Attributions and the blame game

Part of the human condition is that we tell ourselves stories that help us to make sense of our lives. Making sense of things is a subjective process, but in our stories, we objectify. We often make ourselves the Good Guy, and others the Bad Guy(s) in our personal mythologies. I ran into Good Guy versus Bad Guy interpersonal conflicts innumerable times in my career as a psychotherapist. Of course there are bad situations that are entirely attributable to other people or to some external factor, but it’s often easier to blame some person or some external thing than  to examine your own co-responsibility for finding yourself in an undesirable situation. Instead of working on ourselves, we can attribute our problems to external factors.

I’ve written  previously about avoiding the “monofactorial hypothesis” that A caused B. (“He became an alcoholic because he stopped going to church.”) The monofactorial hypotheses is simplistic, whereas human behaviors and relationship dynamics can be very complex and multifactorial. I’ve also written about the way people give away their own power when they blame other people for their emotional state or their behavior. (“I wouldn’t have hit him if he hadn’t dissed me!” or “She ruined my life when she ________.”) In another post I wrote about Dr. Erik Berne’s book The Games People Play, in which he identifies interpersonal “games” such as Wooden Leg. This game involves statements like “But for my ‘wooden leg’ (i.e. family history, shyness, unpopularity, bad luck, etc.) I would/would have _________.” There may be an element of truth in a stated belief such as this, but there are likely other factors at play.

Many people come to therapy because they feel out of control in some area of their lives. Frequently they have pat explanations of how people and circumstances are making their lives difficult or intolerable, without factoring their own contributions to the problem into the equation. But before I go on I want to be very clear that I’m not blaming anxious or depressed people for their symptoms, especially people suffering from clinical anxiety and depression. However, even people with these chronic conditions can worsen their symptoms by the way they think. Some people attribute their anxiety and depression entirely to external factors, but to some degree they’re unconsciously “doing” anxiety and/or depression.

Many people with anxiety disorders and phobias come up with unique behaviors or rituals that subjectively help them to cope with their symptoms. These behaviors can affect relationships in minor or major ways. The only explanation for the symptom-relief is the person’s belief in their efficacy. I worked with one highly anxious woman who’d “discovered” that crunching on shaved ice cubes temporarily relieved her anxiety. That meant that her lifestyle was restricted to situations where she had constant access to ice, every waking hour. Most people in her life found her persistent ice crunching very annoying. In therapy I got her to see how she was, to some degree, “doing anxiety,” by convincing herself that she had to constantly crunch ice, and worked with her to find better ways to cope with her anxiety. Eventually we got past her exclusive focus on symptoms, and examined the root causes of her anxiety.

Some depressed people “do depression,” or exacerbate their clinical depression, by the way they think. The deep sadness we feel when we experience a significant loss is a natural response. But we can block the natural healing/recovery response to a tragic loss by our thinking, i.e. “I’ll never get over this.” or “I deserve this suffering because I ______.” It’s only human to attribute blame or responsibility onto externals, and sometimes there are  external factors – things we can’t control – that are understandably heartbreaking or discouraging or infuriating. But attributing blame and responsibility can be an excuse, or a distraction from choosing to change yourself in positive ways.

We are, by our very nature, subjective in the way we convert our perceptions – our experience – into cognitions. Some people are more objective than others, because they strive to be fair and objective, and to pay attention to the role of their own thought processes in their experiences. Having witnessed and dealt with countless interpersonal conflicts as a psychotherapist, I’m quite aware of the tendency of people to think of things in in Good Guy/Bad Guy terms. I try to practice what I preach when I’m having a relationship conflict. I ask myself, “How much of this is him/her/them, and how much is me?” This has helped me to resolve conflicts, so it’s become a reflex.

Often there’s a third important factor in the equation – the situation or context. Sometimes that situation or context is a major determinant in what’s going on, and has to be taken into account and given due weight as a relevant factor. In such situations the analysis can be two-sided (“How much is me and how much is IT?), or when others are involved, three-sided (“How much is me, how much is him/her/them, and how much is IT?”) Both as a therapist and in personal relationships, I’ve found this way of thinking to be helpful in coming to terms with problems in my life, without creating new ones by the way I think.

If I blame external factors as the only things holding me back, I have to wait for them to change before I take action. If I take my share of the responsibility for being in an undesirable situation, I can start working to change it immediately. In situations that are entirely attributable to externals, all we can do is work on our attitudes and coping skills.




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