So, you’re talking to your dad on the phone and the topic of the holidays comes up. He knows you’re planning to spend them with your in-laws because you’ve devised an every-other-holiday trade-off system, and this is your in-laws’ year. Fair is fair. But then, he lays it on thick.
“Well, I guess your mother and I will just have to hope we see the kids at some point this year…” he says, trailing off.
Dad has backed you into a bit of a corner because you don’t want him or your mother to feel left out. Sure enough, you feel an old familiar friend: guilt.
The guilt-trip is a powerful weapon, one found in many people’s conversational armory. Who hasn’t had it used on them or wielded it knowingly to get something they want? It’s so prevalent that it’s pretty much a cliché at this point. But the guilt trip is a manipulation tactic that, used often, can really disrupt a relationship. When one person — a partner, an in-law, a grandparent — uses feelings of guilt, shame, or disappointment to get their way, it can lead to unhealthy communication and an inability to resolve conflicts.
“Guilt-tripping is a way to maintain power,” says Dr. Lauren Cook, a therapist, speaker, author and the founder of Heartship Psychological Services. “It’s a way to have the upper hand and make a person feel indebted to you. It can quickly create a ‘tit for tat’ dynamic where every action can be used against you. Ultimately, this creates unsafety in the relationship and prevents vulnerability — for both parties.”
Using guilt to get your way can seem innocent — and it certainly can be. But when it’s used with regularity, the guilt trip can create long-term problems for a relationship. Not the mention the recipient can feel used and undervalued.
“Guilt trips are inherently manipulative,” says Kimberly Perlin, a licensed clinical social worker. “Instead of asking for what you want you attempt to get another to feel bad to behave how you want. They are the tools of the powerless or those that think they are powerless because they take no ownership for their feelings or actions.”
If you’re on the receiving end of a guilt trip, it’s difficult to know how to respond. That’s why it’s important to have some back-pocket tactics at your disposal to stave off the resentment, frustration, and other negative feelings that come as a result.
How to Respond to a Guilt Trip
If someone is trying to guilt-trip you, one of the first things experts recommend is engaging in self-talk. That is, take a moment to ask yourself about the nature of the guilt-tripper’s request to see if it is valid. Then, offer an answer that lets them know they’ve been heard.
“Ask yourself, ‘Does this advice have any merit? Do I agree with what I’m being told? If I follow this advice, what will be the outcome in regard to my self-respect and actual circumstances of my life?’” offers Nancy Landrum, an author and relationship coach. “When I need time to think this through, I’ve found the best answer is to say, ‘I’ll give that some thought.’ Or, ‘You may be right. I’ll think about it.’ That answer gives the ‘advisor’ some level of satisfaction of being heard, but doesn’t promise anything.”
Additionally, you can flip the script on the guilt-tripper by actually addressing whatever it is they’re asking for as opposed to the guilty feelings they’re associating with the request. For instance, if the guilt-trip is centered around their wanting to spend the holidays with you, talk to them about that as opposed to whatever it is they’re guilting you over.
“Clarify that if they have a request you would ask that they next time directly say it,” Perlin says. “To figure out the request, look for the underlying wish, desire, or need expressed in the statement.”
This might be easier said than done. It’s not hard to feel powerless when hit with a well-phrased “Well, your brother never had a problem with it…” or “Well, I guess I’ll see my friends in a few months…”
In a situation where the guilt is laid on thick as can be, Jessica Tappana, a licensed clinical social worker, suggests a simple fix: Confidently explaining your side of the situation and asking for what you need assertively.
“This one is simple but powerful and can often be used in the context of a really close relationship where you don’t think the other person is really meaning to cause you distress,” she says. “Say, ‘The deadline for my work project is tomorrow morning. I feel disappointed I can’t go to dinner with you tonight and stressed about trying to finish this. Can you support me in working tonight? If so, I’ll make sure to get off work at least an hour early so we have more time together tomorrow night.’”
Again, this might also be difficult to attempt, as it requires you to match their guilt with your own. But there’s always another option: Don’t engage.
“Guilt trips are only sexy if they get the desired response,” says Perlin. “If they don’t it is no longer an effective tool to get the speaker’s needs met.”
In the end, the person who can get you off of the guilt trip is you. You need to be able to assert yourself, tell yourself that you’re not doing anything wrong in asking for what you want (if that is indeed the case), and be confident enough to not give in to guilt-driven demands.
“Remind yourself of your own values and why you made the decision you did or drew the boundary they are trying to make you feel guilty about,” Tappana says. “Remembering how your decision relates to your personal values and the things most important to you can help you stay strong no matter what the other person says.”
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