Could surrendering things you can’t control actually be empowering? Learn about the potential of surrender.
Surrendering is the act of giving up something. For our purposes, surrender means giving up on efforts to control your life, or ensure specific outcomes in your life. But why surrender? Trying too hard to control our lives is stressful and ultimately fruitless (Cole & Pargament, 1999). Knowing when to surrender and being able to do so effectively is a helpful coping skill (Cole & Pargament, 1999).
For many people, particularly those with spiritual leanings, surrendering control is synonymous with seeking to follow the will of a higher power instead of your own will (Wong-McDonald & Gorsuch, 2000). This might look like recognizing that the will of the universe and your own will do not align and that it will be easier to accept how things are unfolding than to continue trying to change them.
Paradoxically, many people find that surrendering in this way allows them to feel more in control of their lives (Cole & Pargament, 1999). This might be because surrender is still a choice we make.
The classic example of surrendering comes from the world of addiction recovery. Many, many people have achieved better psychological health and abstinence from addictive behaviors through participation in Twelve-Step programs (Kelly, 2017), and surrender is at the heart of those Twelve Steps.
For those of you unfamiliar with the Twelve Steps, it is model of understanding addiction recovery. The first step in such is for the addict to acknowledge that their life has become so out-of-control that no amount of rational thinking on their part will solve their problems (Tangenberg, 2005). Rather than continue struggling in vain to control one’s behaviors, addicts are encouraged to give up trying – to surrender to the fact that many events are out of their control and that they cannot manage things alone.
Many addicts find life much more manageable once they not only surrender control, but also ask for a benevolent power greater than themselves to take care of the situation (Pearce et al., 2008). In turning to an outside source for help, whether that be the support of fellow addicts, the will of a higher power, or the guidance of a therapist, addicts take an active role in getting better, no longer going it alone. In this environment, they practice actively coping with life stress by surrendering, with positive impacts for their lives (Morgenstern et al., 1997).
Aside from addiction rehab, psychological research has documented a wealth of benefits that come from accepting things as they are and giving up trying to control that which cannot be controlled. In fact, accepting things as they are is a central component of many effective types of psychotherapy (Block-Lerner et al., 2009).
To take one example, we can think of surrendering as a form of “radical acceptance”, a therapeutic skill which has been shown to help people recover from post-traumatic stress disorder and borderline personality disorder (Gorg et al., 2017; Robins et al., 2004). Accepting the present moment exactly as it is can make us less worried and stressed out and more effective in responding to what life throws at us (Knabb et al., 2017), regardless of whether we have significant mental health challenges.
So what might this look like for somebody who isn’t an addict? Suppose you have a friend whose company you truly, deeply enjoy. However, they can be forgetful, sometimes showing up late or canceling plans with you altogether. Knowing the limits of how much you can change somebody else, surrendering is likely to be a helpful tool here. You might decide that you’d rather not rock the boat by asking your friend to be more punctual or consistent; in that case, you’ll need to surrender to the fact of inevitable, occasional frustration with this person. If you do decide to ask them to change, it will help to surrender attachment to them responding in any particular way.
Here are two ways to practice surrender in your daily life (Colombiere, 1980):
1) Prepare to surrender certain things today. Think about your daily routine and the things in it that you can’t control. For example, before you even get on the road, let go of your anger at the driver in front of you. Accept that you will be anxious during that meeting with your supervisor. Before your brain can start trying to control these feelings, surrender to the fact that you’ll likely have them. That might make it easier to let them go when they arise.
2) Practice surrendering to the larger forces of life. You cannot control the outcome of the next election, whether your spouse will develop a severe illness, or the long-term effects of climate change. When thoughts of these things arise, it can be easy to spin out with worry as you wonder how you might control (or how little you can control) future events. Try your best to surrender these topics.
Letting go of things takes courage. Similar to the idea that there is strength in vulnerability, it takes guts to surrender. Knowing that surrendering can be a helpful tool, but that doing so is effortful and may not feel natural, how would you like to change your life? Where in your life would it be braver to say, “I let go control of this”, than to keep tightening your grip?
As you ponder these questions, be open and easy with yourself. Surrender is counterintuitive; it’s hard to admit that we can’t think or do our way to a better solution than surrendering provides. So when you find yourself stuck on something, gently consider whether just letting it go is a good first step.
Block-Lerner, J., Wulfert, E., & Moses, E. (2009). ACT in context: an exploration of experiential acceptance. Cognitive and Behavioral Practice, 16(4), 443-456.
Cole, B. S., & Pargament, K. I. (1999). Spiritual surrender: A paradoxical path to control. In W. R. Miller (Ed.), Integrating spirituality into treatment: Resources for practitioners (pp. 179–198). American Psychological Association.
Colombiere, C. (1980). Trustful surrender to divine providence. Charlotte, NC: Tan Books.
Görg, N., Priebe, K., Böhnke, J. R., Steil, R., Dyer, A. S., & Kleindienst, N. (2017). Trauma-related emotions and radical acceptance in dialectical behavior therapy for posttraumatic stress disorder after childhood sexual abuse. Borderline personality disorder and emotion dysregulation, 4(1), 1-12.
Kelly, J. F. (2017). Is Alcoholics Anonymous religious, spiritual, neither? Findings from 25 years of mechanisms of behavior change research. Addiction, 112(6), 929-936.
Morgenstern, J., Labouvie, E., McCrady, B. S., Kahler, C. W., & Frey, R. M. (1997). Affiliation with Alcoholics Anonymous after treatment: A study of its therapeutic effects and mechanisms of action. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 65(5), 768–777.
Pearce, M. J., Rivinoja, C. M., & Koenig, H. G. (2008). Spirituality and health: Empirically based reflections on recovery. Recent Developments in Alcoholism, 18, 187-208.
Robins, C. J., Schmidt, H. III, & Linehan, M. M. (2004). Dialectical Behavior Therapy: Synthesizing Radical Acceptance with Skillful Means. In S. C. Hayes, V. M. Follette, & M. M. Linehan (Eds.), Mindfulness and acceptance: Expanding the cognitive-behavioral tradition (pp. 30–44). The Guilford Press.
Tangenberg, K. M. (2005). Twelve-step programs and faith-based recovery: Research controversies, provider perspectives, and practice implications. Journal of Evidence-Based Social Work, 2(1-2), 19-40.
Wong-McDonald, A., & Gorsuch, R. (2000). Surrender to God: An additional coping style? Journal of Psychology and Theology, 28, 149 –161.