What is Guilt-tripping?

Guilt-tripping occurs when a person makes another feel guilty, to manipulate them into doing something. It is a form of passive aggressive behaviour that results from the person’s lack of ability or unwillingness to communicate openly, honestly, and assertively.

Communicating in a passive aggressive way can have negative consequences for both the sender and recipient of guilt trips. Because guilt-tripping is manipulative, in the long term, people may distance themselves from someone who frequently dishes them out. As for a person at the receiving end of guilt trips, resentment may build over time, ultimately affecting the relationship.

If there was something that you did not want to do but did so anyway at someone else’s bidding to avoid feelings of guilt, chances are that a guilt trip may have occurred. This also applies the other way: if you did not do something that you wanted to do, to avoid feelings of guilt. At one point or another, we have probably guilt-tripped others too. It might have been conscious or unconscious. A guilt trip can come from anyone. This includes friends, family members, relatives, colleagues, and romantic partners. They might even come from professionals whom we engage with.

In fact, guilt-tripping is most likely to occur (and is most successful) in relationships that are the closest to us. Why? Because we are most emotionally vulnerable with the people who are closest to us. We don’t want them to feel bad, so we comply. This is how guilt operates as such a strong motivator in our close relationships. Taking counselling or help from a psychologist is a good solution to calm the questions arising in your mind.

Signs of Guilt-tripping

Guilt-tripping can appear in many ways. At times, guilt-tripping may be obvious. At other times, guilt trips may slip under the radar. Here are some telltale signs of guilt-tripping.

  • Using statements or behaviour that directly make you feel guilty
  • Using sarcasm to put you down
  • Using unclear statements or behaviour
  • Using passive-aggressive statements or behaviour
  • Reminding you that you owe them a favour
  • Reminding you that they have done so much, and that you, in contrast, have not pulled your weight
  • Bringing up “history” of the mistakes you have made in the past
  • Indirectly suggesting that something is wrong, but staying silent and refusing to communicate with you (ie the silent treatment)
  • Ignoring your attempts to discuss the issue
  • Showing a lack of interest in doing things to make the situation better themselves
  • Holding back affection or communication as a way of punishing you

Examples of Guilt-tripping

Guilt-tripping can come from anyone. Often, guilt trips come from those closest to us. These could be family members, friends, romantic partners, or colleagues. Here are some ideas about what guilt-tripping examples might look like in various aspects of life. Keep in mind that these are just examples for discussion. Depending on the situation, the same statement or behaviour may or may not be considered guilt-tripping. There could also be other situations not listed here that might constitute guilt-tripping.

Imagine that your partner and you have a nice evening planned. You managed to get a reservation at your favourite restaurant in advance. At the last minute, a family emergency crops up that needs to be handled immediately, leaving you with no choice but to cancel the evening plans with your partner. A guilt-tripping response might sound something like, “It’s alright, I know you’re always too busy for me. I’ll just have dinner alone then.” Such a response invokes guilt and makes you feel bad for having to cancel, despite your legitimate reasons.

Guilt-tripping can come from anyone, even those closest to us.

Guilt trips can also occur at home. Imagine a parent saying, “I’ve done so much for you over the years. Are you saying that you can’t do this one thing for me?” Examples might include daily house chores, running an errand, or other favours. Do you see how guilt plays a central role here?

Always consider the contextual factors. What is more important is the impact of the person’s actions on you. The rare guilt-tripping for something trivial might not leave much of an impact on you. If you are uncertain or struggling, however, check with someone whom you trust. Another option is to consult a professional psychotherapist. You do not have to wait for the problem to be worse before you work on making the situation better.

How to Respond

Many factors play a role in determining how you may respond to guilt-tripping. These include your ability to communicate assertively, the gravity of the situation, the impact of the guilt trip on you, and even the amount of time you have in that moment.

Recognise and acknowledge the guilt trip

Start with self-awareness. The first step is to be aware of what is happening. Know the signs of guilt-tripping. Recognise and acknowledge the guilt trip for what it is. This may sound simple as you read it now. However, it can be much harder to spot the signs of guilt-tripping when we are emotionally involved in the situation. If you are in doubt, what can be helpful is to check in with someone you trust, or a professional therapist.

