How to Get Out of the Guilt Trap

One of the reasons why people get stuck in the dance of the drama triangle is because it isn’t a logical process, it’s a purely emotional one. It gets to us on the emotional plane, where a lot of our actions stem from. It pulls knee-jerk reactions out of us.

A major driving emotion of the drama triangle is guilt. Guilt and its little voice nagging at the back of our minds… “If I don’t do this, it means that I am doing something wrong.” And what happens if I do something wrong? It means others will find out and disapprove of me. Approval is how I experience love. If I do the wrong thing, I will not be loved. I am only safe if others approve of me. I am only allowed to experience good feelings if I am making others happy (doing what they want me to do). 

Ouch! Stuff that goes right into the heart of us. No wonder we act so reflexively; no wonder it takes so much effort to change this cycle. Because it’s the stuff that taps into that dark, anxiety-filled space where our deepest fears reside. Much of what gives us feelings of guilt were programmed into us in early childhood. Since most of us probably did not experience the most perfect of childhoods, it’s such an easy way to hook us in – most of us have had felt the need to perform for others in some way in order to gain approval. If we disappoint others, we are doing something wrong. If we don’t do what they ask of us, we are selfish. 

This is especially true for those who grew up in households where caregivers tended to use emotional blackmail as a way to get children to comply, where ‘love’ (approval) was meted out based on how ‘obedient’ a child is. Some of us have bigger fears and wounds than others, and this creates conditions that predispose one towards others’ manipulation.

What are the core beliefs underlying guilt? 

Guilt usually arises when you are attempting to take an action (based on your own wants and needs) that goes against what the other party wants.

For example, no longer:

  • Agreeing to listen to someone complain endlessly about their grievances
  • Sacrificing your own time/energy/wellbeing to comply to someone else’s requests
  • Accepting one-sided interactions where you are the ‘clown’, punching bag or free therapist
  • Being used for any type of interaction where the benefits only go one way, and efforts are seldom, if ever, reciprocated

A sure sign of being on the drama triangle is when you are afraid of how the other person may react if express your true needs and desires. This is a sign of you giving your power away to the other person to dictate how you feel about yourself.

“You owe me (your time/energy/effort/attention). If you don’t do this for me, it means that you are doing something wrong. If you’re not available to me unconditionally it means that you are selfish. You are responsible for my feelings about myself,” says the person taking up the Bully position on the drama triangle.

In reality, you are filling up an essential emptiness (that cannot be filled by any external party) for that person. The both of you are matching puzzle pieces: both wounded, just with different ways of expressing the core wound.

That person, too, has a wound regarding their self-worth. Their self-worth is dependent on your time and attention towards them. They have a false belief that they are loved, worthy, and exist because of others’ efforts and attentions towards them. That without which, they are not allowed to feel good about themselves. Their bullying behavior may be underpinned by rage, fear, shame, grief that they are not willing or able to feel and examine. You are made responsible for any negative feelings that may arise as a result of them not getting what they want.

They derive their good feelings – or more likely than not, are able to stuff down their bad feelings about themselves – through your continued enabling of their behaviors, or sacrificing of yourself to cater to them.

Managing guilt

An important step towards healing guilt is changing core beliefs. Here are some healthier ones you can consider replacing your current beliefs with:

  1. You are not responsible for how someone feels about themselves (especially when you are not their parent, caregiver; you are not acting maliciously towards them on purpose)
  2. You are worthy of feeling good about yourself. You are deserving of your own space, energy, and time. 
  3. You are worthy of feeling pleasure. 
  4. They cannot hurt you unless you allow them to. (Barring actual physical threats, in which case, call the police!) 
  5. If they do not care about your needs and wants, they never cared about you anyway – so you’re not really losing anything by saying no and potentially ‘losing’ the relationship. You’re just letting go of the facade of what the relationship was about, or simply allowing it to evolve and take its course. 

Additionally, you can also ask yourself:

  1. What are you getting out of rescuing others and diverting your own precious energy away from your own life? 
  2. Is it a matter of habit? 
  3. Or is it a way of managing your own anxiety?
  4. Do you buy into the belief that you are bad/less than for taking time for yourself? 
  5. Who told you that you were bad? Are their views still true? Were they making you feel that way so they could get something (i.e. compliance) out of you?
  6. What do others get out of you staying small? What do you get out of staying small? 

Examining family/cultural beliefs:

  1. What were you told about what family means? 
  2. Was there a storyline about how being family means sacrificing themselves for others?
  3. Did you see your mother/grandmother/sister/aunt sacrificing themselves for others in your family? Was that normalized and seen as the way things ‘should’ be? 
  4. How does your gender play into the way you are expected to act in your family? What is the punishment for breaking out of this role?

If you truly want to help the other, no longer allowing guilt and obligation to drive your behaviors is the best way to do so. When you step out of the way, you allow the other to experience their emotions. (They will not break as a result of it. We are much stronger than we think.) Only those who are willing to feel their pain will be motivated towards change. If you do not allow others to feel their pain, they will likely never have to embark on that path.

Guilt is a tough emotion because it’s tied into cultural and familial norms about how one should behave. Yet, breaking free of guilt is a big step – allowing you to move into becoming an empowered individual, acting from an authentic place from within you. Until then, you are trapped in playing roles that keep you small and your energy bound to acting out unnecessary chores.

Managing this tricky emotion, along with learning how to assert your boundaries, will help you experience the relationships you really want in your life.

The flip side of guilt is pleasure

Another helpful way of stepping out of the guilt trap is to see it as reclaiming time for your own joy, purpose and pleasure. You are freeing up energy to make space for what makes you happy and to uplift yourself – and consequently others – as a byproduct. (Pleasure is really such a big topic that it deserves its own post – so hang on for that!) Meanwhile, if you’re stuck in the guilt trap, the best time to break out of it is right now.

You can’t wait for others to remember their own divine natures, their purpose on being here on earth. We are all here for love, joy, service, and creativity. Just because others have forgotten, doesn’t mean that you need to hold yourself back from doing so. Do not abandon yourself and your own self-knowledge. Do not betray what you already know. 

They have forgotten their own divine power – or are simply not aware of it. This is not your responsibility! You are empowered to heal yourself and your own life, and to reclaim your energy, time and wellbeing right now.


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