Every now and then, each of us is faced with circumstances that can leave us feeling helpless and frustrated. It could be small things like getting stood up or missing the train to big things like losing the people and things we hold dear.
At times like these, it’s easy to feel powerless and like almost everything is out of our control. When faced with powerlessness, different people react differently. Some will curl up into fetal position and not move until all trace of unpleasantness disappear. Some will start assigning blame. Some will try to control every aspect of their lives.
When I found myself stranded at a train station somewhere just outside London well past midnight this one time, I chose to blame someone.
Stranded in London at night
It wasn’t my first solo trip to London. I had gotten on a flight that landed in Heathrow Airport in the evening. My relative who lived in the outskirts of London agreed to put me up for the night before I left for my intended destination in Nottingham.
I had texted her several times throughout my journey from the airport, but I didn’t get a reply. By the time I got off at the right train station, it was already very late. The train station was deserted, dark and I was shivering from the cold. I called several times but there was no answer. Panic slowly bubbled to the surface, quickly followed by irritation. What was I to do now?
After waiting for about 30 minutes and calling to no avail, I decided to call my dad who was all the way back in Kuala Lumpur. I could hear the panic in his voice as I told him what had happened. He told me to wait while he made some calls. After about 15 minutes, she finally called me and came to get me. I could feel the tension in the air. I was sure that whatever transpired, it wasn’t pleasant.
Later on after I had left my relative’s house, I called my dad again to thank him for helping me. True to his fashion, he was not pleased with me.
“You should have been better prepared,” he said.
“What do you mean I should have been better prepared,” I retorted with indignation. “I double confirmed with her right before I left KLIA. That was one day ago. She was the one who forgot I was coming.”
“Well it apparently wasn’t enough. Why didn’t you get her husband’s number as well? Why didn’t you get their house telephone number? Why didn’t you get her address and check how to get there yourself on a map? Why didn’t you have a Plan B on where to stay in case something happened last minute and she couldn’t put you up for the night? You should have checked for nearby B&Bs or hotels. You should have checked how to do that in case you got stranded.”
I kept quiet. I was angry with him for being angry with me but I had no comeback.
He wasn’t done. “And of all the flights you could have gotten, you bought a flight that got you to London at night. You know that there is minimal service at night. If I weren’t able to help you, what could you have done? Where would you go for help? Did you know what I was imagining in my head when you said you were standing alone in a deserted, dark, cold train station? Did you know how scared I was?”
“If she had continued not answering my calls, I would have gone looking for some accommodation…” I said meekly. In my mind, I saw myself sleeping in a public toilet until morning came.
“Did it cross your mind that the reason she forgot you were coming might be because you’ve been to London so many times that she didn’t think it was a big deal? You’ve been to her house before right? Maybe she thought you’d remember the way?” This was so not the sympathetic phone conversation I was hoping for. He continued, “I don’t care what other people did or did not do. What I care about is that you learn to use your head more. If you travel alone, you need to learn how to take care of yourself better. Let this be a lesson to you. No one will take care of you. You must take care of yourself.”
He was pissed all right. I can’t remember how the conversation ended. I probably mumbled a resentful agreement to whatever he said. When my dad is angry with me, I would spend the next few hours being angry at him back (naturally). I was seething as I sat on a train bound for Nottingham.
It took a few days, but once the anger subsided, his words began to make sense. Many years later today, his words have become an integral part of me. It strengthened the basis of my strong desire for self-reliance.
Locus of control
In the 1950s, an American psychologist by the name of Julian Rotter developed a concept called the locus of control. There are two types of loci of control – internal and external.
If you have an internal locus of control, it means that you believe you have the power within you to choose and influence what happens in your life.
If you have an external locus of control, it means that you blame powers and forces outside of you for everything that happens in your life.
The difference between the two is not that one person was born with super powers while the other was born weak and helpless. The difference between the two is merely a matter of outlook shaped and nurtured by our surroundings.
The reason I recounted my personal experience of being stranded to you is to demonstrate how I had two choices after that incident. I could choose to:
a) continue blaming my relative for putting me in that situation; or
b) consider what I had neglected to prepare and putting myself in that situation
Choosing (a) literally means I concede all responsibilities concerning my well-being to other people. I get the appeal. In the moment, it’s a nice feeling to be blameless. No one likes feeling like they’ve done something wrong. But essentially I’m saying, “Hey, I’m going to your house but you’d better be prepared to take care of me because I am incapable of taking care of myself. If anything happens to me, I am going to blame you for everything.” Sounds awful, doesn’t it? Almost childish. If anyone were to approach me with this kind of behaviour, I would not give that person the time of day.
