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.

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