It’s completely normal to feel like the universe is out to get you sometimes. We all have days when everything goes wrong through no fault of our own. However, this can be a slippery slope to feeling helpless. So how can you take back control and stop being a victim of circumstance?
It’s important to realize that we all have things in life that we can’t control, from the weather to the general state of the world. But it’s also important to realize that there are things that are under our control, the most important of which are our own mindset and behavior. It might feel easier to put the blame on someone else, but this kind of learned helplessness can also lead to low self-esteem and disorders like depression and general anxiety disorder.
In this article, I’ll take a look at what can lead you to become a victim of circumstance and how to change your mindset.
Are you in control of your circumstances?
There is always something happening to us. Sometimes it’s good stuff, like promotions and engagements. But sometimes workload gets crazy, relationships fall apart, the car breaks down, and a worldwide epidemic comes and turns everything upside down.
Before we continue, look at the life events I just mentioned and think about which ones are under your control and which ones aren’t.
I’d like to think that I get promoted because I’m great at my job, and that I got engaged because I’ve worked hard to create a strong and trusting relationship with my significant other.
As for the bad stuff: clearly, the rise in workload is caused by factors outside of my control (and not due to my poor time management), my relationship ended due to my partner’s high-maintenance attitudes (and not my refusal to see their side of the story), and the car broke down due to shoddy production (and not because I’ve been ignoring the check-engine-light on the dashboard for three months).
Mostly, we tend to attribute the good stuff to ourselves and the bad stuff to factors outside of our control.
This can be a form of protecting our self-esteem. Another attribution mistake people tend to make is the fundamental attribution error: we attribute others’ actions 100% to their character, but our own behavior to external factors.
Locus of control
One of the leading theories of how people control their behavior is the locus of control theory.
As psychologist Philip Zimbardo writes in this 1985 book Psychology and Life:
A locus of control orientation is a belief about whether the outcomes of our actions are contingent on what we do (internal control orientation) or on events outside our personal control (external control orientation).
Internal locus of control
Consider again the above example. Maybe you would attribute both the good and the bad stuff to yourself and take responsibility for everything.
Car broke down? Should’ve taken it to the shop earlier, but that’s okay, you’ll do it now and be more careful in the future. Got a promotion? You worked hard for it, so you know you deserve it.
This is an example of someone with an internal locus of control. People with an internal locus tend to take responsibility for their actions and have more confidence and self-efficacy, as they have an “I make things happen” mindset.
It has been found that people with an internal locus of control perform better academically and are more effective learners, and are more resistant to stress.
External locus of control
On the other end of the spectrum is the external locus of control. People with an external locus of control tend to think that everything is out of their control, including positive events. Got a promotion? It was just luck - and it’s not like they have anyone else to fill the position.
People with external locus tend to have a “things happen to me” mindset, which does not support self-esteem and can often make them feel helpless and prone to becoming a victim of circumstances.
Sometimes, having an external locus of control can lead to learned helplessness. When people feel that they have no control over their situation, they stop trying to find a solution altogether.
Learned helplessness was originally discovered through animal research. In a classic study from 1967 by Seligman and Maier, some dogs were subjected to inescapable electric shocks, while another group had a way of stopping the shocks. The next day, the dogs were placed in a shuttlebox where they all had a way to escape the shocks. Only one-third of the dogs in the inescapable shock condition learned to escape, compared to the 90% in the other group.
The authors coined the term learned helplessness to describe the dogs’ inability to look for a way to escape the shocks, even though there was one.
Since then, the notion of learned helplessness has been expanded to humans. We all feel a little hopeless or helpless sometimes, but neither of these feelings will help us in the long term.
According to Martin Seligman and Steven Maier, the authors of the original study with dogs, the symptoms of learned helplessness are very similar to depression:
- Sad mood.
- Loss of interest.
- Weight loss.
- Sleep problems.
- Psychomotor problems.
- Indecisiveness or poor concentration.
In fact, learned helplessness can both cause and be caused by depression, and it’s clear that feelings of worthlessness and loss of interest don’t exactly ignite inspiration to take back control. If anything, they can make people give up the last vestiges of control.
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How to stop being a victim of circumstance
It’s clear that an internal locus of control is the way forward that can help you stop being the victim. Here’s how to move your locus of control from the outside to the inside and take back control.
1. Be honest about what you can control
Adopting an internal locus of control doesn’t mean that you have to take responsibility for everything, because this can lead to helplessness, too. Instead, I recommend taking stock of your life and dividing things into three categories:
- Things you can fully control, like your behavior and internal mindset.
- Things you can influence, but not control, like your relationships with other people (you can’t fully control someone else’s behavior, but you can influence it with your own).
- Things you have no control over and can’t influence, like the past.
You may find that you’re worrying over something that happened in the past and have forgotten to adjust your behavior in the present.
As a general rule, you should put most of your energy towards the things you have full control over and some towards the things you can influence, but stop wasting your resources on things that are completely out of your control.
2. Develop self-discipline
Self-discipline is not a magic cure-all, but it’s the closest thing you can get. Develop a routine and stick to it. Set goals and work towards them with small steps. Making steady progress will help to raise your self-efficacy and confidence, which in turn helps you change your mindset.
It’s best to start by making little changes in the basics. If your sleeping schedule is hectic, start by developing a sleep routine. If you’ve been mostly eating takeout and microwave meals, start by cooking for yourself most days of the week. If you’re not getting enough exercise, start by scheduling a 30-minute activity every day.
Not only will starting with the basics probably be the easiest, but proper sleep, nutrition, and activity level are essential for maintaining mental health.
For goals, it’s best to make them short-term at first and divide them down into further steps. Ideally, you should be able to take the first step toward your goal in the next 24 hours. For example, if your goal is to work out three times a week, start by going to the gym the very next day.
3. Be kind to yourself
Discipline is often associated with punishment and sometimes it is necessary to deprive yourself of something in order to reinforce a behavior. But most of the time, rewards and acknowledging your process is where it’s at.
The way we talk to ourselves is far more important than how others talk to us. Avoid beating yourself up for mistakes and don’t forget to approach yourself with kindness and compassion and reward yourself for your progress.
4. Forgive yourself and others
There are some things that can’t be forgiven, but often, holding grudges is what makes us feel like victims. When someone has hurt us, it’s natural to want revenge, but life is all about picking your battles.
Prolonged resentment keeps you constantly under stress, which makes you more vulnerable to other blows life might throw at you. In turn, this can make you feel even more like a victim. Forgiving someone can be the most powerful tool in order to move forward and take control of your life.
But sometimes it’s yourself who you have to forgive. Whatever past mistakes you’ve made, you can’t unmake them, but you can make sure that you won’t make them in the future. Accept yourself for who you are and move on.
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It’s important to know what we can and can’t control, but it’s surprisingly easy to fall into the trap of believing that we have no control over anything and seeing ourselves as a victim of circumstance. No matter how chaotic life gets, it’s essential to realize what you do control and to exercise that control. Taking matters into your own hands might be daunting, but it’s often the best thing you can do for yourself.
Was there anything I missed? Or do you want to share your own experience with being a victim of circumstance? I'd love to connect in the comments below!