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Guilt

The Psychology of the Guilt-Tripper

Projection, "pathological certainty," and lack of self-awareness.

Key points

  • Guilt-tripping is a form of unconscious emotional blackmail whereby the guilt-tripper feels entitled and innocent of any misdeed.
  • Lack of awareness of self or others fuels the narcissistic tendency to adhere rigidly to their perceptions with "pathological certainty."
  • Our reactions in relationships are determined by what we think someone's behavior means and how this affects our sense of security.
Istockphoto/Jack F.
Source: Istockphoto/Jack F.

Alongside love, gifts, and food, guilt is often served up for the holidays and other emotionally loaded family gatherings. We’ve all tasted it. “Why can’t you stay longer? You're too busy now for me?” mom said to Michael as he kissed her goodbye. Later that week, when he called his mom, she seemed aloof, giving him the cold shoulder.

And so it goes when guilt is used unconsciously to get loved ones to do what we want and “feel our pain” – though it does not always produce the intended result. Further, when it does “work,” guilt is costly to the relationship – breeding resentment and limiting authentic engagement, co-opting the genuine desire to connect, and replacing it with robotic compliance, rebellion, and/or avoidance. Regardless, it’s not uncommon for certain people to resort to using and manipulating others without awareness to manage longing, loss, disappointment, anxiety, and other states of mind.

Guilt-tripping is, in effect, a form of emotional blackmail. But it is typically an unconscious process whereby the guilt-tripper feels entitled and innocent of any misdeed. On the receiving end, it feels like an oppressive intangible force that invisibly intrudes into our personal space confusingly and frustratingly, bolstered by plausible deniability and reversal of blame.

What leads some people to be so easily offended and resort to emotional manipulation to get others to do what they want or pay the price?

How we feel in relationships and whether disappointments are tolerable is mostly determined not by what another person does but, rather, our interpretation of what it really means, how it affects our sense of security, and, importantly, whether these assumptions are taken as facts.

In a healthier version of events, the mom might have interpreted her son’s decision to leave in a way that was more benign and less self-focused, which would have made it easier for her to tolerate her feelings of disappointment about him leaving.

If she had thought: “I know he has a lot going on in his own life now, but it’s hard to say goodbye,” she might have felt a bittersweet feeling, appreciated him more, or maybe felt gratitude. In this mindset, she might have said, “I’ve missed you - it’s always so wonderful to see you. I’m glad you came over.” Expressing love and validation in this way nurtures the relationship and organically paves the way for more good experiences together.

In contrast, Michael’s mom personalized the meaning of her son’s decision to leave and, feeling rebuffed, confused her feelings with his intention and motivation – a common cognitive attribution error. Because she feared being forgotten and abandoned, she assumed, “He’s leaving because he doesn’t care about me anymore.” This interpretation set the stage for a self-fulfilling prophecy, creating the very avoidance and rejection she feared, with her accusation, implicit demand, and cold shoulder.

The Psychology of a Guilt Tripper

We have all felt slighted or rejected at times, even when the other person’s behavior or attitude had nothing to do with us. It is easy to project our reactions and fears onto situations when we feel insecure, especially ambiguity. But reading negative intent into something a person says or does because it made us feel bad is a false equivalency that typically leads to the wrong conclusion, usually a more painful one.

A characteristic pattern of misinterpretations like these coupled with emotionally manipulative behavior is different from normal insecurity. This dynamic results from an essential inability to step outside of oneself and notice, as well as tolerate, that a loved one is separate from us with their mind and motivations. People who habitually relate in this way are not onto themselves. They lack “mindsight” – the capacity to reflect, recognize and interpret their state of mind and other people’s. (Siegel & Hartzell, 2018) This lack of awareness fuels a narcissistic tendency to rigidly adhere to one’s beliefs and impressions with “pathological certainty,” creating a perfect storm to perceive others as disloyal and abandoning and punishing non-compliance.

What About When Someone Actually “Deserves” It?

When someone does us wrong, it’s human to want justice and seek vindication. We want whoever hurt us to suffer too, and even the score. In this case, unlike the previous example, the need to punish someone and make them feel bad is not disowned but deliberate, conscious, and even satisfying (mostly in fantasy).

Does Punishing Other People Help Us Feel Better?

In practice, evening the score means you are caught being controlled by what the other person did and perpetuates a destructive cycle, rather than solving the problem. Winning the battle of vengeance is a defeat for the relationship, reinforcing the practice of dirty fighting and one-upmanship to manage hurt and anger. Further, encouraging this mindset in oneself rehearses a repetitive inner script and neural pathway fueling anger.

Alternatively, when we choose to uphold our standard of behavior rather than be reactive and indulge anger, we feel more peaceful, in control, and freed up to create new pathways.

A Positive Motivation: Trying To Make a Connection

There is also a positive, unconscious motivation for making someone feel bad when they’ve hurt us that is often misunderstood and missed. When someone we are attached to seems impervious or indifferent to how we feel, trying to make them feel bad and evoke a reaction can be an instinctive, primitive effort to communicate pain, elicit empathy, and create a “felt” connection. This can happen when the need to connect is intense, but there is no way to get through and wake the other person out of their detachment or indifference or get them to feel something closer to the intensity of what we feel.

Istock/Sironosov
Source: Istock/Sironosov

Jenny was close with her dad until high school when her parents divorced. Hurt and angry when he left, Jenny became cold towards her dad and acted like she didn’t care, avoiding his calls and texts and making excuses not to see him.

Her dad already felt guilty about leaving and handled his guilt and his daughter’s rejection by being detached and distant. When he told his therapist the story, she helped him understand Jenny’s behavior as communication – an attempt to get him to feel how she felt to bridge the gap between them. Then, rather than seeing Jenny as manipulative and taking her behavior literally and withdrawing out of guilt, anger, and defeat, the dad used his feelings to help him be empathic to what Jenny was going through. Empowered, he reached out to her in a heartfelt way, healing a painful impasse in their relationship. (My previous post may help further an understanding of the causes and effects of shame and guilt.)

How Can We Tell if the Guilt in Our Lives Is Pathological?

For more on this topic check out my next post: How to Tell What Your Guilt Means)

The answer lies in how it affects our relationships. The hallmark of a healthy relationship is mutuality – the back and forth dance between two people as they move between connection and autonomy. Guilt-tripping is an unwitting attempt to manage perceived rejection, loneliness, or other difficult feelings by controlling other people, seeing them as responsible for our state of mind, and trying to force them to make up for our suffering or else pay the price.

The predominant attitude of entitlement and lack of respect for other people’s separateness and autonomy that is endemic to guilt violates the mutuality of relationships. And the feeling of gratitude that nourishes love and peace.

Awareness of our loved one’s limitations and propensities, in this case being on to the guilt-tripper, can allow us to preempt difficult situations and binds. We don’t have to feel guilty for setting the boundaries we need. We can love and care about someone and legitimately, without malice, have different boundaries and needs that compete with theirs.

On the one hand, setting limits makes us feel better and seem selfish. But the truth is that respecting our boundaries allows us to protect our relationships from being contaminated by resentment and emotional distance, making it safe for us to truly engage. It is an act of love, respect, and wisdom all around.

Facebook image: fizkes/Shutterstock

References

Siegel, D.J., & Hartzell, M. (2018). Parenting from the inside out: how a deeper self-understanding can help you raise children who thrive. Scribe Publications.

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