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Guilt and Guilt Trips

This is an article I found on the net a while back. I edited it a little. My comments are in blue. I have go find it again to get the citation. I have a lot of comments about it, but overall it is a good article with good suggestions.


What is guilt? Guilt is your feeling about your personal failure to live up to your or someone else's standard of behavior.

There are times when we should feel guilty. On those occasions a good friend may gently help us see our inconsistency between what we say we believe and how we act.

What is a guilt trip? Guilt trips are about control. It is a way of manipulating people to get a desired outcome through indirect and passive-aggressive tactics.

They also say Guilt trips are about violating boundaries but I am not sure what they mean. I guess it means that someone invades your mind to use you in some way to try to get what they want. So your mind is your boundary I guess they mean.

Inflicting guilt is used more frequently in families and small communities and organizations where direct conflict or confrontation might upset ties and working relationships. Using guilt unabashedly to control others gets passed on in families as surely as genes. Some families do it, some don't. Families that use guilt may not even be aware of how often they use it or how wrong it really is.

Why do people use such indirect methods? Could it be their fear of destroying the relationship if they were more direct? Or their fear of exposing themselves and their own needs? Or of appearing needy or weak? Or are they afraid of not getting their needs met if they ask directly for what they need or want?

Parents often use guilt trips to control indirectly. They don't want to use physical force for several reasons. One it is not legal so they don't want to get in trouble themselves. Another is because it may not be socially acceptable. Another is because they might feel guilty.

With respect to awareness, if we teach about how guilt trips are used, the children may be less likely to repeat the pattern with their own kids and teens.

Expecting people to give up a control tactic they've used "effectively" over a lifetime with each other may not be realistic. Usually we don't need much help from others to know when we've failed to live up to our own code of moral conduct.

Setting boundaries

To deal with another’s' agenda for our behavior, we need to be clear about who we are, what we want and what we are willing to do.

IE be clear who we are, what we believe, what we want, need.

If we understand and are secure about ourselves, we become less vulnerable to attempts to control our behavior.

True...insecurity makes us vulnerable.

Setting boundaries is about being clear on personal and family goals, priorities and responsibilities.

It is about saying "no" when it is necessary. It is about communicating limits and taking control when others may want to control you. It is about agreeing to disagree in a pleasant manner.

The other person may not let you do it in a "pleasant" manner, though. Or they may not agree to disagree. Then it is harder to not feel guilty. They might not forgive you or accept you. Then it is more important that you forgive and accept yourself after doing all you can without sacrificing yourself.

Taking charge

Here are some tips on what to do when someone is trying to inflict guilt.

- Mirror back to them the essence of what they are saying. "Are you telling me that if I don’t come and see you everyday I am not being a good daughter?" Confront them with their own words. "I have the feeling that you are upset because . . . Is that right?"

- State your position on the subject and recognize that they have a right to their opinion. "I understand that you feel differently, but let me explain why we chose to do thus and so."

This only works easily if the other person is willing to even listen to you. Many people who use guilt trips will just end the conversation. They will walk away or say something direct and controlling like "This conversation is over" or "I don't want to talk about it anymore". They will probably use there way of ending the conversation by trying again to make you feel guilty. For example they may say "There is no point in trying to talk to you.. " or "You are impossible to talk to." "You don't care how I feel!"

- Find out what they want or what would help them feel better. Tell them a range of options you are willing to do and see which one they favor. Be clear about what you are not willing to do. State your conditions and see if they are willing to meet them or make counter-proposals.

Again, this only works if they are willing to listen and treat you with a basic level of respect. Many teenagers can't do this with their parents, teachers or school authorities. And many emplolyees can't do with their bosses. And many people can't even do it with their own partners.

- Don't let them suck you into their plans. Make plans and be clear about them. Discuss with them how their plans and yours might match up. Negotiate from a position of strength. If they catch you off guard, tell them you need time to think about it and when you will get back to them.

Same problem as above. Many people are simply not in any kind of position of power to do this. In at least several countries in South America, for example, it would be unheard of for a teenager to try to do this with a parent. They would simply be physically hit. In England or the USA a parent may not hit a teenager, but they have many other ways of exercising control.

If it is hard for you to do the things recommened by this author, it may well be because your parents abused or mis-used their power over you.

- Recognize that every relationship has give and take to it. Do your part. It is when the relationship becomes unbalanced that you have to draw the line.

- Have thick skin. So what if they inflict a lot of guilt. That is their way. You don't have to take it personally. So what if they are disappointed or angry with you. That is their problem. Be loving and matter-of-fact with them. "I'm sorry you feel that way. I hope it won't be a big problem between us."

Unfortunately it is not that easy for sensitive people. Sensitive people who have been manipulated with guilt trips for years simply can't just not take it personally. They have been taught to believe everything is their fault and they are responsible for the other person's emotions. Many parents teach their children and teens to be responsible for the parents' feelings. This is one of the most basic characteristics of a classic dysfunctional family. A family which creates codependent teens and adults.

Also, it is not that easy for people who are dependent on someone else, as teenagers or many employees are. Likewise for many women in the world who are still financially dependent on their partners. Or even graduate students working on their PhD's who don't want to rock the boat for fear of not getting their degree.

- Don’t be afraid to say no and explain your reasons why. You owe them an explanation. That’s all. Listen to their attempts at persuasion. If they persist, be a broken record. State your own reasons over and over again if they keep coming back to the same point. "Like I said before, Bob and I decided that this year we would ..."

Again, it is not that easy for many people, depending on their situations, although these are good suggestions for when you are a legally free, even if not financially free or psychologically free "adult". And I suppose they are worth trying even when you aren't. What is likely to happen though is that the person will quickly turn to more direct ways of controling you when you show that you are not going to be as easily controlled with manipulation. Imagine a slave trying to use these strategies.

- Get the issue defined clearly and on the table rather than let innuendo or snide remarks pass. "What did you mean by that?" or, "Are you saying that I am not being responsible when?"

- If they have a valid point, acknowledge it, apologize and make amends if possible. Addressing your own faults openly will make it easier to draw the line when it is their perception or interpretation that seems to be the problem.

This is a good suggestion. I have found when I apologize for something the other person is more likely to apologize also. On the other hand, some people will just take your apology as a sign that they have "won" and it will maintain their feeling of superiority and maintain the imbalance of power.

It may be a painful process, but being clear about boundaries helps create healthy and respectful relationships. Other people's feelings count. But they don't have the right to control you with those feelings. As long as you are in control, it is their problem, not yours. Even if the other party doesn't change, at least you'll be more at peace - and more in control.

If you take guilt trips, you are choosing to go along for the ride. How is that for a guilt trip?


Some may find the ending a little humorous, but for people like teens the ones we work with at EQI, who live in emotionally abusive homes, they really are not in control and won't be till they get out of the house. It only makes them feel worse to make it sound so simple. If it were that simple, they would have done it already. Also many adults say something like "it is your choice" when in fact the teenager has very few choices, or can only choose between doing what the adult says or being punished or made to feel bad about themselves.

In other words, the author fails to show understanding for many people in many situations which are very different than his own. I am pretty sure the author is a free-lance writer. There are few people in the world with more freedom than a free-lance writer. A free-lance writer doesn't have a particular boss, so they have less fear of getting fired for "talking back", disobeying etc.

On the other hand these are good suggestions for someone who has some degree of freedom and wants to feel more free and in control of their own lives. Or in other words both happier and more guilt-free.

Feb. 6, 2006

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