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 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 families' communications, but they are rarely as benign as we 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.
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 percent 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.
7 Ways 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 how:
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: Healing Rejection, Guilt, Failure, and their Everyday Hurts (Plume, 2014).
You might also enjoy: The Survival Guide For Dealing with Chronic Complainers.
Copyright 2013 Guy Winch