Beyond Blue

Beyond Blue

6 Steps to Serenity

I don’t know how many times I utter the Serenity Prayer in a day, but it’s well into the double digits. In fact, the words penned by the late theologian Reinhold Niebuhr may very well be imprinted on my plastic brain because its message is so central to my mission of chasing after sanity. I want so desperately to be able to let go of all the stuff I can’t change, to take charge of the things in my life that are under my control, and to distinguish, once and for all, the difference between laziness and illness, between persistent and stupidity, and between doable and “leave it the hell alone.” 


Here are just a few ways I “do” the Serenity Prayer in my life: techniques that help me separate the unchangeable from the changeable … a half-dozen steps I regularly take toward serenity.

1. Go to a happy place.

What do you do with the stuff you can’t control, with the gunk that is keeping you from peace and happiness? Try to swap it–the bad memories and phobias and fears from your past–with some snapshots from your childhood or adolescence where you felt loved, whole, even sane!

In his bestseller “Home Coming: Reclaiming and Championing Your Inner Child,” John Bradshaw explains that our lives are filled with old anchors, the result of neurologically imprinted experiences that we keep replaying when a situation resembles our childhood. However with some meditation and what he calls “anchoring,” “we can change the painful memories from childhood by putting them together with actual experiences of strength acquired in our adult lives.”


To do this we have to create a happy place, where we re-experience those moments in our lives when we were accepted, welcomed, and loved, and we swap them for the bad memories. Most of my happy places are outside. There I greet my inner child, give her some snacks, and strongly nudge her to release her fears so that she can grow up to be normal.

2. Don’t go to an unhappy place.

After you’ve made a visit to your happy place and emerged as a balanced and centered person, you will better know what kinds of events and things to avoid next time … um, supposedly.

After twelve years of therapy and 21 years of hanging out in twelve-step groups, I think I have finally located my triggers: Irish bars loaded with inebriated folks, super-sized Wal-marts with over 100 aisles of products manufactured in China, Chuck-E-Cheese restaurants with life-sized rodents singing melodies to screaming children, and conversations with people who think mental illnesses are like mermaids–not real–and that absolutely every health condition can be fixed with the right thoughts plus a little acupuncture.


I have compiled a list of these places, persons, and things in my mind that I can’t change (like the life-sized rodent) so that I know to keep away in the future, because we don’t want more bad memories, do we? That would require another session in the happy place.

3. Hunt down unrealistic expectations.

You’re never going to be able to distinguish between the unchangeable and the changeable unless you hunt down unrealistic expectations. These bad boys are the obnoxious cousins of perfectionism–which can disable your body, mind, and spirit faster than anything else I know because perfectionism ensures that your self-esteem and self-confidence stay down where the submarines are: below sea level.


I identify unrealistic expectations every week in therapy. There I will jot down irrational goals like “penning a New York Times bestseller in my half-hour of free time in the evening,” “being homeroom mom to 31 kids and chaperoning every field trip while being the primary breadwinner for the family,” and “training for a triathlon with a busted hip.” Then my therapist and I arrive at some realistic options, like “aiming to chaperone two field trips a year” and “working out a few times a week but saving the triathlon for after retirement.”

4. Color in the zebra.

Not only does perfectionism hand out unrealistic expectations, but it blinds you to color, so that you’re left with black and white vision. Like many people who struggle with depression, I have to pull out my palette of colors to remind myself that just because something didn’t turn out the first time, doesn’t mean that it’s destined to fail every time I try it. David Burns offers 15 ways to untwist distorted thinking in his “Feeling Good” that can add oodles of shades to your perspective. The result is that you take several situations out of the “can’t control” category and you place them into the “I’ll give it a good shot” file.


5. Take baby steps.

By now you might have a better idea of what you can, indeed, change. You can see it in the distance. But how do you get there?

Break the job down.

Start small.

Tackle one task at a time.

For example, as I was beginning to ascend out of the abyss of my severe depression, I was overwhelmed by everything–a sink full of dishes, a menacing diaper, a doctor’s appointment. Decision-making was especially painful: for me and for the person asking the question. And I didn’t have a clue as to how to restart my career. Every time I thought about it, I began to shake with anxiety.

