My Daughter Says I Did Something Bad That I Don’t Remember Doing…

My daughter claims I did something very bad to her when she was very young (about 20 years ago). I honestly have no memory of what she’s talking about, which makes me think she’s making it up. I thought we had a good relationship up until now, so the idea that she would make up such a horrible lie really upsets me and I can’t see how this won’t ruin our relationship. My wife is as upset as I am that our daughter would make up such a story, but if I’m honest, part of me is freaking out that my daughter is telling the truth…in which case, I’m in an even bigger mess, because I’m not sure I could live with myself if that’s the kind of man I am. I’m contacting you because you seem very straightforward and seem to have a lot of sympathy for people who do bad stuff. My questions is: how likely is it that my daughter is telling the truth? Can the mind really block out something this massive? I thought the whole “amnesia” thing was a Hollywood invention or a scam that quacks use. How could I really not remember my own life? And is there any way to deal with my dilemma that won’t rip my family apart?

I really sympathize with the difficult spot you’re in, and I’m glad you reached out because memory management is a topic that is poorly understood by most people. Let’s start with some facts about how the mind works. First, the theory that memories can get “lost” is not true. At this moment in time, all of your life memories are safely filed away in your mind, even though you can only recall a tiny fraction of them. Your inability to recall the vast majority of your memories is not a flaw; it’s actually a necessary limitation that enables you to function normally.

Your mind is not the same as your brain. Your brain is like your heart or liver: it’s one of many physical organs in your physical body. Your mind is like your soul: it is a non-physical element of your being, and a very important one. Your mind has two departments to it: your conscious and your subconscious. People often think of the conscious as the “awake” part of their mind, while their subconscious is like a hibernating bear. Throw that idea out because it’s completely wrong. Your subconscious is always awake, and actively involved in everything you do. Your conscious is the only part of your being that actually shuts down for a reboot when you sleep. The rest of your elements (body, soul, and subconscious) are always online.

Now when people talk about “remembering” things, they are talking about the conscious part of their minds recalling memories from their past. Since all of your memories are stored and organized by your subconscious, the only way for your conscious to access a memory file is if that file is transferred over to it by your subconscious. Just as the CEO of a big company will mark certain company files as “confidential” and ban his secretary from seeing their contents, your subconscious bans your conscious from accessing most of your memory files. This is how it works for every human: our conscious minds are operating under severe restrictions at all times, but for the most part, this doesn’t bother us. Now let’s understand why the subconscious is so cagey about how much information it shares…

If we compare your conscious to your cell phone, than your subconscious is like the world’s biggest supercomputer. Your subconscious’ ability to process data, multitask, and manage stress is far superior to the abilities of your conscious. In other words, there’s no such thing as a “dumb” human. All humans are extremely intelligent. We just think some humans are less intelligent than others due to the way their conscious minds behave. But behind every conscious mind is a subconscious genius who is juggling an impressive number of complex tasks 24/7.

Now if you want your cell phone to remain functional, you don’t try to sync it with a supercomputer, because the small device could never hope to keep up with the big one. But suppose all of your information is stored on the supercomputer, and you need to access bits of that information as you go throughout your day. After all, requests for information come up all the time. What’s your phone number? What’s your password? When did you first start having headaches? Have you ever been to Florida? What was the name of that cousin we met last year? To answer any of these questions, your conscious needs your subconscious to rifle through its massive memory database, locate the relevant information, and transfer that information over to your conscious so that you can reply to whoever you’re talking to. The complex process of receiving requests, sifting for relevant information, and transferring select bits of information to the conscious happens with lightning speed thanks to what a capable genius your subconscious is. But while countless file transfers happen throughout each day, your subconscious is well aware of how limited your conscious is, and that means it can’t let those files remain permanently transferred. Unless that information is taken back again, your conscious will get overwhelmed with the clutter of too much data. This is because your conscious doesn’t have anywhere near the storage space or organizational skills that your subconscious has. While your subconscious has a massive library at its disposal, your conscious is like the secretary who holds out her arms and starts to visibly struggle if you stack too many file folders on her.

