“Guilt has very quick ears to an accusation.”
– Henry Fielding
Ever tried guilt tripping a psychopath? Me neither, not knowingly anyway! Trying to guilt trip those ‘lucky’ few undisturbed by conscience or genuine empathy is, perhaps, like attempting to squeeze Type O positive from granite.
Actually, I like to think I don’t guilt trip. Or, at least, if I have ever strayed into that cheap-shot territory, I’ve hurried out again once I saw what I was up to.
Mind you, many guilt trippers would admit to anything before they would admit to guilt tripping – even to themselves.
Those who use guilt as a weapon of control tend to learn fast just whom they can and can’t manipulate in this way.
Taking advantage of empathy and guilt proneness
Most of us can be manipulated sometimes through our tendency to empathize and experience shame and guilt.
When someone prone to guilt tripping finds someone who is conscientious, empathetic, and prone to guilt, it can be a match made in hell.
When people guilt trip us, they seek to control us – and being overly controlled by anyone is no basis for a healthy relationship.
Helping the guilt-controlled client
Because relationships are so important,1 when they go wrong people can become depressed2 and feel powerless. And in the context of manipulation, this is true not just for the person being manipulated but for the manipulator as well.
Some clients are clearly being run ragged by tyrants who like to paint themselves as vulnerable. And maybe the emotional bully in your client’s life is vulnerable in some way. But the perceived ‘needs’ of the manipulator still need to be distinguished from their real needs, which have to be met in more equitable ways if they are to have mature relationships.
If a manipulative person instinctively feels they can only meet their needs in underhanded ways, then your client enabling that only makes it harder for them to learn how to meet their needs more sustainably and authentically.
When our guilt-manipulated clients can start to respond differently to those who manipulate them, they will effectively change the relationship dynamic, feel more of a sense of healthy control, and move the relationship further towards a healthy, genuinely reciprocal balance for both parties.
But how might we know whether a client is being manipulated through guilt?
A 6-point checklist for manipulation
If, from your listening to your client, you suspect they may be living under an emotional tyrant to some degree, you could gently ask them if they ever feel manipulated. Clients prone to guilt may downplay someone else’s part in them feeling guilty. But those who continually excuse others’ behaviour are prime targets for manipulation. So in a sense there is a sort of collusion between guilt tripper and guilt trippee.
We could certainly ascertain the following:
- Does this person in your client’s life claim to be a victim? Do they express this angrily and often?
- Does this person often seem to produce guilty feelings in your client?
- Does your client often feel emotionally drained after being with this person?
- Does this person complain a lot to your client, making sweeping statements such as “no one cares about me”? (See more on this below.)
- Does this person compare your client unfavourably to other people?
- Does your client feel that this person is really hard to please, that whatever they do is never good enough for them?
Of course, we don’t have to ask these questions as some kind of bureaucratic checklist, but we can pepper them into our conversational therapy.
So too we can teach our clients about the language of guilt tripping to see if they recognize it in their own lives.
The language of guilt
We can teach our guilt-manipulated clients that the language of guilt tripping is pretty standard and recognizable. It tends to be accusatory language with black-or-white statements such as:
- “You always do this to me!”
- “Why don’t you ever help me?”
- “How could you just go off and have the best time ever when you know I’ve got all this to do and will be working my fingers to the bone?”
The guilt tripper may talk about things being “unfair” (for them) and compare your client’s behaviour towards other people against your client’s behaviour towards them.
An example might be “How come it’s okay for you to help them but not me?” or “Why is it that you listen to everyone else’s ideas but not mine?”
The guilt tripper will also exaggerate your client’s role in things and over-blame them. They may say stuff like “If this doesn’t work it will be all your fault!” or “I hope you’re satisfied now you’ve ruined my entire life!” And they will rarely if ever take personal responsibility: “You made me do that!”
So we can discuss with our clients how guilt manipulators use language. In fact, rather than suggesting to a client that they’re being well and truly guilt-manipulated I’ve sometimes simply talked about the language of guilt tripping in general to see if the client recognizes it in their own life. This way if they are prone to automatically defend or excuse the person who manipulates them, we avert this defensiveness and let them make the connection in their own time.
Okay, so once we’ve ascertained that a client is indeed being manipulated, what steps can we take to help them manage the guilt manipulator in their life?
Step one: Help them see what’s happening
A question your client can ask themselves is: “What is this person I’m interacting with trying to make me feel?”
We can generally spot when someone is trying to elicit a response from us. If someone is trying to make me laugh, to get me to buy something, or even to make me feel good, I can usually tell. We know when people are trying to cheer us up, or shame us, or prove us wrong.
