On submission and surrender

There are many moments in life when we are faced with the unknown. With each beautifully unknown moment we are able to grow, to change, to define and redefine ourselves, and to come to a better understanding of who we are and where we stand in this world. These events occur, unbidden, and we can easily feel defeated and submit to whatever life throws at us.

In those moments when we submit to another person or to the world, we accept an external definition of who we are and what is possible. A child in a new class is assigned to sit in the front row, which induces anxiety; she submits and doesn’t ask to sit in the back where she would feel more comfortable. A lover wants to experiment sexually with something new, and we follow along while not wanting to experiment; we submit so as to keep our partner and to have some semblance of love in our life. A friend consistently asks for help, and you unfailingly help; you fearfully do not discuss your limits and submit to their direction of the friendship, which is uneven yet stable. A colleague professes their public support of you, while also telling your boss that there are problems with you; you submit to authority and allow your boss to reprimand you without requesting a proper mediation with your colleague. Yes, there are often gracious and noble intentions to submit, and to defer to another, but there is a cost in submission. The cost is what is possible.

Psychoanalyst Nancy McWilliams bitingly wrote, “Submission is the perversion of a healthy striving for the experience of surrender” (p. 11). I agree, in that we have a deep need to face the unknown and unexpected experiences in our life with integrity and purpose, and we do yearn for surrender from an ancient need to let go and to touch all that’s possible. However, submission reduces the possibilities of what may occur, what we can choose, and who we want to be, into one option and one response: a bruised acknowledgement of what we don’t want, painted as what we should want.

I liken submission with violence, and I mean the simplest of violent acts, wherein violence is the will of another, whether personal or political, being imposed over our own will. There are other options, of course, for we may protest, push back, run away, or cry out with the earnest feeling of “no.” We have every right to say and feel our “no” and to not want something. The subtlety in saying “no” is something that I will explore at another time. For now, this finer aspect of “yes” is what I am focusing on in this blog. A particularly violent form of submission occurs when “yes” is the only response permitted, especially in cultures where questioning is deemed disrespectful, defiant, morally weak, and immature, while obedience is valued above all else. This is a restricted “yes”, a violent “yes” of submission, and the “yes” where “no” is outlawed. This is worlds away from the “yes” of surrender.

Submission isn’t the only option when faced with something we do not want, for we have the option to surrender. Surrender comes from that inner place of letting go while looking up, rather than being beaten and looking down at oneself. I’m reminded of the beauty of surrender when I see a person allowing their dreams to inspire their life’s direction, rather than walking along another’s pre-drawn path. I think of surrender when a lover ventures into sexual territory, and rather than running away, willingly stays with an uncomfortable experience to explore what happens with their partner and within oneself. I, too, witness an act of surrender when a person consents to a psychotherapeutic relationship and begins to allow their emotional pain to be felt, and their hurt to be healed. In these, and many more ways, we can choose to surrender and allow ourselves the possibility of accepting definitions yet to come and understandings still being formed.

I believe that these unknown and uncalled for moments come to us, not from our own will, nor to break our will, but to pull us further along into our own being and who we are becoming. When we surrender, we touch the possible, and we can feel all the bare yet honest contours of who we are. We can let go of what we had, and who we thought we were, to discover something undefined by others yet wholly ours.

About the Author


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I'm a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist in private practice down in the greater Long Beach, CA, area. I've been in the mental health field, formally, since 2005, and I consider it a deep and rewarding honor to see other people grow and live the lives that they want. If I'm not sitting on a couch with a cup of tea in hand, I'm probably on my bicycle, or lost in my own thoughts on the beach; meditating, tweeting, blogging, and talking into a video camera are also known to happen.

BradyOn submission and surrender

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