April 28, 2023

The Parent (Guilt) Trap & How to Free Yourself.


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Are you an adult human who is still feeling ruled by guilt from your parents?

Does your stomach tie itself in a knot when you see you’ve missed a call from your mother?

Do you feel you need to lie about your life, manufacture struggle, or downplay your happiness or success to avoid hearing something along the lines of, “How dare you live your own life your own way? Do you know how much I’ve sacrificed for you!?”

Other versions of this include:

“I never had the luxuries you’ve enjoyed.”

“I gave up my life for you.”

“My parents never gave me anything.”

“You don’t even know what real struggle is.”

“The only reason you have/are ___ is because of me.”

“I was nothing like you when I was your age.”

This is commonly known as guilt-tripping, but I like to call it guilt trapping: a way of shaming or blaming a child in order to trap them into meeting your expectations.

So many of my clients struggle with this. Anecdotally from client experiences (I haven’t found any studies to back this up), I have found that its a generational tactic most commonly used by parents over the age of 60.

Parents commonly use guilt trapping to control matters such as: 

>> how, when, and for how long their children are supposed to spend time with them

>> how their children use their money or their education

>> the kinds of relationships their children are supposed to have with other family members

>> generally how their children live their lives

The way this manifests in the lives of my clients who have been “guilt trapped” by their parents is that they have a tendency to close themselves off from receiving what they see as “too much abundance.” They don’t want to enjoy their lives “too much,” be “too happy,” or even “too healthy.” They feel weary, even suspicious, when good things are happening in their lives, and they feel the need to hide or diminish their successes, lest they feel guilty about having them…because they have been made to feel that they don’t deserve them. That they should suffer because their parents suffered. And they report that their relationships with their parents are contrived, stressful, and lacking in authenticity and honesty.

This is because although parental guilting might work in the short term (we want to get rid of the icky feelings, so we do what they want), it ends up eroding the relationship in the long term.

The parents end up feeling even less close to their child and then try to use even more guilt to bring the child closer, but it actually pushes them further away. It’s a vicious cycle. Everybody loses.

Here’s what’s important to know if you’re a child who has been parent guilt trapped: it doesn’t actually have to do with you. It’s a sign that your parents feel under-equipped to affect the kind of positive change in their relationship with you that they desire. 

They don’t know how to discuss their feelings and expectations openly and take responsibility for them—which isn’t their fault. They weren’t socialized to do so. It was seen as weakness to talk about your feelings, even more so than it is today.

So rather than making clear agreements like, “If I lend you this money, I expect you to call me once a week. I really miss you,” they lend you the money, pretending there are no strings attached (because that’s what they believe a “good parent” is supposed to do), and then use guilt to try to coerce you to call more. 

It’s like a contract that they think we agreed to by virtue of being born to them, having needs, and accepting the help that parents are supposed to give. But we never did agree.

So here’s what I invite you to do. 

1. Recognize that you (being of a younger generation than your parents) were probably socialized to have better communication skills than they were and to feel more comfortable being upfront about your emotions. So take charge and have a conversation where you encourage them to be explicit about the expectations that have been implicit. See if you can compromise and create new agreements. Especially do this before accepting additional assistance from them (if/when possible). Make sure you’re clear about their expectations and (again, if/when possible), don’t accept their help if you’re not willing to honor those agreements.

2. Be proactive about creating your relationship with them (if you want to have a relationship with them) so they don’t have to be reactive. Have a conversation where you ask them what kind of relationship they’d love to have with you. And share the kind of relationship you’d love to have with them, and the boundaries that you believe would support that relationship in flourishing.

3. Understand that your successes will bring up a lot of conflicting (and probably confusing) emotions for them. It might make them grieve their own lost childhood, the support they never received from their parents, their own missed opportunities, and the loss of you as someone who is dependent upon them for your success and survival. Try your best to have compassion for their experience and assume that deep down (perhaps very deep down for some), they do only want what is best for you. This might not be true 100 percent of the time, but it sure feels better to assume that it is.

And, most importantly: 

4. Don’t take on what isn’t yours. That guilt is theirs, not yours. Having parents who have sacrificed for you is nothing to repent for. When you feel guilty, literally say to yourself, “That’s not mine to take on.” Anything they have done for you was a choice they freely made out of love for you. They don’t get to hold it over your head. Allow them to own their own choices. Don’t let their choices own you.

Read those last few sentences again and really let them sink in.


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