To Surrender Is Not To Give Up, It Can Actually Be Empowering

Surrender has more of a negative connotation than a positive one, with the thesaurus citing “renounce,” “submit,” “capitulate,” “admit of defeat,” “lay down arms,” “yield,” “give in” or “give up,” etc. as synonyms. Putting aside the negative, I view surrender as a positive approach to life; letting go of control and doing away with the idea that you can bend the Universe to your will. Sure, we all want things to work out in our favor all the time, but sometimes life throws curveballs. So worrying about the “hows/whys” of your decisions and outcomes is often an exercise in futility that leaves you with heartburn. I’m not saying you should lead a passive existence, on the contrary, it’s important to be proactive. But if you’re like me, you struggle with letting go and surrendering to the will of God (or the Universe). And although you tell yourself you do, it becomes a game of mental ping-pong: consciously, you tell yourself that you’ve done all you can and will leave the rest to God (or the Universe), but your subconscious programming leads to negative thinking and anxiety about being passive, leaving you conflicted about surrendering.

Letting go also runs counter to Western culture, which values being in control, individualism, pulling-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps, and the idea that your lot in life is in your hands. As such, socialization influences your capacity to surrender, as does your life experiences. On the other hand, sometimes people need to surrender because they’re anxious about life and their choices, finding comfort in charismatic leaders (religious or otherwise), seeking guidance from therapists, and placing faith in self-help experts purporting to have the winning strategy to help you achieve peace of mind. (Isn’t this why the multi-billion dollar self-help industry continues to flourish? Premised on the idea that if you follow Roadmap X or Formula Y and change your thoughts and actions, you’ll have control over your life and achieve all your most-cherished desires?)

This brings up the philosophical debate of free will versus determinism. Do you adhere to the idea that you have free will (complete control) and your life is what you make of it, or do you believe that your life is determined (complete surrender) and your role is to go through the motions and accept what life throws at you? Or do you fall somewhere in the middle, believing that you have free will in the context of a life course that’s already determined (where you’re born, your nationality, who your parents are, the socioeconomic class you’re born in to, etc.). One argument takes it further and declares that it’s about what’s relevant to you based on the psychological needs of defeatism and aspiration.

Defeatists view their lives from a deterministic perspective, which places responsibility outside themselves, resulting in self-deceit and under-achievement when things don’t go according to plan. Aspirants wholeheartedly embrace free will, resulting in rage and bitterness when things don’t turn out as they plan or expect. I believe that you have free will within a relatively determined life course, and that you have the ability to change your circumstances (for example, you grow up poor and become wealthy in adulthood), especially if you live in a country where opportunities abound. BUT sometimes life happens when you’re making other plans, and your attitude and response to these curveballs will determine your success (however you define “success”).

"Explore" white flag with wooden background.

Surrender is one of the lessons in Rule #5 (Learning Does Not End) of the Ten Rules, which centers on the idea of allowing life to unfold and “embrace your role as a perpetual student of life.” But how do you get to a place where you can move beyond ruminating on past experiences trying to figure out the “whys,” as well as reigning in the “what-if” thinking about the future? It’s not easy, but in sharing some of my experiences and strategies to reduce heartburn, I hope to help you achieve a less-anxious existence. The goal is to avoid being either a defeatist or aspirant, and instead become more resilient, more responsible, and open to the experiences of life – all intended to teach us lessons. This, in turn, leads to a calmer, more determined mindset with minimal stress, which, I’m convinced, ARE in your control.

Evaluate Your Approach to Life

Assessing your approach to life is a foundational step, and will shed light on how you view the world, your place in it, and what makes you tick. The following questions are by no means an exhaustive list…some might be too general, others might be too specific. But they will help you look inward, especially if you don’t engage in self-reflection, or do so less frequently than some of us navel-gazers whose self-awareness meter is off the charts (and not always in a good way).

Do you believe in God? This is a fundamental issue that influences your approach to life. If you do believe in God, my assumption is that you believe that the Almighty has influence in your life. Maybe you seek answers from God through prayer and gratitude and believe He’s kind and loving. Or maybe you’ve never sought His help and believe in a vengeful God that must be feared because if you step out of line, you’ll be punished. Or maybe your views fall somewhere in the middle of this spectrum. My introduction to God was alarming, more so because of how it shaped my views of self (in relation to a vengeful God that only punishes).

I remember vividly at the ripe age of five being told by one of my favorite aunts that God is all-knowing. My response to that was: “Even under blankets?” To which she said, “Yes, even under blankets, behind closed doors, and He even knows what you’re thinking and feeling.” At such a formative age, that freaked me out, not because I was doing anything wrong (well, maybe sneaking cookies in bed and eating them under my blanket), but the idea of being completely exposed frightened me. The notion that there was no place to hide and no room for bad thoughts formed my impression of a vengeful God that needed to be feared. So when I faced challenges, I assumed that I was being punished for being a bad person, and accepted the so-called punishment, asking for forgiveness and vowing to do better. So at an early age, I’d formed an opinion of myself as a bad person who needed to be monitored by God to remain good.

