How to Handle Guilt Messages from Your Mom

Tabitha telephoned her mother, who answered the phone weakly with hardly any voice at all. Concerned, thinking she was sick, Tabitha asked, “Mother, what’s wrong?”

“I guess my voice doesn’t work very well anymore,” she replied. “No one calls me since you children left home.”

No weapon in the arsenal of a controlling person is as strong as the guilt message. Daughters or sons with poor boundaries almost always internalize guilt messages leveled at them by their mother; they obey guilt-inducing statements that try to make them feel bad. Consider these:

  • “How could you do this to me after all I’ve done for you?”
  • “It seems that you could think about someone other than yourself for once.”
  • “How can you abandon me like this?”
  • “Maybe after I’m dead and gone, you’ll be sorry.”
  • “How can you call yourself a Christian?”
  • “Doesn’t the Bible say ‘Honor your parents’?”
  • “You must really have a spiritual problem to be acting this way.”
  • “You know how it’s turned out in the past when you haven’t listened to me.”
  • “You have no idea how much I’ve sacrificed for you.”

A mother who says these types of things is trying to make you feel guilty about your choices. She is trying to make you feel bad about deciding how you will spend your own time or resources, about growing up and separating from her, or about having a life separate from the family.

However, in the biblical parable told in Matthew 20:1-16, Jesus says that we are to give and not be self-centered. Notice that it does not say that we have to give whatever anyone wants from us. We are in control of our giving.

You can probably recognize guilt messages when you hear them. But if you feel bad about your response, maybe you have not looked specifically at the approach your mother or other people are using. Here are six suggestions about dealing with these external messages:

1. Recognize the guilt messages.
Some people swallow guilt messages without seeing how controlling they are. Sure, we need to be open to rebuke and feedback, because we need to know when we’re being self-centered. However, guilt messages are not given for your growth and good. They are given to manipulate and control.

2. Guilt messages are really anger in disguise.
The guilt sender is failing to openly admit her anger at you for what you are doing, probably because that would expose how she is trying to control you. She focuses on you and your behavior, rather than on how she feels. Focusing on her feelings would get her too close to responsibility.

3. Guilt messages hide sadness and hurt.
Instead of expressing and owning these feelings, some parents try to steer the focus onto you and what you are doing. Recognize that guilt messages are sometimes an expression of a person’s sadness, hurt, or need.

4. If guilt works on you, recognize that it is your problem.
That’s right, the core issue is not your mother’s problem. Realize where the real trouble resides, which is inside your mind. Then you will be able to deal with the outside correctly, using love and limits. If you continue to blame your mother for “making” you feel guilty, then she has power over you. And, you are saying that you will only feel good when she stops doing that. You are giving her control over your life. Stop blaming other people.

5. Do not explain or justify.
Only guilty individuals defend their position, and that only plays into the guilt sender’s message. You do not always owe an explanation. Just tell what you have chosen. If you tell your mother the reason why you made a certain decision in order to help her understand, that is okay. But, if you justify your reason in order to get her to stop making you feel bad or to resolve your inner guilt, then you are playing into the guilt trap.

6. Be assertive and interpret guilt-styled messages as being about the other person’s feelings.
Take time to acknowledge how your mother feels by saying like:

  • “Mom, it sounds like you are angry that I chose to…”
  • “It sounds like you are sad that I will not…”
  • “I understand you’re unhappy about what I have decided to do. I’m sorry you feel that way.”
  • “I realize this is disappointing to you. How can I help?”
  • “It’s hard for you when I have other things to do, isn’t it?”

The main principle is this: When someone tries to make you feel guilty, empathize with the distress that she might be feeling. But, make it clear that it is her distress.

Remember, love and limits are the only clear boundaries. If you react negatively, you have lost your boundaries. Proverbs 25:28 says, “Like a city whose walls are broken down is a man without self-control.” If your mother has the power to make you react, then she is inside your walls, inside your boundaries. Stop reacting. Be proactive. Give empathy. “Mom, it sounds like life is hard right now. Tell me about it.” Sometimes people who give guilt messages just want to tell someone how hard it is. Be a listener, but don’t take the blame.

Remember our earlier example of the mother who tried to make her daughter, Tabitha, feel guilty? A woman with good boundaries would empathize with her mother and say, “It sounds like you are feeling lonely, Mom.” She would make sure that her mom hears that she knows the feeling beneath the guilt message.

As much as possible, bring truth and grace to the relationship with your mom. What a blessing to be a redemptive force for their lives, even in her later years!

________

Learn more about how to set boundaries from a biblical perspective with family members and others in The New York Times bestselling book Boundaries by Dr. Henry Cloud and Dr. John Townsend.

 

 

Comments

  1. says

    I am a citizen of the Republic of South Africa and I find your material so helpful that I share it with other people including my 23 year old daughter who is a 5th year medical student ,a born again young woman who is dating a born again gentleman.

