- Guilt is a feeling that you've done (or thought) something wrong and a need to improve things.
- Often, no matter how hard you try to give the guilt-provoker in your life what they’re asking for, it’s not enough.
- The person trying to provoke your guilt is often suffering, too, even though they might not ever admit it.
When I was a young woman, scratching out a living on a very meager salary in New York City and very proud of my independence, I regularly visited my grandparents. They lived twenty minutes and several worlds away from my tiny apartment, which was squeezed between a laundromat and a drug treatment program. They fed me, asked about my work and life, and generally made me feel loved and nurtured. But eventually, I had to leave them, and inevitably as I was getting ready to go, my grandfather would say, “This was so nice. Next time maybe you’ll stay longer.”
I know now that he only wanted to let me know how much they enjoyed my visits and maybe to wheedle a little more time from me. I also know that he would have been devastated if he knew how his words nearly ruined the visit for me. As soon as he said them, the warm bubble of love and affection that they had wrapped around me for an afternoon or an evening burst, and I was filled with guilt. Should I stay longer? Was I a selfish and unloving granddaughter? Was I just a bad person all around?
As a psychotherapist, I have worked a great deal with people who feel guilt. The American Psychological Association defines it as a sense “of having done (or thought) something that is wrong,” often accompanied by a desire to undo or lessen the damage done by this wrong. The painful news is that those who try to provoke guilt and those who feel guilty suffer tremendously. And, it turns out, some of the suffering is of their own making.
It’s easy enough to understand how someone who feels guilty suffers. Often, no matter how hard you try to give the guilt-provoker in your life what they’re asking for, it’s not enough. Like the mouse in the children’s book If You Give a Mouse a Cookie, your guilt-monger will up the ante no matter what you give. They will want more. So you feel sad, bad, inadequate, and, eventually, frustrated, irritated, and withholding.
As one client whose disabled sister seemed to always be trying to make her feel guilty about not being home often enough said to me,
I’m going to feel bad if I do what my sister wants because it won’t be enough, or it won’t be the right thing, or she’ll use the fact that I’m able to give her something to prove that I have so much more than she does. So I might as well feel bad that I’m not giving her anything since that’s easier for me, and I end up feeling the same way, no matter what.
It’s sometimes harder to see that people who try to incite guilty feelings in others are also suffering. This is because people who provoke guilt can be angry and/or manipulative, often putting out their guilt-inciting words with a big smile. But those behaviors are often hiding other, more vulnerable emotions. Underneath the guilt provoking often lurks sadness, loneliness, hurt, and need. Unfortunately, the guilt-provoking behavior often does the exact opposite of what they wanted. Instead of getting the love or affection they want so desperately. They almost inevitably push people farther away by trying to guilt them into giving them what they want.
These days, I have a friend who is just like my grandfather. If I run into her on the street, she inevitably wants to know why I haven’t called her or why we haven’t set up a date for lunch or coffee, or dinner. Now, being older than I was when I spent time with my grandparents, I don’t internalize her guilt-provocation. I say to myself that this is what she always does, and it’s not an indication of what a bad person/friend I am. Armed with that awareness, I can say something to her like, “I’ve been thinking about you! Let’s set something up!” putting the ball back in her court. The phone does work in two ways.
But I also remind myself that she is trying to guilt-trip me because she cannot ask me directly to make time for her. She seldom calls me because she is afraid I’ll tell her I’m too busy to talk. She’s lonely, but she’s afraid of being rejected. I know that her kids often give her a hard time being intrusive, controlling, and, yes, guilt-provoking, so she’s afraid of asking for what she needs not just from them but also her friends. She has never been able to understand that her attempts to get people to spend time with her actually push them away.
I happen to be very fond of her and set a time for us to get together regularly. She’s funny, smart, caring, and generous. But when she does her guilt-tripping number, my immediate, knee-jerk reaction is to say to myself, “I’ll do it when I’m good and ready.” I feel like an irritable adolescent, which unfortunately makes me even less eager to do what she wants. I’m sure the same is true for many of her other friends and her grown children.
If you’re dealing with someone who tries to make you feel guilty, it can help to remember that they’re trying to make you feel guilty because they don’t know any other way to get you to behave in the way they need you to behave.
This doesn’t mean that you have to do what they want, but keeping their motivation in mind can help you manage your guilt and their manipulativeness with less anger and frustration and without turning into a guilt monger yourself.