Why do bad things happen to me? How your explanation of bad events shapes your experience

Dog looking fed up in butterfly headband

Why oh why does this always happen to ME?

It’s all my fault

Nothing ever works out for me

I have the worst luck

It doesn’t rain, it POURS, and I never have an umbrella

Do you feel that horrible stuff always seems to happen to you? Does terrible luck follow you around like a bad smell? Can you just not seem to get it together and get ahead?

No matter how hard we try, sometimes the world just seems to have it in for us. For every step we take forward, something comes along to push us three steps back. When you’ve been beaten down by life time after time, it’s easy to settle into a comfortable, negative mindset. Woe is me. Life hates me. Why bother trying, something else will just come along and crap on me like it always does.

Why do bad things happen to me?

When faced with yet another setback in life, the frustration can make you want to cry out “WHY ME! WHAT DID I DO TO DESERVE THIS? WHEN AM I FINALLY GOING TO GET AHEAD?” However, demanding answers from the Universe is unfortunately somewhat futile. While we may have no control over the situation itself, looking outside of ourselves for answers is incredibly disempowering. It simply reinforces the belief that we have no control (or responsibility) for the outcomes.

When approached in the right way, the question ‘why do bad things happen to me’ can actually be an empowering and effective tool for putting you in a positive, motivated state. Research in positive psychology has shown the way that we answer this exact question is not only a defining characteristic of the difference between optimists and pessimists, but that with conscious effort we can train ourselves to respond to it in an empowered, optimistic way. Essentially, you can use this question in response to bad situations to help create and strengthen a positive mindset.

Explanatory styles

When something bad happens to us, your belief about the causes of the problem influence your mindset and put you into either an optimistic, empowered state or a pessimistic, disempowered one. As you can imagine, this in turn heavily influences the way you act (or fail to act) in response to the problem.

Belief about cause > mindset > empowered/disempowered state > action

Research into learned helplessness, the idea that repeated exposure to negative events over which we have no control can condition us into a state of ‘giving up’ or ‘helplessness’, found that one of the key determinants of our ability to resist falling into a negative state was our explanatory style. Your explanatory style is the way in which you explain the causes of a situation, with both pessimists and optimists displaying markedly different styles.

Individuals with a more optimistic explanatory style for negative events are known to have a higher quality of life, greater well being and positive emotional states, more motivation, self esteem, resilience, and better physical health. In contrast, individuals with a pessimistic explanatory style are much more likely to exhibit signs of depression, low mood, poor motivation and engagement, and get stuck in cycles of negative thoughts (rumination). Essentially, individuals with a pessimistic explanatory style for negative events are significantly more likely to fall into learned helplessness, whereas those with positive styles are more likely to develop resilience and remain motivated to fight back.

So, why do bad things happen to you? Your own explanatory style is critical in determining how you will respond.

Dimensions of explanatory style

There are three main dimensions in your explanatory style along which optimists and pessimists differ:

Permanence (stable vs. unstable)

Pervasiveness (global vs. specific)

Personalization (internal vs. external)

Billy and Clive are called into their supervisor’s office for a new assignment. They are being assigned to work with a huge new client, and their supervisor wants to stress the importance of this new account. She explains to them that this is hopefully the first of many new projects this client will bring to the company, so she is keen for them to take a long-term perspective and cultivate a strong relationship with them.

Billy, ever the optimist, is excited at the news. Clive however, a staunch pessimist, is miserable. This new client is notorious for being an absolute pain to work with. Demanding, unrelenting, condescending, with ridiculous expectations. No matter how much you try to explain, reason with, or accommodate them, they are known to be an absolute nightmare.

Both Billy and Clive now find themselves in a predicament. They have been assigned to develop a long term relationship with a nightmare client. Clive retreats to his office, throws his hands in the air and cries “why do bad things always happen to me!!!”

Dimension #1 – Permanence

The first dimension of your explanatory style is permanence. How long do you think you will be stuck with this problem? Our pessimist Clive, believes that this is a permanent problem that he will be stuck with until the end of time. He explains the situation in terms of the unchangeable traits and characteristics of the client. Clive vehemently believes that the client is impossible, that they cannot be reasoned with, and that nothing he says or does is going to help make this easier.

On the other hand, Billy, our optimist, looks for more temporary explanations for the predicament he finds himself in. Perhaps as the relationship develops over time the nightmare client will soften some of their expectations and become more collaborative. Perhaps they may become amenable to suggestions or changes, and become an enjoyable partner to work with. Hell, they may even become Billy’s favourite client! 

