The guilt trip is one of the more aggravating manipulative tactics. It’s also one of the more common to the point where it’s become a cliché, a lever pulled by shrewd spouses or sitcom mothers-in-law. Whether done with a smile, silent look, or spoken few sentences, the strategy relies upon making a person feel guilt or remorse so they bend to the other’s will. And while, yes, guilt-tripping is often done in a way that’s not meant to harm, it’s coercive and, done regularly, can result in strong feelings of resentment. After all, guilt can be such a powerful motivator that the tactic is less a trip than a trap, one that can be tough to escape.
“People use guilt-tripping when they have a need but don't have the tools to clearly ask for what they need or want in a healthy way,” says Larissa House, LCSW, a mental health therapist and practice owner of Therapy with Larissa House. “This could be a need for help, a need to be seen or validated, a need to be thanked or appreciated, or a need to rest or take a break.”
The problem with guilt-tripping, of course, is that, over time, it can erode a person’s emotional wellbeing. By consistently giving into a person who’s laying on the guilt, you can lose your sense of self and start to shape your identity and your life around what that person needs.
“Those who use guilt as a tactic to manipulate will change narratives to fit their purposes,” says Jared Heathman, MD, a Houston-based psychiatrist. “Their hope is that your guilt will shift how you behave, thus giving them what they want. The manipulator is attempting to ‘pull you in’ to their reality.”
So how do you respond when someone tries to guilt trip you? When you’re confronted by a chronic guilt-tripper, here are a few techniques you can try to alleviate some of the nagging at your conscience.
1. Set Boundaries
Make it very clear from the outset what your boundaries are to help keep guilt-tripping to a minimum. If family members tend to guilt you over holidays, for example, make sure to establish early on what your arrangements are for such occasions and stick to them.
“Knowing what you will and won’t tolerate in a relationship and being able to communicate that will allow others to know what they can or cannot do with you,” says Kiana Shelton, a licensed clinical social worker with Mindpath Health. “This doesn’t mean you will not be tested but you will see those lessen over time.”
2. Call It Out
If you feel you’re being guilted into something, don’t wait until it escalates. Head the guilt trip off at the pass by saying upfront, “I feel like you’re trying to make me feel guilty.” This might be difficult. But by putting it out in the open, you can make it clear that you’re aware of what the other person is trying to do.
“While a guilt trip may be intentional, it's never supposed to be perceived as such,” Shelton says. “If you can name the space in real time it will call into the room what is happening, and the goal would be for there now to be space for a different level of communication about this need.”
3. Don’t Take it Personally
It can be easy to internalize someone’s guilt-tripping of you and make you feel like you’re doing something wrong, but it’s necessary to realize that it’s not about you. If you weren’t the one being guilted into something by this person, they would be doing it to someone else.
“The use of guilt tripping says more about the other person's lack of communication skills than our ability to process the request,” says Shelton. “Keeping this in mind can help release some of the frustration as well as prevent you from falling into the guilt trap and staying anchored in your boundaries.”
4. Stay Calm
The act of guilting someone into doing what you want relies on playing on their emotions and rarely has anything to do with logic. When someone uses the tactic on you, stay calm and do your best to not allow yourself to become triggered. Doing so can create a vicious cycle where no one benefits. “When you stay calm, you are breaking the cycle of hurtful communication,” says House, “and can more easily access rational and compassionate communication tools.”
5. Be Compassionate
Whether they realize it or not — and despite how aggravating you might find them — a person prone to guilt trips is asking for something. Try and ask them what it is that they really need from you and how you can help them. Chances are,” says House, “they're using guilt because they have a need and don't know how to effectively ask for that need to be met. You can ask them what they need from you in a kind and calm way, and then follow through.”
6. Explain How You’re Feeling
If you’re feeling unfairly guilted into doing something, don’t wait until it’s happened three or four times. Speak up and let whoever it is know that how they’re treating you isn’t fair.
“The best thing to do is to confront the person on how you are feeling,” says Dr. Lee Phillips, psychotherapist and certified sex and couples therapist. Dr. Phillips also recommends changing the subject when know it is meant to be manipulation.
In addition, Heathman says it’s important to acknowledge the person’s feelings, but not to take responsibility for them: “Say something like, ‘You are upset. I cannot give what you are asking for. I can, however, listen and support you emotionally.’”