What Is a Guilt Trip?

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What Is a Guilt Trip?

A guilt trip involves causing another person to feel guilt or a sense of responsibility to change their behavior or take a specific action. Because guilt can be such a powerful motivator of human behavior, people can wield it as a tool to change how others think, feel, and behave. 

Sometimes this might involve leaning on something that someone already feels guilty about. In other cases, people might induce feelings of unjustified guilt or responsibility to manipulate the other person's emotions and behaviors.

If someone has ever made you feel bad about something you’ve done (or didn’t do) and then used those bad feelings to get you to do something for them, then you have experience with guilt trips.

Signs

Guilt trips can be intentional, but they can also be unintentional. There are chances that you have even guilt-tripped people into doing things before.

Sometimes this behavior can be easy to spot, but it can also be much more subtle and difficult to detect.  Some key signs of guilt-tripping include:

  • Making comments suggesting that you have not done as much work as they have done
  • Bringing up mistakes that you have made in the past
  • Reminding you of favors they have performed for you in the past
  • Acting as if they are angry but then denying that there is a problem
  • Refusing to speak to you or giving you the silent treatment
  • Making it clear through their body language, tone of voice, and facial expressions that they disapprove of what you were doing
  • Suggesting that you “owe” them
  • Engaging in passive-aggressive behavior
  • Making sarcastic comments about your efforts or progress

It is important to note that this type of indirect communication can occur in any interpersonal relationship. Still, it is more likely to take place in relationships that are marked by close emotional connections.

It can show up in romantic relationships, but guilt trips may also be utilized in family relationships, parental relationships, and even work relationships.

Types of Guilt Trips

There are many different types of guilt trips that people may utilize depending on the ultimate goal or purpose of the behavior. Some of the different purposes of a guilt trip include:

  • Manipulation: Sometimes, the primary goal of a guilt trip is to manipulate someone into doing something that they normally would not want to do.  
  • Conflict avoidance: In other cases, people may use guilt trips to avoid directly talking about an issue. It allows them to get what they want without having to engage in direct conflict.
  • Moral education: Guilt trips can also be a way of getting someone to engage in a behavior that the individual feels is more moral or “right.”
  • Elicit sympathy: In some cases, guilt-tripping allows the individual to gain the sympathy of others by casting themselves in the role of someone who has been harmed by the actions the other person is supposed to feel guilty about.

Guilt isn't always a bad thing. While often troubling and unpleasant, it can serve an important role in guiding moral behavior. When people experience guilt, they can fix their mistakes and avoid repeating the same errors in the future.

Researcher Courtney Humeny

A guilt trip does not appear to induce the benefits of guilt, such as making amends, honesty, and mutual understanding.

— Researcher Courtney Humeny

Impact of Guilt Trips

Invoking feelings of guilt to change someone’s behavior can have a wide variety of effects. Whether guilt is wielded intentionally or not, it prevents healthy communication and connections with others. Some of the most immediate effects of this form of covert psychological manipulation include:

Damage to Relationships

Research suggests that guilt trips can take a toll on close relationships. One study found that people hurt by their partner's criticism were more likely to use those hurt feelings to make their partner feel guilty and offer reassurances.

However, the study also found that the partner who had been guilt-tripped into offering assurances was more likely to feel significantly worse about the relationship.

In other words, inducing feelings of guilt may work to get your partner to do what you want—but it comes at a cost. It can impair trust and cause the other person to feel that they are being manipulated. 

Resentment

One of the reasons why guilt trips can poison relationships is because they can lead to lasting feelings of resentment.

"A guilt trip imposes aversive states associated with guilt, along with feelings of resentment from feeling manipulated," Humeny suggests.

A single occasion of someone using a guilt trip to alter your behavior might not have a serious impact on your relationship. Repeated use of guilt trips can leave you feeling bitter.

If you feel that your partner is always going to guilt you into something that you don't want to do, it can decrease intimacy, reduce emotional closeness, and ultimately make you start to resent your partner.

Reactance

Research suggests that appeals to guilt are a common type of persuasion technique. However, while guilt can compel people to take certain actions, it can also sometimes backfire. Low-level guilt tends to motivate people to act on the persuasive message. High levels of guilt, however, often fail due to what researchers call "reactance." 

"An individual in a state of reactance will behave in such a way as to restore his freedom (or, at least, his sense of freedom), for example, by performing behaviors that are contrary to those required," explain researchers Aurélien Graton and Melody Mailliez in a 2019 article published in the journal Behavioral Sciences.

In other words, guilt trips can backfire and lead people to behave opposite how someone else wants them to act. For example, someone guilt-tripping you into calling them more often might actually result in calling them less.

Poor Well-being

Feelings of excessive guilt are associated with several mental health conditions, including anxiety, depression, and obsessive-compulsive disorder. Being subjected to guilt trips may contribute to the development or worsening of such conditions.

Experiencing guilt can also lead to many immediate and unpleasant emotions and symptoms such as anxiety, sadness, regret, worry, muscle tension, and insomnia.

This type of covert manipulation may also sometimes contribute to the development of a guilt complex, which is a persistent belief that they have done (or will do) something wrong.

Over time, guilt can lead to feelings of shame. Shame can affect a person’s self-image, which can then contribute to social withdrawal and isolation.

How to Cope

There are a number of tactics that can be helpful when dealing with a guilt trip. Some steps you can take include:

  • Acknowledge the request. Let them know that you understand that it is important to them. Responding with empathy and showing that you see their needs may help them feel that they are not simply being ignored. Validating their emotions may help lessen the intensity of those feelings.
  • Share your feelings. Explain that you also see how they are trying to make you feel guilty so that you'll do what they want. Then tell them how that type of manipulation makes you feel. Suggest that interacting in that way will lead to resentment and that more direct communication forms would be more effective. 
  • Set boundaries. Boundaries help set limits on what you will and will not accept. Even if you do end up helping them with their request, make sure you clearly articulate your limits and explain the consequences of crossing those boundaries. Then be sure that you enforce those limits if they are crossed.

Other things that you can use include protecting your self-esteem and distancing yourself if needed. You're more likely to fall for a guilt trip if you already feel poorly about yourself, so find strategies to build up your sense of self-worth. 

If the other person keeps trying to manipulate you with feelings of guilt, reduce your communication with them or even consider ending the relationship.

Protecting your own well-being should be a top priority, and someone who tries to manipulate you with toxic feelings of shame and guilt does not have your best interests at heart.

Getting Help

If you are experiencing feelings of guilt or related symptoms of anxiety, stress, or depression, talk to your doctor. They can recommend treatment options such as psychotherapy or medications that can help manage symptoms and improve the quality of your life.

Your doctor or therapist may suggest a type of therapy called cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT), which may help reduce inappropriate guilt feelings. This type of therapy can help you identify and change the negative thoughts and cognitive distortions that can contribute to feelings of guilt.

Your therapist can also help you learn to recognize the signs of a guilt trip—and help you practice strategies to cope with this type of emotional manipulation.

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Article Sources
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