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    Build Immunity to Guilt-tripping


    In every culture there are people and institutions that deliberately work to instill guilt in people. The reason is easy to understand. Those who feel guilty are easier to dominate, manipulate, and exploit. That’s why it’s in everyone’s interest to understand what guilt is, especially irrational guilt, and to be able to spot the techniques people use to instill it in others.

    Every experience of guilt has an idea component and a feeling component. The idea is always that something I’ve done or failed to do has hurt someone else. We experience guilt because we’re social animals, hard-wired to feel concern and empathy for other people, and to experience pain if we believe we’ve caused them to suffer. The feeling element in guilt is a kind of depressive anxiety, which is so painful that most people will do almost anything to avoid it.

    Because guilt involves ideas, it can be taught, and is all-too-easily learned, especially by the young and the naïve. The most basic method for making people susceptible to guilt is to get them to confuse pursuing legitimate self-interests with “selfishness.” If you can con others into thinking that acting on their legitimate rights, or pursuing reasonable personal goals, is “selfish,” or that it somehow causes harm to others, then it becomes easier to get them to relinquish their goals and induce them to serve your ends instead. Parents who use their children to meet their own needs, for instance, often use the “selfish” speech to make their children feel ashamed for having independent desires. Maybe you’ve heard it? “You’re so selfish! All you ever think about is yourself. It’s just me, me, me…” etc.

    I’m constantly amazed at how many of my patients who were subjected to this kind of treatment as children harbor, as adults, a deep dark secret – that if anyone really knew them they’d find out just how shamelessly selfish they really are. When people learn, early in life, to associate interest in their own welfare with selfishness, they can spend the rest of their lives being at the mercy of every unscrupulous person who crosses their path, all the while living with debilitating guilt.

    Another effective method for instilling guilt is to belittle another’s pain and suffering. People who are hurting are naturally inclined to take action to relieve the pain, unless they’ve been taught to believe their pain is shameful. If you’re seriously depressed, for instance, you’re going to be far less inclined to seek help if you believe that you’re just feeling sorry for yourself, that you’re a whiner, that you’re weak and full of self-pity, and that you should just get over yourself and get a life. Those who have learned not to respect their own suffering don’t act to relieve it.

    Another effective guilt-inducing strategy is the “people are starving in Africa so shut up” argument. The irrational idea in this argument is that since somebody somewhere always has it worse, you have no right to try to make anything better for yourself. When people who tell you to “count your blessings” really mean “ignore your needs,” it’s best to ignore their advice.

    Recovery from vulnerability to guilt-tripping involves overcoming the conflation of selfishness with legitimate self-interest. It involves getting clear that you have an inherent right to do all in your power to live and thrive. It requires seeing through the false claims that pursuing legitimate life goals somehow hurts or deprives others.

    Tom Moon is a psychotherapist in San Francisco. His website it