Has someone ever made you feel so bad about something that it made you go to great lengths to make it up to them?
Has a friend or partner ever manipulated you to hang out with them or come home early by appealing to your natural compassion and kindness?
Has a parent ever made you feel bad for not calling them, even if you call them a reasonable amount? If so, you may have been guilt-tripped.
What is a guilt trip?
Guilt-tripping is the act of causing another person to feel guilty as a means of manipulating them to take action to change their behavior. Not all guilt is part of a guilt trip – guilt is a natural emotion and motivates us to make amends or corrections when we’ve made a mistake or let someone down. Still, since guilt is a strong motivator for change, some people use it to manipulate others.
Guilt-tripping can happen in all kinds of relationships, from friendships to romantic, professional, or familial relationships. People who guilt trip friends, partners, coworkers, or family relationships do so because they know what will make the other person feel guilty and want to use that to their advantage.
If someone has made you feel bad and tried to make you change your behavior even if you apologized for a mistake or if you didn’t do anything wrong in the first place, then taken advantage of your guilt by making you do something you didn’t want to or didn’t have time to do, you may have experienced guilt-tripping.
Signs of a guilt trip and guilt tripping behavior
Sometimes guilt trips are intentional. The guilt tripper knows how to make you feel bad and uses that to their advantage. At other times, guilt trips are unintentional. A person may have simply been trying to express their frustration or other emotions, and someone else responded by helping them because they felt guilty.
Guilt-tripping behaviors can be both obvious and subtle. It helps to learn how to recognize a guilt trip, so you can stop it in its tracks if it’s happening to you or if you’re doing it to someone else.
Common signs of guilt-tripping include:
- Recalling past mistakes
- Reminding the other person about past favors
- Comparing how much work you vs. they have done
- Silent treatment
- Expressing disapproval indirectly through body language and tone of voice
- Suggesting there is a debt involved or that one is owed
- Passive aggressive behavior
- Sarcasm about your efforts
Guilt-tripping, as outlined in the signs above, can happen in all kinds of relationships. They are often used in romantic relationships because one partner knows that they matter to the other person and that the other person is likely to go to great lengths to make something up to them.
Why do people guilt trip?
Guilt-tripping serves several purposes for those who use it. The most common reasons why people guilt-trip others include:
People guilt trip to engage in emotional manipulation
Often, one guilt trips another to manipulate them into changing their behavior. Usually, it’s something that the other person doesn’t want to do or would struggle to fit into their schedule.
Manipulative guilt trips can make the victim neglect important personal responsibilities just to overcome the guilt they feel, the guilt caused by the first person’s manipulative tactics.
People guilt trip to avoid conflict
One might guilt trip another to get out of having an important conversation or confrontation. The guilt trip serves as an excuse not to have to justify a want. Instead of trying to make a clear, open communication channel, the guilt tripper tries to get what they want in an indirect way.
People guilt trip to gain sympathy
Some guilt trippers use this sly tactic on others to gain sympathy, which makes them feel better about themselves. Suppose the guilt tripper can convince others they themselves have been harmed or have been the victim of a situation caused by the other. In that case, they may elicit feelings of guilt, a sympathetic response from others, and even receive special treatment.
Consequences of a guilt trip
Guilt is a natural emotion. We all feel it from time to time. Especially when we know, we’ve done something wrong. Feelings of guilt may help us to recognize the flaws or mistakes in our behavior and take action to make amends.
However, some people take advantage of the power of guilt. They use guilt for their own gain. They make others feel guilty and manipulate them into doing things they don’t really want to do.
There are consequences to guilt-tripping. Intentional or unintentional, guilt-tripping can harm several aspects of our lives and the lives of those we love, including our relationships, our mental health, and our personal growth and ability to communicate maturely and effectively.
Some of the most common consequences of guilt-tripping include:
Guilt-tripping most often occurs in close relationships. This is also where it can do the most damage. A partner who feels hurt or betrayed by the other person may use those feelings to make their partner feel guilty and to elicit a change in behavior that involves special treatment and excessive apologizing.
The partner who receives the guilt trip naturally feels guilty. Over time, if guilt-tripping continues, the victim of the guilt trip may start to view the relationship as unhealthy and put an end to it.
As such, making your partner feel guilty may serve an immediate purpose in that they will do something you want them to do, but it can rupture the quality of the relationship in the long term.
Poor mental health and emotional turmoil
Though a small degree of guilt is natural and even useful in motivating us to take action, prolonged feelings of guilt can damage our mental health.
Some of the most common mental health conditions feature a significant amount of guilt, including depression, anxiety, OCD, and borderline personality disorder.
