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Val Farmer, Published July 01 2011

Val Farmer: Set defined boundaries in close relationships

This is one trip you don’t want to take this summer – a guilt trip.

What is guilt? Guilt is your feeling about your personal failure to live up to your standard of behavior.

There are times when we should feel guilty. On those occasions when we are blind to our own moral lapses, a spouse, a relative or a good friend may gently help us see our inconsistency between what we say we believe and how we act. Occasionally a counselor, a minister or a trusted adviser may assume that role.

What is a guilt trip? Guilt trips are about violating boundaries. Guilt trips are about control. It is a way of manipulating people to get a desired outcome through indirect and passive-aggressive tactics.

Inflicting guilt is used more frequently in families, small communities and organizations where direct conflict or confrontation might upset ties and working relationships. Using guilt unabashedly to control others gets passed on in families as surely as genes. Some families do it, some don’t. Families that use guilt may not even be aware of how often they use it or how wrong it really is.

Expecting people to give up a control tactic they’ve used “effectively” over a lifetime with each other may not be realistic. Usually we don’t need much help from others to know when we’ve failed to live up to our own code of moral conduct.

Setting boundaries. To deal with another’s agenda for our behavior, we need to be clear about who we are, what we want and what we are willing to do. If we understand and are secure about ourselves, we become less vulnerable to inappropriate or blatant attempts to control our behavior. Setting boundaries is about being clear on personal and family goals, priorities and responsibilities.

It is about saying “no” when it is necessary. It is about communicating limits and taking control when others may want to control you. It is about agreeing to disagree in a pleasant manner.

Taking charge. Here are some tips on what to do when someone is trying to inflict guilt:

It may be a painful process, but being clear about boundaries helps create healthy and respectful relationships. Other people’s feelings count. But they don’t have the right to control you with those feelings. As long as you are in control, it is their problem, not yours. Even if the other party doesn’t change, at least you’ll be more at peace – and more in control.

If you take guilt trips, you are choosing to go along for the ride. How is that for a guilt trip?

Val Farmer is a clinical psychologist specializing in family business consultation and mediation with farm families. He lives in Wildwood, Mo., and can be contacted through his website, www.valfarmer.com.