When people try to make us feel something, they are manipulating us. And that isn’t necessarily always a bad thing. We might try to make a baby laugh by making funny faces, or to make them stop crying or fall asleep by using a soothing voice. This tends to be benign manipulation and is often thought of not as manipulation but as influence.
And if someone does cheer us up, or make us laugh, or inspire us, or even get us to actually think about what we might have done wrong, then that isn’t necessarily a poor outcome.
So the first question, “What is this person trying to make me feel?”, simply gives your client a starting point. But the second question they can ask themselves may take them closer to seeing what is actually going on. And that second question is: “Why?”
Why are they trying to make me feel this way? What need of theirs are they trying to meet by making me feel this way? What do they hope to gain? Is it to help me or us in the relationship, or is it purely to control me? Am I being used?
So encourage your clients to use the what and why questions when they start to feel accused or passive-aggressively manipulated.
By asking themselves these two simple questions, our clients can begin to see the patterns of their interactions with the manipulator. This can help them see the wood as well as the trees.
Next, we can remind them that manipulation is not okay.
Step two: Make sure they know it’s not okay
One client, Brenda – who was prone to guilt in all manner of ways – was run ragged by one particular ‘friendship’. Her emotional strings were pulled this way and that by a friend who, Brenda admitted, was very needy.
This friend would say things like “If you were a real friend you’d spend more time with me on the weekends!” She would continually ask for favours, but whenever Brenda asked for one in return she would say she was ill, or why couldn’t Brenda’s mum do it?
Her language was also typical of the guilt manipulator (see above). She would sometimes say to my client, “After all I do for you, can’t you do this one thing for me?” I pointed out that it didn’t seem this friend did much for Brenda at all, and she agreed.
There was a clear imbalance on many levels. But Brenda told me that although she could recognize the manipulative patterns of behaviour and language, her guilt tripper’s problems were real.
I wasn’t surprised to see Brenda defending her friend’s behaviour. After all, in order to be run ragged by someone, as Brenda clearly was, we must, on some level, buy into the narrative of the guilt tripper. The guilt-giver-and-receiver collusion.
“Yes, your friend [I tried not to sound ironic using that word!] has problems,” I acknowledged, “but does enabling her to emotionally abuse you help her as a person… or not?”
Brenda said nothing but slowly shook her head.
Whatever problems someone has, emotional trickery and bullying, whether consciously employed or not, is no way to treat anyone. It may be understandable that someone has developed such tactics, but it’s never okay.
A mugger may have problems. Heck, a murderer might, too. And those problems might well be explanations of a sort – but not excuses. And your client needs to be clear about that. Whatever problems a person may have, it’s never an excuse to emotionally enslave someone else.
So clearly set apart the guilt manipulator’s real problems from their tendency to guilt-manipulate your client.
We also need to help our clients know what their guilt triggers are.
Step three: Help them get to know their guilt buttons
Some accusations, implications, or even phrases or words are enough to invisibly ensnare another person through the trappings of their own emotional conditioning.
Brenda valued being a friend to all. She felt that friendship and being a ‘good person’ were the most important things in life.
Her friend, of course, had picked up on this. She would often say, “A real friend would…” followed by whatever she wanted Brenda to do.
The implication that she wasn’t a good friend was a major button for Brenda. I suggested she inwardly question the validity of this implied criticism next time her friend did this to her. Was there counterevidence that in fact she was a good friend?
During our session I asked her to imagine her friend had used the “bad friend implication tactic” (as I reframed it) and then had Brenda quickly think of all the counterevidence to that. She found this useful as a strategy because:
- It gave her a sense of power and control rather than helplessness whenever she felt her buttons being pushed.
- It helped her focus away from her feelings and onto analysis, thus diluting any emotion quickly.
- It was a major antidote to the overwhelm of all-or-nothing thinking. Exception thinking is powerful.
We can examine with our clients exactly what pushes their guilt buttons the most, and what the sweeping generalizations and assumptions behind those triggers might be. Then we can help them inwardly challenge those assumptions and find exceptions.
But the way we describe what’s happening to our clients can also help them come to see the pattern from the ‘outside’.
Step four: Say it as it is
When speaking to Brenda I spoke of her friend’s ‘tactics’, ‘techniques’, and attempts to push Brenda’s ‘buttons’. I made statements like “when she does this to you…” Sometimes I might talk to a client about the ‘games’ someone plays and use the term ‘manipulation’.
