Guilt trips are attempts to control another person’s behavior by making them feel ashamed or embarrassed about their actions. For instance, a mother may want to see her grown children more often, so she tells them, “I’m so lonely here by myself. But I’m old and boring. I know you have more interesting things to do with your lives.”
Guilt trips are most likely to occur between family members or close friends because those relationships have the most complex emotions to navigate and the most to lose if they fall apart. In addition, anyone who is less psychologically involved would never tolerate the negative insinuations and would refuse to participate in the charade.
Guilt trips assume a real or perceived imbalance of power between the parties involved. Guilt trippers feel that their wishes are unimportant. They cede control of their well-being onto the other person.
Guilt trips can be silent or verbal. A raised eyebrow, a slumped shoulder, a prolonged sigh or a hurtful remark are all methods of conveying displeasure with the underlying hope that the recipient will change.
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Either way, the true purpose of the statement (“I’m unhappy about something”) is never stated. And speakers can easily deny their true feelings or avoid taking any responsibility for improving their lot.
Guilt trips are similar to other indirect forms of communication, such as sarcasm, pouting or stony silences, that allow unpleasant feelings to exist under the radar without ever being addressed.
They also create similar and serious problems in a relationship. Recipients don’t like feeling guilty and ashamed about their behavior. They want to please their loved ones, but are confused about what to do. Resentment builds up over time. Alienation from their loved ones, the very outcome guilt trippers fear most, is the result.
Linda Lewis Griffith is a local marriage and family therapist. For information or to contact her, visit www.lindalewisgriffith.com.
How to avoid guilt trips
- Catch yourself in the act. Notice if you or someone else is trying to induce guilt. Try a different tactic: “We’re both good people. Let’s see if we can solve this issue without making either of us feel bad.”
- Name your needs. Do some soul searching to figure out what you want. Would you like to feel more appreciated? Do you need more help with the children? Being specific increases the likelihood you’ll get what you want.
- Be compassionate. Guilt trippers often have years of built-up anger and hurt; expressing those emotions can be terribly uncomfortable. Let them know their feelings are OK and that you want to work with them to find the best solution.
- Lay out a plan. Decide on specific steps to resolve the problem. For instance, “Dad, my job has taken me to Atlanta. I can’t see you as often as I did before. But I promise I’ll come visit twice a year.” Even if you can’t make everything perfect, your efforts will convey love and commitment.
- Take responsibility. Don’t rely on others to meet your needs. Do your best to nurture a pleasant and sustainable environment for yourself.
- Accept the outcome. Families are complex. It’s unrealistic to think that every need will be met. Recognizing members are doing their best helps quiet angst and sets the stage for improved relationships.