How to Stop Guilt Tripping

How to Stop Guilt Tripping

Let’s look at the definition of guilt tripping and review some examples.

To define guilt tripping, we must first get clear about what guilt is. Guilt is an unpleasant feeling that surfaces in response to a certain action we did or did not take, one that we believe was not appropriate to do (Lewis, 1971). When we feel guilt, we are looking at ourselves and saying, “I am responsible for this behavior that I know to be wrong” (Leith & Baumeister, 2008). There is often a social component to guilt: my wrongful behavior may have harmed others or may put me at risk of being rejected by others (Leith & Baumeister, 2008).

While we can feel guilt simply from becoming aware that we did something wrong, when we are guilt tripped by somebody else, they make us feel guilty by pointing out what we did and what the impacts are (Price, 1990). The guilt tripper usually does this with a desire to make us behave differently in the future, and their motives can vary from being helpful, such as helping us avoid a compromising situation in the future, to being harmful, such as trying to control us for their own benefit. 

When somebody guilt trips another person, they are banking on the fact that when people feel guilty in relationships, they usually try to fix the situation by apologizing, making amends, or doing something else to resolve what happened (Leith & Baumeister, 2008). Doing this requires looking at the situation from the other person’s perspective, so guilt tripping can also be a way for the guilt tripper to get their target to see the situation as they see it.

Here are some phrases often used in guilt tripping, which can help provide more examples of what it looks like:

“If you really X, then you would Y.” This is a classic way of inducing guilt around a behavior somebody is not doing. You’ve probably heard a child say something along the lines of, “If you really loved me, you would let me have that dessert.” A far more insidious example comes from the realm of abusive relationships where abusers will try to coerce their partners into certain behaviors by saying, “If you really loved me, you would do this for me.”

Another statement is, “You know better than that.” A statement like this not only clearly communicates that you did something wrong, but it just as importantly implies that you are aware of how you should behave and might have even deliberately behaved otherwise. “That’s not how we do things” or

“We don’t act that way here.” These sentences imply a clear violation of values; they send the message that your behavior puts you at risk of being separate from everybody else.

“Unhappiness comes from living the life of two people–the one people want you to be and the one you want to be.”
― Shannon L. Alder

Is Guilt Tripping Manipulation?

Since guilt tripping is the act of inducing guilt in another person, it is by definition manipulation (Simon, 2010). Manipulative behaviors have several traits, all of which can be found in guilt tripping: the concealing of one’s desire to control, knowing where the person is psychologically vulnerable, and being willing to cause them psychological pain to meet one’s own needs (Simon, 2010).

Is guilt tripping always bad?

Okay, so guilt tripping is a form of manipulation. Is it always bad? Well, emotions can be unpleasant or pleasant, but they are never actually good or bad. There are many upsides to feeling guilt: primarily, it can help us make moral choices, feel empathy, and work to maintain our social connections (Leith & Baumeister, 2008). If – and this is a hard if – a person can skillfully and gently induce enough guilt in another person so that they take important action to correct a wrong situation for themselves, then that guilt tripping may be morally acceptable. However, most of the time, guilt tripping is used to meet the needs of the person doing the guilt tripping, and in that sense, it is an unhealthy manipulation.

How to Stop Guilt Tripping

If you are aware that you guilt trip other people, you may or may not experience guilt about it yourself (Baumeister et al., 1995). It can be easy to justify guilt tripping somebody else, even if we know we would not like to be treated that way ourselves. One way to stop guilt tripping others is to ask yourself, when you are upset at somebody else’s behavior, what behavior you would like from them instead. See if you can find a way to directly request that they behave that way next time. You could say, for example, “It annoys me when you say you will take out the trash, then forget to do it. I don’t want to make you feel guilty about forgetting again, but I do want this to change. Can you change something so that you remember next time?”

In Sum

Many of us have been on both ends of a guilt trip. Hopefully this article has made clear that while guilt tripping may be an effective way to change people’s behavior, it is not a pleasant or consensual one. Our collective psychological health will be better off if we do the necessary work to figure out how to ask for changes from others without inducing unnecessary guilt in the process.

References

● Baumeister, R., Stillwell, A., & Heatherton, T. (1995). Personal narratives about guilt: role in action control and interpersonal relationships. Basic and Applied Psychology, 17, 173-198.

● Leith, K., Baumeister, R. (2008). Empathy, shame, guilt, and narratives of interpersonal conflict: guilt- prone people are better at perspective taking, Journal of Personality, 66, 1-37.

● Lewis, H. B. (1971). Shame and guilt in neurosis. Psychoanalytic Review, 58(3), 419.

● Price, G. (1990). Non-rational guilt in victims. Dissociation, 3, 160-164.

● Simon, G. K. (2010). In sheep’s clothing: Understanding and dealing with manipulative people. Little Rock, AR: Parkhurst Brothers