Is Someone Guilt-Tripping You? How To Identify and Respond to This Form of Emotional Manipulation

Photo: Getty Images/ Vladimir Vladimirov
Let's say your partner wants you to do something that makes you feel uncomfortable. Perhaps they start piling on all the reasons why you “should.” You feel guilty—and they know that—but they don’t stop. They talk about how you never do anything for them, or how they always do what you want to do, or how badly they want whatever it is they're asking for. Other than being a straight-up relationship red flag, this is an example of guilt-tripping.

“Guilt-tripping is intentionally or unintentionally causing feelings of guilt in another person to manipulate or control them,” says Monica Vermani, C.Psych, a clinical psychologist who specializes in trauma, abuse, and relationships. She says it’s all about exerting influence and power.

Experts In This Article

It’s vital to note that the person being guilted may not even be in the wrong. “The natural emotion of guilt is employed as a manipulative tactic to create a sense of responsibility for something they may or may not have done,” says Amelia Kelley, PhD, LCMHC, a trauma-informed relationship therapist, podcaster, researcher, and co-author of What I Wish I Knew. “The narcissists and emotional abusers will use guilt as a gaslighting tactic to make their target take responsibility even if they are not at fault.”

In various ways, this kind of behavior boils down to a desire to gain power or control. “Typically, when others guilt-trip you, they are attempting to have the upper hand in some way, get something out of you, or keep you on your toes,” says Nancy Irwin, PsyD, a clinical psychologist specializing in trauma.

People who've experienced negative relationships or are disempowered are often the type to utilize guilt-tripping as a means of claiming control. “It may be the fear of being hurt again [that leads someone to guilt-trip],” says Dr. Kelley, adding that this is common for someone with an insecure attachment style or a fear of abandonment. “It could also be a result of the guilt-tripper not feeling comfortable with vulnerability and struggling themselves to take responsibility for their actions,” she adds, describing a behavior typical in the victim narcissist (or the narcissist who acts as if others are always out to get them).

How do you know if someone is guilt-tripping you?

The experts say guilt-tripping can be either blunt and obvious or subtle and hard to identify. To tell if someone is manipulating you, they suggest looking for the following signs:

  • Making passive-aggressive suggestions about how you haven’t done your “fair share”
  • Reminding you of all the favors they’ve done for you
  • Giving you the silent treatment (yes, it’s a manipulation tactic!)
  • A disapproving tone of voice, facial expression, or gesture to convey disappointment
  • Making a cutting or unkind comment then saying they were “just joking”
  • Continuing to bring up the “offense” or “mistake” either subtly or dramatically
  • Glaring at you or deeply inhaling after hearing about a similar situation, or saying something like “Yes, I know the feeling”
  • Making baseless accusations
  • Struggling to take responsibility or ownership for their part
  • Making you feel like you have to “make something up to them,” justify your intentions, or over-apologize
  • An absence of an equal exchange of give and take, in which you’re always showing up for them without being able to ask for the same in return

Examples of guilt-tripping phrases

Generally speaking, there’s a key sign to look out for in these statements, Dr. Kelley says: dichotomous (aka, black-and-white) language.

Guilt-trippers “typically assign judgment and responsibility and are laden with blame and emotional blackmail aimed at the recipient of the comment,” says Dr. Vermani.

As specific examples of what a guilt-tripper may say, the experts listed the following:

  • “You always/never….”
  • “You make me feel…”
  • “Men/women always…”
  • “If you really cared or loved me…”
  • “I thought you were on my side…”

What is narcissistic guilt-tripping?

Guilt-tripping behavior can be common among narcissistic people. “Narcissists are brilliant at projecting their own flaws or perceived inadequacies onto others,” Dr. Irwin says, noting they can’t own their mistakes, apologize, or self-correct. “Whatever comes out of a narcissist’s mouth, simply pause and ask yourself who they are really talking about.”

Guilt-tripping also gives them the control and power they seek, or more generally, what they want. “They seek attention and use guilt as a means of maintaining power over their victims,” Dr. Vermani adds. If the narcissistic person can make their partner think that they’re at fault, they may be better able to control how their partner acts.

Is guilt-tripping gaslighting?

Guilt-tripping and gaslighting are similar in that both are emotional abuse tactics used to manipulate and control, the psychologists say. They aren’t quite the same thing, though.

