Has someone ever made you feel bad about something you did or didn’t do?
Guilt can be a powerful weapon, and many people know how to wield it skillfully.
Say you told your best friend you couldn’t make it to their party because you really needed to finish up a project at work.
They reply, “Hardly anyone is coming already. No one wants to see me. Why am I even bothering to have a party at all? I guess I’ll just cancel.”
In the end, you go, since you don’t want them to feel sad and unwanted. They sent you on a guilt trip — and it worked.
Guilt-tripping is an indirect approach to communication.
Even when you’ve done nothing wrong, the other person might imply the situation is somehow your fault. They make their unhappiness clear and leave it to you to find a way of fixing the problem.
It can be pretty effective, too. If you feel guilty about their suffering, you’re more likely to do what you can to help.
Intentional or not, guilt-tripping prevents healthy communication and conflict resolution, and often provokes feelings of resentment and frustration.
Guilt-tripping behaviors often show up in close relationships — think romantic partnerships, friendships, professional relationships, or family relationships.
In other words, it can crop up in any relationship where you care about the other person’s feelings and have emotional ties.
People often use guilt to express frustration or annoyance, usually when something prevents them from coming out and saying exactly how they feel.
Or they may guilt-trip if they have difficulty with assertive communication and directly expressing their needs.
Sure, some of these behaviors could simply suggest unhappiness with a situation. When they start to become part of a pattern, though, it becomes more concerning.
Guilt is a complex emotion. Part of this complexity stems from the fact that it’s not always a bad thing.
When you make a mistake or hurt someone unintentionally, guilt can motivate you to make amends and do better in the future.
It can help to consider guilt-tripping as more of a spectrum of behavior.
Guilt doesn’t always involve calculated manipulation…
People who use guilt to try to get you to change or do something for them might believe they have your best interests at heart.
A parent might say in annoyance, “We work all day to make sure you have a roof over your head and food on the table, and you can’t wash a few dishes?”
If you realize they have a point, you might resolve to pay more attention to your household chores. This lightens their load and increases your sense of responsibility.
This occasional use of guilt that isn’t part of a broader pattern of guilt-tripping may not the most effective approach. But it probably won’t have a serious impact on an otherwise healthy relationship.
…but it can still backfire
Say you work with someone who takes frequent breaks, shows up late and leaves early, and spends a lot of time off-task — and also happens to be your manager’s best friend.
You don’t feel comfortable openly calling them out. Instead, you regularly sigh, rub your eyes, and comment on how much you have to do and how stressed you are, hoping they’ll pick up on the hint that you’d like them to contribute more.
It’s completely understandable to feel trapped in a difficult situation, especially when you don’t know how to productively challenge bad behavior.
The problem is, guilt-tripping can fail if the other person doesn’t care how their behavior affects you. This can leave you in the same position as before, but even more frustrated.
Even in close relationships, you might start to resent someone who keeps pointing out specific behaviors to guilt you into changing them.
What’s more, changes made out of guilt tend to be flavored with grudging resentment and a sense of obligation. As a result, you probably won’t notice the positive feelings that often accompany changes you choose to make on your own.
Letting guilt-tripping go on generally won’t help you or the other person.
You might give in because you want to protect the relationship, but resentment and other negative feelings might lead you to begin avoiding the other person.
That’s pretty normal. Who wants to feel bad and guilty all the time? But it’s often the case that neither side wants this outcome.
Calling out guilt-tripping when you notice it can help you get started on the path toward a better resolution.
Here are some other pointers.
It’s tough to listen if someone won’t admit there’s a problem, but get the discussion started by pointing out their behavior. Then give them space to express their feelings.
Using the party example from earlier:
“I’m sorry I can’t make it tonight. I’d much rather be at your party than here, but I can get in a lot of trouble if I don’t finish this work tonight. Trying to make me feel guilty won’t change my decision. I understand it’s upsetting that so many people can’t come. Do you feel like talking about that some more?”
Someone feeling hurt might use guilt trips when they don’t know any other way to deal with their emotional turmoil.
When they know they can share their distress and, more importantly, that you’ll validate their pain, they may find it easier to communicate directly in the future.
Someone might resort to guilt when they don’t know how to advocate for themselves in more direct ways.
If you notice exaggerated body language or emotions, snide remarks, or other signs suggestive of guilt-tripping, use open-ended questions to encourage them to express themselves directly:
- “You seem upset. What’s going on?”
- “It seems like you’re frustrated with that assignment. How can I help?”
- “I’d love to help, if I can. What would you like me to do?”
Recognize where the guilt comes from
Guilt sometimes has a cultural element, particularly in family relationships, according to Patrick Cheatham, a psychologist in Portland, Oregon.
It can also come up when people:
- see a relationship as unequal
- feel taken advantage of
- never learned how to communicate their needs
These factors don’t make guilt-tripping any more productive, but they can help you keep a more compassionate perspective as you set boundaries.
Boundaries protect your needs while also teaching the person trying to guilt-trip you that you won’t respond the way they’d like. This can help them see the benefit of exploring other communication methods.
Communicate to find a good solution
Talking through the reasons behind the guilt-tripping behavior can help you resolve the problem.
- Parents who want you to do more chores might share how exhausted they feel after work and explain that they count on you to offer support around the house.
- A co-worker might feel irritated over having the largest workload on the team.
- Your partner might feel upset because you had to cancel plans due to a last-minute work emergency.
Once you get a better handle on why they feel upset, brainstorming some solutions together can help. If you can’t do what they want, validate their feelings, stick to your boundary, and offer an alternative:
“I know you’re feeling lonely, but I can’t come over tonight. Why don’t I call you when I get home from work and we can decide what to do this weekend?”
At the far end of the spectrum, guilt-tripping can involve outright manipulation.
The other person recognizes two things:
- They matter to you.
- You don’t want them to feel bad.
This knowledge gives them some power over you, especially if they also know you’ll make an effort to keep them from experiencing distress.
They might use this power to provoke feelings of guilt, even when you have absolutely nothing to feel guilty about.
Guilt-tripping often happens in abusive relationships, so it’s important to reach out for help if:
- someone tries to guilt you into doing things after you say no
- the behavior forms a pattern
- they won’t accept your apology for a mistake
- they make no effort to change
- they try to control your behavior in other ways
- you feel as if you can’t do anything right
- you notice put-downs, gaslighting, or other emotional abuse
A therapist can help you identify guilt-tripping and other signs of manipulation. They can also help you begin recovering from abuse, develop a plan to get additional support, and safely leave the relationship.
Guilt-tripping isn’t always intended as manipulation, but it can still have some pretty negative effects.
Open communication can help you express your needs more effectively and encourage others to do the same.
Crystal Raypole has previously worked as a writer and editor for GoodTherapy. Her fields of interest include Asian languages and literature, Japanese translation, cooking, natural sciences, sex positivity, and mental health. In particular, she’s committed to helping decrease stigma around mental health issues.