Several weeks ago I took my four-year-old son camping in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness for the first time. At home, when he sleeps, 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 headbutts 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 still unlikely 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 inky blackness and started thinking (therapists think a lot; or at least I do).
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 my boss’s incompetence in evaluating my performance.
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, not to being in the middle of nowhere in the middle of the night. Luckily, his fears were easily assuaged when I provided him the correct attribution. Psychologists call these incorrect attributions faulty attributions.
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 increased awareness.
If you have struggled with depression, you may or may not be aware of the subtle, yet persistent ways you explain perceived failures as being entirely your fault, without taking into account potential external causes. And similarly, you might have an inkling that you tend to dismiss successes as exceptions to the rule, or you might not yet be aware of this characteristic way of making sense of the world. Focusing your awareness on the explanations that you make for the things that happen around you, to you, and by your own agency allows you to shed light on some of the ways your characteristic ways of thinking – your attributional style – might be working against you.
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. If you tend to believe that you made it past a first date because your prospective partner is generous to a fault and perhaps half-blind, you need to work on teasing out the attractive qualities you displayed during that first encounter that brought the other person back for more. If you bemoan the fact that you were rejected for yet another job interview because you believe that your resume is less developed than Paris Hilton’s, it would behoove you to take another look at the state of the economy.
Devising alternate attributions can feel awkward at first, like wearing your shoes on the wrong feet. Overcoming this discomfort comes through learning to suspend 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 (or the world, or the future) for so long. Believing it once makes it easier to believe it again. And then again, and again.
My son has learned that he doesn’t lose his vision in the wilderness after the sun goes down; 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.