Understand the impact of guilt-tripping on you

Observe what happens when you experience a guilt trip from someone else. What exactly makes you feel guilty? Could it be something about the person themselves? Or might it be about the situation at hand? What else is happening around you? What about within you? Are there other emotions present besides guilt? Could there be any resentment? Fear? Anger? What might be underlying these emotions? In what other situations do you remember feeling this way? What thoughts are running through your mind?

Consider your options

When you are being guilt-tripped

It can be helpful to start by understanding that another person’s behaviour is out of your control. No matter how hard you try to convince them, how they choose to behave is ultimately their decision. Focus instead on what you can control – your response. Do what you can. Acknowledge that the rest is not within your control.

Some immediate options for you include calling out the behaviour directly (but politely) and limiting your exposure to the person. You may also wish to have an open conversation with the person who is guilt-tripping you. 

For all you know, they might not have even realised that they were guilt-tripping you, or that their behaviour had such an impact on you. What other options can you come up with for the given situation? Remember, you always have the option to say no. Who else can support you in this situation? There is absolutely no shame in seeking help.

Instead of merely responding to each situation, is there any way that we can prevent guilt-tripping altogether for the long-term?

If you have the capacity to do so, you may go one step further by considering what the other party needs. Behind each guilt trip is often a request of some sort, an unmet need. This could be a longing to connect, or a longing to be understood, for instance. What could be their unmet need? While the underlying need might be valid, the way it is expressed (ie a guilt trip) might have been poorly chosen. One option is to find out more about the person’s situation or why they might have chosen guilt-tripping as a means of communicating with you. Ask open-ended questions gently. When they speak, listen empathically. It sometimes helps when you start by sharing your own feelings first.

Guilt-tripping may appear in any of our relationships, especially those closest to us. It may be easy or hard to spot, and intentional or unintentional. Recognising the signs of guilt-tripping is an important starting point. Only then can you assess the impact of a guilt trip on yourself and consider your options. 

When you are guilt-tripping another person

If you are guilt-tripping someone else, here are some things you can do instead. Again, we need to start with awareness. You can’t stop or reduce guilt-tripping others if you are unaware that it is happening. First, know the guilt-tripping meaning and signs. Next, ask yourself this: “When I guilt-tripped the other person, what was I trying to achieve?” You may then brainstorm other ways to achieve the same outcome.

Consider this example. Let’s say you would like someone catch a movie with you. Guilt-tripping might sound something like, “I always agree to your requests. Don’t you think you should go with me this time?” Instead, try making the same request in a way that does not involve guilt in the other party. For instance, “I am planning to catch a movie and would love your company if you can make it.”

If guilt-tripping has been your go-to habit for some time, it might take some time and effort to get used to communicating differently. That’s okay. We all start somewhere. It’s better late than never. Communicating sincerely takes a lot of courage as it puts us in a vulnerable position, so struggling with it initially is normal. It gets better with practice. Be patient with yourself.

If you experience a guilt trip from someone else, there are many possible ways you could address the situation. One such way is to have an open conversation with the other party.

Frequently Asked Questions

What is guilt-tripping? What is emotional guilt-tripping?

Guilt-tripping occurs when someone makes another feel guilty, to manipulate them into doing or not doing something.

Guilt-tripping and gaslighting: is guilt-tripping a form of gaslighting? Are they the same?

Both gaslighting and guilt-tripping involve manipulation. 

  • Gaslighting refers to psychologically manipulating someone into doubting themselves.
  • Guilt-tripping refers to manipulating someone into doing or not doing something, by making them feel guilty.

However, a difference between the two is the desired outcome (whether intentional or not). The aim of gaslighting is to confuse a person and make them second-guess their reality, while the aim of a guilt-trip is to make a person feel guilty so they take (or not take) a particular action. 

Nonetheless, both guilt-tripping and gaslighting may be either intentional or unintentional.

Is guilt-tripping a form of emotional abuse? When does it become emotional abuse?

