Attribution Theory and Keeping Demons at Bay

At the moment, powerlifting is my yoga practice. The intensity of effort to move heavy weight throws my behavioral, emotional, and mental patterns into high relief in a way I craved from asana practice, and I noticed a pattern. You know how it goes, once you see a pattern you can’t stop seeing the pattern.

I want to talk about some related concepts. Attribution Theory, shame vs guilt, and maladaptive behavior.

Attribution Theory describes a relationship between human storytelling and self-image. We tend to attribute outcomes in our lives which align with our self-image to stable, internal characteristics, e.g. who we are, and outcomes which do not align with our self-image to unstable, external characteristics, e.g. circumstance or chance. Strangely enough, we reverse those attributions for people we do not know or do not like. We have a story we like to tell about ourselves and we go to great lengths to prove our story to be correct. If you want to take a snapshot of your self image, respond to the prompt

I am…

twenty times. “I am”. It is a fundamental assertion of self. The image of the Self is a lens through which we view and interpret the rest of the world via the stories we tell to explain what we see. It has limited connection to reality.

How is this related to shame vs guilt? If we check Brene Brown’s quick-start guide to shame, shame is a pervasive sense of “I am bad.” There is something about me, if you knew, which would disqualify me from receiving love and belonging. Guilt, however, is a sense of “I did something bad.” Shame is related to the perceived value of stable, internal characteristics, who you are, and guilt is related to the perceived value of unstable, internal characteristics, what you do. According to Dr. Brown, shame is correlated with eating disorders, addiction, depression, anxiety, and suicidal ideation. Guilt is inversely correlated with those things. Shame and guilt operate on our drive to tell stories to maintain a set of beliefs about the Self. When we tell stories which attribute our despair to the core of our being, we create a sense of deserved personal exile. The fallout from the disconnection from our fellows creates tragedy. It started with a story.

I deserve disconnection because of how I am or I deserve correction because of what I did, is a story we tell ourselves.

The pattern I am seeing is the need for control and creation of order, but it could be disruption and sparking of chaos. What makes this need for control maladaptive instead of adaptive? We admire people who “punt the system” (Vaynerchuck, 2018) and take control of their destiny, health professionals urge patients to “take control of their health”, bystanders can be desperate for a parent to “get control” of a child. With clients, it is often my job to help them move from an external locus of control to an internal locus of control – a belief in their ability to steer their own ship and not be at the mercy of the seas of life. What’s the problem? The story.

From my perspective, chaos and order are value-neutral. The interesting questions are

  • What is the story you tell yourself about what you do?
  • How does what you do preserve the story you tell yourself about who you are?
  • What feeling does creating either order or chaos reinforce/alleviate?

What demons does your story keep at bay?

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