One of the important mental processes that happens while you sleep is your subconscious taking back most of the files that it transferred to your conscious during your last waking period. It also sucks over all of the new data that your conscious collected–all of those new life experiences that you collected as you moved through your day. Even days that you consider to be “boring” or “routine” result in a massive amount of new memory files which all have to be collected and analyzed by your subconscious before they can be properly filed away in its massive database.

Now there are two main ways that this critical information balancing act can go wrong. If for some reason your subconscious starts allowing too much information to pile up in your conscious, then your conscious becomes overwhelmed and frazzled. This results in you losing your ability to control your mental focus, and that results in you being unable to carry on conversations or complete tasks. There are many factors that cause this kind of information overload, but since this isn’t the issue you’re dealing with, I won’t get into detail about those factors here.

The other way the balance gets thrown off is when your subconscious suddenly increases its restrictions on information–so much so that you suddenly find yourself unable to consciously access information that you feel you need. The common symptom here is “drawing a blank” when someone asks you a question, or being unable to recall something despite how hard you try. It’s useful to note that the first issue of information overload can also cause people to act very forgetful, only in those cases, people often feel internally distracted by other thoughts. In this second scenario, you feel like there is nothing wrong with your ability to focus, but you simply can’t find the information you need. Sometimes it’s information that you know you know–like when you try to remember what you wrote on your grocery list an hour ago. But other times your subconscious forms a complete memory block and you can’t even recall fragments. In the case of the grocery list, you remember the act of writing a list, and you remember some of the items, it’s just a few fragments of the memory that you’re missing. But in a case of a complete block, you wouldn’t even remember writing the list at all, and would therefore feel correct in denying that you ever did.

There are many reasons why your subconscious blocks your conscious from accessing information that you feel you need. Not all of these reasons are cause for concern, and I want to stress again that all minds do this. Though your subconscious is incredibly capable, it does have resource limitations, and often when it refuses to provide you with some bit of information, it’s because it considers the request trivial and not worth spending resources on. For example, if I ask you what you had for dinner two Wednesdays ago, or if I asked you what movies you liked best last year, your subconscious might fluff off these questions as ridiculous. As a general rule, the older a memory file is, the more effort is required to dig it out, and your subconscious is not going to waste effort digging through ancient archives just to satisfy some silly human’s curiosity. What this means is that a lot of times when people say, “I don’t remember,” what’s really happening internally is their subconsciouses are saying “I’m not spending resources on that right now because I have more important things to do.”

Now in a case like yours, you feel it is very important that you access the memories your daughter is referring to, assuming that they actually exist. Clearly this is not just a trivial issue, because a very important social relationship is at stake. Since your subconscious cares immensely about your relationships with other humans, and since you clearly feel that your daughter is a positive person in your life, your subconscious will consider your daughter’s accusation very significant and it will be very strategic in how it responds to her.

Once an important person in your life starts acting hostile towards you by accusing you of some terrible thing, your subconscious immediately goes on the defensive. It’s top priority is to protect you from harm. In a situation like yours, there are two main risks that your subconscious has already identified. First, there is the external threat of other humans (your wife, your daughter, etc.) reacting negatively towards you due to what your daughter is saying. Second, there is the internal threat of your various elements (mind, body, soul) becoming stressed by what is happening.

Your Soul’s Reaction

Your soul is the only part of your being that cares about morality–the issue of whether the things you do are morally good or morally bad. Your soul has a very strong need to be able to feel you are a good person–at least according to your soul’s current definition of that term. Your soul also feels upset when other people view you as bad, especially when you feel you’ve done nothing wrong. The worst situation for your soul is a combination of these two things: when both other people and you feel that you are a very bad person.

Along comes your daughter, accusing you of doing something that your soul obviously feels is extremely bad. Notice the language you use here:

I’m not sure I could live with myself if that’s the kind of man I am.

This is your soul talking, and right away I see a major issue here because your soul clearly has a list of “unpardonable sins.” An unpardonable sin is an act that humans decide is unforgivable, so they refuse to have any compassion when someone does whatever it is. The problem with buying into the theory of unpardonable sins is that you set yourself up for a serious spiritual crisis should you ever find yourself doing one of those horrible things. In real life, there is no such thing as an act that can’t be forgiven, nor is there a human who is undeserving of compassion. Viewing yourself through the eyes of compassion is about judging fairly. You cannot possibly hope to pass a fair judgment on someone (including yourself) until you first take the time to consider the context of what happened. Considering context means not just focusing on what happened, but also focusing on why it happened. Judges who only focus on the what make a lot of morally wrong judgments. They are too harsh, too biased, and they end up doing a lot more damage than good in their judging process. The same is true when you judge yourself internally. When you refuse to judge your own behaviors in context by asking why you did what you did instead of just focusing on what you did, you end up making unfair assessments of yourself and dishing out extreme, unwarranted punishments.

