Is Guilt Jeopardizing Your Relationships?

Young woman in white tee shirt leaning against phone booth, holding payphone in left hand. She has her hand on her forehead and looks upset and stressed.What do you do out of guilt?

I recently realized that I was doing a lot of things out of obligation, feelings of guilt, or just a general feeling that if I didn’t do something, I would have bad karma—or worse yet, that people would stop liking me and inviting me to things. I live in Los Angeles, a sunny, warm place with lots of people and a ton of things to do all the time. With the invitations always forthcoming, it is sometimes difficult but necessary to say no. In order to maintain a semblance of sanity and self, one must pick and choose when to say “yes” and when to say “no.” Ideally, when saying “no,” we won’t have to worry about being rejected or left out, missing out, or losing friendships.

This problem also happens in the context of intimate relationships and is very real. Within relationships, there is an intrinsic fear of losing our partner. “If I don’t go along with what my partner wants, they may find someone better.” There is fear of being seen in a bad light, of not compromising, not letting our partner live their life, judgment by our in-laws, and more. And sometimes these fears are so deeply ingrained in our being that it’s hard to even recognize when it’s happening.

The negative side effects of doing something out of guilt, duty, or obligation are the feelings that we are left with: the after-effects that jeopardize our relationship because they build on anger, resentment, and frustration. The things we do out of guilt don’t pay a lot of dividends. Instead, they leave us feeling bereft and unheard and can lead to martyrdom: the “I do so much for you, but what have you done for me lately?” phenomenon—also known as playing the victim. In the recovery world of sobriety and Alcoholics Anonymous, it’s known as enabling or codependence. Doing things that you really don’t want to do because you feel as though you are supposed to is a ticket to disaster.

So how do you break this cycle?

Well, first you have to get to know yourself. Sometimes in the midst of all these desires and fears it is hard to get to the core of who we are, what we need, and what will be best for us right now. I’ve devised a quick list for you to get on your way to knowing yourself, knowing your needs, and then standing up for them—in a nice way that doesn’t offend, hurt, or piss people off.

  • Remove “yes” and “sure” as automatic responses from your vocabulary. We live in a society of politeness and niceties, but this doesn’t mean we have to be the “yes” man or “sure, why not?” woman all the time. Instead of saying “yes” all the time, try saying “Let me think about that”—and then really do think about it. Is this something you want to do? Do you have time to do it? Ask yourself some important questions before making a rash decision.
  • Make a list of your priorities in life. Do this right now. Get out a piece of paper and write down the top 10 things you would drop anything for today. Is it your job, your relationship, your house, your kids, your art, your parents? Prioritize your list, and when an opportunity comes up, compare it to this list. Where does this new opportunity fall? Are you willing to take time out of your busy schedule to do this? How important is this to you? Really think about something before you commit yourself to doing it.
  • Learn to say “no.” Obviously, this is the biggest one. Learning to say “no” is hard for a lot of people, but the high point is this: you will get more respect if you know yourself and come honestly with a firm “no.” You don’t need to explain why the answer is “no.” A simple “I can’t at this time” should be fine.
  • Think about the answer before making the commitment in the first place. Avoid saying “no” after you have already said “yes.” Saying “no” after you have already made a commitment is trickier. Sure, you can always get out of something you don’t really want to do, but the stakes are a little higher because the other person’s expectation is already there.
  • Manage your emotions. A lot of times we avoid saying “no” because we feel bad. We worry we might hurt the other person’s feelings or have to deal with negative repercussions about their feelings towards us. We need to recognize that they will get over it. Most people are resourceful and will figure out how to get their needs met in the event you cannot meet their needs for them. It isn’t always our responsibility to fix things and take care of things for people—including our partners—just because they need it. If it doesn’t bode well for us, either in the moment or in general, we need to be okay with saying “no” and then not feeling bad or guilty about it.

Repeat the steps above. If you find yourself saying “yes” to things you don’t really want to do, ask yourself what you are getting out of it and why you keep repeating this pattern. Things like fear of losing the relationship or guilt are often ideas we perpetuate for ourselves that don’t have a lot of basis in reality. Knowing yourself and learning to avoid sticky situations that lead to anger, frustration, and resentment are the keys to healthy, happy, and functional relationships.

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The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by GoodTherapy.org. Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

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  • Logan

    Logan

    July 16th, 2012 at 11:05 AM

    I feel guilty when I don’t say yes to helping people out, and then I feel guilty when I do if it takes time away from my family for example when I have to go help out someone else!

    I constantly feel so torn that I don’t even want anyone to ask me to do anything anymore because i always feel like no matter what I do or say someone is going to get hurt!

  • ayerst

    ayerst

    July 16th, 2012 at 4:05 PM

    I don’t do anything out of guilt.
    I have become pretty selfish in that way.
    My time is far more vaulable than people want to think that it is.
    But I lay it on the line real fast now.
    I am tired of feeling over worked and anxious because of things I feel obligated to do for others.
    I wish to only take care of myself now.

  • Martins

    Martins

    July 17th, 2012 at 2:34 AM

    I cannot believe so many people still do things they do not wanna do in reality.I see such people sometimes and everyone I think about how stupid they’re being. And you know what? They get taken advantage of, people use them and in the end they are the ones feeling bad about everything. This is how it usually plays out in most circumstances.

  • Mel

    Mel

    July 17th, 2012 at 4:26 AM

    Guilt is a funny thing. It can make you feel terrible on the inside but you know there are some people who kind of thrive on it in a way. It eats them up but at the same time if they continue to say yes and put others before their own needs, they think that this gives them a sense of self worth and that it makes them feel important. Does that make sense? They are searching for a way to be needed and they extend themselves to others by constantly telling others yes when they should be saying no.

  • leighton

    leighton

    July 17th, 2012 at 12:21 PM

    suppose i feel a little too good about myself to ever let someone else get me down like this, not conceited, just honest

  • Anna

    Anna

    July 18th, 2012 at 4:32 AM

    If you are constantly living your life for others, there will eventually come a moment when you have to sit back and wonder where your life went. Oh yeah, that was spent on doing far more for others than you have for yourself. Think about how guilty you will feel about that!

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