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Attribution: An Anecdote

Several weeks ago I took my four-year-old son camping in the Boundary Water Canoe Area Wilderness for the first time. When he is sleeping, his body takes on the appearance of a wayward compass needle that rotates this way and that until his feet land on his pillow or he head butts the wall. The first night in the tent was no different; in the wee hours of the morning he woke up, crumpled in a ball at the foot of the tent.

Being four, he is also not likely to wake up in the middle of the night without sharing his insomnia with someone. That night, upon waking up in the pitch black, he declared with a note of rising panic, “My eyes aren’t working!” Clearly, he hasn’t spent much time in the wilderness at night.

I flipped on a flashlight and reassured him that his eyes were in fact likely working and that it was just really, really dark. He scrunched his sleeping bag back to the middle of the tent and dropped off, satisfied that all of his senses were intact.

After I shut off the flashlight, I stared out into the surrounding inkwell of blackness and started thinking (therapists think a lot).

We are constantly making attributions about the events in our lives. Let’s say I find myself running the 100m dash in the Olympics. If (or more accurately, when) I come in last, I can attribute my performance to being a dreadful runner or to the fact that I’m competing with world class athletes. Or, say I get a promotion at work. I can pin my success on my dedication to the job or to a chance event that’s not likely to happen again.

We are also often making incorrect attributions about the events in our lives. When we were camping, my son mistakenly attributed not being able to see to his eyes not working, instead of to being in the middle of nowhere in the middle of the night. Luckily, his fears were easily assuaged by being provided the correct attribution.

Many of the clients I work with struggle with faulty attributions that color their views of themselves, their environments, and the future. Martin Seligman, a prominent psychologist in the positive psychology movement, has extensively researched what he calls attributional style. Individuals who are depressed exhibit a negative attributional style. They tend to consistently attribute negative events to sources that are internal, stable, and global. In other words, if something bad happens, a depressed person will typically think it’s their fault, it’s never going to change, and not only is this one event bad, but probably other similar events are going to be bad too.

On the flip side, individuals who exhibit a more positive explanatory style attribute their failures to causes that are external, unstable, and specific. Sure, something bad may have happened, but it was likely a one-time event that was strongly influenced by circumstances beyond the individual’s control.

It can be challenging (at least more so than switching on a flashlight) to help depressed individuals flip around their attributional or explanatory styles. But it is certainly not impossible. Like all changes, the first step toward this shift is to increase awareness of the attributions we are constantly making about the things that happen around and to us.

Awareness is just the first step, though. To really change your attributions, you need to engage in the daily practice of choosing alternate attributions for events.

It can be awkward at first, like wearing your shoes on the wrong feet. You need to learn to practice suspending your disbelief. If you don’t fully believe whatever it is you’re trying to tell yourself, for example, that your friend didn’t call you back because she was too busy, and not because she thinks you’re a horrible person, you can practice believing one out of five times that it might be true. Or one out of ten times. Or whatever it takes to nudge you onto the path of unclouding the foggy lenses through which you’ve been viewing yourself for so long.

My son has learned that in the wilderness, it’s just really dark at night. My hope for the depressed individuals with whom I work is that they can learn that there can be so much more light than they have been accustomed to seeing.

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