My great aunt Gigi, who had suffered her own nervous breakdown at age 35, coached me along the way. “Itsy-bitsy steps,” she’d remind me. So I signed up to be a writing tutor at the Naval Academy for three hours a week, just to see if I could manage my emotions for that long.


I succeeded! Except for the morning I burst into tears because I couldn’t concentrate long enough to read a midshipman’s boring paper about history of the Tripoli Monument.

Then I asked my editor at the news outlet where I had worked pre-breakdown if I could resume my biweekly column. That step was harder, especially on the weeks where I’d sit at a blank computer screen for an hour or more, waiting for my words to come out from hiding. But I forged on. I continued to write, a little article here and there, which eventually lead to Beyond Blue, a leap, but one I was able to take because of the smaller steps that came before it.

6. Rip the tags off.


Here’s another way to change the things you can: rip off all the (figurative) sales tags in your life.

By that I mean getting involved and investing yourself into something–your family, your passion or career, your vision–moving yourself from the sidelines into the game. And positive psychologists such as Martin Seligman purport that getting involved and dedicating our time and energy to a higher purpose or cause is one of the strongest antidotes of depression and paths to happiness or SERENITY.

I try to rip off as many tags as I can today because I know, by experience, that having a cool wardrobe of never-worn skirts–of blowing off invitations to socialize with and meet fellow moms, neighbors, bloggers–further propels me down the depression hole. When I want so badly to isolate and build a nice, comfy fort in life like the ones out of chairs and blankets David and Katherine build in our family room, I’ve got to get out the scissors, cut the tags off, and show up for that coffee hour that I committed to. I’ve got to take a chance on the dress and invest myself into my community.


Click here to subscribe to Beyond Blue and click here to follow Therese on Twitter and click here to join Group Beyond Blue, a depression support group. Now stop clicking.

  • Margaret

    I’ve lived a lot longer than you, but God has given you His Wisdom in great measure, earlier in your life.
    Yes, tiny steps, trusting the Lord will guide us and give us what we need to accomplish whatever it may be.
    After I was discharged from the hospital in 1988, I had to take tiny steps back into life, or it would have been overwhelming. You did the right things by doing the same.
    “Commit your way unto the Lord, trust also in Him, and He will bring it to pass”
    I think it’s psalm 37

  • melzoom

    T– OMGoodness, I needed this today. Like, REALLY needed this. Big hug to you. My mind is buzzing with all sorts of things I WANT to do, I NEED to do, and I SHOULD do… and I’m having an incredibly difficult time prioritizing. (Urgent v. priority issues again….) Thank you, thank you, thank you for this article.

  • deni

    You are WONDERful. I second melzoom. I really needed this today. You spoke to my soul and my heart thanks YOU.
    Thank you Thank you Thank you.
    Looking forward
    to reading your next “words of wisdom”

  • Your Name

    Thank you! Thank you! Thank you! I so needed that!!!

  • Carolyn Wheat

    This was great–so great I wanted to print it out so I could keep it handy. Instead of four pages of six steps, I ended up with 12 pages. Is there a “printable version” tab somewhere on this website, and if not, could there be? I hate wasting paper and ink on all the stuff I don’t want.

  • JR

    Love the rip the tags off analogy, I am definitely going to use that!

  • Your Name

    Thank you … I think. I like what you write but I can’t seem to find a happy place right now … feel like I’m heading down a very scary path. I just want to disappear down the rabbit hole because there is nowhere I feel good. If I can’t get through step one, how am I supposed to get anywhere else?

  • Pat Lisenbee

    The original in itself is wonderful, yes, but I live by a significantly different version:
    Powers That Be,
    Grant me the Strength to throw out the things I cannot change,
    The Ability or funds to change the things I can,
    The Wisdom to hide the bodies of the people I had to kill to get where I am now
    And the Serenity to accept myself as I am.
    I am not Religious in any form but very Spiritual; I cannot laugh unless it is an extreme moment but things cause a half-smile, and this Prayer does. While I do not put up the original prayer with my other spiritual aids, I go on to Beyond Blue and took the Multifaith Angel Prayers and many, many of the other articles, “Healing Quotes for your Depressed Heart”, “Laugh Your Way to Happiness”, “Let Go Meditation” “Just Now Meditation” which I have combined into “Just Now, Let Go,” and it works wonders! And more, into a book for me to open and read when I have need. Thank you for wonderful articles to lift my spirits!

