Dealing with guilt?
April 11, 2006 2:06 PM   Subscribe

How do you deal with a family member who constantly inflicts feelings of guilt?

My friend's mother makes him feel guilty about EVERYTHING. His mother likes playing the "victim", passing negative judgements on others, being overly critical, wanting to be the center of attention, etc.

Since I didn't get that from my parents, I'm trying to understand his relationship with his mother a bit better -- I'd just like to be able to give some worthwhile advice or help. This dynamic has obviously affected relationships, self-esteem, etc. I imagine they feel a lot of anxiety when being around this person.

I assume this is all about exerting control over someone -- a type of bullying?

Do you have someone in your life (parent(s), relationship, work, etc.) who tries to inflict feelings of guilt to get their way? How do you deal with it?

Do you find yourself driven by guilt? Do you use it on others? Is it a person's own fault if they let someone make them feel guilty about things they probably shouldn't be feeling bad about?

What can someone do to address this problem?

Appreciate any advice/insight on this.
posted by jca to Human Relations (29 answers total) 9 users marked this as a favorite
He's got to stop letting himself feel the guilt, which admittedly is easier said than done. If he feels like he's making good and sound decisions and isn't treating anyone unduly like crap, he should let it slide, as best as possible.

I once read somewhere that parents are great about making their kids feel guilty and pushing all of their hot buttons - because they installed them. Your friends got to break that button and stop letting his parents take up so much of his attention.
posted by cajo at 2:24 PM on April 11, 2006 [2 favorites]

I deal with this in two ways, by confronting the person with their behavior (explain to them what they're doing to you) and by not responding to it (not giving them their desired result). Yes, that can get messy, but you've got to live on your own terms, and even mothers need to understand that (maybe especially mothers). If you continue to fall prey to their behavior, your just reinforcing the pattern and it will just be harder to break out of it later.
posted by doctor_negative at 2:27 PM on April 11, 2006

Is it bullying? You bet.

Your friend might benefit from some counselling. Yes, yes, I know it's a stock answer for many things, but a good counsellor will help your friend distinguish patterns of behavior (on both sides). It tough when the bully is a parent, because, you know, they gave you LIFE.

In my case, I realized my mother would never change her behavior, but at least I learned to change my reactions so that it doesn't have the same affect on me. Her behavior is annoying but she continues it because it works on so many people.

Was there a magical breakthrough in which both my mom and I were able to interact as respectful adults? Sadly, no. I learned how to stand up to her (and deflect the worst bits), but I got to the point where I realized she probably wasn't going to change, and I had to make a decision whether or not I wanted to deal with it any longer. I didn't, so I don't talk to her anymore.

I do hope your friend can find a happy medium.
posted by luneray at 2:36 PM on April 11, 2006

I have a family member who also "likes playing the 'victim', passing negative judgements on others, being overly critical, wanting to be the center of attention, etc." Not sure if she explicitly thinks, "now I will manipulate with guilt" -- but she has found that it works, so she's staying with it.

It works on various family members for different reasons. One finds it easier to do what she wants than to listen to the carping. One believes (knows) that if Mom is not obeyed, then she will make her husband's life unpleasant with lots of complaining, crying, and recriminations. Then, for others... I suspect they believe some of what she's saying and implying: "Your actions are causing me to be unhappy. My happiness/peace of mind is your responsibility. My feelings are more important than yours. I am the best judge of whether your feelings are valid." And so on.

If your friend truly believed himself to be a separate person with equal needs and value, he would not have so much trouble saying no to his mother. But he has been trained by this woman his whole life. It's not an easy pattern to break out of. If this were a friend of mine and he asked my advice, I would suggest that he see a therapist. Coming to terms with the fact that your mother doesn't care about you and is using you for her own ends.... that can take a long time if you don't have help. doctor_negative is right: asserting oneself is going to cause a BIG commotion, and it's good to have guidance and support.
posted by wryly at 2:36 PM on April 11, 2006

If someone's upset about something that I'm doing for no good reason, I decide it's their problem, not mine. Within reason. This includes (most of all?) my parents. You aren't responsible for other people's irrational behavior.
posted by callmejay at 2:44 PM on April 11, 2006

Make that another vote for therapy. Having grown up in a Catholic-style family (guilt) where money equals power (obligation), Grandmother is queen (and you better tell her how happy you are she's here), and "Orangemiles-family kids DON'T screw up", I can relate a bit.