A heart line with "life" written along the top in red and a hand holding the line.

Some of my extended family were also quite influential in shaping this negative view of self. Their judgmental views of right and wrong didn’t align with mine. When some of them arrived in the U.S., I was a typical American teenager navigating the perils of adolescence (dealing with the typical stages of development and trying to survive middle school…ah, the wonder years). But in their eyes, I was “too American” and had lost my way, and would, therefore, be punished by God. At 13, puberty is harsh enough without some close-minded folks telling you everything that’s wrong with you.

It wasn’t until my late-20s that my perspective about myself and God softened. It was then that I started to embrace a loving, kind God that was there to help guide and protect me, and not just show up to punish me when I did something wrong. I also finally embraced that I was a good person…a fallible human being who makes mistakes (no one is perfect!). Maybe this also had a lot to do with the guilt-ridden religion I was raised in (Islam…like Catholicism). But the more I pulled away from institutional religion (and those extended, close-minded family members), the freer I was to embrace a loving God. 

If you’re a non-believer, do you believe in a Universal order? For those who don’t believe in God (Agnostics, atheists, etc.), do you believe that there’s more to life than just what we see? Are you spiritual? Or do you believe that you’re in complete control of your life, that the physical realm of existence is all there is, and that what happens to you is completely random? And let me just point out that being a non-believer doesn’t preclude having a moral compass. Your moral compass isn’t tied to religion (so please don’t vilify non-believers and assume that they’re amoral). 

Do you believe we have free will or is everything determined? Or both? I think you know where I stand on this issue and what works for me, so I won’t repeat what I already stated. Your views regarding free will and determinism should be informed by your lived experience, and therefore aren’t static. They’ll most likely change over time depending on the circumstances you face and how you deal with challenges. Again, striking a balance along the defeatist-aspirant spectrum should be the goal.

Are you a pessimist or optimist? This too is informed by your lived experience. Some people are inherently optimistic while others are Debbie-downers and nothing positive can change that. Some people are realists – accepting what is. I’m an optimist and always look for the lessons and positive aspects of challenging experiences (even if I initially freak out).

4 yellow balls with different emotions on the front.

Are you happy and do you feel successful? This is a loaded question that requires you to define what happiness and success mean to you (I chose to lump these together because in general, when you’re successful you’re happy, and vice versa…but sometimes you’re successful and not happy…). What yardstick do you use to measure happiness and success? Comparisons to others (The Joneses?!?!)? First of all, don’t use others to gauge your level of happiness and success, especially if you’re basing it on peoples’ social media posts. You have no idea what’s going on in others’ lives because while they may be projecting a blissful existence online, their real lives might not be as happy and successful as you think.  

Western society has led us to believe that you can achieve perpetual happiness, but recognizing that this is a fallacy will help you be less critical of yourself for not maintaining a constant state of bliss. Some days, it’s hard to get out of bed and face the day. Some days you feel funky and don’t want to smile. It’s okay to feel that way…give yourself the latitude to feel not-so-happy without judging yourself too harshly. Life is full of joyful experiences punctuated with challenges that shouldn’t turn us into curmudgeons, but instead strengthen our resolve and make us more grateful for all the blessings we have.

Do you think people are inherently good-natured? Your answer to this question is also informed by your lived experience. Maybe you think people are always out to get you and their motivation to help you is based on what they can get out of the exchange. Or maybe you give everyone the benefit of the doubt until they do something to hurt or offend you. Remember, no one is all good or all bad. If this was true, it would be easy to bin people and just stay away from the bad ones. Remember this quote (attributed to many authors, so I’m not sure who said it): “There is so much good in the worst of us, and so much bad in the best of us, that it behooves us all not to talk about the rest of us.” Given that we’re human, and that even the best of us veer off course, do you have the capacity to forgive? If so, then you’re on the right track because holding grudges does more harm to you than the person you hold them against (let that shit go!). And stop thinking that people are always out to get you (on the contrary, people aren’t thinking and plotting against you).

Hopefully, asking some of the preceding questions will bring clarity and a deeper understanding of yourself. This, in turn, should help you go beyond just trying to figure out if you have the capacity to surrender.

Strategies To Cultivate Surrender

Let’s assume that your aim is to stop worrying, become less anxious, and/or offload the burden of complete control over your life (because carrying the entire load can become exhausting). If so, explore the following strategies for helping you to quiet the mental ping-pong game and achieve a more peaceful existence.

(1) Examine Past Experiences

What positive and negative experiences have shaped your capacity to surrender to God (or the Universe), knowing that everything will be fine? Did it make you feel helpless or hopeful? In order to gain clarity, identify 3-4 positive experiences and 3-4 negative experiences. Summarize each experience in the following manner:

A. Describe what happened. Was it a decision, a curveball…something unexpected?

B. Identify your thoughts/feelings (happy, shocked, helpless, sad, angry, hopeful).

C. Identify your approach (controlling, surrendering, both, neither).

D. Identify if this matters/mattered in a year? Five years? Ten years? How influential is/was this experience in the grand scheme of things?