  • SuzanneWA

    Sometimes – even though I’m NOT in the “dark hole” right now – I become absolutely PARALYZED by a sinkful of dirty dishes! I slip into being overwhelmed by “little things,” even though I make it a point to ALWAYS spend at least 4 hours on the Internet. Why, oh WHY, can’t I get it RIGHT??!!
    Your six “baby steps” are helpful, though, for me, temporary. I feel myself climbing out of beating myself up for NOT emptying the sink before I go to bed, but look at all I’ve accomplished on the computer that night.
    I was labeled a “perfectionist” by my first psychiatrist during my first “nervous breakdown,” and couldn’t understand WHY he called me that. I finally realized it was because of my “high expectations” to please my Father, not myself, though our goals were the same.
    After 3 manic episodes in my 20s, I sit here at 61 and marvel at the changes in my life. I still don’t “mingle” like I should; I don’t go to the Republican Committee meetings like in the past. Too many dark memories, of everything being black or white. I look back 3 years and remember my first Mystery Shop, a way to get OUT and earn a couple of dollars. The first thing they expected was – not to get my feet wet in the beginning – to actually PERFORM a shop with NO experience! I had a panic attack on my way down the elevator where I live, but recovered. AND – to tell the truth – it WASN’T as hard as I expected. I continue to do Mystery Shopping – and get 10-out-of-10 grades on ALL my reports!!
    So – you’re right. Step OUT of your comfort zone and TRY “something.” It doesn’t matter how silly or serious it is – volunteering, though good for some people, scares the life out of me. I especially LOVED this post, Therese. You got me thinking back on my childhood memories of what I did RIGHT and what I was commended for, instead of what went horribly WRONG that seems to be at the forefront of my memory bank. Keep up the good work; BEYOND BLUE (and I) needs you!!
    Your Sister in Christ,

  • Dominic Shum

    Therese, couldn’t agree with you more. That is why people should take vacations. Not tours or mindless rushing around with 20 other in a tour bus. Find a nice place,with good ambience and peaceful surroundings..spend a week there, make friends etc. Such memories can be part of a stress release therapy (happy place).

  • Berta

    Thank you Therese! Every time I slow down enough to take care of me, I go to your site and read something or watch a video you’ve made and it speaks directly to ME! Not a coincidence, I see it as a sign, and you as an angel of God (no pressure here…you just are who you are) and I thank you for sharing your light. Just by being honest and being you, you’ll never guess the impact you have on so many. Thank you and bless you!

  • Berta

    I agree with Carolyn, if there’s a way to print just certain articles (printer friendly) that would be great cuz I share your stuff a lot 😉
    Here’s a version I like:
    God grant me the serenity to accept the people I can not change. The courage to change the one I can, and the wisdom to know it is ME!

  • kate

    Thanks again Therese! It is uncanny how much your words resonate with me, post after post : ) Your very first paragraph struck me:
    I want so desperately to be able to let go of all the stuff I can’t change, to take charge of the things in my life that are under my control, and to distinguish, once and for all, the difference between laziness and illness, between persistent and stupidity, and between doable and “leave it the hell alone.”
    I struggle with this too, with what is illness and what is just plaiun tiredness, between what is changeable and not….but i just hope that you’re not calling yourself lazy or stupid too often….well ever really : ) or speaking angrily and impatiently to yourself and pushing yourself to leave it the hell alone and get it right for once! Take care : )

