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"Never Attribute To Malice What Can Be Attributed To Incompetence"

Updated: Sep 20, 2023

“Never attribute to malice what can be attributed to incompetence.”

Don’t overthink it. Don’t take things personally. Two of the most common problems that I see develop in the lives of people with ADHD and anxiety (myself included) are overthinking and taking things too personally. We are wired to do these things. Taking offense is very easy for us, because offenses are very interesting. Remember that thoughts don’t have to be helpful or good or beneficial or even true for them to be interesting, and therefore stimulating to the ADHD brain. As you can imagine, anxious thoughts about what someone else meant by a statement or anxious assumptions about how they must feel about us are super interesting to the ADHD brain. This is how anxiety and ADHD can create a cyclical trap for us. This leads to us becoming stuck in rumination and brooding. We may even find ourselves taking comments or insignificant actions from others far too personally, jumping to conclusions about what someone meant or intended. Anxious thoughts are interesting, stimulating the creative powers of ADHD, and leading us to imagine many irrational possibilities.


An answer to this problem was crafted in the 1700’s, but the first was likely long before that. In 1774, Johann Wolfgang Von Goethe wrote “Misunderstandings and lethargy perhaps produce more wrong in the world than deceit and malice do. At any rate, the latter two are certainly rarer.” A modern version of this same sentiment re-emerged in what is known as Hanlon’s Razor in Murphy’s Law Book Two (1980): “Never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity.” Today, it is most often repeated in a more gentle form: “Never attribute to malice what can be attributed to incompetence.”


Here’s the thing - everybody’s got a lot going on. Everybody out there has hurts and pains and struggles and agendas and to-do lists and desires and distractions and worries and wants and needs. And everybody is looking for their own answers. It’s not my job or your job to satisfy all the needs of the world, or even the needs of any one person. But it IS my job as a person to not internalize the little things that I am prone to misinterpreting. It is my job to not assume someone hates me because they didn’t make eye contact or used sarcasm or didn’t pause long enough to hear me out. It is my job to not assume that I’m being attacked when I am cut off in traffic. It is my job to not assume that I am being disrespected if the service is slow at a restaurant. It is my job to not assume that someone is full of themselves when they talk over me or don’t include me in an activity. It is my job to not assume malice when incompetence will do.


What do I mean by incompetence? The word incompetence holds a lot of sarcastic beauty here. Perhaps it could be replaced with the word “incapability” to communicate the meaning better. I do not feel like a competent or capable person in large groups. I do not always know how to interact smoothly with others in groups settings. I want longer, more focused conversations instead of brief handshakes and “just touching base” attitudes. I’ll take too much of someone’s time if I’m not careful. I’ll impulsively cut a speaker off to make a joke. I’ll think everyone is looking at me when they aren’t. But, if I’m still struggling with this stuff at 44, even after 6 years of formal education on human behavior and 15+ years in the psychology/helping field, many other people must be, too! Everyone around me is dealing with something internally. If I assume that their shortness or lack of effort toward me is intentional, then I’m doing a great disservice to them and to myself. I must remember that these are only things I am perceiving, and they may or may not be accurate reflections of the other person. If these things are repeated many times toward me, I can begin to build a better understanding of the other person, but even then I must remain open to the possibility that I am wrong.


I am incapable of seeing past the nose on my face sometimes, and so is everyone else. A few years ago, Narcissistic Personality Disorder was eliminated from the DSM, the big book of diagnoses in mental health. This was done, in part, because everyone is narcissistic at some point, and because it is too difficult to accurately measure how intensely and how often a person acts or thinks in narcissistic ways.** So, if everyone out there can be self-absorbed, including me, then I’m only setting myself up for more anxiety and anger if I let myself become too offended by it! I’m assuming malice when incompetence will do!


So, let’s give ourselves permission to not take things personally. Let’s actively work on not absorbing negativity and not assuming that someone feels negatively about us. Of course, we’ll keep boundaries where needed and we’ll believe others when they repeatedly show us how they feel about us, but we’ll also employ wisdom and grace to remember that all of us humans are incompetent sometimes. People are people, and I’m people, too. Click here for more information on how we treat Anxiety, ADHD, Autism, or to learn more about our services in general

I hope this topic was helpful! If you’d like to talk more about the ways anxiety or ADHD or neurodivergence are playing out in your life, then I hope you’ll schedule a session! There’s a scheduling button on my website at www.altmancounseling.com and you can call me at 770 615 6300. I look forward to meeting you!

Helping creative professionals take back control over anxiety, ADHD, depression, and much more!


**(Note: Narcissism may not be in the DSM anymore, but it is still very real, and not to be taken lightly! If you are in any kind of relationship with someone who is highly narcissistic, please be careful and seek help if needed. No one deserves to be gaslighted or emotionally abused.)

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