Psychology

Guilt Trip: What Is It, Examples + How to Spot and Respond

Guilt can be a powerful weapon, and sadly, many people know how to utilize it skillfully.

Intentional or not, guilt-tripping prevents conflict resolution and healthy communication and it often evokes feelings of resentment and frustration.

But what is a guilt trip? How do we spot and respond to it? Here are experts insights.

Ned Presnall, LCSW

Ned Presnall

Licensed Clinical Social Worker | Director of Clinical Services, Plan Your Recovery | Professor, Washington University

As human beings, we are very social creatures. We’re constantly engaged in positively and negatively reinforcing the behaviors of the people closest to us. We give small emotional rewards, and small emotional punishments in response to the things that they do.

We do this because we’re unconsciously trying to reinforce the behaviors that we most want to see — we do this with really anyone we’re invested in, be it a friend, a family member, a co-worker, or a group project member.

Guilt trip when someone emotionally punishes you in another way in an effort to get you to do something

Guilt is an emotion that we feel when we think we’ve done something that will cause another person to reject us — Freud called guilt a fear of the loss of love. So if a person is giving us a “guilt trip”, they’re pushing us away to try to reinforce the behavior in us that they want to see. It’s sometimes intentional, and other times unintentional.

For example, if a friend is trying to get you to visit them and you initially refuse, they might guilt trip you by saying, “aww, but you never see me anymore!” That friend might be unconsciously trying to manipulate you, or they may have chosen those words very specifically.

You can recognize a guilt trip when someone withdraws their affection or emotionally punishes you in another way in an effort to get you to do something. It’s a sort of passive-aggressive way to express emotional needs — it’s far better to tell a person what you want than to try to motivate them through manipulation.

Related: How to Stop Being Passive Aggressive

So what can you do? If a person is withdrawing their affection from us, the most practical thing to do is to ask them if they’re unhappy, or otherwise try to communicate with them about their feelings. Engage them in empathetic conversation, and attempt to see the situation through their eyes when speaking with them — you’ll be more likely to find a solution.

Candace V. Love, PhD, PC

Candace Love

Licensed Clinical Psychologist | President, North Shore Behavioral Medicine

The point I want to make about guilt is simply: We tend to feel guilty when we say ‘no’ to someone or their request. It’s important to know how to say no and not feel guilty for taking care of yourself, even if you just wanted to stay home and watch TV or relax. Yet, too often we beat ourselves up and feel we shouldn’t have said no, and now this other person is disappointed or hurt.

Assess your intent

But, when one feels guilty they need to first ask themselves, ‘what was my intent?’ If your intent was not to hurt or disappoint someone, but actually to take care of yourself, then you have nothing to feel guilty about.

Sure, the other person may be hurt and feel disappointed but that is their issue to work out. That person needs to learn to self soothe themselves, which is a skill everyone should learn along with frustration tolerance. Unfortunately, many people have not learned these skills.

Too often guilt accompanies those people with people-pleasing issues – the disease to please – or another word for it co-dependent: where you put other people’s wants and needs ahead of your own.

Someone who does this is ripe for a narcissistic relationship because a narcissist is only too happy to have someone who puts the narcissist’s wants and needs always first.

Mary Joye, LMHC

Mary Joye

Licensed Mental Health Counselor, Winter Haven Counseling

Guilt trips are some of the most costly “excursions” you can take because they take a toll on you mentally and physically. If you feel guilty when someone asks you for something, this is the most obvious way to recognize if it is a guilt trip. When you recognize something, you can neutralize the effect with time and practice.

When someone uses guilt, it feels like emotional extortion and it is. This is particularly true of anyone who suffers from codependency, approval-seeking, or people-pleasing behaviors.

Related: How to Break Codependency Habits

Recognizing the guilt trip may have been elusive in the past, but it is easier than you think to in the future. There is biology to this and involves the vagus nerve which is your parasympathetic nervous system that kicks in when you are emotionally reactive. If you see your phone ring knowing it is someone who guilt trips you, feeling the tension in your shoulder or neck, heart racing, feeling short of breath or nauseated, are vagus nerve reactions.

Learn to say ‘no’

Guilt can be the most insidious of manipulation tools of narcissists or just plain selfish people who use your kindness and empathy to gain your sympathy. They get you to say yes when you want to say no. Saying no is very difficult but it can be done.

You can diplomatically say no in a three step way.

  1. Breathe slowly and don’t feel that you have to say yes or no right away. Take your time to leave silence. It lets them know you are thinking and not reacting in knee jerk fashion.
  2. Release the tension you feel and use a “gratitude sandwich” to say no. Example: Someone has called and said no one makes cakes as well as you do and no one is as nice as you are and asks you to bake ten cakes for their cause without payment other than this passive-aggressive compliment which was really flattery. You can say. “Thank you for thinking I can bake ten cakes for the benefit but I am overextended and will have to decline. But thank you for the compliment. This method is an authentic way to say no without having to say “no” at all.
  3. If the person pushes harder, you can straighten your posture and elevate your chin even if you are on the phone. Guilt makes you slump and a heightened posture makes you sound, feel, and look more confident. Then you can put up your and simply state with no more than a few more words, “I simply can’t say yes.”

