If you’ve caved to your colleague’s hints that you owed her a favor and ended up working late even though you were exhausted, or you’ve given in to your partner’s (or child’s) insistence that you spend time or money on them that you had planned just for you, you were probably sent on a guilt trip.
What exactly is a guilt trip? It’s an effort by someone else to control your behavior by making you feel regret and think negatively about yourself if you don’t do what they tell you to do. It’s effective simply because we don’t want to disappoint important people in our lives.
Targeting Your Emotional Bond
Guilt trips often happen in close relationships (family, friends, some co-workers) where you care about your connection as well as the person’s feelings and how your behavior affects them. That care is what a guilt-tripper zeroes in on -- when they “guilt-trip” you, they’re using your emotional bond to manipulate you into doing something.
Guilt can be a force for good: When you worry about losing a connection, you’ll take steps to make amends when you’ve hurt or offended someone. “Authentic guilt is an inner compass,” says Valorie Burton, positive psychology coach and author of books including Let Go of the Guilt: Stop Beating Yourself Up and Take Back Your Joy. “When we use it wisely, it helps us make choices we won’t regret later.”
But a guilt trip imposes that sense of worry on you for no reason. The problem comes when we allow “false guilt” to hijack our actions in reaction to feelings of guilt. As Burton says, “Unlike authentic guilt, false guilt is the feeling you’ve done something wrong even though you haven’t actually done something wrong.”
Guilt-tripping is a problematic way of communicating. The guilt-tripper may have trouble expressing their needs directly, or they may feel at a disadvantage in the relationship. Guilt tripping might be a way to show dissatisfaction with you without simply saying so. Instead of “We miss you,” for instance, a guilt-tripping uncle who doesn’t want to seem needy might say, “What? You forgot where we live?”
From Criticism to the Cold Shoulder
Guilt-tripping may take many forms, from criticism (“You’re missing the family reunion? I can’t believe you don’t care about tradition!”) to passive-aggression (“If you really loved me, you’d buy me the new app that all the other kids are getting.”) to playing the victim (“I can’t believe you ignored my call!”). It may also be communicated with sighs, shrugs, other negative body language or the “cold shoulder”-- flat out ignoring you.
Some other ways to recognize a guilt trip, Burton says, is if you have these experiences:
You cannot say no without severe consequences.
You’re always the one to blame when something goes wrong.
The other person questions your love or loyalty or compares you to people who they think are doing better.
Guilt trips may seem trivial or annoying, but they can wreck relationships. As one Canadian study noted, they don’t actually convince people to change their behaviors but make people feel obligated to change their behaviors against their will.
When someone runs a guilt trip on you, you may feel stressed for saying no under pressure, or resentment for saying yes and feeling manipulated. You may start to avoid the person and any chance of discomfort from an impossible request. That avoidance can contribute to more stress and anxiety.
Either way, a guilt trip can create an unhealthy imbalance in your relationship. To get back to center and maintain your relationship, you need a smart response.
5 Ways to Put the Brakes on a Guilt Trip
Check in with yourself. Does the thought of agreeing to what’s asked give you a sinking feeling in the pit of your stomach? Tension in your neck? Ask yourself: Am I being rational? Overly emotional? Am I right in saying I can’t do this? Once you’ve answered those questions, you can make a clear-headed decision without any guilt about whether you want to do what’s being asked.
Call it as you see it. Let the person know that you know the issue must mean a great deal to them because they’re trying to make you feel guilty for saying no. Tell them that you don’t want to feel stressed for saying no or resentment for saying yes, so stop the pressure. Burton suggests saying, “I don't like to do things out of guilt because it makes me feel resentful. I like to do things because I feel led to it and I know it is what I'm supposed to do.”
Rewind and start again. Ask them to ask you directly, without the criticism or the tugging at your emotions. As Burton says, “I know there is something specific you would like from me, and I'm asking you to make a request without the guilt trip.”
Tell them to respect your right to say no. This is important for the sake of your relationship. Let them know that when and if you ever say yes, it will be because you really want to, and not because you feel forced to do so.
Deflect a trippy request with love and kindness. As Burton says, affirm the guilt tripper’s value to you by letting them know that you love, care for, and value them and what’s important to them. She suggests saying: “I care what you think.” “I don't like being in conflict with you, but ...” “I don't enjoy letting you down, but …” “I want to meet your expectation, but I can't.”
You might find that you need to revisit these themes until the behavior changes, Burton says. If so, say so: “As we talked about before …” “I am asking you to stop because the guilt trips are damaging our relationship like creating resentment, and I don't want to feel that way with you.”
By checking in with yourself, setting boundaries, and communicating directly and with grace, you can stop a guilt trip while preserving your sense of self and protecting your relationship.