It is always about me, isn't it?

A characteristic of childhood thinking is the child's assumption that whatever happens "is all about me." The tendency of children to blame themselves for their parents' difficulties causes them great pain, and if this kind of "it's all about me" thinking persists into adulthood, it can do considerable harm to their personal relationships. As adults, many people still believe they are defective and that if people really knew them they would be rejected. Children under the age of ten have yet to develop a concept of multi-causality. Consequently, they explain out-of-the-ordinary phenomena as having occurred because they made them happen. Young children do not see their overly critical parents for what they are--overly critical. As children they cannot understand that their parents might have, let us say, a drinking problem, which distorts their personalities and behavior. Rather, children believe that if they are criticized it must be because they really are bad and the proper cause of all the criticism that comes their way. Similarly, if things start to go wrong between parents, children think they are the reason or that they can provide the solution. Several clients have brought home how extreme the discrepancy can be between the logic of the adult and the emotions of the inner child. In one case, Mary, a bright and attractive professional woman was trying to deal with a relationship breakup. She explained, "I really don't know why I am so upset. This relationship had to end since he couldn't get along with my daughter. He'd made it clear that he did not want to raise another child and since my child is only six he was unable to why am I devastated?" I could have tried to assist Mary by strengthening her resolve, but she didn't really need me for that. She was perfectly capable of coming up with every logical, rational reason under the sun why the relationship wasn't viable and was best ended. She had intelligent friends to assist her with that, too. My job was to redirect Mary to her childhood. Her own father had left the family when she was six. Using the child's "it's all about me" way of thinking, she had decided that if only she had been good enough, or worthwhile enough, her father would not have left. Her goodness would have made him stay. She felt the same way about her breakup with her boyfriend and was re-traumatized by it. Indicatively, she told me that there was a part of her that wanted to try to make the relationship work at any price, so that this time it would be different, even though she could see with her adult mind that the relationship was not really a good one. She didn't even know the man that well. Talking it through, she became able to see that most of the feelings she had about her partner were a projection from the past and not based on reality. When the final break came, Mary was able to be caring and not caustic or blaming toward him. She said, "I know that he is a good person and means well and has always been honest with me." Saying this was progress for her, because in past relationships she tended to get angry with her partner and blame him for everything that went wrong between them. She had begun to make sense of the strength of her feelings, and her adult and child were more integrated. Working through the stages of the relationship without reverting to blaming her partner gave her an opportunity to deal with the pain in her past, understand herself more deeply, and become more conscious in relationships. I have seen many individuals who believed that their partner's bad behavior was their fault, thus taking responsibility for someone else's destructive behaviors. One client told me that she had "caused" her husband to break her leg during a beating by saying something provocative to him. I attempted to explain to her that her partner's assaultive behavior was not only illegal, but inappropriate, but to no avail. She persisted in believing that she was the "cause" of her partner's physical attacks on her. In my marriage, we have to be attentive to the tendency we both have to feel overly responsible for things. We usually have to work on getting our signals straight when one or the other of us is in a bad mood and withdrawing. We try to head off the possibility of the other feeling blamed or guilty by saying to each other things like: "I have had a really bad day and I feel like I need to withdraw, but it has nothing to do with you." We find this kind of proactive measure very useful. Copyright 2005 Linda Miles Ph.D