When something bad happens, do you think “Why me?” or simply “Why?” Your choice of question and how you answer it makes all the difference in how you experience hard times. Which question you choose means the difference between meaningless suffering and meaningful struggle.
To ask “Why me?” is an attitude that undermines a person’s ability to cope because challenges are seen as meaningless suffering. People who reflexively ask that question often feel entitled or victimized, or both. They see themselves as ganged up on or abandoned when things do not go as expected. Trapped in that view of life, they end up feeling that one bad thing after another happens to them—not because bad things are singling them out, but because their mindset makes them see things that way. Unfortunately, the negative narrative of why-me people makes it hard for them to catch a break. Their subconscious life narrative is about a helpless innocent who meets the big bad world with predictable results.
But the person who asks “Why?” assumes the world makes sense and can be figured out. This is the question that promotes survival by making challenges into a meaningful struggle. By finding meaning in the struggle, a person gains motivation, producing positive energy and a hopeful outlook. Their life story is about prevailing over hardship.
How people react to unexpected circumstances will depend on whether they see themselves as lucky or oppressed. The group who feels lucky will go forward, trusting in their narrative and hoping it will work out well. The oppressed group hangs back and feels too powerless to try in the first place. Both groups put meaning on their life events, but their outcomes will be hugely different. Seeing something as a vital struggle instead of pointless suffering will go a long way toward more effective action.
Do both kinds of people know they are creating a meaningful life story with each decision they make? Probably not. Both groups are just living their lives. But the nature of their underlying narrative will make a big difference because a person’s story is based on these assumptions. These subconscious beliefs about the self start early in life, but they can be changed once we are aware of them.
Ask yourself which person would be more likely to find help in difficult times. The person who is looking for meaning is in a motivated mental search mode already. After some initial reorienting, they start figuring out how they can get what they want from this new circumstance. Because they are already looking for meaning, they will be alert to other clues and signs that indicate which way to go. Unfortunately, the person who believes that life is penalizing them will stay in that storyline from the beginning. Once they sense that feeling of defeat, they tend to stop and become passive. They do not look for further evidence of deeper meanings because they think they already know the end of the story. They are convinced other people and outer circumstances are invincible.
Our mental attitude makes a huge difference even at a biological level because the process of finding meaning cues our brains to solve problems. Brains automatically look for meaning whether you want them to or not. Our only choice is which kind of meaning we are going to construct. Creating a sense of meaning makes the brain define the problem to be worked on. Without that effort to find meaning, situations are perceived by the brain as meaningless noise. It does not matter if there actually is some ultimate meaning or not; it is the act of building meaning that boots up the brain and makes the difference in coping well.
Meaning often comes from some form of spirituality, but not necessarily. Meaning can be based on a code of ethics or even seeing life as a game. It can be about relationships or protecting others. But as long as the struggle in life is seen as having meaning, even at a deep, unknown level, we will keep setting goals and trying. Even a tiny goal can fuel a smidgen of hope, and that can be enough to prompt action toward tipping the odds in our favor.
Finding meaning in our experiences is how we build the story of our lives. We may not be aware of it, but we all have a personal narrative, a secret ongoing autobiography. Most of the time we just live our lives, but sometimes we get a glimpse of our subliminal pattern. This is the life story we have been creating and did not even know it. This story not only contains the deep meaning of our lives, but it also forms the building blocks for our future.
Life usually involves some kind of struggle. It also has suffering. All people experience both. Everybody can feel hopeless, entitled, or desperate at times. Panic can happen to anybody. But the real key is whether at some point a person makes the decision to step back and ask “Why?” instead of “Why me?” That moment is when we start to take action on our own behalf, even if it is just a simple shift in attitude. If we start searching for an answer to make our challenges meaningful, we are already active in finding a solution. We have enlisted the higher parts of our brain for problem-solving, instead of focusing solely on the emotional brain centers that fuel fear.
It takes some work to find meaning in bad situations, but it is worth the effort. Construct your own personal meaning about why we have hardships in life, and find some reason why this challenge is good for your growth and development. The search itself will strengthen your mind and build emotional resilience. You are the one who can decide to define the problem as a meaningful struggle on its way to resolution. Whether we know it or not, we are all writing our ongoing autobiography. Let’s make it a good read.
Lindsay Gibson, Psy.D., is a clinical psychologist in practice in Va. Beach. For information, call 757-490-7811.