Gaslighting is making someone question their sanity, Dr. Irwin says, while guilt-tripping is informing someone of a claimed offensive and holding on to it.

Despite their differences, the two are often used in conjunction. “Gaslighting is meant to confuse or distort someone’s reality, which is not always the case with guilt-tripping,” Dr. Kelley says. “Commonly though, in order to employ a guilt trip, there needs to be distortions of reality that occur, which is where gaslighting comes in.”

She adds it can also be used to justify threats and accusations or engage the target in a power struggle. “[Targets] are constantly having to look at themselves and what they did wrong, which takes the spotlight of blame off the narcissist as the target remains on the defensive,” she explains.

What is the negative impact of guilt-tripping?

Guilt-tripping can hurt the relationship and the mental health of the person experiencing it. A 2010 study in Clinical Psychology Review1 found that persistent guilt exacerbates depression, anxiety, and OCD symptoms, just to start.

“It has a direct impact on self-concept and self-esteem,” Dr. Kelley says. “If someone always feels they are to blame, or in the wrong, it can make it difficult to speak to oneself with compassion and continue to believe that you are worthy of the love and respect each and every one of us deserves.”

This can create an unhealthy power dynamic, she adds, as well as fail to properly address the situation at hand.

Further, Dr. Vermani notes that guilt-tripping can lead to resentment, a lack of trust, and anger in relationships, as well as an increased sense of powerlessness, anxiety, and/or mood disorders.

Why am I guilt-tripping myself?

People with insecurities or low self-esteem may be more prone to making themselves feel guilty, even for things they didn’t do. They may also be quick to assume someone is blaming them when they're not.

“As human beings, we all want to be heard, seen, and valued,” Dr. Vermani says. But when someone has low-self-esteem, she continues, they're highly critical and look for reassurance that their negative thoughts are right. “By assuming guilt for things that they have not done and are not their responsibility, they validate the narrative that they are inadequate and unworthy of love,” she says.

Self-imposed guilt-trips can be taught, too. Narcissistic people in particular tend to impose this kind of thing on others, according to Dr. Kelley.

“It is difficult to believe your needs and boundaries are valid if you are made to feel less than or like something is wrong with you,” she says. “Guilt-tripping can cause an enmeshed view of the self where what we do becomes who we are—which is not a correct or a healthy way to view the self. If you feel you are constantly causing damage in your wake, it can create an ongoing self-dialogue that becomes internalized assumptions about one’s negative impact on the world around them.”

Dr. Irwin adds another possible contributing factor in that situation: “Many times, people with low self-value want to be liked, and they will accept poor treatment to keep that person in their life,” she says.

How to stop guilt-tripping yourself

Sometimes, you may give yourself a guilt trip. When that’s the case, how can you stop feeling guilty?

Give yourself compassion

This act of self-love, alongside being mindful of what exactly is going on, is crucial, according to Dr. Kelley. More specifically, she encourages leaning into the growth mindset, or the idea that we can improve as human beings. “[Know] that mistakes happen to all of us and they are there to learn from.”

Ask yourself if the guilt is appropriate or excessive

One piece that can help with self-compassion and letting go of guilt is by asking yourself: Is it called for? “Appropriate guilt is when you do/say something out of line with your ethics and integrity,” Dr. Irwin explains. “It calls you to a higher level.”

Excessive guilt, on the other hand, is unnecessary and unhelpful. It’s also usually “manufactured by someone else in order to manipulate you or to invite you to hold their guilt for them,” Dr. Irwin continues.

Foster healthy habits in your relationships

Surrounding yourself with healthy relationships can be a great self-esteem booster. Dr. Kelley encourages finding people who encourage you, setting boundaries with those who don’t.

Additionally, implement other healthy communication skills when the situation calls for it. “Make amends when needed and then practice the stages of forgiveness for yourself, whether or not someone else is granting that for you,” she says. The stages of forgiveness often begin with acknowledging the hurt or offense caused, followed by understanding and accepting the pain it inflicted. Then, a willingness to let go of resentment and anger gradually emerges, leading to a state of compassion and empathy toward the offender, ultimately culminating in a sense of peace and closure.

Remind yourself of key truths about guilt

Feeling external guilt is a red-flag emotion, according to Dr. Vermani. But what does that mean, exactly?

