The # 1 Way (Not) to Ruin Your Life

Stone statue of The Thinker with clouds in background

A lot of people wonder what causes depression. One of the major contributing factors is a certain way of thinking. If I had to boil it down to a single phrase, I’d call it: victim-think. Another term, more popular in the past, is known as “fatalism.” Still another term is deterministic thinking.

What’s deterministic thinking and how can it ruin your life? Check out this excerpt from my most recent book, Bad Therapy Good Therapy (And How to Tell the Difference):

You’ve probably noticed that I continue to refer to the perils of “deterministic thinking” which, in one form or another, underlie all forms of bad psychotherapy.

Deterministic thinking refers to the subconsciously (or sometimes consciously) held viewpoint that a person is less in control of (and therefore less responsible for) the events of his life than might really be the case. Deterministic thinking is both a philosophical error and a psychological problem.

Thinking that you’re less in control of your life than you really are is a distortion of reality that can lead one to feel unduly angry, anxious, depressed or otherwise disordered.

From the point of view of a psychotherapist, the specific source from which an individual feels determined is less important than the presence of this feeling in the first place.

For example, some people feel that the entire course of their lives is determined by theological forces (God, Allah, Whomever). Others feel that the entire course of their lives is determined by family members. Still others by their race, gender or “society.” Still others by baseless New Age notions of past lives or “karma.”

The list is endless, but the central point is this: An individual who succumbs to deterministic thinking feels less in control of his life than he actually is. The unfortunate result is that he soothes himself with feelings of victimization and helplessness—emotions that even further isolate him from the personal control and responsibility he should otherwise feel.

For most people, deterministic thinking starts in childhood and is then reinforced by others in their environment or culture.

If a woman’s childhood is irrational and abusive, for example, then she will most likely enter young adulthood with the notion that, “My life is not under my control,” and “Others set the course and it won’t always be fair and reasonable.” As an adult, she is now free to challenge this mistaken thinking. The proper way to do that would be to learn how to stop putting up with abuse in relationships, how to better care for herself, and how to be a good spouse, parent, or friend—obviously something she could never have learned in childhood.

Such a healthy approach would be based on key premises such as, “I am in the driver’s seat of my own life. I am responsible for learning how to live a good and happy life, despite the experiences I encountered in my youth. My family of origin does not represent the way life and relationships have to be.” This is indeed the approach some young people take. Unfortunately, more often a person from either an abusive (or otherwise inadequate) childhood will latch on to one of the many variants of deterministic thinking available in our culture. He might, for example, hold on to religion as a way to explain it all away: “God meant for me to be this way.” In one case, the religious viewpoint will be more positive and the individual will conclude, “I have to see what God has in store for me. It must be better than what I’ve seen so far.” While this view is optimistic, it also sets the individual up for disappointment because of its dangerous passivity.

If a person is not actively and continuously in charge of determining the outcome of his or her life, and instead leaves it entirely or mostly up to God, or to “see what happens,” then there will most certainly be problems. In some cases people with a religious orientation conclude, “To have put me into this awful family environment, God must have it in for me. I must be a bad person, and this is how God is punishing me.”

The pervasive psychological baggage that comes along with this perspective is obvious.

Not everyone turns to religion. In today’s increasingly secular society there are many alternatives to religion, but most of them boil down to the same deterministic thinking.

The political and legal establishment, which today is based more on redistribution of wealth than on actually protecting the rights of individuals, encourages people to sue. Angry at the world? Then get what’s yours—financially! Although superficially a very different approach from that of religion, the underlying error is the same: “Forces outside of my control determine my happiness. Until they pay me what I am entitled to, I’m helpless.”

Instead of the passivity, guilt, shame and depression fostered by the religious approach, the dominant emotion for the litigious person becomes one of anger. For those who can’t afford to gain access to the courts, they can (thanks to our corrupt political process) often “sue” through their elected representatives by gaining wealth or benefits through inane government programs, redistributed to them “free” of charge. As some undeservedly prominent politicians have gleefully labeled it, “Spreading the wealth.”

