Updated: May 22, 2020
(Originally published on www.airdriepride.ca - 2019)
One of the most common comments that my family received in the days and weeks following my gender change announcement was, “I had no idea what your family was going through.”
This realization did not only come from casual acquaintances and friends but also from our immediate families. The closest people in our life had, like so many others, unconsciously assumed that we were doing okay and that any time we were distant or reserved it was because we were mad, upset, or even feeling superior because everything seemed to be obviously going so well for us. In reality, I had been deeply depressed and suffering from long bouts of anxiety that were putting a great deal of pressure on our family. This unspoken truth often left little energy to be fully engaged with those outside our home, and it wasn’t until it was necessary for us to come out and share our decade of struggle that those close to us more accurately understood what was often driving our behaviour.
After coming out, I engaged in many genuine conversations with friends and co-workers. In the act of being vulnerable and open about my struggles, a door was opened for others to bravely come out with their own personal challenges. It was then that I realized how many people in my life we’re dealing with their own incredibly challenging adversities. I began to step back and think about how often I had made my own assumptions attributing people’s behaviour to internal factors instead of taking a minute to consider what other life challenges people may be dealing with.
The reality is that most of us don’t have a clear understanding of what people around us may be dealing with privately in their own lives. One of the biggest realizations I gained through my transition experience was the incredible lack of meaningful conversation in the bulk of our daily social interactions. With this fresh insight, I became interested in learning and understanding what controls this instinctual reaction in so many of us to often only see the person and not their situation. It wasn’t until later, during a Social Psychology class, that I learned about the “Fundamental Attribution Error” and more importantly, how to avoid it.
WHAT IS FUNDAMENTAL ATTRIBUTION ERROR?
Fundamental Attribution Error is an instinctual human behaviour wherein we tend to focus on internal factors when judging the actions of others and dissimilarly concentrate on external factors when judging our own behaviour. So, for example, if we are driving on the Deerfoot and are suddenly cut off by the driver in front of us, most of us will immediately assume that person is a lousy driver or maybe even just a jerk. Most of us, at the moment, will not consider that this person may be in a rush after having just found out some terrible news, or perhaps is distracted by a difficult personal issue. In contrast, if we ourselves cut someone off, we will very rarely consider ourselves terrible drivers but rather justify our actions on external factors such as being late for work or needing to get to our children’s school concert in time.
WHY DO WE DO THIS?
As my experience has taught me, in most cases we do not have a genuine appreciation of someone else’s external context to help us justify their ‘out of the ordinary’ behaviour. It is more natural for us to attribute the adverse action to a perceived personality trait or internal characteristic of the individual. Furthermore, many of us were unconsciously trained that there is a direct correlation between an individual's behaviour and how we label them. I know I was taught growing up what behaviours a ‘bully’ presents (they are rude, they don’t listen, they are violent, etc.) as a way to discourage me from becoming a bully. Obviously, it is great to avoid antisocial behaviours, but this method also resulted in me only ever seeing internal factors in these individuals. As I grew up and found myself in challenging interactions, I rarely considered what else may be going on in the “bully’s” life, let alone inquire if they were okay or needed to talk.
HOW DO WE AVOID THIS?
One of the best ways to avoid doing this is to learn about the concept of Fundamental Attribution Error and discover that it is a common mistake we all make. A lot of research has been done showing that once people understand this dynamic, they generally become more thoughtful and less quick to judge others.
If we can accept that we will never genuinely understand what may be going on with those around us, perhaps instead of making assumptions we can instead use our imagination. Rather than concluding that the person cutting you off is a jerk, imagine what in their life could have resulted in that behaviour. Use your own experience to imagine what circumstance would drive you to the same behaviour. In doing this, you may come to look at situations with much more compassion and kindness, and your daily stress levels will improve, too!
Take a breath and consciously choose to imagine good in those around you. Sometimes the only thing between saying something positive and something negative is a breath. So take that breath before you fill in any blanks or react. Assume that an individual’s behaviour is not a commentary on them, but instead on their current external experience. For example, instead of arguing with someone irritable and angry at school or the office, ask them if they are okay. Instead of swearing under your breath at the driver in front of you, give them a polite wave and choose to believe that you are having a better day than them.
To learn to do this takes work. We must practice being vigilant in catching our assumptions and generalizations about the other humans that share the space around us. I believe that if we can all work on strengthening these skills, the environments we share will become kinder, more inviting, and open. I think that this approach in all of us has the potential to create more meaningful conversations within our relationships, for people to seek help more often, and for all of us to feel less alone. Most of all, for a less stressful, more supported and happier life, it will always, without question, be easier to be kind