God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change – the humility to sit down and shut up;
The courage to change the things I can – the strength it takes to stand up and speak up;
And the wisdom to know the difference – the fluidity and discernment to respond to what is needed, rather than what I am compelled to do.
The Serenity Prayer…
The use of the Serenity Prayer is ubiquitous in recovery circles. What isn’t as widely discussed is the gendered interpretations and challenges inherent in this popular adage.
Gender socialization and the roles assumed, can often create unique challenges for women and men when trying to exercise the wisdom found in this timeless prayer. Historically, women were socialized to sit down and shut up, men to stand up and speak up; women to accept and yield, men to challenge and exert control; women to defer and subordinate, men to infer and dominate. And women and men, were taught to be loyal to their creative make up—their biological destiny—of either sugar and spice and everything nice or snips, snails, and puppy dog tails.
Given these stereotypes, the Serenity Prayer can present with distinct gendered challenges for men and women.
For some of us, the awareness of gender socialization is likened to the awareness fish have of the water they swim in. Or the awareness—prior to recovery—of the dysfunctional rules adult children of alcoholics (ACOA) grew up learning and following. Children are often raised to believe it is the nature of men and women to behave in certain ways. And they grow up to reinforce this confirmation bias with statements such as: that’s just the way guys are, or just a typical woman. Although there are differences in the sexes, we have more in common with each other than is different.
Yet gender socialization forces us to deny certain parts of our humanity in pursuit of the pinnacle of femininity or masculinity. As we become more aware of the water—male and female socialization—we swim in, the more we’re able to mindfully traverse the gendered currents that can take us to certain pools of behavior, emotions, and thoughts. We are better able to fight the strong currents that can pull us to sit down when we need to fight and stand up, or impulsively shout back, when we need to tread water and listen.
Act Like a Lady
For decades, women grew up hearing the mantra “act like a lady“. Although a seemingly innocent phrase, what did it really mean? It often was chiding for not being polite enough, pretty enough, supportive enough, or just not ladylike enough. Or for acting too manly and strident; for being too outspoken, too angry, or too aggressive. Name calling (i.e. “bitch,” “dyke”) along with the euphemistic refrain of “act like a lady“ not only shamed women into their gender box, it served to marginalize those who busted out of the box in an effort to not be diminished or silenced.Yet, many women still find themselves in their gender straitjacket and struggle to stand up and speak up even when the social context screams for it. The pain for some women is temporarily lessened when they crawl into the bottle or run for mother’s little helper. Yet, they eventually discover, that pathway of coping can lead to a different imprisonment—the box of addiction.
Act Like a Man
The same goes for men who grew up hearing the refrain “act like a man“. It’s often used as a reproach for men acting too much like a woman or for gay males.Built into the shaming use of name-calling such as “girly” “wuss” “fag” or “mama’s boy” is the erroneous belief that being sensitive, crying because you’re sad, being good at art not sports, empathizing, or asking for help are all signs of weakness. Signs of not being man enough.
We teach young boys to disrespect and exorcise the softer side of their humanity—what we name “femininity” and rigidly associate it with only women—and then wonder how and why some men are sexist or misogynist. Inasmuch as they marginalize and hate half their humanity, they project that onto women and gay men. Moreover, the men imprisoned in their gender box work incessantly on performing masculinity to hide their fear of not being man enough, their loneliness from pursuing winning and control at all costs. And all at the expense of intimacy and emotional connection. Some men end up turning to alcohol or drugs to medicate their pain, shame, and loneliness.
Busting Out of the Gender Binary…
The good news is we’re beginning to bust out of the gender binary—the respective boxes women and men heretofore have been trapped in.
Once upon a time, women couldn’t even vote and mainly pursued MRS degrees in the school of patriarchy. Today, they’re counting votes as Speaker of the House, serving as governors of their states, and graduating from college at a higher rate than males. They wear robes after their fragrant baths, in the court room holding a gavel, and at the podium pontificating in churches and universities. And they still are mothers, daughters, partners, and parents. Rather than heeding the restrictive drone of “act like a lady,” women aren’t taking their marching orders from patriarchal cadences, but instead, listening to their heart and head while reading their social context. Marching to the syncopated beat of being fully human.
Once upon a time, dads seen out in public with their children were “babysitting”and those who stayed at home and changed diapers rather than go to work were “unemployed”. Today, men can be fluid and flexible and not lose their masculinity. Unlike the hyper-masculine days of yore, male politicians are now viewed as “human” if they shed tears after a school shooting rather than being viewed as weak and afraid. Men can be curious to explore the depths of the sea and their inner lives. They can demonstrate courage by going into a burning building to rescue a child and into a 12-step meeting to talk about their sense of brokenness.
Think about men and trucks. Men can still be built tough to perform masculine tasks. But like trucks of today, strength doesn’t have to be heavy. It can be light and strong with titanium. Men don’t have to lose their power by learning the capacity to sit still quietly and listen. Trucks of today can be hybrid or use flex-fuel. They are engineered to respond to varying driving conditions. The 20th century model of men and trucks is passe’. To be fit and attractive in the 21st century requires new designs and specifications.
Unfortunately, where there is good news regarding change and transformation in our society, there is often bad news as well.
The Eagles, in their hit song “Peaceful Easy Feeling”, forecasts the challenge we face in busting out of our gendered straitjackets.
So often times it happens, that we live our lives in chains, and we never even know we have the key…The Eagles
We may not have knowingly chained ourselves but after enlightenment, we discover our chains. Our chains can be the act of stubbornly clinging to our beliefs in the polarized gender binary. They can be linked to our co-dependent relationships.The chains can be strengthened by our fear of change and propensity to gravitate toward what’s familiar, not what is healthy and transformational.
We live in a society where we can claim helplessness—remain in the constriction of victim-hood—rather than wiggle and push to be a survivor. We will live our lives in the chains of powerlessness until—as the song implies—we find and use the key to freedom. And everyone must find the right key for themselves. The key that unlocks their chains can be found in a higher power, self-determination, engagement in healthy communities and relationships. In fact, the more keys of growth you have on your wellness key chain, the better.
Addiction Recovery & the Serenity Prayer
Recovery is an arduous journey for men and women. It is even more difficult when you’re trapped in gendered currents taking you into the troubled waters of not being able to speak up or stand up. When you’re stuck in gender boxes that lead to a lesser version of yourself—too giving or too selfish. When you’re wrapped in pink or blue chains and can’t find the key to unlock the rainbow of your full humanity.
My prayer is that you find serenity on this lovely green planet as you seek to accept the things about your humanity you can’t change, the courage to change the things you can as a man or woman looking to be fully human, and the wisdom to know what needs to change versus what you need to accept and make peace with.
May it be so.
Randy Flood, MA, LLP