And I refuse to live that way. It is a tough road, but there is a huge light at the end of a relatively short tunnel. Your friend needs to learn some healthy boundaries-- what kind of treatment he will and will not accept from people, and how he will react when hooks are thrown at him. When one rocks the boat one inevitably ticks people off, but it's amazing how much happier he will be when he feels like he has some control over his life. My therapist was hugely instrumental in helping me through the transition from a pathological people pleasing lifestyle to a healthy one. It was hard at times, and still is, but it is immeasurably worth it.

Your role? You might sit your friend down and ask if he is happy with his relationship with his mother. If he is, there's no amount of counseling that will help him. If he's not, let him know that it doesn't have to be this way, and that he is being jerked around on a string, and he doesn't have to continue on in this pattern. Maybe offer to help him find some help-- buy him the book "Boundaries" by Henry Cloud or ask around here for therapist recommendations in your area. Good luck.
posted by orangemiles at 2:47 PM on April 11, 2006

There may be a cultural issue here. My family (Jewish) uses guilt as a means of connecting to each other. Friends have told me that their Catholic families have the same dynamic. Obviously these are gross generalizations, but to the extent that it fits your friend's family, there's no way you can get them to stop inflicting guilt.

Your friend can change himself and stop accepting the guilt, but don't hold your breath about changing his mom.
posted by jasper411 at 2:50 PM on April 11, 2006

My mom does the guilt trip thing sometimes. It doesn't bother me as much as it used to, so I must have been conditioned to it or something. If your friend is finding it hard to deal with, it's probably a more severe problem; it works, as cajo said, and so it's not that uncommon. Perhaps therapy is a good option to consider.
posted by danb at 2:52 PM on April 11, 2006

The first step in letting go of guilt was understanding that guilt is not a useful emotion for me. It doesn't help solve whatever problem I'm feeling bad about, in fact much the opposite. After convincing myself, I became much more aware of the application of guilt from external sources. The phrase: "You should feel terrible about yourself!" was a fairly common refrain.

I realized that guilt was a method my family used to manipulate each other with negative reinforcement. For some reason, I was particularly susceptible to it, and the result was toxic. So, I basically turned Pavlov's dog around, and made things difficult for anyone trying to control me with guilt. I challenged and expressly refused to reward anyone pulling the guilt ploy by budging even an inch, and explained very clearly why I was taking a stand. There was an adjustment period of shock and outrage for a few years, and then things settled to a new equilibrium, absent the guilt dynamic. They still use it on each other, and every now and again will try it on me, but are fairly used to my rebuffs by this time and will readily switch to a different tactic.
posted by Manjusri at 3:01 PM on April 11, 2006

I have personally dealt with this in my life quite a bit, and have had quite a few friends dealing with highly critical, guilt dealing family members. What has worked for me and for many my friends who learned to successfully dealt with this was to realize that the opinions of someone who thinks it's appropriate to constantly fling guilt at others is virtually worthless. If they are constantly trying to make others guilty and/or being over critical they are not the kind of person who's opinion really matters. If their opinion doesn't matter, they can safely be ignored. If they can be ignored, then your friend would be ill-advised to care about what they say.

Your friend has to figure out what are appropriate boundaries and levels of respect are for them and realize that if someone is repetatively crossing those lines, then the perpetrator has the problem, not your friend.

(yes I realize that sounds cheesily after-school-special-ly but it is efficacious).

The challenge is in internalizing this line of thought suffciently that your emotions follow your reason, if that makes sense. And your friend may have to face the fact that if his mom will not change, he will have to spend a LOT less time with her for his own emotional well-being.