E. What did you learn? Did it strengthen your ability to surrender or not? Why?

A woman hunched over trying her sneakers.

Doing this exercise should help you gain more clarity and recognize that you’re not helpless and that as long as you’re proactive, you can learn a lot from your challenges. Once you do this exercise on paper, thereafter, you can do it mentally. The more you practice, the better you’ll get at identifying your triggers (when you feel helpless and anxious) and ameliorate your stress. If nothing else, it’s important to identify your lessons learned, especially for challenging experiences.

(2) Exercise/Workout

One way to deal with the challenges you face is exercise. It’s not only physically and mentally rewarding, but also reduces stress and anxiety (that can lead to cognitive impairment if left unchecked). I started working out regularly (3-4 times a week) a couple of years ago, and now it’s become an integral part of my life. I’m not preparing to run a marathon nor aspire to enter bodybuilding competitions; I do it because at the end of a workout, I feel good and I’m so exhausted that stressing isn’t an option. When I’m not in the mood to workout I push myself harder to do so, because afterward, I feel great…like I accomplished something. You don’t have to get a personal trainer and spend a lot of money (unless you want to). There are a lot of workout videos on YouTube and classes offered at your local gym; you just have to take the initial steps. Trust me, if I can stick to a program, you can too, and at some point, it’ll become so routine that NOT working out is no longer an option.

(3) Prayer

I don’t care if you’re praying to God, Angels, or the Universe, just pray. Believe that you’re being heard and ask for guidance. Don’t just go through the motions because without faith, you might as well not do it. I find prayer to be a powerful mechanism of stress relief. It helps me realize that I’m not alone in the world, that I don’t have complete control in life, and that it’s okay to ask for help.

(4) Therapy

Seeking a therapist is another option that some people find helpful. If you’re at a place where you need to see a professional to help you make sense of your life, by all means, do so. But be very selective. Different therapists emphasize different approaches. If you see someone who’s focused on psychoanalysis, the questions that arise during therapy will most likely focus on your childhood and past experiences (in order to identify the roots of maladaptive patterns). If you seek out a psychiatrist, he or she may not focus too much on your upbringing and instead focus on the present and most likely prescribe medication. IMHO, unless you’ve been diagnosed with a clinical disorder (major depression, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia), don’t automatically settle for medication. Try to work through your issues first, you’ll be surprised how strong and capable you are. Of course, I’m not a clinician nor a licensed psychologist, so please take my recommendations to forego medication with caution. I’m basing my advice on my experience.

Hands sculpted in stone as if to pray.

Towards the end of my first year as a Ph.D. student, I was quite overwhelmed (very anxious). I went to the medical center at my school and was seen by a psychiatrist, who within five minutes, claimed that I needed a prescription for anti-anxiety medication. I told him I wasn’t too keen on taking medication, but he insisted. He prescribed the lowest dose of anti-anxiety medication. I carried the prescription around with me for a couple of weeks before I decided to take it. I ended up taking it for about six months but found that it wasn’t very effective. I realized that I needed to work through the reasons why I felt so anxious as opposed to applying a band-aid solution that masked my issues and made me feel weird (being a student of psychology and hyper-aware does that to you). So I stopped cold turkey (which I don’t advise…I felt like I had vertigo for a few weeks). I started praying, working out, and reading articles about how best to handle anxiety. (I also felt less overwhelmed with being a Ph.D. student.) These things actually helped me identify why I was so anxious… a lot better than popping pills. That was the only time in my life that I took medication, and I don’t think I’ll ever do it again.

(5) Breathe

We forget how important rhythmic breathing is in alleviating stress and anxiety. When you’re panicking, most often, you’re advised to breathe in/out of a paper bag. So try it (not using a paper bag…unless you really need it). When you’re stressed and continue to ruminate on past experiences and future “what-ifs,” take the time to breathe. If you meditate, you’re already conscious of your breathing. If you don’t meditate, get in the habit of taking deep breaths…take 8-10 deep breaths and exhale slowly. It might make you a bit dizzy, so don’t do it while operating heavy machinery. It’s amazing how the simple act of rhythmic breathing can help to calm you down.

"Inhale" and "exhale" in speech bubbles on sidewalk.

I hope the aforementioned strategies are helpful…try some or all to gauge what works for you. At the end of the day, it really is about your willingness to self-reflect and address the issues that plague you in order to achieve peace of mind (or at least minimize your stress). Your attitude will determine your success. Life isn’t easy and can sometimes feel like a constant battle, but the more willing you are to surrender (let go and let God) and allow life to unfold, knowing that nothing lasts forever (whether good or bad), the more you’re able to focus on the joys and learn from the challenges. None of us are getting out of here alive, so make the best of life while you’re here, and try to help others along the way.

Peace, love, and blessings,