Now, I wouldn’t at all recommend we do this if they and we are not clear that this is indeed what’s happening, that our client is in fact being manipulated through guilt.
If, from the outset, I were to say glibly, “Your friend manipulates you!” it might help the client… or, perhaps more likely, it might make them automatically defend the person or feel even more guilty for ‘badmouthing’ them. So at first I may talk generally about how people are often manipulated through guilt. Again, this helps the client come to their own conclusions.
But if it is clear that manipulation is at play, then we can use language to help the client see, without the distorting lenses of rose-tinted spectacles, what is actually happening. In doing so, we continually remind them to be clear that it is this other person and not them that is creating this behaviour, even if they may have been enabling it.
So when asking or talking about a guilt manipulator you’ve identified in your client’s life, sometimes use phrases like ‘when they do that to you’, ‘the tactics they use on you’, and ‘when they try to push your buttons’.
If someone has excessive guilt and empathy, then we might look to the origins of this, too.
Step five: Work out where the guilt is coming from
I’ve written before about helping the guilt and shame-ridden client, but I will say that some people suffer from pathological empathy.
This may sound strange. After all, if a good amount of something is, well, good, how can a huge amount of it not be even better?
There is nothing so good that too much of it can’t turn bad. It’s true of painkillers, sleeping pills, food, alcohol, drinking water… and empathy.
You won’t often hear this, but excessive empathy can destroy both the person who has it, and those they direct it towards.
Brenda had been brought up to believe that everyone would be decent if treated decently, that all people needed was love and understanding… but also that she could never be good enough.
Now, of course, people do need love and understanding and tolerance… to a point. But what of the over-attended-to narcissist who was loved and cherished and never told no? Do they need more love and attention and adulation to stop them acting out adult tantrums? Or do they need firm boundaries and standing up to?
Letting people have their way doesn’t always help them.
So guilt may come from an unexamined assumption that love is all people need and that love can only be expressed by letting people walk all over us. And yet true love may require harshness and giving people what they need at the expense of giving them what they want.
So what are your client’s hidden assumptions about ‘being good’? Are there perhaps memories from the distant past of times they felt really shamed and made to feel guilty that you can work on to help them overcome those triggers?
We can also help our guilt-manipulated clients assert themselves a little more in their relationships.
Step six: Help your client set boundaries
Knowing what we will and won’t put up with ahead of time is one way of gaining a sense of control. Letting the person we are dealing with know what they can and cannot expect from us, or, if they are prone to manipulation, ‘get away with’, empowers us.
Helping clients build boundaries may be an important part of your work with them.
Brenda learned to say, “I’m not listening to that” whenever her friend began to imply she was a bad friend. She would just not engage with it, or say, “I’m leaving now” and then go.
This wasn’t instant, but it was a major step for Brenda, who could invent more excuses for other people’s poor treatment of her than there are stars in the observable universe. She found it a little strange at first and feared she would be wracked with guilt. But when she did get firmer, something miraculous happened.
The more Brenda stood up for herself, the more her friend started to abandon behaviours that clearly no longer worked for her.
This is what happens. People learn to do more of what gives them rewards and less of what no longer pays dividends. People also tend to respect those who seem to respect themselves.
The balance of the friendship began to improve, and Brenda’s friend actually seemed to value her not as a tool to be manipulated but as an autonomous and sentient human being.
But in order to be able to set boundaries with her friend and not feel excessively bad about it, I had to do something else with Brenda.
Step seven: Use hypnotic rehearsal
Hypnotically rehearsing a desired behaviour makes it more likely to:
- actually be undertaken, because in a sense it feels as though it’s already been done;
- feel natural when it is done; and
- be carried out calmly, because it was experienced calmly during hypnosis.
I had Brenda hypnotically rehearse feeling detached and dissociated when her friend tried to push her buttons.
I also encouraged her to inwardly enact boundaries as to what she would and wouldn’t tolerate with this person. She found that while it was still an act of courage to break the habit of a lifetime, it was actually “much easier than expected!”
Eleanor Roosevelt said that”no one can make you feel inferior without your consent”, and it’s also true that no one can make you feel guilty without you accepting that particular poisoned chalice.
When clients stop responding to manipulative behaviour, they aren’t just taking back control for themselves – they also give the manipulator an opportunity to develop their own capacity to relate on a mature rather than childish level.
Power games, manipulation, putdowns, and pushed buttons may pass for a relationship, but this is a dim shadow of what a real relationship can be.
Watch Mark on YouTube
Mark publishes videos on YouTube regularly – watch him here – and remember to subscribe!
Read more therapy techniques »