Hold on to this state of mind long enough, I might actually start believing that there’s absolutely nothing wrong with me. It’s always other people causing me pain. Life then becomes a place where I am helpless (and blameless) while other people continuously inflict damage on me. I’m just sitting duck and spending my days feeling angry about the injustices of the world.
Choosing (b) on the hand means that I take full responsibility for anything concerning myself, even when other people say they can take care of me. If this sounds like breaching control freak territory, I admit it can feel that way. But landing in trouble just because you didn’t plan enough or want to be spontaneous is a privilege for the rich. The less money you have, the less opportunities you will have of pulling yourself out of trouble. Second chances are not sympathetic towards the penniless.
If you’re not born rich, the least you can do for yourself is not be stupid. It’s unpleasant, it’s a lot of work, but who else is worth taking care of that much if not yourself?
So you’re saying I should blame myself for every single bad thing that happens in my life?
It is less about blaming and more about self-preservation.
Look at it this way. When you’re in deep trouble, the only thing that matters is getting out of it. The question of who to blame for your predicament is debatable, but you standing knee-deep in shit is not debatable. It’s a fact.
In an ideal world, you will have superheros rescuing your from your troubles, but in the real world, you have to be your own superhero.
And how can you be your own superhero if you can’t get past the blame game?
Honestly, if I were Superman though, I’d get bloody sick of rescuing Ms Lane from falling off buildings all the time and would draw a line for the number of times I have to cover for her lack of common sense. If my partner were half that stupid, I’d dump him.
But this encourages the culture of victim blaming
I’m the first person to encourage people not be dicks, but the universal truth of the world is that the only thing we truly have power over is ourselves.
Is it fair that we have to be careful because evil people decide to breed faster than good people? Of course not. But while we’re waiting for humanity to take another step forward towards betterment, we have got to protect ourselves in the mean time.
I mean, look at my dad. I’m sure scolding me for being stupid is not his favourite thing to do. I’m sure he wishes more men would keep their peckers to themselves around me and I’m sure he wishes that the crime rate in the country isn’t so high.
But instead of taking the easy way out and saying, “Poor Lisa. People are so mean to you,” he decided to do the only thing he has any actual power over. Educating me (by getting mighty pissed off every time I forget to bring my brains with me).
A lifetime of conditioning from my dad has made me look at predicaments in a more pragmatic way. When I get into trouble, I automatically think about the things I could have done better to avoid this, not look for people to blame.
So, how should you go about being more pragmatic at dealing with trouble?
1. Do not ignore the small mistakes; they could be symptomatic
When you get into small problems, it is usually a very strong indication of a much bigger problem. It is life’s way of telling you that you really suck at something and you need to fix it stat.
For instance, when you drive your car, you keep running into one of those idiot motorcyclists who would graze your car and hit your side mirror.
Go on, have your moment of anger. It’s important to acknowledge anger so that you can let it go. Once you’ve had your moment, consider this. Could it be that you are kind of a shitty driver? I’ve seen so many cars trying to shift lanes during a traffic jam and they do it so suddenly that motorcyclists get taken by surprise.
Everyone thinks they’re amazing drivers, but if you get your license from Malaysia, I’m sure there’s so much more you can learn. No matter how considerate you think you are, there is always room for improvement.
If you don’t check yourself, one day you might find yourself quickly switching lanes again and causing a high speed motorcycle to crash head on into your car and causing death to the rider.
What are you going to tell his family then?
2. Don’t wait to be better
Your boss is always pissed off with you. It seems like his hobby is to get into the office, get angry at you about something you didn’t do yesterday, have coffee, make a phone call, then resume being angry with you. He wouldn’t let you take leave and nothing you do could ever appease him.
It’s possible that he could be a shitty boss. I’ve seen them. Maybe he’s really bad at communicating his needs in a way you could understand. Maybe he has a miserable family life and takes his frustrations out on you.
But then again, maybe you’re not managing your boss well enough.
Many people forget that bosses are humans and are therefore fraught with their own unique flaws. Many people don’t realise that bosses need to be managed. Never heard of that before, huh? Yes, you need to manage your boss.
If he gives unclear instructions, it’s your responsibility to stand your ground and squeeze a clear instruction out of him. If you leave the room not understanding what needs to be done, that’s on you as much as it is on your boss. It means you are both shitty communicators. Ideally both of you should improve that, but you can’t control your boss. You can only control yourself.
