I have often heard these terms used interchangeably, however they are slightly different. Both refer to predetermined events that lie outside of our control and imply some sort of higher, or external, power.
It can be argued that destiny is more positive than fate and furthermore the implication is that we can exercise some degree of control over our destiny. Fate feels particularly hopeless to me and I notice my resistance to the term both in life and in my clinical work. Hollywood would have us believe that we are destined for good things, and fated to bad, however this negates free will and assumes pre-determined destiny.
Much of the work of psychotherapy is around coming to terms with reality – past and present. This means accepting what was in terms of our experience of childhood or past traumas and working through the complex emotions around them. It means grieving. Seeing something as fated or destiny can be protective in the short-term but can massively hinder how we approach life.
Accepting reality in the present also means accepting uncomfortable limitations which we may now not be able to change. For example, it may mean coming to terms with the end of a relationship and accepting our role in its demise; or it may mean coming to terms with a biological loss – such as an inability to have a child – and accepting that this is not fate, but painfully, it is random and unfair.
Protection in a higher meaning
There is an illusion of protection in imagining that ‘things happen for a reason’ when this is not how the world operates. This does not negate personal responsibility and cause and effect.
Perhaps this is ultimately where we can draw a clinical distinction between fate and destiny: once we have come to terms with reality and accepted the experiences of the past and the limitations of the present, then where we take responsibility for our life, we are shaping our destiny.
In this sense destiny is self-prescribed based on authentic living and choosing a life of substance. It means identifying and then choosing to engage with that which brings our life meaning. It means making decisions with as a full an understanding as possible of the implications of those decisions and the losses that accompany them. And all decisions are accompanied by loss.
Economists often talk of opportunity costs – the cost paid in making one choice and therefore forfeiting the other possible choices.
Opportunity cost applies just as much in the field of psychology. If we make certain choices in life, we will not be able to choose other life paths. Despite what Instagram and Facebook promise – none of us can have it all!
One can argue that the terms of fate and destiny are simply that – words to describe something. However, when our experience of the world is shaped and understood through words, they become exceptionally powerful. Therefore, whilst not as esoteric and catchy, I prefer the terms ‘loss and responsibility’ as replacements for ‘fate and destiny’. At least we can come to terms with loss and then exercise a conscious sense of responsibility in shaping our lives going forward.
Mark Vahrmeyer is a UKCP registered integrative psychotherapist who draws strongly on existential thoughts and theory to help clients make sense on an increasingly senseless world. He sees clients in Hove and Lewes.
Further reading by Mark Vahrmeyer –