“It is a sign that there is someone who wants something from you—either your time, your energy, or your resources—that is in direct conflict with what you want for yourself,” she says. “When people expect things from you that are different from what you want to do, guilt is that red flag that arises to tell you that there is a conflict that you have to resolve…that is to say, the difference between what somebody wants from you and what you want from yourself.”

Aim to live authentically

Continuing on her above point, Dr. Vermani encourages people to do what feels right to them first and foremost. “Our goal in life is to live authentically,” she says, “not to people-please and sacrifice our limited resources of time and energy for others.”

How do you respond to someone guilt-tripping you?

Recognize what’s happening

Acknowledging the fact that the person is guilt-tripping you—and what that means about the relationship—can be helpful in and of itself. Dr. Vermani reminds it’s “a red flag indicating that someone wants something of you that is not in alignment with what you want for yourself”—and remember, your goal is to live for yourself, not others.

Another key truth about guilt-tripping: It’s wrong and unhelpful. “Realize that guilt trips are a form of verbal and/or nonverbal hurtful and manipulative communication,” she adds. You don’t need that in your life!

Assert your boundaries

When setting boundaries around your time and energy, try to remember your power and stay calm, knowing you did nothing wrong. “This issue is not your fault and you will not be held responsible for it,” Dr. Irwin says. “Don’t go on and on explaining…you lose power.”

She encourages speaking succinctly and making eye contact while setting and reinforcing your boundaries.

Consider whether the relationship is worth continuing

Besides setting boundaries, Dr. Kelley encourages assessing whether you want to have this relationship anymore. “If someone makes you feel you are at fault all the time, this is not a healthy dynamic, and the sooner you set a solid boundary, the less long-term damage the person can have on you and your self-esteem,” she points out.

Practice making mistakes and getting through them

Yep, you read that right—allow yourself to mess up! “Try new things and experience making mistakes on purpose and then surviving those mistakes,” Dr. Kelley says. After all, without failure, there is no growth.

Encourage conversations that move you forward

When someone is guilt-tripping you, they may go on and on about the mistake you made. Dr. Irwin urges refusing to get on their guilt train, even when you hurt them in some way.

“Assertively communicate to the person that you know you made a mistake, have apologized/corrected it, and wish to move on having learned from it,” she says. “No need to hang onto negative feelings.”

Work on your self-esteem

Boosting your level of self-esteem is another suggestion from Dr. Vermani that can serve as “armor” when a guilt-tripper is trying to tear you down. Spending time with people who make you feel good about yourself, challenging negative thoughts, avoiding “should statements,” and recognizing triggers are all helpful self-esteem exercises.

Remind yourself of your power and right to say “no”

You aren’t powerless here, nor do you need to “give in” to what the guilt-tripper is throwing at you. Dr. Vermani encourages working on getting comfortable with saying “no.” Besides simply saying the word, she continues, this may look like calling the person out. Show them you won’t allow them to treat you that way.

Work with a mental health professional

Let’s be real: Setting boundaries is easier said than done. If you’d like a little extra support, consider seeing a counselor. They can help you create positive change, Dr. Vermani says.

When to seek professional help

For Dr. Irwin, the answer is simple: “As soon as one or both parties are in enough pain.” Assess for any gut feelings signaling this.

Dr. Vermani shares additional signs, including:

  • Experiencing extreme distress or mental health concerns
  • Noticing your day-to-day functioning is negatively impacted
  • Realizing you’re engaging in manipulative behavior
  • Struggling with feelings of low self-worth and hopelessness

A more proactive approach may be your best bet, though, according to Dr. Kelley. She encourages seeing a professional ahead of time, saying “before it even feels problematic, as I believe we all deserve an amazing support system and therapist in our corner.”

Otherwise, she continues, reach out when you feel like you’re losing parts of yourself or distancing yourself from other healthy relationships. Remind yourself regularly that you deserve better.

Well+Good articles reference scientific, reliable, recent, robust studies to back up the information we share. You can trust us along your wellness journey.
  1. Tilghman-Osborne, Carlos et al. “Definition and measurement of guilt: Implications for clinical research and practice.” Clinical psychology review vol. 30,5 (2010): 536-46. doi:10.1016/j.cpr.2010.03.007

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