The Squeaky Wheel

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The Psychology and Management of Guilt Trips

Why guilt trips work and how to set limits with them

Guilt trips are a form of verbal or nonverbal communication in which a guilt inducer tries to induce guilty feelings in a target in an effort to control their behavior. As such, guilt trips are a clear form of psychological manipulation and coercion.

However, we rarely think of guilt trips in such harsh terms. Instead we see them as unwatchable movies starring Barbara Streisand and Seth Rogen, things some mothers say to get their kids to have another bowl of soup (“I slaved over a stove for three hours for you to have only one matzo ball?”), or something some fathers do to get their children to conform (“Fine, don’t come to your niece's confirmation. I guess your family and faith aren’t important to you anymore”).

Why Guilt Trips Often Succeed

Guilt trips might be the bread and butter of many family communications but they are rarely as benign as we might think. While they often ‘succeed’, in that the recipient indeed changes their behavior as a result, these ‘successes’ always come with a price—one few guilt inducers consider—guilt trips frequently induce not just strong feelings of guilt but equally strong feelings of resentment toward the manipulator.

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What allows guilt trips to succeed despite the resentment they cause is the nature of the relationships that usually exists between the two parties. Guilt trips occur most often in close family relationships (or close friendships) because if the target didn’t have strong feelings of caring and affection for the guilt inducer, their resentment and anger at having their feelings manipulated would likely override their guilty feelings and cause them to resist the manipulation.

How Guilt Trips Poison Our Closest Relationships

In studies, people who induced guilt trips were asked to list the potential consequences of giving guilt trips and only 2% mentioned resentment as a likely outcome. In other words, people who use guilt trips are usually entirely focused on getting the result they want and entirely blind to the damage their methods can cause. Mild as the poisonous effects of most guilt trips are, over the long term, their toxicity can build and cause significant strains and emotional distance. Ironically, the most common theme of familial guilt trips is one of interpersonal neglect, which means the long term impact of guilt trips is likely to induce the polar opposite result most guilt trippers want.

How to Set Limits with Guilt Trippers

The best way to limit the damage guilt trips cause to our relationships is to set limits with the guilt inducer and ask them to change their habits. Here’s what to keep in mind:

1. Tell the person that you do understand how important it is for them that you do the thing they’re trying to guilt you into doing.

2. Explain that their using a guilt trip to make you conform to their wishes makes you feel resentful, even if you do end up complying.

3. Tell them you're concerned that accumulating these kinds of resentments can make you feel more distant from them and that is not something you or they wish.

4. Ask them to instead express their wishes directly, to own the request themselves instead of trying to activate your conscience, and to respect your decisions when you make them (e.g., “I would love it if you had another bowl of soup. No? No problem, here’s the brisket,” or “It would mean a lot to me if you came to your niece’s confirmation but I’ll understand if your schedule doesn’t permit it.”).

5. Explain you will often do what they ask if they asked more directly. Admit that you might not always conform to their wishes but point out the payoff--that when you do choose to respond positively, you would do so authentically, wholeheartedly, that you would feel good about doing so and that you would even get more out of it.

6. Be prepared to have reminder discussions and to call them on future guilt trips when they happen (they will). Remember, it will take time for them to change such an engrained communication habit.

7. Be kind and patient throughout this process. Doing so will motivate them to make more efforts to change than if you come at them with anger and resentment (legitimate though your feelings may be).

For more about how guilty feelings impact our mental health and what you can do to manage excessive guilt, survivor guilt, separation guilt, or disloyalty guilt, check out my forthcoming book, Emotional First Aid: Practical Strategies for Treating Failure, Rejection, Guilt, and Other Everyday Psychological Injuries (Hudson Street Press).

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You might also enjoy: The Survival Guide For Dealing with Chronic Complainers.

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Copyright 2013 Guy Winch

Guy Winch, Ph.D., is a licensed psychologist and author of The Squeaky Wheel: Complaining the Right Way to Get Results, Improve Your Relationships and Enhance Self-Esteem. more...

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