Monday, August 24, 2009

Childhood Passport Filled with Toxic Guilt Trips

Ahhh, Those Guilt Trips

I went on so many trips with my parents that I can't even begin to count them. These trips weren't fun trips, however. They weren't vacations, get-aways, or holidays-- these trips were guilt trips. My parents managed to guilt trip me all the way into adulthood. Somehow, I always felt a great deal of responsibility and fault.

With a Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD) mother and a Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD) Dad, they were both masters at creating guilt trips. I tried and tried and tried to make each of them happy, walking on eggshells, at the expense of receiving none. That 'none' is the toll of living in such a relationship.

Childhood Passport Filled with Guilt Trips

So what exactly is a guilt trip? Guilt trips are about violating boundaries, controlling someone, and a method of manipulating through indirect and passive-aggressive tactics. Toxic guilt is associated with a desire to apologize, make reparations, and be forgiven for something for which you don't have responsibility. Toxic guilt stems from a focus on bad behavior that already occurred, is a negative and confidence crushing feeling, and is a matter of one's conscience. Toxic guilt is a tool used to make someone feel badly.

On another note, guilt can be 'good'. Good guilt makes you pay attention to the feelings of others and makes you feel badly if you hurt someone. It also redistributes emotional distress so that the wronged person doesn’t end up being the only one feeling poorly. Good guilt makes us apologize for wrong-doings and compels us to do things we don’t really want to.

When you're brought up in an environment where you have been unfairly blamed for the wrongs of others, emotionally abused, or pitted against one parent by the other, the adult child may not have the ability to stop feeling guilty-- this is toxic guilt. Absorbing feelings of guilt, accepting blame, and being passive contribute to the guilty feelings. This early pattern of accepting other's guilt creates difficulty with stopping feelings of guilt about the past.

Guilt trips are a very powerful tool, and I had a challenge with guilt trips and toxic guilt from my parents for many decades. In addition to the guilt, I started to have symptoms of anxiety starting in the mid-late 1990's. I believe the anxiety is a result from the long-term guilt I was experiencing compounded by the post traumatic stress that I experienced from the Parental Alienation Syndrome (PAS) and emotional abuse from my parents' personality disorders.

As a child after very traumatic experiences I had when my parents were tugging at my brother and me, I distinctively remember thinking , "I know I am handling this stress right now, but long term repercussions will show up later in life." I could feel internally the knots and sickness from the stressful & abusive experiences and buried it all deeply. I was a strong pillar for my brother and myself, but no matter how strong I was, I still had that guilt nagging at me with almost every decision I made that involved my parents. I never felt like I could win-- all the way up to the last estrangement with each parent (mother 2004; Dad 2008)

