To Improve My Relationships, Therapy Helped Me Let Go of the Fundamental Attribution Error
My Experience with Psychology and Mental Illness
While some people may love psychology because they find it interesting, I love it for a much darker reason: I use it to understand and handle my experiences with trauma and mental illness.
I began to struggle with mental health in middle school, in which I skipped meals and felt unimportant in my relationships. I experienced OCD heavily as a sixth-grader. I struggled to feel like people accepted me for who I was, and I experienced emotional bullying in sixth and seventh grade. People teased me for my religious beliefs, what I wore and whom I dated. One girl made me out to be a villain, when all I wanted was to feel included and loved. Many days I cried, feeling hopeless in my ability to change my situation. I feared going to school and facing my bullies.
So of course when I was around 13 years old, I dreamed of becoming a therapist and advice columnist. I dug into psychology and mental health, wanting to help others overcome their trauma and mental illnesses. I didn’t want others to hurt as much as I hurt and feel alone as much as I felt alone.
The idea of being a savior saved me.
I’m not the only person who wanted to become a psychology professional after dealing with mental health challenges — an American Psychological Association survey showed 87 percent of psychology graduate students reported anxiety, and 68 reported depression.
In a Psychology Today article, Dr. Robert Epstein and Tim Bower discussed their conversations with mental health professionals who believed entering the mental health field after struggling with mental illness is common.
While my struggles started in middle school, my experience with mental illness and trauma was far from over: In high school and college, I struggled with relationship issues, sexual assault, depression and anxiety. Family members hurt me. Several men hurt me.
I felt scared. I felt helpless. I felt alone. I feared my life wouldn’t improve.
Going to Therapy
Thankfully, between me and my parents, I had the money to go to therapy my junior year of high school and throughout college, in which I learned a lot of helpful tools and had my much-needed time to vent. I talked about people who’d hurt me and asked how I could overcome that pain and self-blame.
A study shows childhood trauma can cause adults to blame themselves to cope with the effects of what they went through. A lot of trauma work in therapy deals with undoing the myth that the survivor is at fault for what happened to them.
Part of me struggled with feelings of self-blame. Logically, I knew I wasn’t at fault, but emotionally, I could point out steps I’d taken that didn’t necessarily help my situation.
“It’s not your fault,” I heard professionals say to me over and over.
“I just feel like I put myself in that situation,” I kept replying. “Like maybe it wasn’t totally my fault, but my choices didn’t really help.”
Looking back, I can point out the people who gave me these messages, who said it wasn’t my fault, but that I “put myself in that situation” and I “knew better.” When someone you respect and love tells you that enough times, you begin to believe it.
Professionals and I would go back and forth a little; I hungered for their validation that I wasn’t to blame, but I couldn’t stop the voice in my head saying I was. I wanted to lay all of my feelings out on the table and see if the therapists I worked with could combat each one. It was an enormous task, but I was desperate.
Blaming Others, and When That Doesn’t Help
Over time, the words of various therapists I saw helped some. And thankfully, my self-blame in some situations wasn’t as prominent as in others. With some of the trauma I went through, I can fairly easily point out why I’m not to blame and how powerless I was. I thank the people who gave me this message growing up, helping me develop healthy, helpful thinking patterns before I got into my head too much.
With some people who’d hurt me, I easily blamed them. I vented over how much they’d hurt me and how unfair my situation was. I expressed my deep pain over what had happened to me, not because of me. I was quick to share how unhappy they made me and how much I didn’t like them. I was quick to blame them for everything they’d done.
My main therapist validated me as we worked through what happened and how I could handle upcoming conflicts. But she also tried a fresh approach a couple times, which I later discovered entailed letting go of the fundamental attribution error we all struggle with sometimes.
The Fundamental Attribution Error
The fundamental attribution error, also known as correspondence bias or the over-attribution effect, is a term in social psychology that explains people’s tendency to under-emphasize the effects of someone’s situation and overemphasize their personality traits in explaining their behaviors.
For example, if someone acts rudely towards us, we’re more likely to believe they were rude because they’re rude people, not because they had a tough morning and are dealing with financial problems. In other words, we don’t have enough information and don’t give people the benefit of the doubt. In turn, we may have inaccurate perceptions of people.
A Biblical-Based Study on the Fundamental Attribution Error
We see the fundamental attribution error exemplified in a study completed by social psychologists Darley and Batson. In this study, they spoke with theology students to test out the Biblical parable of the Good Samaritan. In this parable, a person beat up a Jewish man and left him to die on the side of the road. Both a priest and temple assistant passed him without helping him, but then a Samaritan came along and helped him even though Samaritans are stereotypically thought to dislike Jewish people.
The study’s participants filled out a Good Samaritan quiz without realizing that’s what they were doing. In this quiz, Darley and Batson created three levels of hurrying to see how much the need to rush would influence whether people stopped to help.
Although these students have likely heard the Good Samaritan story before and look down on the behavior of the men that passed without helping, only 63 percent of people in a low hurry helped, 45 percent in a medium hurry helped and 10 percent in a high hurry helped.
And although the people in both the parable and the study were likely good people, their situation overpowered their positive characteristics in their decision-making. It’s easy to get caught up in our own lives — that doesn’t mean we’re bad people.