Again, these are ways to say no to guilt trips that are more diplomatic. However, don’t expect anyone to applaud you for declining the emotional extortion. It will take a while to recondition those who have conditioned you to cave into their guilt trips. Then you can save the time and energy to go on actual trips and enjoy your life by saying yes to yourself while saying no to others.

Related: How to Say No at Work Without Feeling Guilty

Lynell Ross

lynell ross

Resource Director, Education Advocates

Guilt trips are an attempt to manipulate you

Some people have a knack for knowing how to push your buttons and manipulate you by using guilt. Whether they are conscious of what they are doing or not, this tactic works for them so they continue to throw out subtle remarks such as, “Don’t worry about me. I’m used to being all alone.”

Or they might use not so subtle manipulations such as attempting to make you feel sorry for them because you have more money, a better job, or more friends. Beware of a friend that says as you sit down to a meal out, “I wish I had a job that pays as much as yours. I can’t afford expensive meals.” Then you feel guilty and treat them to dinner.

Prepare yourself by recognizing guilt trips

Next time you run across someone who lays a guilt trip on you, remember this. No one can make you feel anything. It is up to you to know how to respond, and you can protect yourself by understanding guilt trips for what they are, the person’s attempt to manipulate your feelings and get you to do what they want.

Stop enabling bad behavior

When you see their guilt trip as an attempt to manipulate you, then you can stop feeling guilty and respond with awareness. Decide what is best for you, realizing that it isn’t selfish to take care of yourself.

What’s more, when you give in to manipulation or do something for someone else that they should be doing for themself, you enable them to continue the behavior that is harmful to themselves. You can learn to say no without feeling guilty.

Attempting to make another person feel guilty is a problematic behavior

You may have lived with a family member who guilted you into doing things your whole life, so are used to it. But laying a guilt trip on someone is unhealthy and problematic behavior. When you stop letting them make you feel guilty, it isn’t your problem any longer.

Jessica LaMarre

Jessica LaMarre

Writer, Love Personal Growth

What I have learned is a guilt trip can come from external people. However, the most challenging guilt trip to deal with, for me personally, is the internal guilt trip. Imagine an ice cream sundae; first I would scoop on the repeated story in my head, the second I would add another scoop of how it impacted me, others, and/or work, and third I would top it off with some self-criticism.

As a working mom of three, the amount of guilt trip sundaes I am served is like living in a Baskin Robbins. “Mom, you hugged her first”, “Mom, you spent more time with brother”, “Mom, do you have to go to yoga, I want to play”, “Mom, are you done working, yet”, play on repeat. I have spent the last two and a half years transforming my life, which has allowed my guilt trips to subside. Now, I rarely go through the process below, except when it comes to my kids. Here are some examples of those guilt trip sundaes.

For the first scoop, the repeat story:

  • “I don’t have time for this, I have so much work to do.” The word ‘this’ in my story, pretty much-equaled anything else.
  • “I cannot believe I am taking this time for me, there is so much that needs to be done”. This story was rare because I did not do much for me. When I did, it would make me feel guilty.
  • “I need to complete this project, then I can practice that work/life balance thing”. Not true. You’re welcome, just letting you know from experience no matter how much you accomplish or achieve, there will always be more.

For the second scoop, how it could impact me, others, and/or work:

  • “I won’t be considered for the (fill in the blank) if I don’t put in 60 hours a week” or “My co-workers and customers are counting on me”
  • “I don’t need to take time for me, who goes to every 6 month dental cleaning anyways?”
  • “We are not going to win this proposal if we don’t have all of this information, we need to do more research, yeah we need more information, I can take it on.”

Then top it off with some self-criticism:

  • “Why did I even sign up for this? I should have known better.”
  • “See, now you don’t have enough time to finish what you needed to get done!”
  • “You should have known this all along, how did not you see this coming!”

Stick to your boundaries

A guilt trip can make for a messy sundae, especially for our mental, physical, and emotional health. In the book, ‘Language of Emotions’ by Karla McLaren, I learned guilt and shame are a form of anger that arises when your boundary has been broken from the inside — by something you’ve done wrong or have been convinced is wrong.

Once I learned this, I noticed that when I am not holding to my boundaries, I feel guilty. Learning my boundaries and sticking to them, which often results in me saying no, has reduced my overall guilt.

Here are three steps to spot the guilt trip and respond.

  • Step 1: Become aware – learn when, where, and with whom you experience guilt (who could be work).
  • Step 2: How do you respond to the scoops? What is the repeated story you tell yourself? How do you believe this story impacts your life? What self-criticism follows?
  • Step 3: Know it is OK to say No. The word no can be a complete sentence.

I love the quote from Warren Buffet: “The difference between successful people and really successful people is those really successful people say no to almost everything.”

Learn your boundaries and give yourself permission to say no. From experience, I can say there will be a lot less guilt-trip sundaes.

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