I have so many stories I could tell about the guilt trips I experienced through out 30 years; however, I have picked out a select few:
  • I can truly say that I was ripped in half during my parents separation and divorce, initiating in 1979. No matter what I chose, one parent was hurt or rejected. This scenario was not my doing, and my parents shouldn't have created such a scenario; however, they did-- and my brother & I suffered with traumatic, stressful, and decisions NO CHILD should EVER have to make. Choosing one parent over the other is HORRIBLE... and creates a guilt ridden situation that is a no win. To this day, I can't have a relationship with both parents at the same time. Note that my parents will say they didn't make my brother and I choose, and they will also say that we can have both of them in our lives at the same time. The Reality: The truth is that all FACTS surrounding the respective relationships illustrate that (1) we had to choose one parent over the other and (2) how we HAVE NOT had both parents in our life at the same time consistently.
  • When my parents separated in 1979, my brother and I lived with my mother while my Dad lived in an apartment about 2 miles away. My Dad would intercept me during my walk to elementary school and give me a ride. During that ride, he would cry and tell me how horrible life was without my brother and me. He would proclaim how much he missed us. Seeing him cry and hearing him profess how miserable he was truly played on my heart strings and I felt incredibly guilty for residing with my mother and leaving him all alone. The Reality: my brother and I were subjected to Parental Alienation Syndrome (PAS) as children, which this was one of the examples where my Dad inflicted the emotional abuse. With PAS, one parent tries to turn the child(ren) against the other parent.
  • In 1979 when my brother and I moved into my Dad's apartment, my Dad aided and abetted a heart-wrenching situation at Christmas. My brother and I were supposed to visit with my mother and decorate the Christmas tree. Due to overwhelming feelings of not being loyal to my Dad and also being very scared of my mother due to the PAS my Dad inflicted, my brother and I decided not to visit with my mother. I felt incredibly guilty imagining my mother all alone with the bare tree sitting there surrounded by boxes of decorations. For more on this story, visit Who Dunnit 1980 The Reality: my brother and I made decisions as children based on the severe PAS subjected by my Dad. My mother to this day holds my brother and me accountable as if we were adults at the time making these decisions. Multiple layers of guilt exists with this example.
  • In the early 1980's, I resided with my mother. She would have me call my Dad with a script of what to say. Additionally, she had the phone hooked up to a recording device. If I didn't follow her instructions, she would berate me on how my Dad is so horrible and how he has taken advantage of her and me. Not wanting to create a miserable living experience with my mother, I would follow her command and make the calls. The guilt I felt after the calls was immense. The Reality: Being a child under emotionally abusive conditions, I should have not felt guilty for which actions I was not responsible. My mother subjected me to Parental Alienation Syndrome (which this example is just one of many where my mother took extraordinary efforts to hurt my Dad), and I felt very guilty about how my Dad was being alienated and treated.
  • In the late 1980's, my mother and I were estranged; however, she made contact with me by showing up at one of my jobs. My Dad caught wind that my mother was trying to reenter my life. Subsequently, he showed up at one of my jobs to tell me that if I started communicating with my mother again that he would disown me. I mulled over the decision to open communications with my mother, and the guilt that I felt about choosing one parent over the other was very troubling and clouded my thought process. The Reality: Having to choose one parent over the other is extremely heart-wrenching and creates a huge fall-out in one's emotions, as no matter what your choice is, you hurt someone. My parents should have never subjected my brother and me to this treatment from childhood to present.
  • My mother was diagnosed with an illness in the early 1990's. I had opportunities for incredible career and salary growth; however, due to my mother pleading about how she was so ill that I couldn't leave her, I opted not to take the promotions. Her guilt trips halted my career growth as I felt stifled that any decision I made would leave her deserted in her time of illness and need. The Reality: I am the only one that can to control my life and to manage my life. Making decisions based on the guilt laden statements is not sensible or reasonable-- however, at the time, the guilt trips clouded my decision making and ultimately caused decisions that were not in my best interest.
  • My mother and I would get together every Monday for shopping and dinner in the early to mid-1990's. If canceled, she would send me on a guilt trip. I rarely canceled as the repercussions were worse than the joy I would have had with the friend / event. The Reality: a relationship based on control and guilt is not authentic. I was always searching for an authentic relationship with my mother and feeling forced into weekly visits with her only furthered the feeling of an inauthentic relationship.
  • In the late 1990's, my Dad and I started visiting often. During this time, he would slip me money in private. He would always tell me to keep it to myself and not say anything to anyone. I was very touched that he was thinking of me and reaching out to me: planning ahead to give me the money, pulling me away from the rest of the group, and showing interest in me. I felt guilty for the time that had lapsed in our relationship when we didn't have contact. The Reality: I found out years later that the money he was slipping me was from my grandmother's death-- the money that she left me that he never gave me when she passed away. So, not only should I have not wasted time feeling guilty for the time that lapsed in our relationship as I was not the only player in the situation, but I shouldn't have been so gullible to his overly generous gestures. Our prior estrangement was due to my Dad not paying for my college (which he was legally obligated to do per the divorce agreement where he obtained all the equity in the house from my mother in exchange for paying my brother's and my undergraduate college expenses), claiming me as a dependent after I had not resided with him for 8 years which prohibited me from attaining scholarships & grants, and dropping me from the group car insurance without telling me until I discovered I was driving with no insurance 6 months after the fact. People don't change, and I gave him too much credit, thus fell for it hook, line, and guilt trip.
  • When I met my future husband in 2000 and I knew our relationship was going to blossom into a life long journey, I fretted how I was going to handle a wedding. No matter what situation I imagined for my wedding, I felt guilty about the situation in which someone would be placed, whether my birth father, Dad, or step-father, siblings, or mother. No matter what I imagined, someone would be uncomfortable-- and that included me. My wedding was a no-win situation and one that I felt guilty about even before any wedding plans were made. The Reality: In the end, no amount of worry or guilty feelings prevented my mother from flying off the deep-end about my wedding. My mother was ready to be mad at me no matter, and we are still estranged to this day. I should have aimed to please myself and my fiance without worrying about trying to please everyone else as well.
The power of guilt is overwhelming. Guilt can cloud your decision making, lead to anxiety, and make your life your life one convoluted mess. Andrew Vachss in You Carry the Cure in Your Own Heart says: They use guilt the same way a loan shark uses money: They don’t want the “debt” paid off, because they live quite happily on the “interest.”

