Explanatory Styles and Emotions

03 May, 2021
Do you feel responsible for everything bad that happens to you? Or do you think that you're usually lucky? These kinds of interpretations affect your moods. Learn more in this article.

Have you ever thought that you don’t see the world how it really is but how you are instead? There’s a good basis for this kind of thinking. Because the filters that we apply to events vary from person to person. Furthermore, these explanations or causes that you give to events determine your emotions. This is why explanatory styles are so important.

These ways of thinking start from the moment you arrive in the world. As you live, experiment, and relate to your environment, you start to understand how it works. In fact, you generate cause-and-effect relationships. Over time, everyone develops their own explanatory style, which becomes more or less stable. They then base all their interpretations on this particular style.

A woman thinking.

What are the different explanatory styles?

Your explanatory style is the answer you give to the question, “Why did this happen?” There are three dimensions to be considered:

  • Time. Is it a one-off event that won’t necessarily happen again in the future? (unstable). Or, is it something that will continue from now on? (stable). For example, if you fail an exam, do you think it’s just a one-off and you’ll do better next time? Or do you assume you’ll never manage to pass?
  • Situation. Is what happened limited to the one context? (specific). Or can it be generalized to other situations? (global). Thinking in terms of the above example, do you think “I’m doing badly at the moment in this subject” or “I’ll never be able to manage this subject at all”.
  • Origin. This refers to where you place the cause of the event. Do you think it’s down to you or to external factors? Again, using the exam example, if you think your failure is down to you, you might say you’re no good at learning or memorizing (internal locus of control). Alternatively, if you consider that the cause is external, you’ll think it was just bad luck that you failed this time or that it was a particularly difficult exam (external locus of control).

How do they influence your emotions?

Interpretations that can be made of the same event vary to such a degree that any associated emotion might be equally different. There’s no one single appropriate explanatory style, as each one’s benefits depend on each individual situation. To give an example, how do you explain the successes, achievements, and positive events in your life?

If you attribute them to an internal, global, and stable causality, you’ll tend to think that you’re lucky in many areas of your life. Furthermore, that you’ll continue to be so, and that you play an important role in achieving your goals. Therefore, you’ll be calm, happy, optimistic, and have healthy self-esteem.

On the other hand, if you interpret positive events in your life as specific, unstable, and due to external causes, you’ll think they happened just by chance and won’t happen again. In addition, you feel you have no part to play in what happens to you.

A similar thing happens when you interpret negative events and failure. Internal, global, and stable attributional styles lead you to think that you’re to blame for what happened. Furthermore, that you fail in everything you try to do and that you’ll continue to fail.

However, an unstable and specific attributional style opens up the possibility for you to learn from what’s happened and make changes. You’ll also believe that things might be different next time.

A woman looking pensive, demonstrating an explanatory style.

Can you change your explanatory styles?

These interpretations don’t just determine your emotions. They also relate to different spectrum disorders like anxiety and depression. If you suffer from anxiety, you’ll feel you’re responsible for all the positive and negative things that happen to you. Therefore, you’ll develop a need for control.

However, if you suffer from depression, you’ll tend to think that, when negative things happen, it’s not within your power to change them, and nothing you do will make any difference. This results in passivity, submission, and hopelessness.

If you want to avoid these disorders, you should take a look at your explanatory style and change it if it isn’t working. This isn’t easy. However, it’s something you can learn with determination and perseverance.

For this reason, if you feel that the way you interpret the world is limiting you or damaging you emotionally, try to apply a more realistic explanatory style.

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