Acknowledge Your Reality

By David Bohl

The stoic philosophers predated the Serenity Prayer by hundreds of years with what has been adapted in English as the IDEA method. This is a method that employs wisdom and decision-making to our challenges. It goes like this:

I – Identify the real issue –Often our difficulties derive from desiring what we do not have and/or being averse to those things we do encounter.  When we are uncomfortable, it’s often because we have not reconciled these matters with our hopes and ideals. Have you heard the saying “expectations are premeditated resentments”?  Focus on the way things are, not on what you want things to be.

D – Distinguish “internals” and “externals” – Stoic philosophers made a distinction between “internals” and “externals.” Internals are those things directly accessible and manageable to us, like our attitudes, opinions, desires, and actions. Externals are those things beyond our direct control, like our reputation, material success, and many of the challenges and obstacles life lays down in our path. To further your recognition of reality, invest in the internals.

E – Exert effort only where it can be effective – Focus only on what we have in our direct power to effect, like our attitudes and our actions.  Demanding or expecting that all other endeavors will conform to our desires will be futile and exasperating, as well as energy-draining. Our proper use of power is in working on things that are practical and attainable, not those things which are beyond human reach.

A – Accept the rest – This is the foundation of radical acceptance – recognizing things as they actually are, not as you’d prefer them to be.  This final bit of wisdom requires action, where you stop fighting reality, stop responding with unhealthy behaviors when stressed, and let go of animosity and resentment that flame suffering. This is where the healing from powerful emotions that fuel unhealthy coping mechanisms, like drinking, can continue.

This reflects the Stoic mindset of amor fati, which is translated from Latin as “a love of one’s fate,” or a resolute, enthusiastic acceptance of everything that has happened in one’s life. I would go as far as suggest that it also means “radical acceptance,” a term that I’m sure you’ve seen used trendily and often in recent years. Contrary to what the word “radical” implies, this is not the sort of acceptance where you put up with just about anything and where you accept what is happening even if it’s a bad thing. No. It means that you acknowledge reality. You don’t need to agree with it – especially when it’s very disagreeable – but you have to find yourself present within it. Being in denial causes further suffering—facing our circumstances allows us to deal with them better.

The only “good” thing about COVID-19 is that with the current measures of social distancing, the scary stats, and the on-going crisis in hospitals is that it’s almost unavoidable for us to have to acknowledge that this is our reality. Very few of us (none?) have been prepared for it, and it’s obvious that very few of us really know how to behave. But most of us try as we genuinely have no choice.

Yet we still have quite a few stragglers. People who are unnecessarily hoarding household supplies, people who are confused about quarantines, or people are gathering despite the fines because they think this is a conspiracy theory. Those are the people who are not well informed, who distract themselves with unnecessary efforts, and who cannot accept that the world is right now going through a significant change. No radical acceptance here. Taking a bit of stock in all the information that is coming at us would be most beneficial at this point—fighting the reality with toilet paper is not going to help anyone.

Thankfully others can lead by example. Those are the people who are listening to the news, reading press releases, fact-checking information, discussing with their friends, staying and healthily cautious, and trying to adapt to ever-changing circumstances. I think it’s the adapters that will fare best here because they are the most in touch with this new reality. Being able to acknowledge that this is an on-going situation, and making peace with it as we lean into it will help us cope so much better. And make it small.

Most of us know the serenity prayer. And many of us have integrated an understanding of radical acceptance as part of our recovery. I would encourage you to give the IDEA method a go and apply it to whatever reality it is that you’re finding yourself in. Don’t tackle the whole COVID-19 with it, but instead use it to address your anxiety, denial, fear… whatever it is that you’re struggling with during this challenging time.


David B. Bohl, author of the memoir Parallel Universes: The Story of Rebirth, is an independent addiction consultant who fully understands the challenges faced by so many who seek to escape from, or drown their pain through, external means. His story offers hope to those struggling with the reality of everyday life in today’s increasingly stressful world.

Through his private practice substance use disorder consulting business, Beacon Confidential LLC, David provides independent professional consultation, strategic planning, motivation and engagement, care coordination, recovery management and monitoring, and advocacy services to individuals, families, and organizations struggling with substance use issues and disorders.


16 Responses

  1. Dan H. says:

    I get a kick out of this variation (Serenity Prayer, Mother Goose version):

    For every ailment under the sun
    There is a remedy, or there is none;
    If there be one, try to find it;
    If there be none, never mind it.

  2. Richard K. says:

    I love the Stoics!!! My friend Chris texts the daily Stoics.

    The Daily Stoic

  3. Bethany D. says:

    Thank you for this article David! I especially appreciate the idea of “radical acceptance” or, “a resolute, enthusiastic acceptance of everything that has happened in one’s life.” This has been the foundation for finding and developing meaning in my life, the meaning living inside of me. Accepting what’s external, together with an awareness and appreciation for what’s internal, creates a meaningful, creative expression of my human experience. Your article showed me this today. What a welcome surprise.

  4. John B. says:

    In answer to the question in Roger’s intro to this post – yes there is a place for acceptance in recovery. But, over my 39+ years of involvement in AA I have heard many pieces of advice concerning acceptance that I thought to be a bit goofy. Usually it would involve the quotation on p. 449 in earlier editions of the Big Book…”And acceptance is the answer to all my problems today.” I am a firm believer in living my life one day at a time, and some days have presented problems that demand a cool, reasoned response. Action is sometimes the best response to a problem.

    Further down that same page is this sentence, “Nothing, absolutely nothing happens in God’s world by mistake.” For those who believe in God, I suppose this carries some profound meaning. For many of us it is pure nonsense. Like Mr. Bohl I’ll apply a Stoic approach. The quotation atop the reading for today (10 May) in my book, The Daily Stoic, is from Seneca: “Let us also produce some bold act on our own – and join the ranks of the most emulated.” I can accept that.

  5. Nancy J. says:

    I am not in AA, but ACA, Adult Children of Alcoholic and Dysfunctional Families, but AA Agnostica has been a helpful source of non-monotheistic readings. The God search can be especially confusing for ACA adults because some, like me, were raised in violent, yet ‘Christian’ families. Since my involvement with ACA, my views on monotheism and Christianity have become clarified and I have made a clean break. However, where does one go from there? For inspiration? For guidance on how to live your best life with integrity, self-discipline and courage? In my search for wisdom untouched by Christianity, I found Stoicism. Thank you so much for sharing your thoughts and your wisdom.

  6. Diane I says:

    Fabulous article!! Not just for addicts or alcoholics, but for all people who struggle with life!! Which I am pretty sure is almost everyone, especially right now. Thank you David!

  7. Oren says:

    I.D.E.A. – identify, distinguish, exert, accept. I’ve long been interested in the Stoic philosophical threads that run through 12-step programs, including my own experience of humanistic, agnostic recovery.

    David, you always seem to get straight to the core of an issue, and beautifully summarize that which is important. Thanks for that!

    • Oren,

      Always great to hear from you.

      You are absolutely right – many recovery principles and actions come from the Stoic philosophers. Who better to help us alcoholics survive than Marcus Aurelius, past Roman Emperoro, who did his reflections and wrote his Meditations in the middle of war?!

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