Whatever it is your daughter is accusing you of, if you did in fact do it, then it is vital to understand that you had logical reasons for doing whatever it was at the time. Those reasons would need to be identified and respected before you can possibly hope to form a reasonable judgment of yourself.

Fair assessments always leave room for us to continue forward with an optimistic view of ourselves. Even if our behavior was morally wrong, fair assessments allow us to still maintain self-respect, to have a merciful attitude towards ourselves, and to press on with the hope of doing better in the future. If instead we instantly write ourselves off as too terrible to live with, or warped beyond any hope of fixing, we are making unreasonable judgments and missing an important opportunity to spiritually mature.

The reason I want you to see how hostile your soul is behaving is so you can better appreciate your mind’s dilemma. If you did actually do whatever this terrible thing was, then your subconscious has those memory files in its database. While your soul and conscious honestly don’t know whether you did this thing or not, your subconscious knows exactly what you did and didn’t do, because it is the one possessing all of the memory files. But let’s say you did do this thing, and your subconscious were to confirm that by letting the relevant files be accessed. How will your soul react? It will freak out, which will cause your overall stress load to spike, and that will put a strain on all of your elements. Given the way your soul is reacting to the idea of you being “guilty,” can you see why your mind might decide that locking down this memory is necessary to protect you from stress?

Four Possibilities

Now that we have acknowledged your soul’s problematic attitude, and now that we appreciate how invested your subconscious is in protecting you, let’s talk about the four possibilities of what’s really going on here.

#1. Your Daughter Is Right & Your Mind Is Protecting You

The first possibility is that your daughter’s recall of your behavior and her interpretation of your behavior is correct. For example, suppose your daughter is accusing you of molesting her. Sexual molestation is often viewed as a motivation, not just a set of behaviors. You can physically interact with your daughter’s body twice in the same way yet have totally different motivations. In many situations like yours, the accusing party is not just talking about a set of behaviors, they are also interpreting those behaviors to imply malicious motivations were at work. For the accused, the motivations that they are being accused of having are often what is most upsetting.

If this first scenario is what’s really happening, then your mind is likely blocking your access to this memory to protect you from overwhelming internal distress. Memory blocks are not just fiction–they are very real things. When they are formed as a means of protecting you from stress, that is a serious situation that needs to be handled cautiously.

While the accused in these situations will often press you to quickly remember (and not believe you when you say you can’t), from a mental health standpoint, you should not try to use force to override your subconscious’ defense measures. Instead, you should respect your mind’s judgment of what you can and can’t handle right now. When it comes to assessing your overall functionality and your margin for stress, your subconscious is a much better judge than your other elements. Your soul is prone to making very wrong assessments about how much information you can handle, and how much new stress you can take on. Your soul’s poor judgments in this area are due to the fact that it simply doesn’t have access to a lot of information regarding your current status. You can’t make a good judgment when you’re ignorant of the facts.

In this kind of situation, the best way for you to respond to a blocked memory would be to start working on lowering your stress levels where you can. Because this kind of blocking occurs to protect you from being overwhelmed by stress, lowering your stress in other areas can help your mind reach a point where it is comfortable dropping its block.

Total memory blocks are very stressful for your mind to maintain. They cost a lot of mental resources–resources which your mind could use to spend elsewhere, so it would like to drop the block. In your case, a great focus for reducing stress would be working on helping your soul develop a more compassionate attitude. Even though you can’t remember doing what your daughter is accusing you of, you can imagine some other man doing such a thing, and then work on trying to see his behavior through a more compassionate lens. For example, what would motivate such a man to do that sort of thing? Humans always have self-serving reasons for what they do, so what are some positive reasons why a man might feel doing “X” could benefit himself?

