A guilt trip is a feeling of deep regret or remorse that can be conveyed to another person or self-generated. If you have successfully made someone feel guilty, you have put that person on a guilt trip. It is also possible to put yourself on one if you let a guilty conscience get the best of you. A certain amount of guilt is healthy for our society as a whole, but when the guilty feelings are too much to bear, it is said the person is on a guilt trip.
An expression probably coined in the late 1960s, the idea was hatched at a time when many people in the Western world were examining their inner conscience and emotions. The discipline of psychology entered its heyday as each citizen was expected to take responsibility for his/her own emotions and feelings of guilt. People began to understand that other people’s motives for trying to make you feel guilty are irrelevant. The expression went something like, “Hey man, don’t lay a guilt trip on me!”
There are many levels of guilt trip. That fleeting feeling of shame when your spouse asks you for the third time to take out the garbage could meet the classification. Or, a dangerous secret that you dare not tell could make you feel guilty. At the other end of the spectrum, it can be the crushing sadness and remorse of having caused a fatal accident, or the deep regret of having cheated on someone you care about.
Some people are experts at making other people feel guilty in order to gain control. The classic example is a mother who manipulates her child’s behavior by inducing guilt. She might tell her little boy that he hasn’t lived up to his best self and she is disappointed. The emotion of shame can also play into the mix of feelings, and inducing shame can be a very persuasive way to make someone feel guilty.
Survivors of a traumatic event, such as a plane crash or natural disaster, can be filled with such emotions that the guilt can last a lifetime. They may obsess over the event and wonder why they were worthy of being spared. It can take many years of psychological counseling to begin dealing with guilt of this magnitude, and some people are never able to overcome a guilt trip with such deeply rooted emotions.