Not everyone seeks monetary compensation. For others the compensation is psychological. Many people find solace in the self-help literature that typically focuses on victimhood at the expense of how to take charge of, and responsibility for, one’s own life. For example: “My marriage isn’t unhappy because of flaws in my husband or myself. My marriage is unhappy because the self-help guru du jour says men are from Mars and women are from Venus. Biology is destiny.”

At first, such a “revelation” can be liberating for some. Freedom from responsibility feels especially invigorating to those who don’t want responsibility to begin with. But the course suggested by such deterministic viewpoints is inevitably one of inaction. If you’re not responsible, then of course you can’t act. But if you can’t act, then nothing will ever improve. What other mindset can this ultimately lead to but anger, despair and depression?

Many people never talk to a therapist or read a self-help book, but they nevertheless develop a posture of anger towards the world. This often happens “Because I had a lousy childhood, and because things haven’t gone the way I wanted them to in life. So now everyone else around me must pay, because I’m certainly not going to let go of my anger at reality and at the world.” Chances are you have encountered at least one person like this in your life.

Any of these neurotic social trends can be traced back to the primary error of deterministic thinking. If an individual concludes (no matter what has happened in his past) that he is still in charge of his own life and can use his thinking mind to develop himself, then he will be mentally fit and free of deterministic attitudes and ideas. If he fails to develop this attitude, he will end up mindlessly following one of the many trends in our culture that reinforce deterministic thinking.

Are people doomed to determinism? Of course not. Pretty much all progress can be attributed to the rare periods of human history (today is not a shining example) in which self-responsible attitudes were dominant. Even in periods of regression and decline, occasional bursts of progress such as the Internet, developments in medical technology, etc., are still possible.

Good ideas, and the willingness to practice them, will always be available to rescue us from the sort of debilitating intellectual and psychological trends we see today. It would help if the fields of psychology and philosophy, along with our media and academic institutions, paid more attention (indeed, paid any attention) to the notions of reason, reality, independent judgment and taking charge of one’s own life.The sad reality is that these fields and institutions, in their present form, simply don’t deliver what people so desperately need.

Deterministic thinking has no rational credibility that might even give it the power it has in our culture. Its power and appeal lies in two factors: Fear and laziness. Laziness is the unwillingness to take charge of one’s life, choosing to leave the “driving” to someone else. Fear gives rise to and reinforces that laziness. It could be a fear of not knowing what’s best for oneself, or maybe the fear of making a mistake. It might be a fear of happiness and the feeling that something is wrong with that. It might be a fear of rejection or disappointment. It might be a fear of accomplishing something and being “found out” as a fraud.

The specific form the fear takes is not as important as the presence and dominance of fear and laziness in one’s psychology and personality. The specific means (religion, litigiousness, self-help victimization, chronic anger) by which one chooses to escape the fear and laziness are also less important than the presence of the deterministic thinking itself.

Very few people are completely devoid of or totally encumbered by deterministic thinking. It’s most likely that it’s a mixture of both deterministic and self-responsible thinking, with one or the other more dominant in one’s psyche.

Take this simple test: If reading this book makes you kind of afraid, annoyed, irritated or angry, then you are probably more deterministic than not. If, on the other hand, you begin to feel a sense of, “This is right! I see some of that deterministic thinking in myself, but I don’t want it!” then you’re probably on the right track.

No matter how all this makes you feel, the antidote is the same: A commitment to a life of independence, reason and self-responsibility. The sum total of these virtues and commitments are known as self-determination. It embraces the polar opposite of the deterministic thinking that infects so many and holds individual and collective human progress so unnecessarily and tragically hostage. The good news is that it need not be this way even one more moment of your life! Focus exclusively on what’s under your control. Take the action necessary to improve and sustain your life. The poisonous thinking of determinism will dissipate. By changing and correcting your false beliefs, you can make it happen.

What exactly is a rational philosophy of life, and what are the specific methods of introspection that underlie it? Keep reading.

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