Jamie Turndorf Ph.D.

We Can Work It Out


How to Stop Getting Taken on Guilt Trips

There's a solution, but it requires building some emotional muscle

Posted Apr 08, 2014


We all know that a guilt trip is designed to induce an unpleasant feeling of guilt in another person, in order to manipulate that person into doing what the guilt tripper wants.

Here’s the thing: Nobody can take you on a guilt trip, if you aren’t willing to pack your bags and take the ride. The reason you might keep being played is because, without knowing it, you have tipped your emotional hat and let the guilt tripper know you are an easy mark.

Think about a dog begging for food from your table. He flashes those hangdog eyes and cons you into believing he’s dying of starvation, and that the scrap he has his eye on is the only cure. Next comes your fatal move: You give in to his manipulation and throw him the scrap. Now you’ve trained that dog to manipulate you till the cows (or the Chuck Wagon) come home. This is operant conditioning in action.

The same conditioning happens in our two-legged relationships. If you have what I call a “guilt allergy,” meaning you can’t stomach the feeling of guilt, you are a prime target for a guilt tripper. In fact, the guilt tripper, like a dog, can sniff out your weakness.

But don’t worry; there is a solution. To stop being taken on guilt trips, you have to build up your emotional muscle. You can do this by training yourself to bear the uncomfortable feeling of guilt. At first, this will be very hard to do. But with practice, you will see that your emotional muscle—and your resistance—gets stronger. Then you will be able to bear the emotional weight and tolerate the guilty feelings that the guilt tripper is trying to induce in you, without giving the tripper what he or she wants.

What is so powerful about this solution is the fact that your refusal to "bite" creates a ripple effect that defangs the guilt tripper. In this way, you are actually re-training the guilt tripper and conditioning him or her to cut it out. By not rewarding the guilt tripper with what he or she wants—not throwing the scrap—the guilt tripper, like the dog, will eventually stop the routine. Remember, no behavior continues without it being fed. When the feeding stops, the behavior stops.

But beware: The guilt tripper, like the dog, will periodically test you. This means you are going to need to keep your guard up and consistently refuse to feed the beast. After about six weeks, your new muscle will be fully developed and the guilt tripper’s game will be broken. 

In my new book, Kiss Your Fights Good-bye: Dr. Love’s 10 Simple Steps to Cooling Conflict and Rekindling Your Relationship, I share a list of all the dysfunctional behavioral tactics people use. I divide these tactics into two categories—Open and Secret Warfare--guilt tripping being one of the many forms of Secret Warfare.

All these tactics create relationship friction and fighting, and in order to maintain a healthy, thriving relationship, it’s vital to identify all the Fight Traps that are afoot and eliminate each of them. Sending guilt trips packing is the first leg on your journey toward a lifetime of lasting love.

PS: Since this article only addresses one aspect of guilt tripping (when it's used to manipulate another person), please read my answers to the comments regarding other aspects of this topic, such as when a person should be guilty, how to hold a guilty party accountable without using guilt trips, and much more.  

Due to the hugely positive response to this article, I'm doing a radio show on the topic on Tuesday, April 22nd at noon EST. You can watch the broadcast live over Google Hangouts: https://plus.google.com/u/0/b/112925143622990580565/events/csa6p6i32bss7o19p94i6v8q2pg

and on YouTube: :http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_kobyWa0u2E

Afterwards, the show will be archived at askdrlove.com and on WebTalkRadio.net, iTunes and BlogTalkRadio.com.