    • Rebekah says

      Matshidiso Molefe, I agree. These messages are very helpful! 😀 I read “Safe People” because I didn’t have a copy of “Boundaries” in college but I like getting emails to these articles. Wish you and your daughter the best!

    • Nathanael says

      Right on.
      Maybe you could influence/introduce some of my son’s family with this who are at home there by you there in South Africa. Maybe better than i

  2. says

    This was so helpful! I printed it out to use as a quick reference. However, one issue I am dealing with is that I currently still live with my mom. : / Separating from her has proven to be extremely difficult and I am really struggling with putting some of these into practice as I will be living with her at least until the summer time. Any thoughts or suggestions? Thank you! =)

  3. Mary says

    Thank you for this GREAT tip on empathising instead of feeling guilty when parents express their loneliness in a negative way.It is so natural to react instead of being proactive by acknowledging to them their “cry” for help, and seeing how to help.Truly appreciate the fine advice given.

  4. Pam says

    Hi thanks for the info. My mother has cancer she lives with me. Along with my friend. And my family of 4. She hate it when me and my friend and me r having fun. And she said mean things to me all the time. I just don’t know what to do.

  5. Trish says

    I understand the whole give empathy thing, and to listen and validate their feelings, but if they blame you for their unhappiness and everything that’s wrong in the world, how does it help one have compassion for their mother to hear all that? To tell my own mother, “tell me about it” means she’ll be telling me all my faults and things I’ve done to wrong her, over and over and over. It just doesn’t seem like a good situation to be in, and honestly I don’t want to validate her feelings that she is innocent and I am a terrible daughter.

    • Dawn says

      I hear you Trish, Great observation. I to have a mom that delivers the guilt message so bad that I go silent on the phone lost for words thinking..wow the zinger was for me wasn’t it!! It is so obvious when for example she is telling me how a old friends daughter took her mother in to her home with loving arms and road off into the sunset. Or Other cultures revere their parents. Mind you if there was a daughter of the year award to be won it would have a gold metal!!!! Taking her on trips, visits, holidays 2 hour talks daily to running errands and taking her to the Dr. all with respect and I am a very sweet nice person that never talks back. This has almost effected my marriage. I let this guilt eat at my soul, she is so bitter and negative and blames me for almost all of it in a very coy and indirect way. Truth is until I sacrifice my happiness for her’s It will never stop until she is sitting on my sofa in the middle of my home with my husband and I as a captive audience listening about how the world sucks it will not stop!!!. No body else in the family has ever been able to please her. My dad finally left and I replaced him, my sister could not take it and left to…I cry, I feel trapped…it is a hell if I do and hell if I don’t situation. Now her health is bad and I feel now I really need to step up…but I was already exhausted from the last 15 years of these mental mind games she plays…and ohhh is she good..she will take your own words and turn them on you …she will sit on something for months till she can strike like a cobra and deliver that one liner just to make her point. If I had a tail it would be in between my legs my self confidence is down to nothing!!! Thank you for allowing me to post…I have nobody to talk to about this and how I feel. I want people to know they are not alone. If you have a mother that is quilting you into a shell of a person you are not crazy..they are. I wish there was a solution with out it involving discontinuing the relationship .

      • Anon says

        Poor you. Just know that prayer works wonders and keep praying for your mum to realise it. Amen please keep your heart cheerful with every ounce and bit you can by the grace of god and sharing with someone if you can. Loves

