Blaming yourself? Maybe you don’t know the real story

Woman and little girl holding hands and climbing steps up from beach

Estimated reading time: 7 minutes

Young children only see a limited slice of life. So they can misread situations that happen around them. Then they may jump to the wrong conclusions about why things happen. In fact, they may end up blaming themselves for events that have nothing to do with them. Sadly, these feelings of guilt can last a life-time.

Let’s look at the example of seven-year-old Annie.

Because she’s tired after school, Annie shouts at her mother Shelley. An hour later, Shelley is rushed to hospital. Annie is shocked and scared, and believes she made her mother fall ill. She also now believes she’s a terrible person.

The reality of what happened

In reality, Annie doesn’t know her mother has breast cancer.

As is normal for small children, Annie is self-focussed. She hasn’t noticed that Shelley has been ill for months. Both parents also shielded Annie from the truth. That means Annie has no idea why her mother is really in hospital.

So you can see how easy it would be to start blaming yourself in that situation. 

Annie’s guilt

In fact, Annie is so sure it’s her fault that her mother is ill, that she can’t work out why her mother isn’t angry. But Shelley understands that Annie only yelled at her because she was tired.

Unfortunately, Shelley’s completely unaware of how guilty her daughter feels.

And it doesn’t matter how many times Shelley tells Annie she loves her. Annie can’t believe that anyone could love her any more. How could they after what she’s done? 

Self-blame fosters self-hatred

Sadly, Shelley dies a month later. Now Annie believes she caused her mother’s death.

So now, not only is she grief-stricken at losing her mother, she’s also filled with self-hatred. Because of this, she can’t allow herself to be comforted by others. And no-one else has any idea of how she’s torturing herself.

Yet all her self-hatred is completely misguided.

Confusing cause and effect

Annie has made a simple error in thinking, one that even adults make at times.

To recap, two events happened, one immediately after the other.

Firstly, Annie yelled at her mother. Then her mother collapsed.

The closeness in time of the two events made Annie believe the first caused the second.

But it was an unlucky coincidence that Shelley collapsed right at that time. She was already so ill, she was about to collapse anyway. She’d have gone to hospital whether Annie yelled at her or not.

No causal link

And being yelled at doesn’t cause cancer cells to grow and multiply. There’s no causal link between Annie’s behaviour and Shelley’s condition worsening.

So although it seems as if Annie’s yelling caused Shelley to collapse, there’s no link between the two events in reality.

Annie is blaming herself for something she didn’t make happen. She’s confused cause and effect.

Random events

In everyday life, random events often happen one after the other.

Usually we ignore this, because the two events don’t have any obvious link. So we don’t even consider the possibility that one caused the other.

Example 1

For instance, imagine your TV stops working just after you drop a plate. Do you conclude that dropping the plate made your TV break down?

No – you don’t even connect the two things. They’re just two random events that happened, one after the other.

You know that dropping a plate can’t affect the electronic components or power supply of your TV.

So you ignore the close timing of the two events, and don’t jump to any conclusions that one caused the other.

Example 2

You sneeze as you walk under a tree, and a dead bird drops to the ground. Do you start blaming yourself that this happened?

Did your sneeze make the bird die? How would that even work?

In fact, the bird was probably dying anyway.

It may have been very old, or it may have had a lethal disease. It might have been attacked earlier by crows, and was bleeding to death. Or it could have eaten something poisonous.

In any case, it was coincidence that it fell from the tree at that particular moment. Just because you sneezed a moment before it died, doesn’t mean your sneezing caused it to die.

There is no causal link between the two events. They were entirely random.

Causal assumptions

So be very careful about making causal assumptions.

In other words, don’t assume A caused B, just because A happened before B. Before you can make this assumption, you need to find concrete evidence that A caused B.

However, sometimes you can be tricked into believing there’s a connection. It can seem as if two events are connected causally, when they’re not.

In fact, you may be so sure that A caused B, that you can’t believe it’s not true. And that’s when you might start blaming yourself unfairly. 

Be careful what you believe

Remember: just because you think something is true, doesn’t always mean it is true.

Be willing to test your beliefs to see if they really are true. Don’t look only for evidence that backs up what you believe. Look at both sides of the question.

That means looking for evidence that might show your belief isn’t true. Then, and only then, you can decide if your belief is supported by the evidence or not.

Annie’s situation

It’s understandable Annie believed she caused her mother to die. Any child may imagine that yelling at someone could make that person sick with cancer.

But is there any real evidence that this is true? Does medical research support this idea?

More specifically, is there evidence that yelling at someone can cause their cancer cells to grow and multiply?

In fact, there is no evidence that this is true. These were two unrelated events. So Annie’s self-blame is unjustified.

The cost to Annie’s self-esteem

Unfortunately, Annie is too young to understand that she did nothing wrong.

She’s now made a vow she’ll never let anyone get to know her. If they do, there’s the risk they’ll find out her dreadful secret. She’s scared they’ll tell everyone, and she’ll be shunned forever.

So it’s safer never to let anyone into her world again.

Every night Annie lies awake crying. Annie’s father and her relatives think she’s grieving. Little do they know what’s going on inside her head.

Annie’s self-hatred will soon become deep-seated. It will colour everything she does as she grows up. And it will affect every relationship she has with other people.

She’ll become so used to blaming herself, she won’t even challenge the idea that she’s always in the wrong. Instead, she’ll continue to torture herself mentally.

And yet her beliefs are completely untrue.

Challenging her self-hatred

With luck, a relative or mentor may recognise her emotional distress.

Annie needs a counsellor to help her understand she’s just a normal child. And that she wasn’t responsible for her mother’s illness or death. Then she could be helped to challenge her negative self-beliefs.

Of course, she’d still be sad she yelled at her sick mother.

But all children yell at their parents occasionally when they’re tired or stressed. It’s not done with any real desire to hurt.

Children don’t have the skills they need to control strong emotions. So they react quickly when they’re angry or disappointed.

As they get older, they learn how to manage these feelings.

But let’s face it – many adults still don’t know how to manage their emotions either. Everyone would benefit from being taught these skills.

So how could Annie be expected to control her emotions at her age? Her brain development wouldn’t have allowed her to do so.

Therefore she’s not bad, or evil, or unlovable. She’s just a normal child. And yes, it’s unfortunate she yelled at her mother. But it doesn’t mean she’s a bad person, and she didn’t cause her mother’s death.

Inappropriate guilt

Annie may be plagued by guilt for many years. Even if she learns she’s not responsible, it will still take a long time to accept this emotionally.

So what about you?

Do you have a sense of guilt for something you think you caused many years ago? Is it possible you’re blaming yourself for something that you had nothing to do with?

You may have misunderstand what happened, the way Annie misunderstood.

Think back carefully, and make sure you know all the factors that were involved at the time. You may be missing large parts of the puzzle.

If so, you may have filled in the gaps with the faulty conclusion that you were to blame. In reality, there may have been many other reasons for the event to have happened.

Common thinking trap

So be aware of this common trap in our thinking.

Don’t assume one event causes another, just because one happened before the other.

Look for the evidence, and don’t rely on your beliefs. Not everything you believe is true. Sometimes what you believe is wrong, because you don’t know the real story.

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