Moving Beyond the Psychology of Defeat

When I think back about how I’ve changed and who I used to be, a word that comes to mind is “defeated”. I lived most of my life as a lazy, overweight, and unmotivated student. There’s a lot of weighted meaning in that characterization, but all of those words are related in my mind to being defeated.

When you’re defeated, every bad event is a disaster. And it’s a sign of something far bigger: your failure, your oppression, or your fate. Pessimism, realism, defeatism, the loser mindset — all just variations on the theme of “well I can’t change it anyway.”

I’ve lost almost a hundred pounds in the last few years. I’m really proud of it, but it also sparks some interesting conversations with people who knew me when. They’ll ask “how’d you do it?” as if I’ll have a secret for them. I’ll give the obvious response of “eating better and exercising” and they’ll respond “I’ve tried that, it doesn’t work for me.” Words of someone defeated.

This person may only feel defeated around their weight, or defeatism may be endemic in their psychology. Both are possible, but I have to admit that I think the latter’s more likely. I say this as someone who’s been there. Who knows that the feeling that one part of your life is out of your control will typically lead you to believe that more or all areas of your life are out of your control.

The sense that things are beyond your control is both understandable and problematic. It’s understandable because most things in life truly are beyond your control; the weather, your family, every other person you interact with, and every other creature on the planet are not controllable by you. Over some you can exert some effort and perhaps have some influence, but you certainly don’t control them.

But it’s also problematic, because the world doesn’t change because people look around at the reality they’re inhabiting and say “Well I can’t control any of it so I may as well not try.” The world changes because people look around and say “I should try to change that” and then make the effort. And sometimes their effort does cause a change and sometimes it doesn’t. But it’s always valuable and always beyond the possibility space that a completely defeated person lives in.

Maybe you feel defeated sometimes, maybe you feel defeated all the time, maybe you know someone who feels defeated. And there’s a risk that this will come across as quite ignorant and glib, but: Stop feeling that way! It’s easier to say than to do, I know for experience, so here are quick ideas for you to feel a bit less defeated:

  1. Some thing you do control. Recognize and acknowledge your control over them. When you think about it, no one was born with the ability to control any part of their experience — there’s a reason wolves love finding babies — so you’ve clearly learned to control more than you used to.
  2. Appreciate when you have control over things you don’t always succeed in managing. Some things are out of control some of the time. That doesn’t mean they’re always out-of-control. Noticing and acknowledging when you feel in control of your emotions, for example, will make you more aware of how to do that well.
  3. Give it a shot! Try to change something you think you can’t. Maybe it’s not eating a cookie in the next hour, even though they smell so good. Maybe it’s not going out drinking this Saturday even though your friends are begging. Start small — do something that feels like a slight stretch but within your power — as your accomplishments start to accumulate you’ll find farther changes easier to get through.

It’s not an easy transition from being a person beaten down by their experience of life to a person that feels completely in control of it. But it’s a valuable, important and possible one. Try to make it yourself, or help someone else along. It’ll make you even more indefatigable if you manage.