Psych 101: Free Will and Fatalism

How much of our life can we really control?

It’s no surprise that bad things just happen to us sometimes. Drivers rear end us. Natural disasters occur. Family members pass away.  Or, maybe, we are subjected to traumatic life experiences. And, we can’t change that.

Despite this, we also shouldn’t avoid adversity. There’s a reason why modern-day therapies don’t advocate for becoming a hermit and living in a padded room. The most popular therapies–namely Cognitive Behavior Therapy (CBT) and Dialectical Behavioral Therapy (DBT)– instead teach coping skills.

Behind these coping mechanisms is the idea that while we cannot control everything, we can control some things–like how we feel or react to the world around us.

Free Will or Fatalism: Which is right?

Though more commonly associated with philosophy, free will and fatalism are two concepts that lend themselves to skills-based therapies. For the sake of this article, we will define them as such:

Free Will: The belief that our independent actions control the outcome of our lives.

Fatalism: The belief that the outcome of our lives is predetermined and we cannot control it.

While there are great thinkers on both sides of the debate, most people recognize that life is a little bit of both.

When it comes to our mental health, striking a balance between these ideas is especially important.

Why shouldn’t you pick one?

It’s not hard to imagine the stress and pressure that one might feel if they believed that everything that happened to them was entirely their doing. While in some cases, “free will” can be empowering, it can also lead to irrational self-blame and depression.

On the flip-side, if we believe that we have no control, it’s very easy to feel helpless, like a victim of your own circumstances. Accountability is important in helping us to understand the impact of our actions and to correct behaviors with negative consequences.

Owning Your Outcome with DBT

“One of the main ideas underlying DBT is that while you may not be responsible for all of the events that have occurred to create the current problem you are facing (however severe), you are nonetheless responsible for effectively solving the problem.” –

If you’ve ever been to one of Blueprint Mental Health’s DBT presentations, you’ve heard the story of Viktor Frankl…

During Frankl’s lifetime, many of his experiences were determined for him, completely out of his control. As a Jewish man during the Holocaust, Frankl spent three years at the Auschwitz concentration camp, where he suffered the loss of his mother, brother, and wife.

Despite his misfortune, he made the choice to maintain a positive outlook, which helped to shape the rest of his life and career as a psychologist. “[A] man who has nothing left in this world still may know bliss,” he wrote.

It is unwise to reject the idea that negative experiences, to a degree, are predetermined. The world certainly isn’t always “fair.” But we do have some choices.

Consider the impact of your actions, your words, and your patterns of thinking. (Is the effect positive? Does the effect achieve a greater goal?) Then, take ownership of what you’re doing, saying, or thinking. Recognize that which is within your control, and seize the opportunity to decide the outcome.

At the same time, recognize that which is beyond your control. Then, take steps to move on. You cannot wish yourself out of a bad experience, but you can certainly make active choices toward improving the quality of your life.

Blueprint Mental Health

Blueprint Mental Health is a boutique mental health practice with locations in Somerset County, New Jersey. We provide a warm and comfortable environment where adolescents and young adults can receive the support they need for a variety of mental health issues.

At Blueprint Mental Health, we specialize in the use of DBT for teens and provide DBT presentations and training sessions within the community.

Call (908) 256-6965 or e-mail for more information.

Skip to content