How to Handle Guilt Messages from Your Mom

BoundariesTabitha 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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  • Lisa on

    I’m not unfeeling at all but I think you need bluntness here. I really thought it was a minor who was kinda trapped here. That you are an adult and asking “when is it appropriate time to sever ties” after all you have claimed, you may need intense therapy from a better therapist. sounds like therapy has done nothing for you so far. “I wish there were a way to stop this never-ending cycle without completely discontinuing the relationship”… honey, that’s not possible. You can’t change others, you can only change yourself. Whatever sick reason you are still holding onto about wanting a relationship with these bad people is 100% the reason for your current situation. Not having good parents is a very sad thing, sounds like you just need to mourn it hard and move on. Or I guess you can keep them in your life and continue the drama and distress. Your problem is about YOU not about them. God bless and best wishes.

  • Anon on

    I feel for all of you. I had to cut my mother out of my life completely. It’s been fifteen years since we’ve had a conversation and I can’t say I regret it. People don’t change for others unless they have something to gain. When we let them manipulate or guilt whatever their rationale is they won’t stop to consider the effects their behavior has. Why would they stop?
    Mine said they were too old to change when I was a child already so I knew I’d never have the kind of mature relationship I wanted. I had to make a difficult choice but I did it.
    Good luck to all of you. I hope you can find some peace of mind and weather these hard times. You are all worthy of a loving family…

  • Aleli on

    I feel your pain. My mother does me the same way. I wish I could give u advice but I can’t even help myself. I will pray for you and good luck.

  • Sarah on

    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.

    My mom has said things like " why don’t you call me any more" or “why don’t you text me anymore” or “why I don’t come see her anymore” (and she lives far away). She will also say" I must be a bad mom" when I bring up the how I feel and she always tries to use my own words against me somehow.

    She always try to say I don’t love her but I really do love my mom and it’s so hard for me because we used to be so close ,but it all changed when I was in high school . She wouldn’t let me hang out with my friends unless she knew every single detail that im doing or being friends with my friends parents. She also didn’t let me go out much because she had to excuse that I need to be there for as shes disabled(she has type 2 diabiets and two seints in her heart because of smoking).

    She always use her disability as an excuse and we’re in my friends stay the night she was always yell my name to do something for her (it annyoed me as i would be upstairs and some times be outside ). If i didnt do what she said or wanted she would use the “bad mom” phrase or threaten that my friends would need to leave or if i was a good daughter i would do what she wanted or said.

    She always somehow had me in the palm of her hand. I always felt like I was a puppet she was just pulling my strings.She used guilt trips many times and i give in .i want to stop ,but it just cant.

    I am 18 years old and want my mom in my life ,but so many family members and friends say i shouldnt be around her. I have tried so many times to rebuild our relationship and hear her out but she never hears me out as many times I told her about how I feel she acts like she doesn’t care anymore.

    I just need advice as I’m sick and tired of all the guilt trip and she’s done and all the other stuff she tries to put on me.

  • Lea on

    i just want to ask what do i do if my mom guilts me but shuts me out once she has said her say… even if i wanted to ask questions to understand what’s going on i cant…what do i do? If anything it makes her even more angry if I “try to understand” her.

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