It’s your own fault!

“Didn’t you get regular check-ups? Is it in your family? Do you smoke? You bottle up your feelings too much and now your body is expressing them for you. You should meditate. You’re not eating properly. Did you or your parents ever have dealings with the occult? There must be some secret, unconfessed sin in your life. Why don’t you pray for healing? Don’t you have enough faith? Why did God do this to you?”

Every one of these comments was addressed to me by a friend or acquaintance shortly after I was diagnosed with cancer. At first I tried to reply politely: No, it’s not in my family, I don’t smoke, the people I live will be the first to tell you that I am not one to shy from expressing her feelings… and so on. After a while, I quit replying at all because I was not sure that I could do so politely. “Who do you think you are,” I wanted to scream. “Don’t you realize that these questions accuse me of giving myself cancer? You’re blaming me for being ill! I know your questions and comments are your way of expressing interest and concern, but why is it that you suddenly feel utterly free to make the most personal comments and speculate about the most intimate details of my spiritual life?”

I soon came to a different understanding of these intrusive and often insulting questions and comments. They are not so much about me, as they are about the person who is addressing me. We human beings are accustomed to having a certain amount of control over lives. Psychologists tell us that helplessness is the most difficult and painful of emotions. If I can point to a behavioral, environmental or spiritual factor in my neighbor’s catastrophic illness, then I can be reassured that I can avoid that illness by controlling those aspects of my behavior, environment and spiritual life. But if this terrible thing “just happened” to my friend, why it might “just happen” to me. And that would be intolerable.

When I was a teenager I was awakened early one morning by a serious earthquake. It was the scariest thing I had ever experienced: I put my foot down on the floor and the floor wasn’t there. The noise came from everywhere and nowhere. Terror. Sheer, visceral terror. The following days saw the aftershocks. I wasn’t alone in being paralyzed by fright by them, each as strong as another earthquake. Some psychologist came on TV or radio, I don’t remember, and suggested a way to cope with aftershock fear.

Get angry, he said. Stamp your foot, yell, command the earth to stop shaking! Our fear is sub-rational, he explained, based on our powerlessness in the situation. By acting as though we have power over the earthquake, we somehow trick those sub-rational parts of ourselves into believing that we actually have the power. Aftershocks last several seconds and stop, but our sub-rational being doesn’t know that. Hey! I commanded the earth to stop shaking and it did! I’m not a powerless victim; I can take control.

A similar mechanism is at play, I believe, when people try to find the cause of my cancer in something I could have controlled but didn’t. I think much the same sub-rational motivation lies at the heart of a great deal of victim-blaming behavior. She shouldn’t have worn her skirt so short. He shouldn’t have been out walking that late. She should have had an alarm system installed. He should have paid more attention. It’s their own fault. It couldn’t happen to me. I’m in control. I’m safe.

Surely there must be a way to make ourselves feel safe without resorting to blaming others.


13 thoughts on “It’s your own fault!

  1. Amen, I am really enjoying your blog. I have dealt with chronic health issues and I believe that if I can give myself permission to relax about my circumstances and continue to live my life as much as possible, it helps others to see that I am taking action and they are less likely to feel the need to say stupid things to make themselves feel better while still loving me. I also ask my friends and family to pray for God’s will for me so they have a mission within our relationship as well. If they offer solutions that I have tried, I tell them about it and the results. I also listen to their suggestions and try to follow them if they line up with what I am hearing from the Holy Spirit. I agree with you that most people are interested in helping us and dealing with their own fear. Everything in life is in relationship to something and someone and we must share our illness as well as the rest of our lives within reason with those who love us.

  2. Thank you for so eloquently expressing what I have been trying to explain to people for a very long time. For me it was the “Intervention” with my family that had me baffled and then understanding that my cancer was just too close to home for them. They needed a reason to explain what I did wrong so they could keep control of their own health. I understand it, I try to look beyond it, but I can’t say that the meeting hasn’t put a wedge in our relationships.

  3. It took me a little while to respond to your wonderful comments because I’ve been ill the last couple of days.

    Emmy, an intervention!? Oh my! I’m sorry you had to go through that, but it sounds like you have a great attitude and approach.

    Marie, I’m glad you like the blog. I like your idea of relaxing about the circumstances. It sounds similar to my ideas about “living with” if I understood correctly.

  4. Ouch! I have to say I’m guilty of this. The second of my four brothers was recently diagnosed with lung cancer. With the first brother it seemed logical; he had been an obsessive chain smoker since his teens. I had the same knee-jerk reaction when I heard of my second brother’s diagnosis; he must have brought it on himself. Then his daughter patiently reminded me that he was the inveterate health nut of the family, had kept himself in great shape, hadn’t smoked in 50 years and, besides, this particular form of cancer was more common in non-smokers than smokers. I felt a little stupid after she explained it to me.

    Thanks for your article. I think you have an excellent point. We want to believe there is a controllable reason for someone’s illness; the alternative is much more frightening.

    • Thanks for sharing this, James. It takes courage to be that self-revealing.

      Please don’t be hard on yourself; this is something we all do, myself included. I wish I didn’t. The best I’ve been able to do is to stop myself and back track right away. I think this inclination of ours to find a controllable cause for the uncontrollable has something to do with self-preservation, but I haven’t thought it through yet.

  5. it is most definately about lack of control. People want to believe that cancer IS contollable/that LIFE is under control, when in fact very little if anything is. It is their OWN fear of this lack of control that they are projecting on to you. I actually feel sorry for them. For when they accept that NOTHING is under their control, then they will be more free to live with acceptance

  6. I’ve heard it numerous times that my metastatic cancer is my fault, and especially how early diagnosis would have prevented everything, like that is the answer to all cases. As I am on my fifth occurance and just began chemo for the fourth time, how people could be so heartless and stupid in this day and age just baffles me. The general public acts from either a lack of interest, an I’m-healthier-than-you attitude, or a lack of valid information. I am especially insulted by people making money off of cancer. For example, I bought a CD by a so-called famous guidance speaker when I was first diagnosed in 2006 and needed some audio support that I could turn to in low times. Instead, the first sentence on the CD was that my illness was my fault, and I wanted this to happen. Needless to say, I immediately threw it in the garbage. I was later told by a fellow patient that I didn’t give her a chance to explain what she meant. Pardon me, but I didin’t need to hear any more after that introduction. In my personal life, I break off ties with anyone who refuses to understand what cancer really is about and tells me what I should have done to prevent it, and sadly it has happened quite a few times.

  7. Rachel and Marguerite, welcome to Telling Knots. I hope you’ll take a look around and see if there are other posts that interest you, as well. I’m always so happy to meet new people.

    Thank you both for sharing about how you deal with this kind of blaming. I know that people mean well (mostly), but sometimes I wonder about how much insight and empathy they actually have.

  8. Wow, such excellent points. I love that example of the earthquake and getting angry to regain a sense of control. I reckon we do something quite similar after a cancer diagnosis by revving up to ‘kick its ass’ – and that helps us cope with the absurdity of it and the helplessness. I look forward to reading more on tellingknots! ~Catherine

  9. Yes, that old blame game. It really gets old. I was also blamed in a variety of ways, including not having biological children. People need to just stop. Everyone has anxiety, nobody eats perfectly, etc. I love your posts, and this one is fantastic.

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