Many of the atrocious things humans do to each other in this world are motivated by desperate need on the part of the person doing them. Until you have identified how an action could be viewed as positive or even necessary by the person doing it, you aren’t going to be able to respond reasonably to what he did. It’s a good exercise to do this sort of thing until you no longer have any items on your “unpardonable” list. There is always a compassionate way to view human behavior. Compassion is not about trying to ignore the issue of morality, but tempering it to be beneficial instead of destructive.

#2. Your Daughter Has Misinterpreted Something You Did

In this second scenario, your daughter has misinterpreted your behaviors and attached terrible motivations onto them that you didn’t have at the time. For example, a routine diaper change could be interpreted as an act of sexual molestation if a mind were to focus on certain aspects of that experience. Trauma is fueled by beliefs, and false beliefs can be just as influential as correct ones.

In this second scenario, your inability to recall the behaviors your daughter is talking about could be a simple matter of your subconscious considering that memory file to be so routine and non-significant that it is refusing to dig it out. Twenty year old memory archives take a lot of effort to rifle through and your mind has better things to do, especially when it feels it is being falsely accused.

In real life, if you actually had the motivations your daughter is accusing you of having, then that memory file would not have been filed into your mind’s normal archives. Instead, your distress at the time of that event would cause that file to get labeled as a “high stress” file. High stress memory files are kept in a special, easy-to-access archive by your subconscious. Files are only moved to normal archives when they are not longer considered threatening.

So then, in the first scenario, your mind would be trying to protect you from a high stress file that it does have easy access to, yet doesn’t want to reveal right now because it feels doing so would spike your stress levels too high. But in this second scenario, your mind knows that there is no high stress file relating to what your daughter is talking about, therefore it finds her accusation unfair and upsetting and is refusing to cooperate with her by rifling through ancient archives. In this second scenario, your mind would be feeling hostile towards your daughter, since she is acting hostile towards you. Your mind would also be rather peeved with your soul, which is obviously on the fence about believing your mind’s claim that your daughter is lying.

#3. Your Daughter Is Trying To Upset You With A False Accusation

It doesn’t sound like this is the case, but it’s worth mentioning because it does happen to other people. In this scenario, the accuser knows they are making up a bunch of guff, yet they are intentionally trying to stir up a hornet’s nest of trouble by the kinds of lies they tell. This kind of behavior can be aimed at an individual or an entire group. Your daughter might be trying to get revenge on you for some hurt that she feels you caused her, or she might be trying to trash the whole family by picking a subject that she knows everyone will be shocked by. Unfortunately, this kind of situation does occur, but if this was the case with you, you would likely have noticed hostile vibes between you and your daughter long before now. Since you feel this relationship has been positive up until now, this third scenario probably doesn’t apply.

#4. Your Daughter Has Formed a False Memory

In this last scenario, your daughter is wrong about everything: both what she thinks you did, and why she thinks you did it. Since no part of her memory is based on fact, your mind cannot locate any matching memory, which is why you are drawing a blank.

This fourth scenario occurs more often than you might think, and it is very problematic because to the accuser, the memory they have feels entirely legitimate. Remember that trauma is fueled by beliefs, so what we believe happened to us is what affects us, even when we are entirely wrong.

False memories form for a variety of reasons. Sometimes your subconscious forms a false memory entirely on its own, which is actually quite easy for it to do. This is a very complex topic, so I’m going to keep it very simple by only discussing a few basic ideas so you can understand the general mental process.

Your subconscious is the part of you that is responsible for creating most of your dreams. When you dream, it feels very real. Sometimes when you wake up, part of a dream is lingering in your conscious, and for a moment, you think the dream is a memory of something that actually happened. After all, both memories and dreams are just combinations of feelings, thoughts, sights, sounds, and other sensations. Both your mind and your soul have the ability to assemble their own combinations of these things. Forming their own original combinations of emotions, ideas, and sensations is what people call using their imagination. The tricky part is keeping track of which combinations you came up with on your own, and which are memories based on things that actually happened to you.

When we sit around forming our own false memories, we use terms like daydreaming, fantasizing, or musing. We reserve the term memory for mental files that are based on things which actually happened to us. But the fact that we can dream up some very vivid scenarios in our minds makes us vulnerable to having other people manipulate us into forming harmful false memories.