That being said I commisserate with your friend and wish them the best of luck with finding a positive solution to the situation.
posted by 1024x768 at 3:09 PM on April 11, 2006

Is it a person's own fault if they let someone make them feel guilty about things they probably shouldn't be feeling bad about?

I dunno about fault, but the only person who can do something about it is the person feeling guilty.

It's interesting to hear that people find Catholicism to be into guilt -- in my (admittedly meager) experience, Catholicism is much more into shame ("How could you do such a thing?) as opposed to the Jewish focus on guilt ("How could you do such a thing to me?").

Anyways, as with Global Thermonuclear War, the only way to win is not to play.
posted by tkolar at 3:25 PM on April 11, 2006 [1 favorite]

Simply as the guilt-maker what he or she is getting out of trying to make you feel bad...why are you doing this to me? Do you enjoy hurting me and my feelings? Is this something you learned from your mother years ago that you now inflict on your children (or whoever)? In sum: toss the guilt ball back over the net
posted by Postroad at 3:27 PM on April 11, 2006

I once asked my mother-in-law "Why do you always try to make people feel bad?" The ensuing conversation was not our best, but it did put her on better behavior for a while.
posted by LarryC at 3:36 PM on April 11, 2006

Read Nasty People by Jay Carter.
posted by Rash at 3:45 PM on April 11, 2006

It got to the point where I realized she probably wasn't going to change, and I had to make a decision whether or not I wanted to deal with it any longer. I didn't, so I don't talk to her anymore.

Same for me. Life is too short to have it poisoned.
posted by b33j at 4:00 PM on April 11, 2006

What worked for me was moving a couple thousand miles away from my primary source of guilt and forging a new life for myself out from under his all-seeing judgment.
posted by kindall at 4:03 PM on April 11, 2006

You could be talking about my mother. The trick is as said already, he must stop reacting to her guilt trips. Now, this took me a few years of therapy to be able to do. I was literally convinced for years that I was actually a bad person because of the guilt my mother would try to lay on me. One thing my therapist asked me to do, which sounds extraordinarily silly but works. She asked me to take a "survey" of other friends and family asking them whether they thought I was a bad person or a bad daughter to my mother. Of course, all around I received astounded looks and a resounding no. I guarantee the same is true of your friend. I had to learn once and for all that just because your mother says or implies something doesn't mean she's correct or even truthful. The thing to learn is that someone who uses guilt has not developed the skills people normally use to get what they want, and so they use emotional manipulation instead.
posted by katyggls at 4:30 PM on April 11, 2006

Wanted to add to my comment. I notice alot of people here are advocating having little or no contact with the guilter. I disagree. I now have quite a good relationship with my mother and we talk several times a week and go out together and have fun. Oddly enough, when guilting me stopped producing the results she wanted with me, she stopped doing it for the most part, at least with me. She still does it to my sister, who still plays her game. Every behavior has a payoff, but if you shut down the payoff, the behavior will usually stop.
posted by katyggls at 4:36 PM on April 11, 2006

I refuse to play the guilt game with my M-in-L. So when she goes off into some sort of sorrowful bullshit, I tend to either bite her head off, do the opposite of what she wanted the guilt to get me to do, or walk away abruptly.

She seems to have mostly given up on controlling me through that pathetic little game. :-)
posted by five fresh fish at 4:42 PM on April 11, 2006

Manjusri's got it, and so does Katyggls. You have to take a stand; there is no possible outcome that leaves you worse off in the long run than silently suffering does.
posted by davejay at 4:44 PM on April 11, 2006

I learned how to stand up to her (and deflect the worst bits), but I got to the point where I realized she probably wasn't going to change, and I had to make a decision whether or not I wanted to deal with it any longer. I didn't, so I don't talk to her anymore.

I did the same regarding my father, for a period of just over a year. Not. One. Word.

After reconciliation, we've had an entirely different and far more healthy relationship.

