Do guilt trips lock you up in an emotional prison? What do you need to know to deflect or neutralize guilt trips?
Let’s look at Tom’s encounter with guilt. He was concerned this past Christmas about picking out presents that his nieces and nephews would need or like. So he gave money to his sister to buy his presents for them. He did, however, wrap the presents, and he was present when they were opened Christmas morning.
The children liked the gifts and thanked Tom cheerfully. However, Alice, the eldest niece, told him with a hint of disapproval that she knew he hadn’t personally bought them. He hadn’t gone to the store, she reiterated, and picked them out himself. Taken aback, Tom mumbled an excuse about being too busy. Alice didn’t look impressed, though, by his explanation.
Afterwards, Tom was bothered all day by guilt. In his mind, he kept seeing Alice making her “accusation.” He began to feel upset at her. “How could she be so mean as to say that to me,” he thought, “after I got her such a nice present!” Soon he was speaking resentfully about Alice to a friend.
His friend told him, “Tom, it’s true she laid a guilt-trip on you. But you’re the one who got triggered. You have to ask yourself why you’re so upset by that young girl’s passing comment.”
This friend’s suggestion is a good one. Tom’s problem is not with his niece but with the ease by which he gets triggered by real or implied criticism.
It doesn’t help Tom much to try to figure out her motives for judging him. Thinking along those lines and trying to guess at her intentions would likely just trap him in a labyrinth of speculation. He might even end up entertaining feelings that she harbored malice toward him. In all likelihood, Alice was only displacing on to him her own inner conflict between self-criticism and self-approval. Her behavior was innocent, in the sense that it was unconsciously compulsive.
It’s true that we’re faced with a challenging moment when someone lays a guilt trip on us. The guilt trip can be as innocent as someone saying, in a seemingly friendly way, “Oh, we never see you!” when you drop by for a visit. A moment like this can throw some people on the defensive. So how do you reply to such a comment? If you’re emotionally strong and not easily triggered, you’ll probably just ignore it. Or you might say something like, “Here I am, happy to see you!”
Through emotional strength, we can make light of guilt-tripping comments. This lightness can be observed in how easily, inwardly and outwardly, we dismiss the comment, perhaps allowing it only to amuse us.
People usually won’t continue to be judgmentally aggressive toward you unless they can see that doing so repeatedly brings up in you a defensive and emotional reaction. Still, some people—sometimes they’re verbal bullies—are very persistent with their critical aggressiveness. In those instances in which a particular family member, friend, or coworker does repeatedly try to guilt trip you, you likely have to learn how to respond with more verbal assertiveness (more on this later).
First of all, though, we need to see the nature of our own reactions. What’s going on within ourselves? If guilt trips consistently throw us into an emotional dungeon, we’re allowing someone’s negative remarks to penetrate into us and strike a sensitive nerve. How do we neutralize their sly or sometimes crude insinuations? We need to do a bit of inner work on ourselves to get to a place of emotional strength, where we’re not so instinctively defensive and sensitive.
A guilt trip carries with it some aggression. The person laying the guilt trip on us is acting aggressively. This aggression is not usually authentic. Instead, it’s a symptom of neurosis. Still, it can feel real. Even when the aggression is muted or subtle, we still feel it. However, the aggression only penetrates into us when, through our inner passivity, we allow it to do so.
When we react to such aggression with anxiety or guilt, we’re reacting through our passivity. Hence, we take too seriously the insinuations or accusations that make up the guilt trip. We give their words too much credence. Through our passivity, it feels as if the guilt trip is holding us accountable for our conduct and perhaps even for our very existence. We become defensive and stammer out some explanation for our behavior. It’s as if we’re a child again having to explain ourselves to a parent.
We want to see into the nature of our passivity. Some people, of course, have more inner passivity than others. This weakness, while a measure of our self-doubt, is simply an element of human nature. We’re an evolving species, still learning to access our own mind, power, and wise authority.
Inner passivity occupies one side of the major inner conflict in human nature. To varying degrees, humans are entangled in the conflict between inner aggression (the inner critic or superego) and inner passivity (the unconscious, subordinate ego). The conflict is such that we want both to feel strong and to feel weak. Obviously, we want to feel strong, yet nonetheless we keep stumbling over a persistent, stubborn sense of our own weakness. The weakness remains as an old identification, a familiar sense of self from childhood through which, in part, we still know ourselves.
At an inner level, our psyche is governed, somewhat primitively, according to the conditioned reactions and operational procedures of aggression and passivity. This aggression and passivity can, on a temporary basis, be alleviated and harmonized by meditation or healthy pursuits and activities. Alcohol and drugs can also temporarily ease the conflict. However, to acquire a more stable inner harmony, one that opens the door to growing consciousness and wisdom, we can look to self-knowledge. This enables us to establish or develop a conscious point within ourselves—our authentic self—that can begin to observe the inner conflict between aggression and passivity with a sense of freedom from it.
This observing self is also very likely to feel wonder and awe at the discovery of these remarkable, previously unchartered dimensions of our humanity. Once the initial fear of inner exploration subsides, there’s much pleasure to be felt in self-discovery.
This authentic self sees the inner conflict and stands outside it. Over time, the self grows in stature as one’s wise, trusted, inner authority, while the conflict itself diminishes.
Part of Tom’s problem with Alice concerns how poorly he represented himself. He felt guilt not only because he absorbed her implied criticism but also because he reacted so defensively and had no words of power or authority to dismiss her comment. His inner critic was able later on to assail him harshly for reacting so weakly. He felt another layer of guilt as he absorbed this inner criticism.
Should he overcome this passivity, he’ll have the power to calmly say words to this effect should she persist with her verbal aggressiveness: “Alice, I’ve noticed that you frequently make statements that imply I’ve done something wrong. I ask you to be aware of that. It’s a measure of negativity that you direct my way, and I really don’t want or need it in my life.”
It never hurts to understand the guilt tripper’s unconscious motives. Alice might be inclined to throw Tom into a passive moment, and then identify with him being entangled in that passive experience. As part of this, she might be wanting to identify with him feeling criticized, as she herself feels in relation to her own inner critic. Such behavior can remain compulsive unless the underlying dynamics are made conscious. This is very handy to know should you happen to be one who regularly guilt trips others.