By the way, my debt is paid. I have stopped feeling guilty. And I can say that the guilt stopped when I took control of MY LIFE and started making decisions that were best for me. I stopped feeling guilty when I reassured myself that I am doing the best I can and that my parents are the ones treating our relationship with carelessness, disrespect, and abuse. Believing in myself and understanding my past have been powerful tools in combating guilt. And knowing that I am leading my life towards my aspirations and vision are incredibly liberating.

The Effects of Guilt Trips

With constant toxic guilt, a series of emotions and altered the state & structure of the brain can be experienced. Guilt can be immobilizing, cause anxiety & insomnia, and affect mental stability. Toxic guilt leads to the mind denying access to natural feelings that are now blocked. The guiltier one feels, the ability to make effective and healthy decisions is decreased.

Guilt can also have many negative effects on not just the mind but also on the body. "Guilt could potentially immobilize you. You can become so overcome by the fear of doing, acting, saying, or being 'wrong' that you eventually collapse, give in, and choose inactivity, silence, and the status quo" James Messina from "Handling Guilt".

How to Stop Taking Guilt Trips
  • Understand Yourself: be clear about who you are, what you want, and what you are willing to do. Acknowledging each of these assists in dealing with the abuser's agenda. Having this clarity makes you less vulnerable to the control of guilt trips.
  • Just Say No: communicate your limits and take control when someone is trying to lay a controlling guilt trip on you. Pleasantly agree to disagree. Be prepared for a reaction from the abuser that (1) you are being difficult or (2) attempting to place blame on you for creating a conflict by disagreeing. The abuser may even take the situation so far as to expect you to 'fix' the relationship if the result of you disagreeing throws him / her over the edge-- expecting an apology or promise to not disagree again. Stick to your guns and don't do it.
  • Echo Back: when someone is trying to take you on a guilt trip, echo back what is being communicated to you. For example, "Are you saying that if I don't _____, then I am not being a good son / daughter?"
  • Ask for Clarification: use his / her words to flip the situation back. For example, "I have the feeling that you are upset because ______. Is that right?"
  • Mental Toughness Training: simply put, push yourself over feeling guilty: (1) tell someone how you feel (2) be ready to stand up for your beliefs (3) be ready for the challenges that will come your way (4) let go of the guilty feelings (5) be ready to fight and continue to fight to keep control of the situation
  • See a Trained Professional: through the use of a psychologists, you can explore why you feel guilty and how to not take those guilt trips anymore
Overcoming guilt doesn't happen overnight, but with practice, a guilt free life is within reach. If you feel guilty again, go over the decision to think and act for the benefit of your mind, body, and soul again. Continue to practice the points above and know that you ARE worth the efforts! Now that I am guilt free from my parents, I can reflect back and see how controlling the guilt was and how my decisions were guided by these indirect and passive-aggressive tactics. In my situation, I wasn't able to truly break free from the guilt trips and toxic guilt until I was free of my parents. Once I maintained no contact, I have had closure-- I am free.


