Blame and the Guilt Button

Blame and the Guilt Button — people use blaming as a weapon — using guilt as a way to manipulate others into doing their bidding. The cure? Self-responsibility.

Wayne C. Allen

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You have to do it for me!

I suppose if I have one attribute that I wouldn’t want to be without, I suspect that “the key to my success” (such as it is) might be that I, quite early, learned to disconnect my “guilt button.”

God knows I’ve been worked on by experts, and yet there is something going on in me that causes attempts at manipulation to run off of me like water off a ducks’ back.

A few concepts, before we dig in.

Guilt is different from “taking responsibility when I’ve made a mistake.” I notice when, on the few occasions J that I screw up, I’m pretty quick to own up, apologise and do what I can to make amends. On the other hand, I have a real nose for when people are making a move in the direction of trying to “make me” responsible for their stuff.

Ben Wong and Jock McKeen, in The NEW Manual for Life, differentiate between guilt and shame. They write that guilt is always based upon transgressing an externally applied norm. Shame, on the other hand, is related to the feeling one gets when one realizes he or she has not been “all that they could be” in a situation.

In other words, shame is directly connected to a failure in personal responsibility. Guilt is related to a wish to divert attention away from the self, and is also about resistance to making personal change.

My mom, who died in 2000, in addition to having a ton of great attributes, was an expert at “doing blame” in an attempt to make others feel “guilty.”

Part of her shtick came from a profound sense of entitlement. Until the day she died, she assumed that the importance of how she saw herself and what she wanted should take precedence over the life choices of everyone else.

How can they treat me like this?” was shorthand for “Don’t they know who I am?”

Growing up and watching mom do the “blaming thing” to get her way steeled me against the wiles of the guilt trap. I still remember a call I got from my mom, back when she and dad were in their 70’s. The whole point of the call, mom being in tears throughout, was to let me know that dad had finally said “no” to her. “I can’t believe it! I never thought I’d live so long! He said, ‘no!’ ”

Let’s be clear here: if the things requested by “guilt button pushers” didn’t, at some level, make sense, they’d have no effect on us. The hook is in the underlying message. The underlying message is, “I want you to violate yourself, so that you’ll cave in do what I want you to do.”

This differs from a request, which goes, “Here is my preference. What do you choose?”

The way through “guilting” is to learn to be self-responsible; to address “guilters” this way:

That you want me to be a certain way is interesting. I choose to be the way that works for me. Whether you choose to hurt yourself over that or not is your choice.”

Most people never get to this place.

Why? Because people put more store in the opinions of others than in their own self-understanding.

My dad, on the other hand, was pretty good at dealing with reality without expectation — good at disengaging from guilt. He was eminently self-sufficient, and dealt with life as it came. He dealt with his emotions directly and efficiently.

Back in the early 70’s, he was working at Radio Shack, and the store got robbed. Dad would have been in his 60’s at the time. The robbers tied him up with speaker wire, threw him to the floor, and stole his wallet and engagement ring. Then they sat on his back and clicked a gun next to his ear, and threatened to kill him. They left after 15 minutes.

A customer found dad trussed up several minutes later.

Initially, dad was really pissed off at every person of the racial group of the people that had robbed him. He railed against “them,” and started using racial epithets. I listened and encouraged him to dump. After 3 months he bought me a cup of coffee and said, “Wow. I almost became a racist over the actions of two guys. I could have spent the rest of my life hating. Close call, huh?”

So, it was interesting that, a year after mom died, my dad attempted to push my “guilt button.”

After mom died, we sent her body off (as per her Living Will) to the University of Toronto Medical School. They told us that they might use her body for as long as three years. 18 months after mom died, they were done, and she was cremated.

The ashes ended up at a cemetery in Toronto, awaiting pick-up. I told dad. Never one to want to deal with the dead, he said, “This is your mother. What are you going to do about her ashes? A good son would care about his mother and deal with all of this.”

I replied, “It’s not my mother. It’s her ashes. And the decision about the disposal of her ashes is yours.”

He tried to pass the buck a couple more times, to both Dar and me. We resisted being “guilted” into deciding. He got mad, then quiet, then went home.

I picked up the ashes, and let dad know. He still tried to pass the buck about what to do with them, but he was smiling. Because his attempt was no longer serious, I suggested a place she’d loved as the best place the ashes could be scattered.

His smile deepened. “She’d like that. She loved that place.”

For me, the difference was in dad’s intention. Dad initially tried to play on my emotions; “She’s your mother, and you’re being disrespectful.” His message was that there is a certain way I was to act, based upon a societal norm.

My message, in return, was to notice, aloud, that dad was using guilt to pass the buck, thus avoiding a difficult decision he didn’t want to make. I oped out of that game. Once dad stopped with the games, things changed.

He moved from “guilting” to asking — trying to manipulate me into taking over by pushing the “guilt button.”

Emotional blackmail is rampant in our society. Saying, “I’m emotionally upset and having difficulty deciding. Please offer your opinion,” is different from, “If you were a decent person, you’d stop being a jerk and bail me out.” The first is a self-responsible asking for assistance. The second is an attempt to manipulate through guilt.

Guilt is an interesting thing. It’s always linked to someone not wanting to take responsibility for their own “stuff” — linked to someone trying to use emotions to get someone else fix their messes.

Think about your experiences with guilt. Do you use guilt and manipulation to get your way? Are you victimizing yourself when others use guilt with you? The way out is simple.

Self-responsibility, once again. As always.

About the Author: Wayne C. Allen is the web\‘s Simple Zen Guy. Wayne was a Private Practice Counsellor in Ontario until June of 2013. Wayne is the author of five books, the latest being The. Best. Relationship. Ever. See: –The Phoenix Centre Press

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