Guilt is a powerful way for abusive parents to get to us. Guilt, psychologists tell us, can be beneficial if it’s appropriate. When, for instance, we hurt someone out of our own selfishness, guilt can teach us to be more alert to how we relate to others. However, emotionally abusive parents are masters at creating guilt in situations where it doesn’t exist, although they may believe that it does. That leaves us confused about what’s really our responsibility and makes us feel like we’re selfish or evil when we’re not.
Suicide or Physical Harm
The most extreme form of guilt-creation is when a parent threatens to physically harm themselves because of something you did. For a child, this is devastating. An abusive mother, for instance, will threaten to kill herself because of all of the “problems” her child creates in her life. This leaves the child feeling completely responsible for her mother’s life, a heavy burden to put on anyone, least of all a child.
Abusive parents can also play this damaging game on their adult children, and the pain is no less acute. Let’s say, for instance, that a daughter tells her widowed father that she’s moving to another state. He feels abandoned because she won’t be there to fulfill his every need. He may threaten to kill himself, telling her that without his daughter nearby, he has nothing to live for.
She may well change her plans, meaning she’ll deny her needs and the needs of her family, in order to get rid of the guilt she feels. If she doesn’t and goes ahead with the move, she may carry that guilt with her for a long time, even if her father doesn’t commit suicide (and abusers rarely follow through on such threats). That, in turn, could influence her to do what he wants in the future to avoid a repeat of the suicidal threat scene.
Emotionally abusive parents may blame their children for their health problems, such as depression, anxiety, and physical conditions. In his youth, a son may have heard how his bad grades or behavioral problems caused his mother’s depression, anxiety, or stomach trouble. Not understanding that health problems are complex and come from multiple sources, he may well believe that he’s the sole source of the problem and carry that guilt with him throughout his life.
Adult survivors are not immune to this kind of guilt either. As a parent ages, the problem may even become worse. Suddenly every ailment the abusive parents suffer is because of their children. Their children’s bad decisions cause them to feel anxious or depressed and raise their blood pressure. They have to cope with their difficult children by eating unhealthy foods, which lead to high cholesterol and high blood sugar. Their children don’t help them enough, which causes back pain and joint pain. Even when we can see that there’s no logical connection between the health problem and what we say or do, the sense of being responsible for our abusive parents’ well-being tugs at us. It’s not so much the specific accusation as the overall guilt of being responsible for our parents’ happiness that our abusers play on.
Perhaps a nastier accusation to make is that children are responsible for a parent’s addiction. Most of us believe that an addiction is a voluntary destructive behavior in that we can choose not to drink too much, take drugs, gamble till we’re broke, and so forth. The hurtful idea behind this kind of accusation is that we’re so horrible that we forced our parents to do things they wouldn’t otherwise choose to do.
As with threats of physical harm, accusations of addiction can be particularly difficult for a child to deal with. Addictions to alcohol, drugs, and gambling touch every aspect of life and make life miserable for everyone in the family, not just the addict. The child is left with a feeling of responsibility towards everyone. The poverty, shame, and neglect that usually accompany a family with one or two addictive parents becomes all their fault.
Being an adult of an abusive parent who accuses you of being responsible for their addiction is no less guilt-producing. Even when we know that the addict is solely responsible for their behavior, we carry a feeling of responsibility because we also know that stress is a trigger for addictive behavior. We may think that if we fight less with our abuser and give in more, they’ll drink less or do less drugs. We may believe that if we help them out financially, they’ll stop gambling. When the addictive behavior doesn’t stop with these efforts, as is usually the case, we feel guilty either because we feel responsible for triggering it or because we couldn’t stop it.
Most parents do make significant sacrifices for their children in the sense of spending money on them and ensuring that their basic physical needs are met as well as buying them things they don’t necessarily need, such as objects and extracurricular activities. Abusive parents may like to remind their kids that they should be grateful for everything they’ve have given them. They like to make their kids feel that they would be out on the street and left hungry if it weren’t for their generosity.