Same situation, two different explanations. Pessimists view problems as permanent, whereas optimists view them as more temporary. Conversely, when good stuff happens optimists prefer to believe it will last, whereas pessimists are just waiting for something to come along and ruin it for them.

Try this for yourself: Look for reasons your problems are only temporary. This too shall pass!

Dimension #2 – Pervasiveness 

How far do you allow your problems to spread? Do you allow them to creep into other areas of your life, or can you keep them isolated to just a single one?

Clive begins to think about all of the ways this miserable client is going to affect him. They are so demanding and their expectations are so ridiculous, that he’ll definitely have to work evenings and weekends to try and please them. His other clients will get mad if he neglects them, and his weekend baseball team will be furious if he misses practice. He’s so angry at the whole situation and how awful it’s going to be, that he starts to hate his job.

Billy, our optimistic friend, is also concerned about how this new project will impact him. He determines that realistically he will need to spend a little more time on it than his other projects, but he’s able to shift things about to make it work. Compared to some of the other projects he’s worked on in the past, it’s actually quite small. Sure, it may not be the most enjoyable project, but he’s loving working on the new process systems project for another client with Sue, so he’s still got plenty of fun things to look forward to in the office. 

Sometimes we feed the monster by allowing our negative thoughts to get carried away and blow the situation out of proportion. Similar to the mind trap of catastrophizing, pervasive pessimistic thinking argues that the problem is much larger than it really is. By indulging in this pervasive negative thinking style, we end up feeling consumed by the problem and allowing it to impact completely unrelated areas of our lives. In contrast, optimistic thinking keeps the problem small and specific, isolating it to a single area and preventing it from spilling over into others.

Try this for yourself: Recognise when you are allowing your negative thoughts about a situation to consume you and infiltrate other aspects of your life. Remind yourself that it doesn’t have to impact you so broadly and it’s OK to enjoy other things while you sort it out!

Dimension #3 – Personalization

“I’m being punished” says Clive as he continues to ask himself how he got into this mess. “If only I hadn’t messed up that other project, I wouldn’t have been stuck with this. I should have gone on that training, then I would have been promoted already and someone else would have been assigned to this. I knew my boss had it in for me, she just doesn’t like me”

Billy’s thoughts are different. He knows that his department is being restructured and that everyone is getting new assignments. Claire and Roger also got a new client, and they have even more on their plates than he does. He feels bad for his supervisor too. She is always so supportive of her staff and he knows she won’t have liked having to assign such a difficult client to any of them. It was nothing personal, in fact, it’s a compliment that she felt he could handle the challenge.

When things go wrong, it can be easy to blame ourselves. We beat ourselves up, believing that we are somehow the cause of our misfortune. If only we were smarter, faster, more likeable, more educated – we look for reasons why we have failed and brought about our troubles.

Optimists look outside of themselves for reasons. They don’t take ownership of problems unless they absolutely know that they are at fault, choosing to look for external causes instead. Placing blame on departmental changes, logistical errors, or other people/causes in general protects your self esteem and sense of well being. You don’t have to take responsibility for causing the problem if it was not your fault. You DO however have to take responsibility for how you respond; an optimistic, empowered response is ALWAYS better than a helpless, pessimistic one.

Try this for yourself: How much of your problem was really your fault? Make a list of all of the contributing factors to give you a clearer idea of how much you are personally responsible for, and where other people/things/situations may be at fault.

During their first meeting with their new client, Billy and Clive’s mindsets are polar opposites. Billy is engaged and motivated, believing that being assigned this difficult client is not his fault and that over time they could become a great client to work with. Besides, this project is only a small fraction of all of the other great things he gets to work on in his job anyway so it’s no big deal. 

Clive feels doomed to never-ending misery from the outset. Slumped in his chair, he wonders what he could possibly have done that was so bad that he deserves this awful client.  His job will be unbearable now, and he debates looking for a new one. 

So why do bad things happen to YOU?

How do you explain the cause of the bad things in your life? Are they permanent, pervasive messes that you are personally responsible for, or are they temporary, specific problems that have a lot of contributing factors? You may never know the real reasons behind why bad things are happening to you, so next time you find yourself pleading with the Universe to answer the question ‘WHY ME?‘, decide to define your own answer. You may not have control over what caused your problems, but you do have control over how you choose to respond. Take responsibility for answering the question yourself and consciously choose the optimistic, positive, and empowering response. Ultimately it doesn’t matter why it happened, all that matters is what you are going to do about it.

Do your problems cause you to lose your patience and become frustrated? Continue reading

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