You don’t have to wait for your boss (or anyone else for that matter) to be perfect for you to start being better yourself.
If however your boss truly is a maniac from the hidden eighth level of Hell who has a personal vendetta against you, then it is your responsibility to preserve your sanity by leaving. Unless he has you in chains, you have a choice and a personal responsibility not to take bullshit from people. The overarching theme for this article is after all controlling whatever elements you can control in your life in order to preserve yourself.
3. When offered help, always assume that something will go wrong
I’ve received my fair share of favours that proved to be more trouble than they’re worth. Many people are very generous in offering help. The problem starts when there is a miscommunication.
Let’s say a friend of yours says, “Hey I can get you and your date a reservation at this hot new restaurant tonight.”
You get all excited and tell your date to dress up for the night. When the time comes, you call your friend but he says, “Oh sorry man, my usual guy isn’t working tonight, so no reservation. Should have told you five hours ago but I fell asleep. Next week, maybe?”
Some people are like that. They like the feeling of being helpful and important and offer things they cannot deliver all the time. Sure you feel like punching the guy for being so irresponsible, but then again, it’s called help, is it not?
Help or favour means someone does something for you that they don’t have to do.
My advice is, never put all your hopes on favours. If it works out, thank them. If it doesn’t, at least you have a plan B and it won’t destroy your friendship. Next time just be cautious and skeptical when they offer another one of their cheap helps.
4. Avoid stupid people at all cost
There is a story about a King and his pet monkey that he kept around for amusement. One day after taking a stroll in the gardens, the King felt sleepy and decided to take a nap.
“Make sure no one disturbs me while I’m asleep,” he ordered the monkey before dozing off.
The monkey sat by his side faithfully until a bee came hovering dangerously close to the King. The instruction was clear – nothing should disturb the King while he’s sleeping. The monkey jumped into action and grabbed the King’s sword in an attempt to keep the bee at bay.
It so happened that the bee decided to land on the King’s face. The monkey took this opportunity to kill the bee in one single blow. This blow also split the King’s head from his neck.
The problem with stupid people is they always mean well. They try their best to help you, sometimes even when you never asked them to. But because they are stupid, they create problems for you.
Stupid people are usually always in a lot of trouble themselves because of their own foolishness. You may be kind to them if you feel sorry for them. You may give them money. You may give them things. But never, ever offer your friendship and time. If you can offer help and remain anonymous, all the better. The last thing you want is for stupid people to think you want to be a part of their lives.
Of course, in order to avoid stupid people, you have to make sure you’re not stupid yourself. Other than reading a lot of books to get insight, I can’t offer much more help than that. I don’t want to be the King.
5. Accept that some things are beyond anyone’s control
I believe that the strongest force on Earth is the self. When you change yourself, you influence the people around you. If you want the world to be better, you should do something about it instead of waiting for the government or NGOs or your grandma’s cat to do something.
But part of being human means we are subject to the ebb and flow of events. Outside the self is a whole world waiting to happen to us. It is healthy to recognise that despite our best efforts, life will continuously throw shit at us.
This post is never about controlling everything.
It’s about controlling your responses to what the world gives you.
The key is not to search for additional problems. No one likes to admit it, but some people do search for problems. Not intentionally, but they dig themselves deeper into trouble by not taking responsibility for their own well-being.
So how much of your life can you truly control?
Only your attitude.
And from everything I’ve written above, it’s more than some people can handle. It’ll keep you occupied forever.
No matter where you are in life, whether you’re working in a company or starting your own business, single or married, have many children or childless, healthy or unhealthy, life throws enough natural problems at you without you searching for more.
There are people who will curl up into fetal position and not move until all trace of unpleasantness disappear. There are people who will start assigning blame. There are people who will try to control every aspect of their lives.
Don’t be any of the above. Don’t hide or run away, don’t blame other people or yourself and don’t be a control freak. You’re setting yourself up for disappointment.
The best thing you can do is skip the mental torture of hiding, blaming and obsessiveness and go straight to solving problems with cold efficiency. If you’ve ever screwed up at work and you happen to have a capable boss, you would hear them say something like this, “I don’t care whose fault it is (for now). I want to know what went wrong, how it happened and how bad it is so I know what to do next.”
That is problem solving mode right there. Blaming is a game for losers and a huge waste of time.
Skip the drama. Be pragmatic. Avoid problematic people. Don’t be stupid. And above all, forgive yourself for your mistakes and move on.