Guilt Trip

A ‘guilt trip’ is either a journey you create within yourself or one that another person attempts to arrange for you. The person who expects you to take responsibility for him can lay out the terms of the trip with such phrases as ‘you only think about yourself’; ‘you’re never there when I need you’; ‘everything else comes first before me’ and, even more alarming, ‘I am nothing without you.’ The latter response is particularly worrying as it may be a precursor to a future losing of all sense of one’s value following the break-up of the relationship. This is not uncommon among young men who either threaten to or take their own lives following what they interpret as rejection of them by the young woman who ends the relationship. When a person internalises the dependency verbalisations and helpless body and facial expression of another they will experience guilt. The tendency is to interpret the guilt as about ‘letting the other person down.’ This reaction is quite common between adult children and their parents and is echoed in such statements as ‘I feel so guilty that I haven’t rung my mother’ (or father) or ‘I’m such a bad person for not visiting my parents.’ However, when you interpret guilt as your being responsible for the wellbeing of another, you are cleverly avoiding a deeper issue that requires resolution. I know several adults who religiously ring their parents on a twice daily basis and call ‘home’ two or three times weekly, even though the response they constantly get is critical, cold, heartless and dismissive. Of course, if they dared not ring or turn up, the result would be total silent treatment and a reporting of their ‘heartless’ behaviour to all other members of the family. In the face of such threats – which have persisted since childhood – seeing guilt as letting the other down is a wise and protective strategy. The wisdom is that by projecting the guilt you now make even greater efforts to look after the person who is demanding and controlling of you, all in an attempt to reduce the ever present threat of utter rejection.

However, as an adult I need to find the help and support to separate out from a parent (or another) who has leaned on me all of these years. The protective response was to conform and thereby create a co-dependency and lean-to-relationship. The mature response is to take responsibility for your own life and return responsibility for his or her own life to the person who depends on you. This separating out, this taking responsibility for self and your own actions, is an act of love and care both for yourself and for the other. As long as we maintain a co-dependence, then the mature progress of both parties to the relationship is seriously blocked. Feelings of guilt over your behaviour towards another arise from fear of rejection; this fear of rejection can only be resolved through an enduring unconditional love and acceptance of yourself. When you reach that place of solid interiority then you are in that separate place to see that the dependency behaviour of another is about their hidden fears and only they can resolve those deep-seated insecurities. Collusion with another’s dependency needs maintains their fears and insecurities.

What is interesting is that when you begin to find space between yourself and the dependent parent or partner or friend, you will then embrace guilt as a messenger of ‘how you let yourself down’ and the need for you to take responsibility for your self, not for another. Only when we are independent are we truly in a place to love and empower another to come home to their own inner stronghold. The hope is that once one party to a lean-to-relationship moves towards independence, the other may take his or her cue from that modelling of maturity and set forth themselves on the road to a recovery of their true self. Whether or not this mature process ensues, there can be no going back for the person who is now travelling the road less travelled – free from guilt and responsible for self.

Dr. Tony Humphreys practices as a clinical psychologist and is author of several books on practical psychology including Whose Life Are You Living?