How My Therapist Helped Me Improve My Relationships
So when I expressed how people had hurt me, I thought of them as bad, selfish people with malicious intent. But my therapist reminded me they likely had issues going on in their life that caused them to act that way. Perhaps they were working on undoing their own trauma or challenges and were doing their best.
This reminder really changed how I saw those people. Instead of thinking of them with disgust, I felt compassion and empathy. I hurt for what they’d gone through, which potentially was similar to what they were putting me through. I realized when you experience unhealthy relationships, figuring out what’s healthy and what’s not can be more difficult than you’d think.
When I spent time around them, I felt more patient. I didn’t feel angry as quickly, and I felt more love between the two of us than I had before. My self-esteem heightened because I realized their harmful words weren’t accurate, just a desperate reach for power and control.
How Empathy Can Help, and When It’s More Useful
Professionals explain that empathy improves our relationships. It reduces our stress levels mentally and chemically, helps us resolve issues and gives us a perspective that helps us regulate our emotions and relationships. We can communicate better, help others feel more understood and contribute to a warmer environment.
However, it’s important to note that when we remind ourselves and others of our tendency to fall into the fundamental attribution error, we have to do so with grace, the right timing and validation. When sharing this message, it’s easy to sound like you’re excusing behavior that isn’t okay.
The point of the message is not to excuse that behavior, but to explain it. It’s adding a layer of understanding that can make coping less difficult. It can help us realize that treating others with kindness and empathy can cause them to treat us in similar ways.
I want to emphasize here that I believe this message and behavior is more helpful in situations that are unhealthy or toxic rather than ones that are abusive. I also want to emphasize this message won’t be helpful for every person or every situation, and that’s okay.
We have to respect the survivor’s feelings and realize abuse is an insidious, malicious, purposeful act that’s on a whole other level. Sometimes people are cruel for whatever old reason, and we need to stay away from them for our own safety.
Steps to Letting Go of the Fundamental Attribution Error
In situations in which you believe letting go of the fundamental attribution error would be helpful, try these seven steps my therapist suggested that worked for me:
1. Think about the specific harm they’re causing you and your resulting perception of them, without judgement.
Is this person making fun of what you’re wearing? Teasing you for crying? Is the harm emotional, physical or something else?
Then, think about the perception you have of them because of their behavior. Do you see them as selfish, insensitive or mean? Do you see them as a terrible parent or friend?
Try not to judge yourself for thoughts that arise — that won’t help. Instead, accept your thoughts and be understanding.
2. Think about what you know about them, ranging from their personality to their personal history.
Are they generally kind and sensitive? Do they have a good home situation? Are they dealing with childhood trauma, such as bullying, abuse or divorce? Do they struggle with a mental illness? Have they always treated you this way? Do they inflict harm after they’ve potentially experienced harm? Do you not know much about them, and maybe that’s why you don’t understand their unhelpful behavior?
3. Think about how your experience and their experience could connect.
Do their friends make fun of what they wear like they make fun of what you wear? Do they make you cry and then laugh at you after time spent at home?
Ask yourself questions such as these to figure out where the connection is, in which their problems are causing them to act out against you similarly.
These people likely feel hurt and powerless, so they’re trying to take away your power and control to make themselves feel stronger. Feelings of power can totally change how people view themselves and their lives.
4. Think about how you may fall into the fundamental attribution error, without judgement.
When this person is hurting you, are you quick to blame their personal characteristics rather than thinking about their situation? Do you give them the benefit of the doubt when they deserve it? Is there a more helpful way to view them, yourself, the situation or your relationship?
Again, try to not judge yourself. The fundamental attribution error is common and has roots in brain chemistry. The fact you’re even considering this is a meaningful step!
5. Think about how those realizations make you feel and how they change your previous perceptions.
Are you feeling more empathetic, understanding or less angry? Do you feel more confident in yourself and who you are? Would patience with this person benefit the two of you individually and collectively? Do you see them in a new light that’s more helpful?
If you’re not feeling a way you’re happy with, how can you change that? What information or perspective do you need?
6. Think about how you can let go of your fundamental attribution error and validate yourself at the same time.
How can you realize their situation could play a role in their mistreatment, and also remind yourself their behavior isn’t okay and you don’t deserve it? Should you remind yourself of this dialectic, in which both statements are true? Should you open up about how you feel? Should you remind yourself explanations aren’t excuses?
7. Think about ways to better handle your relationship with that person and yourself.
Do you need to lessen your time with them or be more patient? Do you need to have an empathetic conversation about how they’re making you feel? Do you need to set boundaries and invest more in other relationships? What are your choices, what are the pros and cons, and which option feels best in your gut?
Cultural Considerations and Making Change
In our world and culture, we can be quick to judge others and feel self-righteous, even if we don’t recognize ourselves in that at first. We may justify our behaviors more than other people’s and fall so deep into our own hurt that we can’t recognize other people’s. We’re quick to “ take sides” on an issue and we’re highly politicized, in which our political beliefs here in the U.S. are more polarized than they’ve been in a while.
This is understandable: We’re dealing with a lot of deep emotions and challenges, and we have a lot of solid reasoning to back up our opinions. We usually mean well.
We don’t like this divisiveness either; we want change. A poll found over 90 percent of people want Americans to be less divisive.
Our efforts to be less divisive start with us changing the way we think, see others and handle our relationships. We must work towards empathy, understanding and common ground.
If we want to achieve that, letting go of the fundamental attribution error is a helpful start.