Learn what a guilt trip looks like, how to recognize one, and how to protect yourself. Also find tips on how to bounce back from real guilty feelings.

What is a guilt trip?

The plain emotion of guilt has real positive effects and motivates change. In contrast, guilt trips are inappropriate projections of guilt, meant to make you feel ashamed and bad about yourself. People often use guilt trips to get their way or feel better about themselves — at your emotional expense.

It’s not always a manipulative friend or narcissist inducing your shame; sometimes guilt is just appropriate.

We accidentally hurt a coworker, or left a good friend hanging. In these situations, we feel guilty for a reason, and the clear solution is to make amends. A thorough apology may do the trick and resolve your guilt, or you can make amends by righting a wrong you caused. 

In a guilt trip, guilt transitions from a useful emotion to a weapon. When someone lays a guilt trip on you, it’s almost impossible to protect yourself – after all, they’re telling you that it’s your fault, that you hurt them, . The impulse to protect yourself can make the guilt even worse if you’re not careful. 

To help avoid unnecessary shame and pain from guilt trips, we compiled a guide for how to tell if you’re receiving a guilt trip, and how to protect yourself if you are. We also go through what to do if you genuinely screwed up – because nobody’s immune to the occasional mis-step.

Protect yourself from unnecessary guilt

In a guilt trip, it’s hard to know how much of their talk is sincere, and how much is just meant to make you do what they want. Before taking action, it’s helpful to reframe the situation in an accurate and unbiased light.

Recognize a guilt trip by reframing

Guilt is a strong emotion, and it can easily warp the reality of the situation you’re in. Guilt trips can feel like you’re being blamed for problems that don’t exist, that you couldn’t have possibly caused — but the other person is so convincing, you start to doubt reality.

The first step in protecting yourself from guilt trips is recognizing when you’re being sent on one.

So when you think you might be a victim of a guilt trip, reframing the situation can show you whether you should resist, or actually change your behavior.

Hot vs. cool focus

When we reflect on our behavior, we use either a “hot” or “cool” attentional focus.

A “hot” perspective is one colored by emotion, and a “cool” perspective is more logical. Luckily, there are techniques available to shift to a cool perspective in assessing your guilt. 

Technique 1: Think about the situation in concrete, not abstract, terms. 

Don’t magnify. For example, perhaps you’ve had a fight with your best friend. Many people begin thinking “This is the end of the friendship,” or “I am a bad person.” Is this helpful? Is it true? Stick to the facts of the situation, and don’t assume that your mistake is bigger than it really is.  

Technique 2: Imagine that someone else is in this situation instead of you.  

Just like there’s no fun in tickling someone who’s not ticklish, guilt trippers won’t even try when they know you’ll move right on.

What if your friend were feeling guilty for the same thing you are? What about your mom, or your significant other? Do you think they should feel as bad as you do? Likely not so much. We tend to be our own worst critic, and while we are usually quite forgiving of others’ mistakes, we may not remember to extend that compassion and understanding to ourselves. 

Technique 3: Consider how you will feel about the situation in the distant future. 

In 5 or 10 years, will you still be as upset about the situation? Will it have drastically altered your life? Again, it’s probably not likely. Most things are just another small step in our growing experience of life. It may seem important now, but it probably won’t be soon.

A “cool” focus helps us reframe our thoughts in a more accurate light, but it still keeps us thinking about the situation.

Shut down a guilt trip by ignoring unfair guilt

You can’t exactly stop someone from laying a guilt trip on you; and you certainly can’t get them to admit they’re unjustly faulting you.

So the most realistic and foolproof way to protect yourself from guilt trips is to make yourself immune to them.

Just like there’s no fun in tickling someone who’s not ticklish, guilt trippers won’t even try when they know you’ll move right on.

It’s important to remember that you are not what others say you are, and there is more to who you are than the shame and false responsibility you feel.

Guilt trips can be all-consuming, so learn to step outside of them and think about yourself in a more holistic way. 

Step one is to separate your (potential) mistakes from your self-image. Think of all the things you like about yourself the most.

Mistakes don’t change our values, our good qualities, or our achievements — someone who cares about you will believe that, too, instead of guilt tripping you.

To become better people, we have to make mistakes to learn! And that right there makes guilt trips ineffective and counterproductive. If someone is trying to make you feel bad, instead of helping you grow from a real mistake — you have every right to Just. Ignore. Them.

What about if I really did something wrong?

Most of the time, our emotions are useful. Outside of unfair guilt trips, remorse prompts us to adjust our behavior in line with who we want to be. Guilt can be a particularly effective emotion in encouraging change — harness it. 

Apologize where appropriate

If you feel reasonable guilt at something you may have done, the single best thing you can do is apologize. A good apology shows that you take responsibility for your actions, feel remorse, and plan to change.

If you’ve hurt someone, apologize to them directly when you can. If you can’t, try writing down what you would say. Internalize your message and take it to heart. 

The components of an effective apology:

A complete apology should make you and the other person feel better. But we don’t always know where to start.

Research has uncovered a set of specific parts that equal a satisfying, effective apology. To increase your chances of making up, include as many of the following points as possible:

  • Express Regret: let them know you wish this hadn’t happened, that you know they’re hurting, and that seeing them in pain makes you feel regret.
  • Explain What Happened: show you understand exactly what was upsetting and how they see the series of events that brought you here. Validate their perspective.
  • Acknowledge the Part You Played: make sure to mention your role in the hurtful situation. It might hurt your ego to take responsibility, but it will help reduce your guilt in the long run.
  • State Your Remorse and Repent: in addition to expressing regret (that you feel bad for what happened), express that you feel so bad about this, that you feel driven to keep it from happening again. If you could do it over, you would – and in future situations, you will act differently.
  • Offer To Make It Better: suggest something you could do to make the situation better for the person you hurt. This could include running an errand you made them miss, taking on some chores so they can de-stress, or replacing something of theirs you broke. Anything to either directly repair your mis-step, or to compensate for it.
  • Ask For Forgiveness: according to research, this is the least important part of a proper apology. This part can be more self-serving than the rest — an effective apology keeps the focus on what the other person is experiencing, rather than your uncomfortable emotions. Our view is, do all you can to make things better for the other person, and the forgiveness will probably come without you asking for it.

Sometimes we feel guilty for things we do to ourselves, but showing yourself remorse and forgiveness is just as important as when you do so for others. To get rid of that bad feeling, try journaling out an apology you can read to yourself. 

Can’t stop feeling guilty? 

Though emotions can be useful in encouraging change, sometimes they can go off the rails and make us feel bad without any real purpose. Maybe you aren’t able to make amends for your guilt, or maybe your guilt tripper can’t see reality. Either way, the guilt is no longer useful — so what do you do with it? 

Consider your guilt as a learning experience. Guilt tells you that you don’t like what you did. So, what would you do differently if you encountered this situation again? What does your guilt tell you about your values? How does reflecting on the situation make you feel? 

Maybe you made a mistake and can’t fix it. It happens! But now, after thinking about it, you have:

  • learned something new about yourself
  • grown as a person
  • created a new datapoint for successfully maneuvering the future
  • used your guilt productively

Isn’t that something to celebrate? If you’re still not convinced, talking about it might help.

Guilt trips don’t work and hurt everyone

There’s no way around it — guilt feels awful. The only way to move past guilt is to use it. Consider it realistically. Grow from it. And, of course, be kind to yourself. Guilt means you truly care, and that alone is something wonderful. 

Still feeling guilty? Your peers at Supportiv can help talk you through it