I can heartily endorse divorcing oneself from one's parents when they refuse to treat you as a peer adult.
posted by five fresh fish at 4:45 PM on April 11, 2006

Boundaries are wonderful things. I recommend them.

I'm an only child, and tho I love my mom I simply refuse, refuse, refuse to be guilted or manipulated.

It helped that I moved a few states away for awhile. tho.
posted by konolia at 5:48 PM on April 11, 2006

I favour confrontation. the behaviour you describe is, at root, a form of bullying, and all bullying is best dealt with by fighting back. Call 'em out. Refuse to let it pass. That takes courage, but it really is the most consistently relaibale way to close a bully down. And yeah, I speak from experience. Both of physical and emotional bullying.
posted by Decani at 6:49 PM on April 11, 2006

I have extensive experience with this regarding my mom. Her sister, my aunt, is a psychology professor and she recommended terminating conversations politely when this type of thing comes up. My mom was a bit extreme with the guilt thing.

I followed her advice and my relationship with my mother was transformed nearly overnight. She stopped the behavior almost instantly and our relationship has been much better ever since.
posted by Ironmouth at 7:31 PM on April 11, 2006

Cut them off. Worked well for me.
posted by Radio7 at 11:13 PM on April 11, 2006

I closely identify with many of the issues in this thread and have been fighting them for most of my life. My mother's unwillingness to break this habit came to a head a couple of years ago when I broke off all contact. I see it as one of the most positive things I've ever done in my life, it's marked the transition of me feeling victimised to taking control... like some people have said here, I realised that I'm never going to change her and I need to cut my losses and get on with having a fantastic productive happy life. I've confronted her about her behaviour many times previously and it's hard to move on when the other person plays the ignorant victim whose own feelings are the only concern.
My wife has noticed a massive change in my overall well-being since I've done this but I still have a long way to go to restore the self-esteem I logically know I deserve.
posted by BobsterLobster at 5:05 AM on April 12, 2006

With great nonchalance, brush the guilt aside, and say "Oh mother, please. Stop with the guilt trip already!". Then turn back on her, refuse further discussion until she changes her tune.

Guilt, what fun. Thanks to those who mentioned breaking contact. My mother wasn't about guilt, she was about claws to the testes. I broke contact (finally!) 5 years ago. Guilt is easier than the vicious attacks of a bitch with claws.
posted by Goofyy at 9:01 AM on April 12, 2006

Friend's Mom: "I don't know HOW I'm going to get to the airport tomorrow." [an example from another thread]

Friend: "Oh, I'm sorry I can't take you to the airport but I already made plans.....Too bad I already have plans, or else I could drive you......I remember you cancelling those plans for me, but unfortunately, I can't cancel these plans.....Wow, I'm sorry it sounds selfish to you. I wish I were free to drive you, but I have plans I can't cancel......Oh, it's too bad Bob can't drive you either......Wow, it sounds like you really don't want to take a cab.....You think you'll catch germs in a cab, huh?......Wow, you sound really worried about how you'll get to the airport......Okay, sorry I can't talk more, but I have to go to dinner! Hope you figure out your transportation situation."

Compassionate repetition. Just don't ever consider it possible for you to compromise your own plans, needs, whatever. Pretend it's an unchangable law of nature. You simply couldn't drive her to the airport if you didn't have a car. Likewise, you simply can't drive her to the airport because you have plans you can't (won't) break, or whatever the reason.
posted by salvia at 10:28 AM on April 12, 2006

What worked for me was moving a couple thousand miles away from my primary source of guilt and forging a new life for myself out from under his all-seeing judgment.

Ditto that over here. The parents-child relationship got much, much better once I started standing up for myself and got away from their constant criticism, nagging, and guilt trips. Having my own income and career helped a lot too, since they could no longer depend on using their money to manipulate me, which had also been a common form of relationship control in both of their respective families, and instead they had to start talking to me like I was an actual human.
posted by Asparagirl at 4:50 PM on April 12, 2006

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