It is possible that guilt trips may be one manipulation tactic used in emotional abuse, among others. In determining if guilt-tripping constitutes emotional abuse, a professional may consider many other factors beyond guilt-tripping, such as the perpetrator’s patterns of manipulative or controlling behaviour. If you are worried that yourself or someone you know might be a victim of emotional abuse, consult a professional therapist.

How to respond to a guilt trip? What are some ways to get out of guilt trips?

There are many ways to respond to guilt trips. Some options include saying no, calling out the guilt trip, and limiting your exposure to individuals who often guilt trip you. Depending on your relationship with the person, you may choose to have an open and honest conversation with them. Alternatively, confide in a family member or trusted friend. You may also work with a professional therapist to improve your coping skills when faced with guilt trips. Another option is to practise assertiveness skills. 

What is an example of guilt-tripping in relationships?

An example of a guilt trip in a relationship might be, “I went shopping for groceries and cooked the meal myself. Are you expecting me to wash the dishes too?” A more assertive way to phrase the same request might be, “I am feeling quite tired after cooking, would it be alright if you helped with the dishes today?”

How can I respond to guilt-tripping parents?

Experiencing guilt trips from family members can be very frustrating, especially when it occurs repeatedly. Your family members may not be aware of how much their guilt trips are impacting you, or that their behaviour constitutes guilt trips.

Choose an appropriate time (not in the middle of an argument!) to share your feelings openly and honestly. It can help to think about what your family member might be feeling, behind the guilt trip. What might they be experiencing?

If a conversation does not reduce the guilt trips, consider how you might be able to manage your emotions when the guilt trips occur. Speaking to a professional therapist can be useful here.

Is guilt-tripping toxic?

Guilt trips can damage relationships in many ways. For instance, anger and resentment may build up when guilt trips happen again and again. It can also impact an individual’s wellbeing.

What are some impacts of guilt trips?

The impact of a guilt trip depends very much on the situation. Some possible impacts include the buildup of anger and resentment over time, poorer well-being, strained relationships, and avoidance of relationships in which guilt-tripping occurs. The guilt may also become increasingly pervasive and affect other aspects of a person’s life.

Keep in mind that intended outcomes of guilt trips are not necessarily always bad. Indeed, the underlying intention may be to reinforce positive behaviours, such as volunteering, not driving while under the influence of alcohol, leading a healthy lifestyle, saving the environment, and work life balance etc. However, particularly over the long term, it would help the relationship to have a more open, direct and honest communication style, rather than engage in guilt-tripping. 

How to respond to guilt trips?

First, know what “guilt-tripping” means and familiarise yourself with the signs of guilt-tripping. Next, evaluate the impact of the guilt trip on you. Finally, consider the options available to you.

What are some of the reasons for guilt-tripping?

There can be various reasons behind guilt-tripping. On one end, guilt-tripping could be entirely unconscious. One example would be when an individual does not know any other way to communicate or express their needs. On the other end, there may be individuals who use guilt-tripping intentionally, to manipulate others into doing what they want them to.

Sometimes, guilt-tripping is chosen because it is the easy way out. Simply put, communicating in an open, honest, and assertive way, is effortful and tiring. Being open and honest about our needs and feelings also puts us in a vulnerable position where we might be rejected. That can be scary for us.

What are some things to know when a guilt trip occurs?

Guilt trips are not always obvious. They may also be intentional or unintentional. When guilt trips are unintentional, it is possible that the person does not know any other way to make their request. This might be due to learned behaviours and modelling as they grew up. If you are struggling with a guilt trip, confide in someone you trust. Alternatively, bring up your concerns with a professional counsellor.

What might be some common situations where a guilt trip occurs?

We are more likely to receive guilt trips from someone close to us. This is because when we feel emotionally closer to someone, we are more vulnerable to guilt trips. When one person keeps on guilt-tripping another, the other person is likely to recognise the guilt trips at some point. One possible outcome is that the recipient may then build resentment towards the person engaging in guilt-tripping. It is also possible that the recipient may at some point end up guilt-tripping too, as a form of retaliation.

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