      • Karen says

        Dawn,
        I SO can empathize with your predicament. I actually have BOTH my parents-in their 80’s who both had cancer last year-using the “guilt manipulation” even MORE NOW than they ALWAYS DID to try to keep me from my instituting necessary BOUNDARIES, LIMITS & CONSEQUENCES on their destructive behaviors that I’ve used for many years. I temporarily re-entered their lives (after having to distance & disengage for a long time due to constant abuses) to take the lead in both their cancer treatments every step of the way. I shouldered EVERYTHING to make things easier for them. I ran myself ragged “doing” for them. Then I had to distance myself again after they were done with their treatments, as the abuses began immediately again. I assisted them not out of any loyalty or my seeking their approval that I knew I’d never get. I’m a Christian and simply did it for the Lord. To be a “good Christian” DESPITE their SO not “deserving it”. Of course, there was NO GRATITUDE from them. Barely a minute went by after the treatments were finished before the abuses started again as before. They “used me” when they needed me-were on their best behavior out of NEED for my “services” then they threw me away like trash. Though I had no good expectations of them-it’s still unbelievable how manipulative & self-serving & ungrateful people can be. Still boggles my mind.
        During my lifetime I experienced child abuse by BOTH parents, sexual abuse, witnessing domestic violence between them, witnessing criminal activities by both (frauds, loansharking, distributing pornography & much more…) right in front of us children.
        I coped & protected myself as best I could by being isolated in my room, getting out of the house & staying with friends as much as possible-distancing myself & disengaging until I could finally move out.
        As an adult, after I realized they’d left “scars” related to healthy relationships/marriage, I sought intensive counseling, read many books…to understand what was done to me & how to “reprogram” my mind/thoughts to perceive “red flags”/danger in relationships, how to use boundaries, limits, consequences more effectively..than my method of just “escaping them” & “disengaging myself”. My adult siblings who experienced the same abuses never set boundaries of any kind & never sought professional help. They always were and still are extremely co-dependent & OBEY/JUMP AT my parents’ demands. So I STAND ALONE in my protective boundary setting. And my separating myself from them-my needs/wants/individuality from my parents’ demands.
        Therefore I bear the brunt of their guilt manipulations as I am the only one who establishes consequences when my safety & protective boundaries are not respected. This is an ONGOING NEVERENDING PROCESS! My parents NEVER STOP THEIR VERBAL & EMOTIONAL & even PHYSICAL THREATS OF VIOLENCE as well as ACTUAL VIOLENCE STILL. So I’m pretty much ALWAYS distancing & disengaging from them. There is no “relationship”. I spend all my time of interacting with them (minimally for my own protections) simply PROTECTING MYSELF FROM THEIR CONSTANT ABUSES. It’s EXHAUSTING!
        But they NEVER STOP TRYING to “re-engage” me just to start the abuse cycle again! I don’t understand WHY they even want me in their lives! Just to abuse me again & again? That’s pure evil.
        I agree with your last sentence, Dawn. I wish there were a way to stop this neverending cycle without completely discontinuing the relationship. My parents have their other co-dependent, compliant, abuse-taking adult children who WILL take their abuses without any boundaries. Why do they need/insist on continuing to try to engage ME? They won’t let me “just go”.
        So you are not alone either Dawn. I’m facing the same dilemma you are. The questions of “How much is ENOUGH?” “WHEN is severing all ties the healthy, self-protective, SAFE action to finally take?”
        There IS that “guilt” in myself-I own it-that they are old, they will not be on earth much longer, how will I feel if I’ve severed ties and they die & there never was any reconciliation possible? Will they “haunt me from the grave” with guilt for the rest of my life? Thereby STILL RUINING MY LIFE just in another kind of “abuse from the grave”. Will I question my decision I’ve pretty much already made-I NEED to sever ties for my safety, protection of my body and mind. They are UNHEALTHY & UNSAFE for me to be around or in contact with at all. They’ve shown NO WILLINGNESS TO CHANGE AT ALL!! They just use me as a yo-yo-abusing me then using guit games and even lies to “reel me back in” so they can abuse me again! It HAS TO STOP!!
        So I ask, along with you Dawn, WHEN is the appropriate time to sever ties? According to the “BOUNDARIES” books and “SAFE PEOPLE” book?
        Any input from professionals in this field? Anyone associated with the BOUNDARIES books?

      • Karen Hertzog says

        Find a good therapist! It is possible to stop living this way. When u develop good boundaries, the relationship may end but it will be her choice. The short answer is that any guilting comment ends the conversation and you leave her presence or hang up the phone. Only you can stop your self-imposed captivity. A counselor can give you great wisdom in handling this painful situation. If you can find a Christian therapist, that’s ideal, but you need a trained therapist, not a pastor who counsels. You are not loving her or your husband or yourself by tolerating this. Love confronts evil and stops it. You can’t change her but you can change what you tolerate.

      • Hzlove says

        Are you sure you we don’t have the same mom? You described my mother to a tee! I have chosen to have no contact with her at all for the last 1.5 years. There are no pictures of me or any gift I have ever given her in her house. I have two brothers who never visit her, one who does occasionally because he needs a dog sitter. Grandchildren who go when they need money. She has no communication with her or my dad’s side of the family at all. She has isolated herself from everyone except my dad who let’s her do it. Neither is on perfect health but none of us are willing to step in and be abused any more. I wish i had advise for you. It is just nice to know that I’m not alone in this type of crazy making behavior.

  6. Jane says

    I am having very similar issues with my mum. She is a full time carer to my dad (her choice she won’t put him in a home). However, my issue is I’m a single parent who’s disabled and with 2 children, one is autistic. My mum is so bitter. She’s helped me financially in past so I feel bad saying this but she keeps walking into my house when it’s locked. She says I’m obviously not a Christian as my door would be open. I need some privacy! She has a key for emergencies and I’ve told her last time I locked door and she walked in when I was in bath (scaring hell out me), that if my door is locked she’s not to just walk in. I do all I can help my mom. She expects me drop everything and as I can’t as I have no support she will sulk and refuse to talk to me or put phone down on me. She is bitter about my sister however my sister just cuts her dead and so then she comes and plays all these manipulative child games. I’ve had counselling as it’s caused me so much stress. I think she feels that everyone owes her and she gets bitter when people can’t drop everything. The problem is me, as I allow her mind games to get to me and I get the guilt trip. I’ve had enough this time after she let herself in my house when I was out, having told her not to. I called, text and email d to explain I need privacy but she refuses answer having sent one text back saying ‘how can you call you Self christian….’

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