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.

 

 

 

Communication and metacommunication

This post will explore some of the basics of Dr. Eric Berne’s Transactional Analysis (TA), one of the popular theories in the humanistic psychology movement, and will also briefly cover “metacommunication” as a principle in communication theory. Eric Berne is perhaps best known for his book The Games People Play, which popularized some of his concepts regarding TA – a psychoanalytic theory. Another popular book about TA was I’m OK, You’re OK, by Thomas Harris.

Communication theory posits that every statement made within a relationship works on two levels: the content of the statement, and as a statement about the nature of the relationship. So I’ll start with some thoughts on what a relationship is and the different kinds of transactions that occur in relationships. A relationship can be a casual ongoing series of social transactions, such as your relationship with your postal carrier or a store clerk whom you see from time to time, or it can be something deeper. Dr. Berne listed the kinds of transactions that occur in relationships, from the superficial to the intimate.

The most basic transactions are what Berne called rituals, polite exchanges that superficially acknowledge a relationship, but contain no real, meaningful content. “How are you doing?” “Oh, I’m  fine. Hot enough for you?” The next level of transactions is pastimes, where two or more acquaintances pass the time together, watching TV or playing a game, with no sharing of meaningful content. After that is activities, where people get together to engage in purposeful pursuits, with a goal in mind, without getting past superficial interpersonal exchanges. In the next level of transactions, games, there’s an effort to connect and share meaningful communications, but the people involved engage in inauthentic manipulations. It was this level of transactions that Berne primarily focused on in The Games People Play.  A popular song borrowed its title: “Oh the games people play now/ Every night and every day now/Never meanin’ what they say now/Never sayin’ what they mean.”

TA is a psychoanalytic theory because it re-casts Freud’s superego, ego and id as parent, adult and child, and analyzes games in relationships within that framework. I’ll write about games and crossed transactions in a later post. For now I’ll just say that the highest level of transactions in TA is intimacy: non-manipulative, authentic relating.

Having said that relationships can range from superficial to intimate, now I’ll elaborate on communication and metacommunication. On one level, any statement within a relationship is characterized by its content, whether it’s a “How ya doin?” communication that simply affirms that a relationship exists, or whether it contains more meaningful content. But on another level, metacommunication, the statement is a comment on the nature of the relationship. It’s as if every statement within a relationship were preceded by, “We have the kind of relationship in which I can say to you ______.” If you have no problem with the statement, then you and the person who said it agree on the nature of your relationship. If you find the statement creepy or inappropriate or offensive, there’s a disagreement about the nature of your relationship.

Take the example of a newly-single mother,  the night after Dad – who used to be the sole parental disciplinarian – moved out.  With Dad gone, Mom has had to take on that role. The first time Mom (in Dad’s absence) tells Junior it’s time for bed, she’s saying. “We have the kind of relationship where I can order you to go to bed.” If Junior complies, putting on his pajamas and brushing his teeth, he’s affirmed Mom’s new role. If he replies, “I’m not ready to go to bed yet,” he’s attempting to reject Mom’s new definition of their relationship, implying, “I don’t have to do the things you tell me to do if I don’t want to.” If Mom lets Junior stay up, she’s let him define the relationship. If she says, “Nine o’clock is your bedtime. If you’re not in your pajamas with your teeth brushed in ten minutes, no TV or video games tomorrow,” she’s asserting that she is the parent and gets to define the relationship.

Another example involves a woman who has just taken a job in an office managed by a lecherous boss. If, on her first day of work, he tells her “You look hot in that dress” and she doesn’t object, she’s  communicating that she accepts his understanding that “We have the kind of relationship where I can comment on your body and make suggestive remarks.” If she doesn’t want this kind of treatment to persist, she needs to reject his assertion as to the nature of this new relationship. “Mr. Smith, I know you meant that as a compliment, but I really don’t feel comfortable with you talking to me like that.” In saying that, she’s asserting that the relationship is professional, not personal, in nature.

I’ve found this principle of metacommunication to be very helpful in making sense of the complexities of human interactions. (Or, as Eric Berne would have it, “analyzing transactions.”)  You already know intuitively, from your own experience, the essence of what I’ve written about in this post; I’ve just given you the principle behind what you  know,  and given it a name. The term has another meaning that I’ll get into in a later post: within a relationship, metacommunicating means communicating about how we communicate, talking about how we talk together.