Sorry! My guilt button has been disconnected

Others can't send you on a guilt trip if you don't allow them to. The responsibility lies with you

lady showing her hand to indicate stop

I suppose if I have one attribute that I wouldn’t want to be without, it’s that I learned to disconnect my “guilt button.” God knows I’ve been worked on by “guilting experts,” and yet there is something going on in me that causes attempts at manipulation to run from me like water off a ducks’ back.

A few definitions

Guilt: is often the result of blame.
Self-responsibility: is owning up to what I am doing, and creating for myself. Everything, after all is an inside job.
Manipulation: is game designed to get others to change so you don’t have to.

Ben Wong & Jock McKeen, in The NEW Manual for Life, differentiate between guilt and shame. They write that guilt is always about transgressing an externally applied norm. Shame, however, is related to the feeling one gets when one realises he or she has not been “all that they could be” in a situation.

When my dad finally said NO to my mom

A week ago, Darbella and I were out for dinner with a new friend, and the conversation came around somehow to parents and parenting. I told a couple of stories about my mom, who, along with having a ton of great attributes, was an expert at “doing guilt.” Part of her shtick came from a profound sense of entitlement. Until the day she died, she assumed that she was so “important” that what she wanted should take precedence over the life choices of anyone else. “How can they treat me like this?” was her shorthand for, “Don’t they know who I am?” Growing up and watching mom do the “guilt thing” to get her way steeled me against the wiles of the guilt trap. I still remember a call I got from my mom, back when she and dad were in their 70’s. The whole point of the call, mom being in tears throughout, was to let me know that dad had finally said “no” to her. “I can’t believe it! I never thought I’d live so long! He said, ‘no!’” I replied, “Good! I’ve been saying ‘no’ to you since I was 17. Glad he caught on!” Silence. Then, she changed the subject. Now, of course, if the things suggested by “guilt button pushers” didn’t, at some level, make sense, they’d have no effect on us. But the logic isn’t what’s important. This differs from a request, which goes, “Here is my preference. What do you choose?” With a request, the “requester” is OK with hearing “no,” as their self-image isn’t tied up in what someone else decides.

The woman who was a guilt machine

One woman I know is a “guilt machine.” She almost never comes up for air. She has a picture of how her kids and the men in her life “ought to” be. She seems afraid to state her message aloud; it’s always couched in terms of books, studies, and “logic.” But were she to speak her truth, it would sound like: “I am in charge here. I know who you are, and how you should behave. Your opinion doesn’t matter. If you love me, you will always defer to me and my wishes.” Fortunately, most of the people in her life are learning to deal with her as I learned to deal with my mom: love her, understand her games, laugh, and gently and repeatedly say, “That you want me to be a certain way is interesting. I choose to be the way that works for me. Whether you choose to hurt yourself over that or not is your choice.”

The problem with guilt and blame

My dad was good at dealing with reality — good at dealing with what was right in front of him — good at disengaging from guilt or blame.

But that doesn’t mean he didn’t have life and death challenges

Back in the late 70’s, he was working at Radio Shack, and the store got robbed. Dad would have been in his 60’s at the time. The robbers tied him up with speaker wire, threw him to the floor, and stole his wallet and engagement ring. Then they sat on his back and clicked a gun next to his ear, and threatened to kill him. They left after 15 minutes, and a customer found dad trussed up several minutes later. Initially, dad was really pissed off at every person of the racial group of the people who had robbed him. He railed against “them,” and started using racial epithets. I listened and encouraged him to dump. After 3 months he bought me a cup of coffee and said, (actually, this is the Wayne-speak version of what he said…) “Wow. That was weird. I almost became a racist over the actions of two guys. I could have spent the rest of my life blaming and hating. Close call, eh?”

We are all guilty of pushing guilt buttons

Interestingly, many moons later, that dad attempted to push my “guilt button.” After my mom died in 2000, [as mom returns, in another story] we sent her body off, as per her Living Will, to the University of Toronto Medical School. The doctors-in-training might work on a body for as long as three years. Dad chose not to hear that information. 18 months later, they finished up, cremated her remains, and left me a message that “the family” either needed to pick up the ashes, or tell them to bury them. I told dad, and he just nodded. I told him again. More nodding. A few months passed, and dad began to ask about her ashes. I repeated what I’d told him: her ashes were at a cemetery in Toronto, and had been for some time, awaiting instructions. From him. Dad [who didn’t want to decide] said, “This is your mother. What are you going to do about her ashes? A good son would care about his mother and fix this.” I replied, “It’s not my mother. It’s her ashes. And the decision about the disposal is yours.”

Guilt, interestingly, is always linked to someone not wanting to take responsibility

He tried to pass the buck a couple more times, always using the “A good son, or a good daughter-in-law, would…” We resisted being “guilted” into deciding, and kept inviting him to choose another way. Finally, after a month or so, he got real, and said, “I just can’t decide, and I would like it if you would decide for me.” We agreed, and picked up the ashes. I suggested a place that she loved where the ashes could be scattered. He smiled. “She’d like that. She loved that place.” For me, the difference is in the sentiment. Dad initially tried to play on my emotions. “She’s your mother, and you’re being disrespectful,” was the ploy. The message was that there is a certain way I was to act, based upon some invented societal norm. My message, in return, was to notice, aloud, that dad was trying to use guilt to pass the buck, thus avoiding a difficult decision he didn’t want to make. It took a month, but then dad asked me to deal with it, as opposed to trying to manipulate me into taking over by pushing the “guilt button.”

I long ago learned that giving in to guilt, no matter how it is couched, creates the expectation that you’re going to give in to guilt the next time. Better to be clear and firm, and invite others into self-responsibility.

Unfortunately, emotional blackmail is rampant in our society

Saying, “I’m emotionally upset and having difficulty deciding. Please offer your opinion,” is different from, “If you were a decent person, you’d stop being a jerk and bail me out.” The first is a self-responsible asking for help. The second is trying to manipulate through guilt.

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Here’s a last, short example. I saw a couple some years back. I asked them why they had come in. Silence. I asked again. The woman sighed, and said, “I got caught cheating on my husband.” For the rest of the session, she sat in silence. When pressed, she’d reply, “I don’t know why I did it. Everything was wonderful. He needs to move on, and not be angry.” She was stonewalling. She was deeply in manipulation mode, and didn’t want to deal with her choices. Her message was, “Can’t you see how bad I feel? Now drop it, and move on, and let’s get this thing back to the way it was. And if you really love me, you’ll assure me that you trust me.” Rather than be self-responsible and deal with her actions, she focussed on her husband. This was because she indeed felt guilty… over being caught, and wanted to change the subject.

Guilt is an interesting thing. It’s always linked to someone not wanting to take responsibility – to someone trying to use emotions to get someone else to fix their messes. Think about your experiences with guilt. Do you use guilt and manipulation to get your way? Are you victimizing yourself when others use guilt with you? The way out is simple.

Self-responsibility, once again.

As always.

A version of this was first published on Wayne’s blog as Disconnecting the Guilt Button.

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  1. I was raised by post ww2 parents where father was working mom stayed home…as an adult I see that my father RULES all the time. Mom passed in 2008 and father is almost 90. In good health, I see him as controlling as always…how do I live with the realization that when growing up I was both physically and emotionally abused by him.
    My greatest concern now is that he refuses to discuss his will. How do I, can I have a conversation on the subject when he refuses?
    PS. I am also a single parent of a young adult person on the autistic spectrum. This also weighs heavy on what my father has planned for in his will.


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