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Published July 01, 2011, 12:00 AM

Val Farmer: Set defined boundaries in close relationships

This is one trip you don’t want to take this summer – a guilt trip. What is guilt? Guilt is your feeling about your personal failure to live up to your standard of behavior.

By: Val Farmer, INFORUM

This is one trip you don’t want to take this summer – a guilt trip.

What is guilt? Guilt is your feeling about your personal failure to live up to your standard of behavior.

There are times when we should feel guilty. On those occasions when we are blind to our own moral lapses, a spouse, a relative or a good friend may gently help us see our inconsistency between what we say we believe and how we act. Occasionally a counselor, a minister or a trusted adviser may assume that role.

What is a guilt trip? Guilt trips are about violating boundaries. Guilt trips are about control. It is a way of manipulating people to get a desired outcome through indirect and passive-aggressive tactics.

Inflicting guilt is used more frequently in families, small communities and organizations where direct conflict or confrontation might upset ties and working relationships. Using guilt unabashedly to control others gets passed on in families as surely as genes. Some families do it, some don’t. Families that use guilt may not even be aware of how often they use it or how wrong it really is.

Expecting people to give up a control tactic they’ve used “effectively” over a lifetime with each other may not be realistic. Usually we don’t need much help from others to know when we’ve failed to live up to our own code of moral conduct.

Setting boundaries. To deal with another’s agenda for our behavior, we need to be clear about who we are, what we want and what we are willing to do. If we understand and are secure about ourselves, we become less vulnerable to inappropriate or blatant attempts to control our behavior. Setting boundaries is about being clear on personal and family goals, priorities and responsibilities.

It is about saying “no” when it is necessary. It is about communicating limits and taking control when others may want to control you. It is about agreeing to disagree in a pleasant manner.

Taking charge. Here are some tips on what to do when someone is trying to inflict guilt:

  • Mirror back to them the essence of what they are saying. “Are you telling me that if I don’t come and see you every day I am not being a good daughter?” Confront them with their own words. “I have the feeling that you are upset because ... Is that right?”

  • State your position on the subject and recognize that they have a right to their opinion. “I understand that you feel differently, but let me explain why we chose to do thus and so.”

  • Find out what they want. Tell them a range of options you are willing to do and see which one they favor. Be clear about what you are not willing to do. State your conditions and see if they are willing to meet them or make counter-proposals.

  • Don’t let them suck you into their plans. Make plans and be clear about them. Discuss with them how their plans and yours might match up. Negotiate from a position of strength. If they catch you off guard, tell them you need time to think about it and when you will get back to them.

  • Recognize that every relationship has give and take to it. Do your part. It is when the relationship becomes unbalanced that you have to draw the line.

  • Have thick skin. So what if they inflict a lot of guilt? That is their way. You don’t have to take it personally. So what if they are disappointed or angry with you? That is their problem. Be loving and matter-of-fact with them: “I’m sorry you feel that way. I hope it won’t be a big problem between us.”

  • Don’t be afraid to say no and explain your reasons why. You owe them an explanation. That’s all. Listen to their attempts at persuasion. If they persist, be a broken record. State your own reasons over and over again if they keep coming back to the same point. “Like I said before, Bob and I decided that this year we would do thus and so.”

  • Get the issue defined clearly and on the table rather than let innuendo or snide remarks pass. “What did you mean by that?” or, “Are you saying that I am not being responsible when ...?”

  • If they have a valid point, acknowledge it, apologize and make amends if possible. Addressing your own faults openly will make it easier to draw the line when it is their perception or interpretation that seems to be the problem.

It may be a painful process, but being clear about boundaries helps create healthy and respectful relationships. Other people’s feelings count. But they don’t have the right to control you with those feelings. As long as you are in control, it is their problem, not yours. Even if the other party doesn’t change, at least you’ll be more at peace – and more in control.

If you take guilt trips, you are choosing to go along for the ride. How is that for a guilt trip?


Val Farmer is a clinical psychologist specializing in family business consultation and mediation with farm families. He lives in Wildwood, Mo., and can be contacted through his website, www.valfarmer.com.

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