Monday, August 14, 2006

Guilt Trips and other Useless Vacations

My friend and I were having a discussion on relationships the other day, and he asked me for advice.

I'm not huge on giving out my personal opinions to the lovelorn. I don't have a great track record, having had two divorces and a slew of seriously messed up shorts. But I seemed to have figured a few things out on this one, (smooches to you Brian!) and the querry my friend posed I couldn't help but respond to.

I can't tell you how we got there, but the subject at question was guilt, and the effectiveness of it in motivating a loved one to do what we want them to do for us.

I'll tell you right up front, here and now, I am not a fan of guilt. It has it's place, I'll grant you that. I've tendered more than a few apologies, and moved myself to great lengths to right wrongs I have done because of the niggling feelings I couldn't ignore.

But the truth is that guilt is most effective when I wield it against myself. When someone else brandishes it against me, I find that the overwhelming sense I have isn't remorse, but distaste and resentment.

Consider the programs on television which ask you to donate "pennies a day" to help unfortunate children. And the articles and newsclips that show suffering starving people in other parts of the world. If guilt was an effective tool, there would be an overwhelming response and poverty would be at an end, or at least visably assuaged. But what I notice is that the worse the image, the deeper emotional response, the quicker people seem to be to turn the channel.

I've noticed the same thing in relationships. Guilt doesn't always encourage the "guilty" party to change thier ways. They usually just change the channel. Enough guilt, or any other bad feeling, can be grounds for terminating a relationship.

It's an understandable response.

First, the reaction to a great deal of guilt seems to be:"If I make you so unhappy... if I can do nothing but wrong everytime I turn around, then perhaps you'd be better off with someone else."

If you think about the last great relationship you experienced (in love or friendship, the premise applies to both) I suspect you'll find that the other person made you feel good about yourself. You smiled, laughed, and in general enjoyed your time with this other person a great deal. We are most often in relationships with others, whether we know it or not, because of the way they make us feel. We're often drawn to those who can create for us a sense that we are worthwhile, fun, intelligent, sexy .... whatever. (We all have something in particular we are looking for, the bottom line is that it makes us feel good.)

So where does that take me with the guilt issue? Well, obviously, guilt doesn't make someone feel good. Rather the opposite. So it seems to me that the best way to get somone to do what you want them to do isn't to guilt them into it.

Make them feel good instead.

Make them feel so good they want to make you feel good.

It's a never ending reciprocation that has nothing but positive outcomes. If that's manipulation, then manipulate me.

It's beats the hell out of guilt any day.


Anonymous said...

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im_in_chains said...

I'm totally with you on this Dawn. You've written it so well.

I have a sound moral compass and I don't need my mother's help in eliciting guilt. My mother's been guilt tripping me for years which caused that uncomfortable feeling of guilt. Then I realised when she tried to guilt trip me, I hadn't actually done anything wrong. I'd simply not met her ideal/vision/expectation of how she felt something should be. It was, in fact, her who was not accepting of reality. What Mum fails to realise - and she hasn't learnt this yet in her 56 years - is that reality is VERY different from expectations and if you continue to live your life by expectations then you are ALWAYS going to be disappointed.

Of course, I'm all for compromise but what I won't do is totally give up my life for her, you know, like nuns and monks do when they join the order. But the comments persist, usually in the form of negative comparisions, i.e., she'll tell me about something someone else is actually doing for their mother such as visiting more than once a week etc. I used to vaguely respond to it, something like, "Oh, right," but I never did what she wanted, unless it was a fair issue and something we could compromise on. However, this hasn't stopped her using this tactic. You'd have thought by now after all these years, she'd have realised it's not working but there must be some pay off for her to continue doing it.

In recent years, I've found that I no longer feel guilt. GREAT! But no. In its place is anger. I'm totally fed up to the back teeth of the guilt trips. Last time she tried, I said this, "That's nice of X and X to do that. I'm sorry I'm not able to do the same." Even thought it felt good saying it at the time, I still feel very angry. Angry at her for trying it on and angry at myself for taking it.

*sigh* Will it ever end?