There are many forms of mental manipulation, some more subtle than others. One of the most dangerous is emotional blackmail, and its preferred weapon is guilt trip. The main problem is that guilt is used precisely by the people closest to us, so it is difficult to detect that we are being victims of manipulation. This generates a relationship of submission that extends over time with harmful effects for our self-esteem and independence.
What is the guilt trip?
It seems a redundant question, but it is not. In the beginning, the word guilt had only a physical and concrete meaning because it was understood as the failure to strike, to miss the target. Then it was given an intellectual meaning that referred to the error in giving an opinion and was related to a deprivation or disability. Finally, guilt was clothed in a moral assessment. Then it began to be used to indicate the transgression of norms related to morals or religion.
From that moment, guilt stopped being a simple error to become a value judgment. That means that a guilty person not only behaves badly, but something in him is bad.
Growing up with this conception of guilt makes us extremely vulnerable because, instead of making a distinction between our error and our worth, we identify both of them. Therefore, when we make mistakes we not only consider that this behavior is wrong and inadequate, but we consider ourselves wrong and inadequate. We believe that something in us does not work as it should.
Little by little, is formed what we know as “guilt trip”, which is nothing more than the feeling of being guilty and, therefore, bad and inadequate. That feeling ends up permeating our life, making us feel uncomfortable with what we are. Manipulative people act precisely on that guilt trip, which predisposes us to accept condemnatory value judgments.
Using guilt to manipulate and nullify personal freedom
When a person makes us feel guilty, activates that feeling of guilt that already exists in us. It is a diffuse feeling that makes us feel inadequate, although we do not know exactly why. That feeling makes us vulnerable, making us more prone to carry a guilt that is not ours.
This mechanism is based on what the philosopher Ayn Rand called “Irrational Morality”, a “Morality that opposes human nature and the facts of reality […] that forces man to accept the belief that there is an inevitable shock between the moral and the practical, that you have to choose between being virtuous or being happy, but you can not be both at the same time. This vision establishes a disastrous conflict at the most intimate level of the human being, a dichotomy that shatters it”.
Basically, we give to the others the right to judge us because we consider ourselves inadequate, because we already have the seed of guilt inside us and we think that any decision or behavior categorized as “selfish” is intrinsically bad.
When a person activates that guilt trip, he puts himself in the position of a judge and we automatically assume the role of the bad one. Suddenly, we have to defend ourselves without having clear what we are accused of. And since we feel guilty in advance, we give and fall into manipulation. We accept that we are guilty and that the other person is right.
At that time we give that person a moral superiority that gives him a certain right to dictate our decisions. We think that if we were “wrong”, the most natural thing is that the person who points out and corrects that error is the most appropriate to guide us. We put ourselves in his hands, sometimes without realizing it. At this moment we give up control of our lives.
How to free yourself from manipulation – once and for all
Focusing on the person who manipulates us, blaming him and establishing a distance, is the strategy that everyone follows, but it is not the best solution because it is simply a patch that will not stop the bleeding of a wound that it is actually much deeper. To avoid this type of manipulation we must get rid of that guilt trip. That way we will shield ourselves from anyone else who tries to make us feel guilty in the future.
Ayn Rand said that we must develop “The moral ambition, which means that one has to earn the right to consider oneself as the maximum value” by avoiding the chronic process of self-sacrifice by which we subordinate our needs and convictions to the opinions or wishes of the others.
That does not mean passing on everything and everyone, but finding a right balance in which we are the center of our world, to prevent the others from claiming the right to judge and make us feel guilty.
We also need to understand that manipulation is a way to exercise power, to establish a relationship of domination. But exercising power is violating the freedom of the others, is an act of arrogance through which that person assumes that their needs and convictions are more valuable than ours. Therefore, we must understand that using guilt to manipulate is, in the end, an attack on our freedom, an attempt to take away our autonomy to decide.
From that moment, we should only “experience pleasure in being as one is, with living our life, ceasing to pursue the ideal”, as the philosopher Max Stirner explained. It is about understanding that if we make a mistake, it does not mean that we are bad people. That we have the right to make our decisions and that, if sometime we prioritize ourselves, we do not have to feel guilty.
It’s a huge change of perspective. But it is worth it.
Aedo, C. (2013) Raíces griegas de la noción romana de culpa. Revista de estudios histórico-jurídicos; 35: 39-80.
Rand, A. (1961) The virtue of selfishness. Nueva York: Penguin Group.