There are many reasons why some people want to persuade you to form a false memory. Sometimes people who are already feeling traumatized by a true memory want other people to commiserate with, so they might try to pressure someone they know into forming a false memory about being abused in the same way that they were.

Trauma greatly interferes with how minds and souls function, and especially with how they perceive reality. It’s very common for traumatized minds and souls to imagine that they see evidence of bad things happening when no such evidence exists. Once a mind or soul believes that some bad thing has occurred, it can feel an urgent need to get others to agree with that belief. This can result in an accuser pushing and pushing until other people finally cave in and agree with the accuser’s false interpretation of a situation.

In some cases, people have found ways to personally profit from planting false memories in other people’s minds. A shady counselor might score a profitable long-term client by convincing a vulnerable mind to believe that it was sexually abused when no such abuse occurred. In the world of Christian deliverance ministries, planting false beliefs is a very common tool for manipulating vulnerable clients into thinking they have some horrible problem that they don’t really have which they can then be “delivered” from. Often in these circles, victims are encouraged to believe very traumatic psychological and spiritual beliefs about themselves. A lot of shady stuff goes on beneath the guise of “helping hurting people,” and when you don’t understand your own internal mechanics very well, you can be very easy for others to manipulate.

Strategic Responses

So where does this leave you? How should you respond today to what your daughter is saying? My firm rule about these situations is that you should never accept a memory as true until your own mind confirms it. But while you’re not letting someone else define reality for you, it’s equally important that you respect how influential beliefs are.

Assuming that you feel you can rule out the possibility that your daughter is acting malicious, it sounds like she really believes that you did whatever this is to her, and those beliefs are greatly distressing her. True or false, upsetting beliefs don’t go away on their own. They have to be addressed and often adjusted before we feel we can move on. Since your daughter is viewing you as the antagonist in this situation, there is a limit to how much you will be able to calm her down. She’ll likely need professional help to process her stress over this issue. Meanwhile, what you can do is agree with her that the idea of what she’s saying you did is quite terrible. Don’t cross the line into agreeing that you actually did whatever it is, because at this point it’s quite possible that you didn’t, and accepting false accusations won’t help anything. But agreeing with your daughter that the idea of someone doing X to her is a bad thing will help validate her feelings.

Often in cases of false but sincere accusations, the accuser feels driven mad by the fact that no one will validate how they feel. Refusing to accept that a memory is factually correct still leaves room to validate the emotional distress that is occurring. While you’re agreeing with your daughter that what she thinks happened to her is a very distressing idea, it would be helpful to emphasize how you actually feel towards her: that you love her and care about her very much, and that you’ve always viewed her very positively. Even in cases of real parental abuse, children are desperate to know that their parents like them today, so emphasizing your current love for your daughter is important. Since it happens to also be true that you’ve viewed her positively her whole life, that’s a great thing to remind her of as well, because it will help her understand that whatever it is she thinks you did doesn’t have to mean her whole relationship with you is a farce.

Until your own mind validates this memory as correct, you should not accept it as being true, but it is important that you understand the concepts I’ve explained in this post. Regardless of what’s going on, this issue has raised an important insight into how merciless your soul is regarding certain issues, and that would certainly be beneficial for you to work on. For help with cultivating compassion by learning to judge in context, see Your Soul vs. God: Two Different Judges.

Regardless of who did what to who in the past, it is never acceptable to give someone permission to abuse you today. Your daughter clearly has some issues to work through, and resolving distress of this magnitude takes time. While she is or isn’t choosing to sort out her part of this, you need to maintain healthy boundaries with her, and that means not allowing her to use the past or her current beliefs as an excuse to mistreat you. If she starts crossing lines by refusing to give you a reasonable amount of respect in your relationship with her, you will likely have to minimize your contact with her until she improves her behavior. Trauma tends to bring out the worst in people, and too much coddling only encourages people to stagnate instead of pursuing the help that they need. While compassion is vital, it should not replace healthy boundaries. (If you need help understanding what healthy relationship dynamics look like, see my book What’s Wrong With My Relationships?)

This post was written in response to William.

Looking for advice? You can submit an anonymous request through the Ask a Question page.