It was a November when Noel* came to see me. “It’s the same every year” he told me, “as soon as bonfire night’s over I start to dread Christmas. And the nearer it gets the worse I feel. I look forward to the first week in January when I can get back to work, and things go back to normal.”
Noel wasn’t a Scrooge, and he didn’t hate Christmas by any means. In conversation he started to remember all the things he did like about it – time with his wife and daughters, the more relaxed atmosphere at work, and catching up with people before the end of the year.
What in particular then was it that Noel dreaded? “I feel terrible saying this, but it’s my mum. I love the bones of her but every year she sends me on worse guilt trips about seeing me and the girls.”
When someone invites you on a guilt trip there are two things going on. Firstly, they’re saying that your behaviour is wrong and needs to change for them to be able to be happy. The things that Noel’s mum said sounded like classic guilt trip techniques – “Your father will be so upset if you don’t come”, and “Maureen’s son stays every year, but I suppose not everyone can be that lucky”.
“It’s not what she says that upsets me the most though”, Noel explained “it’s the silent treatment. And I don’t know why it drags me down and angers me so much, because what she’s asking for isn’t always unreasonable or wrong – and that makes me feel guiltier again.”
It’s not what guilt-trippers ask for that people resent. It’s the way they manipulate other people’s feelings to get their own way that makes people angry. But because they’re normally very close relationships the guilt they feel outweighs that anger and resentment.
I said that the first thing happening when someone invites you on a guilt trip is them telling you your behaviour is wrong. The second thing that happens is that you accept their invitation. “What else can I do though?” asked Noel, “I don’t have a choice – it just gets worse and worse until the silent treatment starts.”
What we spent time doing was teaching Noel how to respond differently. He stopped telling himself that he had to be perfect. With that, and working on improving his self-esteem, he got rid of the buttons that his mum found so easy to press.
Then we helped him to have a different kind of conversation with his mum. When she tried to make him feel guilty about seeing his daughters Noel explained that he could see how important it was to her. The problem was that manipulating people makes them resentful, even while they’re doing what you asked.
Wouldn’t it be better, he asked her, that when he and the girls saw her that it was genuine? That when she saw them that they all enjoyed it, rather than it driving them apart? He realised as well that the guilt trips weren’t confined to Christmas, that was just when they were their most obvious.
These weren’t easy conversations for Noel to have with his mother, but they were essential. “Without them I think I’d have stopped seeing her” he told me when we caught up. “She still does it sometimes, but I don’t expect her to be perfect – and I don’t expect myself to be any more”.
* Noel’s real identity has been protected, and he is happy to share his story.
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