Books mentioned: The Courage To Be Disliked by Ichiro Kishimi and Fumitake Koga

I've long been a believer in determinism in some shape or form, the idea that all future events are completely determined by past events. On an emotional level, this means accepting that your current self is a product of the past events in your life.

  • You have bad grades because your teachers didn't like you.
  • You're in a job you don't like, because you were born poor and are forced now to take whatever job you can get to make ends meet.
  • You're never going to be good at social interactions because you were an awkward kid growing up and it never came to you naturally.

That's how the world makes sense to us. It's cause and effect. But what if that's not the case?

The Past Doesn't Determine Us

Meanings are not determined by situations, but we determine ourselves by the meanings we give to situations.
Alfred Adler

Alfred Adler is a pioneer of a branch of psychology called Individual Psychology (more on that at the end). A core idea of this theory is that the past doesn't inherently have meaning. It simply is in the past. Whether it affects you depends entirely on the meaning you attribute to it.

For example, if you're afraid of swimming because of a traumatic incident in your childhood, it's not the traumatic event itself (the cause) that's keeping you from swimming now (the effect). The event is in the past, and inherently has no control over you because you only live in the here and now. If you're afraid of swimming now, you are keeping yourself from swimming, and using the traumatic event as an excuse. You could in theory say that the event happened out of special circumstances unlikely to happen again, and you could take baby steps such as swimming with a buoyancy vest, or in a monitored pool (i.e. in a situation where you are guaranteed not to drown).

Another example – if you haven't performed well in academics because your teachers didn't like you, it's not the bad relationship with your teachers (the cause) that resulted in your poor performance (the effect). Yes, the teachers matter, but ultimately you have resigned to not performing well – perhaps as an act of rebellion, or out of lack of motivation, or to pursue something outside of academics, or something else – and are using the teachers as an excuse. The teachers haven't helped but, again, you are keeping yourself from performing well. everything is my fault?

Take Back The Power

This isn't to say that you're responsible for outside events that you can't control. But you are responsible for your own life – no one else is! While this way of thinking shifts the responsibility (rightfully) back to you rather than to your teachers or some childhood events, it's also a great opportunity.

You get to define yourself. You can choose to be affected by things from your past – or you can choose to ignore the past and work to the right goals in the here and now. The power is with you. Understanding this is the first step to taking control of your life, rather than letting it be an outcome of events outside of your control.

Appendix: Alfred Adler

Alfred Adler was a 20th century psychiatrist in Austria, who founded the school of Individual Psychology. This is quite an interesting branch of psychology that talks about feelings of inferiority, interpersonal relationships, confidence in others and contribution to society, amongst many other things.

I highly recommend reading The Courage To Be Disliked: How to free yourself, change your life and achieve real happiness by Ichiro Kishimi and Fumitake Koga, which gives a nice intro to Adlerian psychology.