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You’re with another person and your cell phone rings, and as you excuse yourself to answer it, the other person says, “That’s alright, take the call. Though I’m only here for a little while, don’t worry about me.” That’s your invitation to go on a Guilt trip. The feeling of guilt is your ticket to ride. But you don’t have to get on the bus when you understand the dynamic of guilt. In this article we will explore what is guilt and how you can protect yourself from it.
So what is guilt and how does guilt hook into your sense of obligation? Guilt is the emotion you feel when you do something that you believe to be wrong because it violates your values. If you value family, but your job keeps you away from them, you feel guilty about being away from family. If you value loving kindness, but yell at your child, you feel guilty for treating them badly. If you see someone suffering and do nothing to help, and you value being of service, you feel guilty for standing by and doing nothing. Sometimes, the action or inaction that violates your values is your best choice under the circumstances, yet you still feel guilty.
Guilt is not inherently a bad thing. The feeling of guilt has the power to make us consider our actions and change our behavior. Feeling a healthy guilt is good, because the people who don’t feel it tend to wind up as criminals.
Guilt can be a way of paying penance, “I feel bad. Therefore, I’m not so bad.” Then, people learn to live with regret instead of taking right action and righting their wrongs.
A relative who is exhibits Martyr behavior preys on guilty family members. Many people live with more than their share of guilt, and it makes them the perfect patsy for the Martyr’s self-pitying ways. A person who grows up with constant criticism, or who is blamed for things they did not do, may end up in their adulthood feeling in the wrong, even when they are not. An ‘if/then’ cause/effect statement, is the usual technique to make someone feel guilty. This is intended to create a link between your sense of regret/obligation and you doing what the Martyr wants. In effect, they say, “If you were more caring, you would do as I want.” Or, they might use the negative corollaries: “ If you weren’t so irresponsible, you would do as I want.”
When someone directly says something intended to make you feel guilty, you can flip it around to make them feel guilty for saying it. If they accuse you of not caring, tell them they aren’t caring about your caring. By refusing to accept their interpretation of your behavior, and calling their behavior into question, you flip the guilt back where it belongs.
Guilt tripper: “You don’t appreciate all I’ve done for you.”
You: “I do appreciate all you’ve done for me. But I don’t think you appreciate my appreciation!”
Guilt tripper: “ That’s not true.”
You: “Well, it isn’t true for me either.”
Another way people take you on a guilt trip is to encourage you to do what you want to do, and feel bad about it! They attempt to attach the consequence of guilt to your determination to make your own choices. Guilt used in this way becomes obligation they can use at a future time. The best protection is to snip the connecting cord they’ve attached that ties your choice to guilt by pretending to take it on face value.
Guilt tripper: “Go ahead. Don’t worry about me.”
You: “Ok. That’s great. Thanks!”
Sometimes, the Guilt tripper assigns value to your choices, and makes a negative comparison to their own value in your life, in either caring or significance. “You care more about him than you do about me.” The best response is to snip the connection by assigning a different value of either being responsible or being appropriate. Then appreciate their understanding.
Guilt tripper: “Go on, if your husband and children are more important to you than your own mother.”
You: “Actually, I have a responsibility to attend to my family’s needs, just like you attended to ours. I know you understand, thanks.”
Some guilt is self created. In that case the solution is to nip it. For example, if some one gives you feedback in an honest and non-malicious way, and that feedback makes you feel bad about yourself, then the guilt trip is your own. Identify the undermined value, do something to restore it, and the burden of guilt will evaporate. If you feel obligated because of something someone has done for you, balance the equation and be done with it. Then mentally give yourself credit for by knowing the equation is balanced.
When it comes to guilt, remember you have always have a choice. You can flip it, snip it, or nip it.
Attribution: This post is adapted from the McGraw-Hill book, “Dealing with Relatives” by Rick Brinkman & Rick Kirschner