that there are certain things we cannot change. This also prepares us to be effective agents of change. New options present themselves as our focus shifts from changing the impossible to changing what we can.

The Need to Control

The inability to give up control in defiance of facts to the contrary is another primary symptom of addiction and codependency. One of the early authors on codependency, Psychiatrist Timmen Cermak, believes that codependents and addicts “control their lives by sheer force of will.” Codependent relationships are often power struggles.

We have a belief that things could and should be different than they are. This creates irritation and disappointment. However, there are always challenges in life, and people are unique and behave in their unique fashion. We become frustrated when things don’t go as we expect them to or when people don’t behave the way we think they should. There is a certain amount of pride and arrogance in this assumption. Psychiatrist and author Abraham Twerski adds that the addictive thinking that underlies controlling behavior exemplifies “a delusion of omnipotence.”

In trying to change things we can’t, such as other people, we’re exerting our determination in unproductive ways, often creating more frustration and problems. It’s hard enough to change ourselves! Such fruitless efforts can be considered a defense to accepting things we don’t like about a person’s behavior and the pain it causes us. We might try to get someone to stop smoking because we’re worried about the health consequences of smoking. The first step of Alcoholics Anonymous, Al-Anon, and Codependents Anonymous addresses control. It suggests that we admit we’re powerless over our addiction, which for codependents, includes people, places, and things.

Letting Go of Control

Recovery suggests we accept life on its own terms, to accept our powerlessness and our limitations, and to accept those of others. Letting go is not easy. (See Letting Go). It’s a constant challenge for addicts and codependents, because of our internal anxiety and dis-ease and our illusion that we have control over more than we actually do. After much frustration and tears, we find there are things we cannot control, such as other people, our past, and even things about ourselves.

When we start to let go, we feel tremendous anxiety and often depression and emptiness. We begin to feel what our attempts at control have been trying to avoid, such as loneliness, anxiety about making needed changes, grief for love that is lost or dead, or fear that an addict may die from an overdose. Read my blog, “How to Detach and Let Go with Love.”

Acceptance is more than resignation. Real surrender means we don’t think about the “problem” anymore. Even our thoughts or worry about it are signs we haven’t let go, but are trying to control reality. Instead, we live in the moment, trusting that all is right with the world. This is hard when we’re in pain, but being present to our pain is also a way of releasing it!

Changing What We Can

Change requires courage. The second line of the Serenity Prayer asks for the courage to change what we can. Changing what we can is a healthy response to reality. This is how we become effective agents of change. A coach, counselor, or 12-Step program can provide much-needed support. Making a decision is the first step. Then change also requires patience, for our heart is slow to catch up with our intellect. Gathering information and resources, surveying our options, thinking through different outcomes, and talking it over are all part of the planning phase. As we take these preparatory steps, we build courage and confidence.

Earlier, I wrote that acceptance can be an act of will. It may take the form of a positive change of attitude. Sometimes, that’s all we can do. There may be nothing on the outside that we can change, but acceptance of a situation brings peace of mind and allows us to enjoy the moment. A disability might limit us to reading books or listening to music, both of which are more healing than enduring fear, anger, or self-pity. If we don’t feel ready to leave an unhappy or abusive relationship, we can find happiness in other areas of our lives, which may in fact change the relationship or enable us to later leave. When I was a young mother and lawyer, I felt guilty about not being a stay-at-home mom and also for not working late in order to climb the corporate ladder. When I accepted that I had chosen to compromise, and could also make a different choice, my guilt vanished.

Here are some exercises to think about. More are in Chapters 5 and 9 of Codependency for Dummies. Join my mailing list to get 14 Tips for Letting Go

  1. Make a list of things over which you’re powerless.
  2. How do you feel about them and how do you react to the situation?
  3. What would happen if you accepted things as they are?
  4. Meditate on “Let Go and Let God,” and repeat the phrase whenever you think.
  5. What realistic options do you have?

To work the Twelve Steps, get my e-workbook Spiritual Transformation in the Twelve Steps.

©Darlene Lancer 2014


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7 years ago

I came home this afternoon from my AlAnon RSS (Regional Service Seminar) My husband opened the door and i immediately saw from his shaking that he’d been drinking….got onto the computer and saw your article Darlene…messaged an AlAnon friend and said.Oh,it looks like Darlene and God’s been in conversation and knew just what i needed, herresponse, “oh ja, thats one of His Angels of light” thanks Darlene, did not tell what had happened…..

Darlene Lancer, LMFT
7 years ago
Reply to  Desiree

Thank you! I’m sorry to hear that. You’ll relate to my blog, “Living with an Alcoholic.

7 years ago

I had the experience of telling my story to newcomers in Alanon I’ve had mothers wives literally glare at me when I shared that you can’t change the alcoholic,, it’s about changing yourself. They all believed there was some way to stop them from drinking or druging. I was in denial of being an alcoholic, when I read in the big book of AA that I could be a heavy drinker, that’s what I decided I was. What helped me break my denial was a councillor told me I was probably a, ” functioning alcoholic “. Also a sentence, ” denial is not necessarily knowing a fact , its knowing a fact & not excepting it”.

Darlene Lancer, LMFT
7 years ago
Reply to  soupysayles

They needed to hear that. It’s especially hard for parents, but they can create circumstances that increase the possibility of sobriety – like not enabling. I devote an entire chapter to overcoming denial in Codependency for Dummies. See my blog on denial.

8 years ago

What I’ve done is withdrawn. I can’t deal with his anger, I can’t change his reactions and I can’t stand the hurt. Im slowly learning not to control, but I’ve basically done a 180 – withdrawn. 🙁 Very unhappy at times and I don’t know how to change.

Darlene Lancer, MFT
8 years ago
Reply to  Kathy

What you need is to learn to set boundaries before you withdraw. Do the exercises in How to Speak Your Mind – Become Assertive and Set Limits

9 years ago

This last year I have discovered some very life altering facts about my family, which I have NO control over and has left me with having to make the decision to leave them all behind or live the only way I know how to; totally dysfunctional. Stumbling upon your website has given my more information to add to my toolbox and help me to overcome, whichever way I decide. Thank you!

Darlene Lancer, MFT
9 years ago
Reply to  Karrie

Yes, eventually we get to a place of acceptance and more comfortable with internal and external boundaries. See my post on “The Power of Personal Boundaries.”

9 years ago

Wonderful & inspiring article.
The best thing about your article is its easy language & realistic approach. I have spent some time reflecting on the questions you wrote at the end of this article and realized that i spent much of my time worrying over things that are not in my control and instead, if i focus on things that i can control, i would gain much from my time, life and relationships.
Thanks alot; Keep writing!

Darlene Lancer, MFT
9 years ago
Reply to  Aishah

Thank you. My book is all about letting go and focusing on ourselves – Ch. 9, especially. Also See my blog on Letting Go, and try some 12-Step meetings, CoDA or AL-Anon.

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