Accepting fate

We are like ants. We can get stepped on. It’s not always our fault. Photo by Vlad Tchompalov on Unsplash

It seems a little odd, a person-centred counsellor talking about accepting fate. But things outside our control are part and parcel of life, and therefore form part of the known experience of any client.

Yes, it’s true that a person-centred counsellor will usually want to return a sense of agency to a client. Depression and anxiety are both, to a degree, illnesses of helplessness, and therefore recovery is often marked by a return to a sense of greater influence over one’s own life.

However, it is also true that, as some of my clients put it, ‘things happen’. If you are an ant, walking along, and a human sticks their foot onto you, then this is the hand of fate. It’s true that a very analytical ant will wonder how it can avoid human feet, and perceive itself as able to prevent such things by deft behaviour. But, given that we must play a game of risk to even be alive, it’s helpful to acknowledge that ‘things happen’ beyond our control. We can call that concept ‘fate’.

This is particularly true of those who suffer a bereavement. It would be a harsh observer who said: ‘well, you certainly could have avoided the death by cancer of your partner’, for instance. Actually, I have known several bereaved people who do blame themselves, even though they are aware that cancer ‘just happens’. When we love someone, we would try anything to save them. There is always an element of judgement, always something left undone, always something left out for fate to peck at.

I am interested in people’s mental health, and therefore I come at the problem of fate with the question: ‘what is a mentally healthy view of fate, of the fact that things happen?’ In my view, there is a continuum of responses to life. At one extreme end is the person who considers everything ‘fate’, and therefore does nothing to influence life. At the other extreme is the person who considers nothing ‘fate’, and therefore is always doing everything they can to influence life. The first extreme is depression, and the second extreme is anxiety.

  • Depressed people slump into a feeling that they can’t influence what happens next, ‘so why bother?’
  • In contrast, anxious people never rest, because they feel in their bones that they might be able to affect everything, if only they think hard enough.

Why, then, does the same person often experience both anxiety and depression? If they’re opposites, how can this be?

The answer is instability. If a person’s relationship with fate, or, put another way, their power to influence, is destabilised, then they will swing between anxiety and depression, one minute overreacting, and the next despairing. This happens particularly in reaction to an event which we find it hard to accept.

This can be illustrated in relation to violence. If we have suffered some form of extreme violence, which we didn’t see coming, then we can be destabilised into two opposing responses:

  1. On the one hand, we may anxiously try to ensure we are safe at all times from perceived threat. We may bolt all doors, and avoid all situations vaguely similar to the violent experience. We can restrict our lives in the hope of avoiding a repetition. This can impoverish our life, because we deprive ourselves of anything resembling the key event.
  2. On the other hand, we may feel that we are defeated by life. We don’t even bother to bolt the doors or protect ourselves. We see no point. This can impoverish our life because we deprive ourselves of self-care.

The path to mental health, after a traumatic event, involves a subtle realignment in both respects. When working with clients, I am helping them unbolt some of their irrationally-closed doors, while at the same time helping them to put in boundaries of self-care they may have been neglecting. Rebalancing after trauma involves relearning a confident style, and losing the behaviour swings and distortions that the traumatic event created.

We can be aware of traumatic events in the past, which may have affected our relationship with risk, and made us lose our confidence. We can then learn not to hide so much. If a victim of abuse or violence, we can learn that we have a right to be here and proud, a right to take risks, but also a right to protect ourselves. We can move from being shaken by life, to a steadier relationship with the fact that, sometimes, ‘life happens’.

We cannot fully control the risk of bad things happening. But we can ensure that we have a healthy relationship with the fact that, to a degree, ‘life happens’. We can accept our fate, and yet also take steps to change things, without falling into extremes.