As many of you will know, I’m currently living in France. This has been a great time of adjusting to a new culture and getting used to the differences between how things are done here and in the uk – and not just the language! Its surprising how many differences there are – and there’s one in particular that’s got me thinking recently – because I think the french capture something really important.
Imagine the situation: you’ve spent some time with someone who has been telling you about something they’ve got coming up – an exam, something big at work, or just something they are a bit nervous about. What do you say as you leave? In the UK we’d often say ‘good luck’, but in France they have a great phrase – they say ‘bon courage’.
Bon courage means, really, what it says on the tin. It means, be of good courage, be courageous, be brave as you face whatever it is you are worried about. And I absolutely love it as a saying! Heres why…
One of the things that as psychologists we are interested in in human behaviour is what people believe about why things happen. We call these beliefs attributions. So, an attribution is what you attribute an outcome to – why you think something went well or why you think something went badly. You have, in essence, two main options in how you attribute things – to attribute them internally (to something about you) – or externally (to something outside of you). An external attribution could be to someone else (eg the examiner took pity on me), to something else (thank goodness the weather was good, so the day went really well) or to the all encompassing ‘luck’ (that was a really lucky break, thank goodness he didn’t ask me anything I didn’t know!).
Research into our attributions has found some interesting patterns/trends in why we believe things happen. Psychologists call these biases because they are so common. One common bias is called the fundamental attribution error – the tendency we have to attribute other people’s behaviour to internal things and our own to external. For example, she didn’t say hello to me because she is annoyed with me, but I didn’t say hello to her because I was really busy and I didn’t see her in time. You can see therefore how our own attribution biases might influence our emotions and actually have quite a big impact on us.
Here are two things about attributions which I think are really interesting in terms of our emotional health. The first is what is called ‘locus of control’. This describes how much control we generally believe we have over things that happen to us or around us. So, an internal locus of control would indicate you generally feel is it you who controls things which affect you. You feel confident about making changes, and you feel pretty much in charge whatever life throws at you. An external locus of control would indicate that you believe that a lot of things happen because things outside of your control – because of other people, other situations or just plain old luck – be it good or bad. This is a much more difficult way to live life because you don’t feel so capable of changing things should you need to. Having an external locus of control is associated with heightened anxiety, greater risk of stress and with an increased rate of emotional health problems.
By the way, there is of course one very important exception to the rule that an external locus of control can have a negative influence on your emotional health. People with strong faith who place their trust entirely in God, and acknowledge that at the end of the day it is God who is in control demonstrate external locus of control but experience higher levels of peace and lower levels of anxiety or distress. When life gets stressful and we hit stormy times and have to face the fact that there isn’t a lot we can do about it, it’s good to know you can trust that God is in control. In fact attributions like this are one of the reasons why faith can have a very positive impact on our emotional health. They are perhaps the reason why people who have strong faith tend to live longer and suffer fewer consequences of high stress times.
There’s another really attribution bias, linked with your ‘locus of control’ which can influence your emotions. This is how you react to particular kinds of events – good things and bad things. Some people seem to have a bias, an automatic slant, an instinctive belief that good things happen because of internal things – things to do with them. Congratulate them on an good exam result and they might say ‘thanks, I really worked hard for that one’; tell them how well they played in a football match and they might follow with ‘yeah, thanks, I’m really good at team sports.’ The same people tend to automatically look outside of themselves for bad outcomes: I crashed the car because the weather was really bad (nothing to do with my being on the phone at the same time), or that person got really upset when I was talking to them because they are a bit over emotional at the moment (nothing to do with what I was saying to them). People with this bias – which is known as the ‘self serving bias’, tend to come out of things very well emotionally. Of course they might risk being insensitive, or missing the point, but for them it works out pretty well – that’s why it is called a self serving bias.
These people, however, are the minority. I bet you know some people like this (and they probably drive you a bit crazy!) – people who always attribute successes to themselves (somehow even when outwardly giving credit to someone else!) and are generally always confident, perhaps even a bit cocky! But much more likely that you know a lot of people with the other sort of bias – the ‘self effacing bias’. These people attribute good stuff to external things, and bad stuff to themselves. They take all of the blame and none of the credit! So, passing an exam is because they were really lucky and the questions were easy; winning a race is because the other runners were taking it easy; managing to find their way to a hard to find location was because someone gave them great directions. But if something goes wrong they are quick to take the blame!
The self effacing bias is one which is very common in Christian circles. It comes from great intentions and often in a misunderstanding of what it means to be humble. In a way its an extension of that external locus of control that recognises God is the one really in charge. But it risks totally ignoring the part we ourselves played! Or it can leave us with a false sense that to take any credit ourselves is somehow wrong. It can quickly become a habit – we’re so keen to avoid being arrogant or proud that we go too far the other way! The trouble with this is that this bias too is associated with some pretty dodgy outcomes for us like low self esteem, heightened anxiety, stress problems and mental/emotional illness. It risks robbing us bit by bit of our confidence – as we fail to recognise when we have done well, we lose confidence for the next time we have something to overcome. The more this happens the more of an impact it can have – and for some of us this ‘humility habit’ might be stopping us from having the confidence we need to truly meet our potential.
So what does all of this have to do with ‘bon courage’? This phrase to me encompasses one of those great examples of how the French emotional culture has got it just right. It immediately demonstrates a belief, and more than that – a cultural reminder – that the solution to the situation or event you face is in you. It encourages a positive internal attribution and belief – that you can make the difference you need to, and that what is needed in order for whatever it is to go well is in you – courage! It reminds us of the part we have to play and the difference we can make – not just to our situation but perhaps to that of people around us.
I’m not saying we should take all the credit for the good stuff that goes on. After all, its quite right that our greatest triumphs often have more to do with God than with us. But they do have something to do with us. Those times when things go really well and God is able to move in great power are usually about partnerships of God with humans. This amazing truth – that God works to his greatest strength through partnership with our human weakness (check out 2 Corinthians 12:9) – is one which we need to hammer into our minds. Yes, we are small, and sometimes we feel like we had nothing to do with why something went well. But at the end of the day our willingness to be there – to keep going and to refuse to quit was significant. We have a part to play.
So the next time you face difficulties, or a challenge with an uncertain outcome, remember to do both – and take with you two great bits of advice from Philippians 4.
First, remind yourself that God is in charge. Philippians 4:6 (The Msg) – Don’t fret or worry. Instead of worrying, pray. Let petitions and praises shape your worries into prayers, letting God know your concerns. Before you know it, a sense of God’s wholeness, everything coming together for good, will come and settle you down. It’s wonderful what happens when Christ displaces worry at the centre of your life.
But as well as that, remember that the solution could also be found in you – in the unique talents, abilities, gifts and experiences God has placed within you. Remember that when you work in partnership with God wonderful things can happen. Philippians 4:13 (the Msg) I can do everything through Christ, who gives me strength.