Being the victim of a guilt trip can exacerbate these cognitions if the victim already struggles or may evoke issues in a person with underlying, unprocessed past guilt.
Even in cases where there is no underlying mental health condition, persistent feelings of guilt can make a person feel stressed, anxious, sad, worried, tense, and restless.
Guilt may eventually lead to shame, which permeates into all aspects of a person’s life and affects their self-image and self-esteem, and may cause them to withdraw from others.
Guilt-tripping can cause the onset of a guilt complex in some people, where the person believes that they are extremely liable to make a mistake no matter what they do. This is most often seen in adult children of guilt-tripping parents.
The dangers of guilt-tripping parents
One of the most dangerous consequences of the guilt trip happens when the guilt is inflicted on children by their parents. Guilt-tripping is a sign of emotional immaturity and leaves a lasting impact on a child. If a child is made to feel guilty by their parents, they are likely to internalize the feelings and carry them into their adult life.
In their adult relationships, any instance of guilt will evoke their deeply internalized self-blame and even shame and may elicit inappropriate reactions that are not based on the present but on one’s childhood experiences.
Why do parents guilt trip their children?
Parents who guilt trip might do so out of fear that they will lose emotional closeness with them. They want to keep them close and maintain an emotional connection, but they don’t know how to do so effectively.
The parent might struggle with direct, honest communication and resort to manipulation to influence their child’s behavior and keep them close by.
To be healthy and learn to be independent, children should be explorative and share their time and energy with friends and various other family members. As a child becomes more independent and emotionally immature, the parent might fear being left behind and manipulate their child into spending time with them and having a consistent relationship.
The parent might even feel angry that their child is not giving them enough attention, or believe that they are entitled to special treatment, or that the child ‘owes’ them their time. These are characteristics of narcissistic parents, so if any of the above reflects your lived experience as a child, it is worth investigating the nature of narcissism and the effect narcissistic parents have on their children.
When the parental guilt trip backfires…
Parental guilt-tripping may work in the short term. The child is likely to internalize the guilt and acquiesce to the parent’s wishes to alleviate it. The child might call their parents more often, spend more time with them, or work extra hard around the house because they’ve been manipulated into doing so by the parent.
However, there is a price to pay for guilt-tripping. The child’s experience of internalizing guilt may soon lead to resentment and lead to the opposite of the parent’s wishes.
Their resentment may create more emotional distance and make them not want to call or visit home as much as they would have had there been no guilt-tripping. Children of a guilt-tripping parent, even when they’re adults, may respond to the manipulation through:
- Emotional shutdown
- Passive aggressive outbursts
- Experiencing negative feelings
- Complying with the parent’s wishes but being upset or frustrated about it
- Distancing from the parent
If a child responds negatively to guilt and manipulation, they may distance themselves from the parent. The parent, who wants more closeness, may panic and use even more guilt-based tactics to close the gap. This, in turn, creates more of a reaction in the child. The whole situation becomes a cycle of guilt and distance that can cause significant strain to the relationship.
How to respond to a guilt trip
Below we have outlined some effective tips and tools to help you respond to a guilt trip without succumbing to it. It may take some practice to follow the following tips and tools, right, but it’s more than worth it.
Guilt-tripping is an extremely unhealthy behavior and can make you feel terrible about yourself. Remember the following next time someone tries to guilt-trip you.
Don’t take it personally when someone tries to guilt trip you
In the throes of a guilt trip, you might believe that you have a responsibility to help the guilt tripper because they have convinced you that you’re the only person who can help change the situation. The truth is that it’s highly unlikely that you’re the only person who can help.
Skilled guilt trippers can be manipulative and may convince you otherwise, but it’s important to stand your ground and look at the situation objectively.
Recognize emotional immaturity
If someone tries to guilt-trip you, they may not care about your feelings. They know how to pull your strings, and even though they know that if you were to feel guilty, you’d feel bad about yourself, they do it anyway because they are trying to gain something.
These are not the characteristics of someone who cares about you and are a sign of emotional immaturity. If you’re in a relationship with someone whose guilt trips you, it might be worth considering if their level of emotional maturity is really what you’re looking for.
Set a healthy boundary with people who guilt trip you
To healthily approach a guilt trip, express your honest feelings to the other person about the situation. Let them know that what they’re doing is making you uncomfortable. Assure them that you care about them and that you are always willing to help if they are in need, but that if they use manipulative tactics to influence your behavior, there will be consequences.
We’re raised in a society where saying ‘no’ is deemed rude and leads to discomfort and awkwardness, but this way of thinking is extremely unhelpful and even damaging. You have every right to say ‘no’. You don’t owe anyone your time or energy, so if someone tries to convince you otherwise, it’s time to put healthy boundaries in place.