  • Teri A

    I absolutely love “Pat’s” take on the serenity prayer, put a smile on my face. Going through one of the hardest things, I’ve had to since coming out of my “hole”. My boyfriend of 3 years (since my disastrous divorce), just recently got laid off from his high-paying job. I am sad for him, but also finishing off my last semester in school (BA)and we knew graduation would possibly change things–but this unexpected lay-off, has sped up the consequences of not having a “committed” relationship. I can not change the circumstances and he might have to move 100’s of miles away, it may spell the end of a very loving relationship. But he is still hung up on his ex of 5 years, and I know I can’t change this, so God grant me the ability (and the funds) to change what I can. I won’t be burying the body (except for metaphorically), but this is a deep time of sadness for me. I’m accepting that I am very sad, but there is no f**king way this is going to cause me to go back to my “dark hole”. I just have the serenity that God has new doors for me to open. And possibly may be saving me from something far worse. I’ll leave it to him, to contact me, from wherever he is, (we’ve vowed to remain good friends), now he just has to hold up his end of the bargain. Tonight is the last night I see him, and though I haven’t cried in years–I feel the tears will spill tonight. Hope they are cleansing tears. Thanks Therese for all your writings, I check everyday for something new. And thanks Pat, for your modified version of the Serenity Prayer–had to LOL at that one!

  • Mary Anne Thompson

    Thanks SO much for todays post. It REALLY screams to me as I like u mutter the Serenity Prayer more often than any other I think. Even in elevators, among the public outloud….ha
    I love what you wrote, the 1/2 dozen steps, I am going to share them with friends and my daughter who is in college in Ohio. She has never been in a 12 step program, may not be familiar with the prayer but it helps ALL of us even those who by Gods grace do not have alcoholism or other addictions in thier family.
    Blessings and love to you, Mary Anne

  • Bill White

    Thanks, Therese. The perfectionism thing is my bugaboo. Certainly not as grand as some of your examples; however, unrealistic expectations have snaked in and out of my life over the years. And, of course, when I couldn’t measure up (who could?), the old self-esteem headed for the dumpster. Soooo, becoming more realistic is an ongoing goal. But I don’t want to relinquish my dreams…

  • Lynn Dover

    Thanks Therese:
    “to distinguish… illness from laziness.” Its’s nice to hear that someone else has that one. In addition to depression, I have a fatigue disorder. So I never know if I’m too tired because I’m down, because I’m tired, or because I just don’t wanna …( insert nasty chore here.) It’s way too easy to be hard on yourself.

  • Farouk

    i strongly agree
    especially with number 1 and 2

  • Sandra

    It’s inspiring to read this and know that it’s okay to put it all out on the table. I struggle with how much to share, because I know so many people have the perception that mental illness is just weak character.
    Thanks for being willing to be real, and be an inspiration.

  • Michele

    I relate. Today my accomplishments are itsy-bitsy. Reorganizing my Winter desk: ” Brighter Lights, a little color, a word of inspiration.” Baby steps yielded exactly what I worked towards. A newly painted Wall,( Apple Green,) a colorful desk lamp, and a tealight holder that says simply, “Hope.” I’m learning. I’m healing. finally, it’s my turn.

  • Audrey

    These are so creative. Thanks for the great tips! Taking things day by day and not looking too far into the future also helps create peace within. You might want to check out Grace Adams at her blog, Looks Great Naked. She’s a wonderful, witty writer who has quite a story to share. Grace believes in being who you are and loving the skin you are in. This is also a peaceful state to happily dwell in :}.

  • Debbie J.