That doesn’t stop when we’re adults. Some of us find ourselves dependent on them still for certain material things and financial help, and if we don’t show them the gratitude they think they deserve (which often means doing everything they want us to do), we feel guilty because we feel like we’re not showing them gratitude for their help. Even when we support ourselves and don’t need their material or financial help, we may be reminded often of the “sacrifices” they made for us as children to meet our physical needs as a way to make us feel guilty for arguing with them or going against their will as adults.
What makes this guilty-producing technique particularly effective is that society supports this notion that a child should be grateful for everything their parents give them. But when you really think about this belief, it makes no sense. Adults who bring a child into the world are responsible for that child’s well-being until that child reaches the age of legal adulthood. A child can’t go to work; earn money to pay for food, shelter, and other necessities; enter into a legal contract to rent or buy a home; or do the many other things we do when we take care of our basic physical needs. There is no basis for guilt in a situation where the dependent person can’t physically or legally provide for his or her own needs.
When the child is an adult, the situation is a little different (barring special circumstances like people with physical or mental disabilities that make it impossible for them to take care of their own physical needs). We’re capable of taking care of ourselves, even if we’re pushed to accept our abusive parents’ material and financial help. It’s up to us to refuse and make adjustments in our lives based on our capabilities rather than on the lifestyle our parents may have gotten us used to.
The situation, however, isn’t that simple because often the “need” for their material and financial support is created by them and linked to a history of messages they sent us about not being able to care for ourselves. The “help” they give us and then the accompanying guilt when we don’t show them the gratitude they expect is all part of the way they manipulate us into feeling dependent on them, which makes them feel powerful. We may also feel guilty for giving into them, knowing that we need to be independent and refuse. It’s still our responsibility to stop this destructive dynamic, but we shouldn’t beat ourselves up for having a difficult time resisting it because the emotional game being played here is very difficult to get out of.
The Apology Seesaw
Guilt from emotionally abusive parents can also come from what I call the apology seesaw. When they hurt us and we stand up for ourselves in the form of withdrawing communication with them or refusing to give into their demands, we may drive them to apologize. They may be genuinely sorry for hurting us, but that doesn’t guarantee that they really believe they’ve done something wrong. Others apologize because they’re concerned about losing a source of control in their lives.
We may then feel obligated to accept their apology, even when we know they don’t really mean it. They then go on to hurt us in the same ways again, each time apologizing when we stand up for ourselves. What we end up with are repetitive cycles of being attacked or manipulated, fighting back, and accepting an apology with no real behavioral change.
It’s the guilt that keeps us on this seesaw because we may feel like when someone shows awareness that they’ve done something wrong, we’re obligated to cooperate with them. Under normal circumstances, I would agree with this, but relationships with abusers aren’t normal circumstances. When the behavior doesn’t change, it’s clear that there is no awareness of having done something wrong. No lesson has been learned about taking the other person into consideration and changing your behavior to create a healthier exchange.
When someone apologizes under normal circumstances, it’s like they’ve walked from one side of a bridge to the center. Accepting the apology means we’ve walked to the center from the other side. We can then get off the bridge and continue our journey side-by-side because we’ve shown mutual understanding and respect. But when someone apologizes without really believing they need to, they haven’t walked to the center of the bridge. If we accept, we’ve essentially walked across the bridge to where they are. We end up following them as the journey continues, not walk side-by-side with them, because while we’ve shown understanding and respect, they haven’t.
My point here is not to convince you not to accept your abuser’s apology when offered. My point is to draw your attention to the motivation of guilt in accepting an apology that ultimately produces no change in behavior. We need to ask ourselves whether we’re really doing ourselves or our abuser good by playing the seesaw apology game with them when the only reason why we do so is to avoid feeling guilty.
Guilt is a powerful form of manipulation that emotionally abusive parents are masters at. Whether they do it in obvious or subtle ways, we’re left feeling responsible for their misery and consequently obligated to take that misery away. The guilt persists even when we can argue intellectually that it’s invented or misplaced. An emotion that has the potential to teach us to rise to a higher moral level is turned into a weapon to keep us at an emotionally low level.