  1. I love your blog, you have not only heart in it you list so many references for those of us who are going through what you post. Thank You. I too understand, unfortunately about the toxic guilt. My relationship with my mother is a working one. Funny but sometimes she listens and sometimes she doesn't. It would be so much easier for me to heal without her being a constant in my life, but I am taking control. I have only recently learned what you have gotten control of. I do take over my life make my own decisions the cloud is still hovering though. If I hear one suggestion from her it immediately comes back even if she is minding her p's and q's. The funniest thing I've learned is what the narcissist does when you learn to be narcissisitic back to them. However it is still a painful experience every time, even when I do the right thing, or the only option I have is to tell her I don't want her opinion right now, it is still painful. The cloud still lingers overy my own judgments and I can't figure out what to do in a certain situation. I know what she want's me to do, and that little voice of her's that is planted in my head let's me know every second of the way and then I can't figure out what I really want to do. I hope this makes sense and that you don't mind me rambling on. I have had a counselor for about 6 years straight and we have don't family counseling too. Im 39 and well into my own life that doesn't concern her as much as it used to but I do have children and there are times that I have no one else to elicite help from. I have 4 kids, a medically fragile disabled child, my parents rescued me from an abusive now ex-husband and moved us here. Im am forever grateful. There are not many babysitting options for someone in a position that I have. Therefore, I am forevery relying on them. Keeping them intertwined in my life. Purely by design I can't always keep them at an arms length.

    Ok so I've rambled enough. Thanks again and I love your blog!

  2. No matter what (no matter the rescuing, the babysitting, the intertwining in your life) remember that you deserve to be treated with respect and love. The rescuing and babysitting shouldn't be given with strings attached-- they should be given out of love and a sincere desire to help. So, if you are made to feel guilty or if you are treated less than optimally, you have every right to express yourself and be respected for how you feel. Don't sell yourself short or feel as if you owe something back-- you could head down a slippery slope of being treated carelessly and poorly. So, keep control like you mentioned and maintain strong boundaries. May happiness be abundant and may you see the way with clarity, peace, and understanding.

    Thanks for stopping by-- thanks for your stories-- and thanks for the compliments on my blog. Take care of yourself.

  3. So, keep control like you mentioned and maintain strong boundaries.

    That's the hard part, it's really easy to just slip back into the 10 year old me and think I've done something wrong. The other hard part is that Im a very gentle spirit so it's easy for me to be backed into submission, and Im having to get out of my comfort zone and assert myself. It's not easy at all. In the end no one will be able to manipulate me ever again. I do have to take vacations from the torture too. I only use them for help when I absolutely need it, emergency. I also keep an open dialog with my kids to teach them not to be manipulated either. It's a tightrope I walk and I know it. Thank you also for your feedback, I hope you don't mind.

  4. OH MY GOODNESS! I totally know what you mean when you say that you "slip back into the 10 year old me". I know that feeling TO A "T"!! I am just like that when distention occurs with my parents, and then I feel like I do a disservice to myself because I don't respond effectively, efficiently, or how I actually think / feel. And, like you, I am too nice ("gentle spirit") and want to smooth things over, so I either keep my mouth shut or make nicey-nicey with them. Either way, I walk away feeling awful, like I betrayed myself. As much as I tried to work on how I responded, I was never very successful due to the abusive, dysfunctional, and toxic nature of their interactions. As a result, I backed away further and further after trying to discuss my feelings.

    You are welcome for the feedback-- my pleasure. I truly wish you success with the tightrope walk, keeping boundaries, and maintaining control. In the end, remember that this is YOUR life-- so make it a HAPPY one :)