    You really hit home when you compared laziness with illness, because that’s I think the biggest reason for the deepest depression I’ve ever been in. (Although I did loose my best friend,husband 4 months ago to cancer that had spread throughout his body and organs).
    About 20 yrs. ago I was tested for Lupus, I as the yrs. have gone by, my laundry list of medical problems, are as long as my medicine list. Which I am just so tatally sick of.I have Chronic Fatigue, fibromyalgia, Advanced Oteoperosis, Degeneritive Disk Disease,Scoliosis,2bulging disks, and a collapsed disk, much arthritis,Sleep Apnea,Pulmanary Hypertension,which has now caused the left side of my heart to thicken and does not work correctly any longer because it ha had to work overtime to get enough blood where it’s suppose to go, there is no cure fo it,and alot of lives have been lost because of it, I am on oxygen now, to help my heart a little bit, I believe it is suppose to help my heart not have to work quite as hard. I have severe problems with my memory, short and long term, however every time I bring it up to my Drs. they just blow it off, By saying, we all have bouts of forgetfullness- This adds another mark on mt deep depression, because I now have so many little notebooks laying around w/ info. in them, I had planned to have 1 book for each major topic, Bank, what I wanted to talk to my daughter about, one for medical and so on. Well the only problem is, is that when I thonk of something to write down, if I don’t have the”right” book close by, I end up writing it in the book that is their. So like my life their nothing but confusing,messed up,mixed up and a waste. I have so many notes on my counter, that when I see it I want to scream!
    So sorry this has gotten so long, where I am today– I have so much pain, I do take pain meds, which really do not help any longer, I do take Effexor, I guess I helps on my so called good day’s but where I am right now, they don’t do much. I am constantly exhausted, between the pain, exhaustion, and deprepession that has gotten worse 10 fold in the last few months,( Oh, we just found out last week, my dear step-dad has lung cancer) Please believe me, it is so very very seldom
    that I utter these words, but when is enough- enough?
    I am quite Spiritual, I pray and pray, and I will say, it has to be my belief in God that has seen me through and been with me through
    all of this.
    But with that said, over the years, I’ts been one Dr. appt after another, and one new medical problem after another, one hosp. stay after another…. That piece of my lifes puzzle I’m just so very sick of.
    To try and finish this book! One other part, of my life, for the better part of my marriage was very emotionally abusive, as well as physically abusive, the worst being him pointing a gun at me as I was going down the hallway. He took every inch of self worth from me,I stopped believing in myself, I don’t have any self worth, in fact, I really feel worthless. Over the years, I’ve gone through bouts of not liking myself, because of what I’ve become physically (and and feeling so low about myself, that I could scatch a worms belly)
    Just about everything I loved in life has been taken away, one by one, I think I’ve skirted around what I really want to say, so here we go– First to really set this straight, I don’t “hear voices, that tell me what to do” But I do have a subconcious that in the last few months it’s popped into my mind that I would be better off if I were no longer on this earth. And it seems to be running through my mind more and more often, as I said earlier, I do take pain meds. and although my body has progressivly gotten worse and in more pain, I use to try to explain this to my Dr. however, he feels that I should be fine on the same dose I’ve been on for just about 5yrs.
    I’m at the point I can no longer care for my house like it should be– very depressing, since I use to be a clean nut.Very seldom do I get dressed, I don’t have the desire, or the energy.So I lay on the couch, just steaming iinside.
    Anyway about a week ago, instaed a taking 2 of my one pain med., and 2 of the other pain med. I was so very desperate, so I took 3 of each of them I must say, I did notice a difference in the pain , as well as not only having a desire to accomplish something, but I was able to get a decent amount of it done. I felt human again. i have to also say, that although I really felt that I would not overdose one what I took, I had a talk with myself,and that if for some reason I were to have a devistating reaction to doing this, I said a prayer, and let myself go and asked the Lord to except me with loving and open arms.
    I’m saddend that I am at this place in my life. I know how wonderful it would feel in Heaven with no more saddness or pain,and I’m worried and upset with having these thought several times a day, every day.
    And I don’t have a clue how to climb out of this one. There is so much more to my story that has brough me to where I am today. But I’ll be suprise if anyone reads it because of how long it already is—sorry…………. God Bless all of you

  • Cathie Smith

    GOD BLESS YOU Debbie J

  • Tiffany

    God Bless YOU Debbie

  • jana

    I read it all the way to the end. I say GOD BLESS YOU TOO!!

  • Barb

    I also read your story to the end. It was very moving and I’m sure there are others who can identify with some of the pain you are experiencing, both physical and emotional. God Bless

  • Janet

    Debbie, I am touched by all of the pain and other obstacles in your life. You have done such an eloquent and thorough job of explaining each one of them. I wonder if you are also able and willing to write each one of your blessings, strengths, joys, passions, etc. You may have fallen into the cycle of focusing on the bad in your life, which we know, only magnifies them and makes us feel worse. By focusing more on some of the positives, you can really begin to feel some hope. Your circumstances won’t change but you can feel much better about them by practicing gratitude. Maybe start a gratitude journal to kick start the change in your thinking. I am only trying to help and meaning to be judgmental of you in any way. Try it! It may help!

  • Renee

    why are you calling her Debbie?

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