Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Questions About Guilt

1. How do I deal with my friend who guilt-trips me when I don't do what she thinks I should?

2. An elderly family member tries to manipulate me with guilt, when my choices don't meet with her approval - any suggestions?


I've learned that in order to deal with something like this in my relationships, I need to break it down into small manageable pieces, and deal with each in turn.

I start with my feeling: what am I feeling?

- I'm feeling ashamed.

Next, I try to understand: why am I feeling this?

- Because for me, that's the natural progression: first I will feel guilt, then I will feel shame.

So why was I feeling the guilt?

- Someone I care about made it clear to me that they think I was wrong to think/act/feel in a certain way.

Was I wrong? Did I trespass a boundary? Break a promise? Not fufill an obligation?

- No, I didn't. I made a choice that this person didn't like, or with which they didn't agree. Perhaps my choice meant that they didn't get something they wanted from me.

Did I have the right to make this choice? Was it mine to make?

- Yes. This was entirely up to me. This choice could be anything from deciding how I will spend my free time, to the best way to raise kids, to the car I buy, to the life partner I choose. I may be wise to ask for input or wisdom from other people, to help me clarify my thinking, or ask them to evaluate their experience in a similar situation, but in the end, I'm the one who has to make the decision, and accept the responsibility for having done so.

Do I feel comfortable and safe with this person, to the extent that I feel I can state a modified and courteous precis of the above?

- No. I don't. Experience has taught me that if I try to confront in any way, the ladling of guilt over my head, I will be met with denials, righteous indignation, and the taking of offense.

What, then, are my choices in dealing with this?

- I can't change other people. I can't force another person to stop with the guilt-trips, already.
I can, however, stop rewarding this behavior with apologies, explanations, rationalisations, and justifications. I can respond to the attempts to make me feel guilty, by not responding. I can use variations on a theme:
"Oh yeah."
"Isn't that something!" (I love this one - an Al-Anon friend shared that she uses it when she wants to sound as if she's responding with a meaningful comment, while in truth remaining non-committal.)

With those in whose company I feel safe, I can be a little more direct:

"When you say ______, I feel _______. I'd like you to stop saying that to me, please."

I have a (not-in-program) friend who has tried several times to induce guilt in me with statements about how disappointed she was when I didn't do this, or I did do that, and I've learned that even the innocuous "I'm sorry you feel that way" will be taken as positive reinforcement of the behavior.

I once heard someone saying that they respond to guilt-trips thusly:

"I know some people might think me selfish to have made this choice, but I know that you are much more open-minded, and will be able to see what others might miss, and therefore understand why I made this choice."

I laughed when I first heard that, but I've since discovered that it works very well with my friend - it's as though I'm offering her an opportunity to display her better character, and she comes through each and every time. I love her for it.


  1. The non-response is the best one for me. Even responding to the alcoholic with the "when you say ______, I feel ________" is often dodged with the resultant mess thrown back in my face. Sometimes I can't contain myself and will cast myself to the lions anyway--mostly I just get some hot breath in my face, but occasionally I lose a limb.

  2. Here I sit this AM feeling very guilty and selfish as I hear the words of my X-boyfriend play repeatedly, “You have no time for me.” He and I had been together for about 9 months and split up about 6 months ago. He wanted me to spend time with him after we had split. I refused. There was a lot of conflict in our relationship. He had a past girlfriend who he kept on the back burner.
    He was the type who continued with X-girlfriends. I could not. He would visit her, take her to the store shopping, spend the holiday with her and her family, visit her father often, call her mother occasionally and wanted me to be friends with her?
    She would never look me in the eye, never introduced herself to me and made trouble for both he and I. In time, other things were revealed. Her family encouraged their relationship. He depended on her for money, he worked on her car, and it went on and on. He denied interest in her stating, “They were just friends.” Then one day, she came onto him. He has always denied there was anything between them and said, “He did not see it coming.” Strange that I did. I eventually broke it off when I realized this would never stop.
    Most of our conflicts resulted from his desire to do what he wanted regardless of how it made me feel. To me it was all about healthy boundaries. Even after our split 6 months ago he continuously called me, sent me letters and text messages. He felt I was wrong to not spend time with him. He delivered past things I gave him to my home when I told him to keep them. He called on holidays, he left notes on my car and called for me to meet him regularly. The guilt wrencher, he sent me a poem about not having time to spend with him also. I received word yesterday he had passed away. It is sad. He did not want to die alone. He knew he would.
    I struggle with feeling guilty because he was sick these past months and was dying. I went to visit him once. Thank you for this post to help me deal with my feelings and come to terms with” my trying to maintain,” after leaving a non-healthy relationship.