Guilt-tripping is common in relationships. While it can sometimes help get what you want, like your partner to change their mind, it can do more harm than good long term.
Picture this: Your partner asks you to wash the dishes tonight, and you really don’t feel like it, even though it’s your night to do the dishes.
“Rather than just saying ‘Honey, I’m so tired, I would so appreciate it if you would wash the dishes tonight and then I’ll double up the next two nights,'” you might take a less honest way out instead, says Becky White, a marriage and family therapist and founder of Root to Rise Therapy in Los Angeles.
“‘Well you hurt my feelings earlier today and so you owe me because you were mean … so, you do the dishes.'”
In this scenario, you might be laying on a guilt trip.
“A guilt trip is best defined as the intentional manipulation of another person’s emotions to induce feelings of guilt,” explains Liza Gold, a social worker and founder and director of Gold Therapy NYC.
In other words, it’s when one person, either purposely or unintentionally, tries to make someone feel guilty, remorseful, or bad about their decisions or choices. The guilt trip is crafted to get someone to change how they think, feel, or might act.
Who uses guilt-tripping?
Guilt trips tend to occur most frequently (and successfully) in close relationships, such as friendships, families, and romantic relationships.
Here’s why: To effectively make someone change their mind or actions, the guilt-tripper has to know that the other person cares about them and wants to avoid causing them pain or distress.
Why does it happen?
“Guilt-tripping is a natural form of passive-aggression that people result to when they don’t have the skills or language to assertively communicate their needs or feelings,” explains Gold.
That’s why, she says, you often see this behavior in children who haven’t yet learned how to ask for what they need.
But it can also happen when someone feels frustrated, annoyed, or sad and doesn’t know how to adequately express their feelings.
Signs someone might be trying to guilt-trip you
- making sarcastic or passive-aggressive comments, like “glad you’re finally paying attention to me”
- reminding you of their hard work or saying, “I do so much for you, so you should do this for me”
- bringing up past mistakes, even if they’re not relevant to the current situation, to make it seem like you never do anything right or “good” for them
- telling you that you “owe” them
- dismissing your efforts to make things better
- calling you a “bad” person, friend, or partner
- acting angry or distant but refusing to talk about what’s wrong
- giving you the silent treatment
Most folks have tried to elicit sympathy through a guilt trip once or twice. That doesn’t make anyone automatically toxic — especially if there wasn’t any real harm intended.
And guilt — in and of itself — isn’t a bad emotion. When we feel guilty for hurting someone, it can motivate us to apologize and do better in the future.
Sometimes parents might use guilt-tripping on purpose to teach their children a lesson.
“Parents occasionally rely on guilt-tripping to teach their children right from wrong,” explains Gold. “For example, [they might say] ‘you shouldn’t have hit your friend, Tommy. You hurt him.’ [And] the idea behind guilt-tripping children is to teach them resourcefulness when they have caused emotional or physical harm to another.”
However, people who guilt-trip are often trying to manipulate another person to achieve a goal — and that can be toxic behavior.
“It leaves the receiver feeling bad and ashamed for expressing their preferences or feelings,” Gold says. There are better ways to communicate and reach a compromise without having to hurt someone or your relationship.
Meanwhile, a 2013 study suggests that when guilt-tripping happens frequently, it can lead to resentment and a loss of closeness and intimacy.
Repeated guilt-tripping takes a toll on your mental health, too.
A 2010 study found that persistent guilt can worsen anxiety, depression, and OCD, while a 2018 study found that when guilt leads to shame, it can affect self-esteem and promote isolation.
Guilt-tripping can also be a form of emotional abuse, especially if your partner:
- will never accept your apologies for mistakes
- makes no efforts to change or stop manipulating you
- makes you feel like you can’t do anything right
No, gaslighting and guilt-tripping are not the same things — but they are both forms of manipulation. They can both be forms of emotional abuse.
“Gaslighting differs from guilt-tripping in that the intention of gaslighting is to deny another person’s reality, whereas the intent of guilt-tripping is to induce guilty feelings,” explains Gold.
However, she continues, “guilt-tripping can be a form of gaslighting if the message being communicated denies the other person’s reality, [but] not all gaslighting is guilt-tripping.”
If someone is trying to guilt-trip you, there are a few things you can do:
Depersonalize the guilt-trip
It can be helpful, says White, to realize that the person trying to guilt-trip is doing so because of their issues — not yours. “It’s about the other person’s inability to express their needs in a healthy way,” she explains.
Articulate your boundaries
If someone is repeatedly trying to guilt-trip you, you are in your right to state your boundaries and feelings.
For example, suggests Gold, you could say, “I don’t appreciate being made to feel guilty for expressing what I want or feel. I’m sorry it’s not the answer you wanted to hear but I’m not going to feel bad about having my own preferences.”
Listen and validate their feelings
As tough as it might be if you’re feeling hurt, it can sometimes be helpful to offer to listen and figure out why someone is trying to guilt-trip you.
You can ask open-ended questions, listen to how they’re feeling, and validate their feelings or frustrations.
For example, you could say, “You seem upset. Do you want to talk about it?”
Offer a compromise
For example, say your friend wanted to hang out after work, but you’re not up to it. You could tell them you can’t make it tonight, but consider suggesting a different time when you would be available.
Seek professional help
If guilt-tripping is a permanent feature in your relationship, consider reaching out to a therapist for either individual or couples therapy.
It can help you figure out how to deal with the behavior, find ways to change it, or — in the case of persistent emotional abuse — help you figure out how to leave a toxic relationship.
If you think you’re the victim of emotional abuse, you can also reach out to the National Domestic Violence Hotline 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, online, on the phone, or via text for support.
Guilt-tripping can come easily, even if you don’t intend it.
So if you’ve resorted to this tactic in your life, don’t beat yourself up. But if you find yourself doing it, it might be worth asking yourself why you’re doing it, and communicate more directly how you’re feeling.
And if you’re experiencing guilt-tripping from someone else, there are ways to deal with it. A therapist can also help you cope.