Emotional Levers: Guilt


A man calls his mother in Florida.  “Mom, how are you?”

“Not too good,” says the mother. “I’ve been very weak.”

The son says, “Why are you so weak?”

She says, “Because I haven’t eaten in 38 days.”

The man says, “That’s terrible. Why haven’t you eaten in 38 days?”

The mother answers, “Because I didn’t want my mouth to be filled with food if you should call.”

Emotional manipulators use guilt-aversion as a lever to control the behavior of others. In the joke above, the mother has many options for dealing with her lonely empty-nest feelings. She could reach out to other empty-nesters, or make herself useful to friends and neighbors. When she wants to talk to her son, she can call him. She can give him incentive to call her by being pleased and happy when he calls: “It’s great to hear your voice! How are you? What’s going on?”—courting his attention as she would with any valued friend. She might even open up and confide to him that she’s having a hard time moving on to the next stage of her life.

The mother doesn’t take steps to solve her problems because, subconsciously, she believes she needs those problems as levers of control. Guilt mongers tend to view themselves as uninteresting and unloveable. Their only claim to fame is that they’ve suffered more than others and so deserve extra consideration. Therefore, they need to preserve a veneer of misery to use whenever they want to wring something out of someone. They are “victims with intent.”

How can an Assertive Servant deal compassionately with such a person, without being sidetracked by manipulation? In the same way  that we should approach all circumstances: with courage and conviction, knowing that our own behavior is always our own choice. It’s important to keep a firm grip on reality. Whose responsibility is whose? What are my goals in this situation?  How much time and attention am I willing to give?

Prayer is important. The Holy Spirit can show us a dual view of the manipulator as both an insecure child and also as the mature and confident person that God intends. Our conversations with the manipulator need to reflect compassion for the inner child as well as faith in the capability and self-sufficiency of the adult.

A caringly assertive response may mean giving emotional support without trying to solve the person’s problems. Here are some examples:

 Manipulator: “I hate riding the bus to work. You’d think someone in this office would invite me to carpool, but people just don’t think about anyone but themselves.” (Hint, hint…)

Assertive Servant: (who has personal reasons for not offering to carpool): “I respect your strength and your work ethic. I would  never have guessed you have a hard time getting to work. You’re always here on time, rain or shine, sleet or snow. In fact, you’re the one who gets here early and starts the coffee for the rest of us!”


Manipulator: “I guess you weren’t home last night. I called three times. I really needed to talk to someone. You have no idea what it’s like to live alone with no one to turn to when you’re depressed. I guess you and John were out on a ‘date night,’ huh?”

Assertive Servant: (who was home last night, but chose not to answer the phone while dealing with family issues.) “I’m sorry you had a rough night. Are you feeling better today?”

It’s usually a mistake to suggest solutions. Don’t tell the bus rider to visit a carpool website or the lonely person to join a support group. The manipulator doesn’t want the problem solved. The manipulator wants you! Suggesting that the problem can be solved without you will threaten the stockpile of “suffers” that the manipulator relies on for security.

Guilt-based manipulation is especially challenging when it comes from someone close to you. Take the case of the mother who claims she hasn’t eaten in 38 days. Let’s assume her son is a nice guy who wants to be helpful and supportive. And let’s assume the mother is a determined and persistent manipulator. No matter what he does for her, she’ll never admit to being pleased because doing so would weaken her hand. Suffering is her means of control.

The son is in a predicament. If he does what his mother wants, it will seem that she has succeeded in squeezing kindness out of him. Kindness coerced is no kindness at all. To prove that he’s not a puppet on a string, the son might refuse to give her anything she tries to get through manipulation. Unfortunately, her controlling ways will leave little room for spontaneous kindness. If he tries to surprise her by doing something nice that she’s never thought of, her reaction may be hostile because he has upset the balance of power. She’s only comfortable when she feels that he owes her.

How can a son (or daughter, spouse or sibling) break through this maze of defensive trenches to touch the lonely heart inside? Just as with a physical maze, an external point of reference is required. The visible and immediate reactions of the manipulative person are not a reliable indicator of progress.

An Assertive Servant needs to remember that love does not consist in placating the whims of others but rather in working towards their long term well being. Love can be demonstrated through expressions of gratitude, interest and caring. Love can be expressed through gifts of time and attention, as well as by meeting physical needs. These things can be done despite the manipulator’s attempts to tarnish them with guilt. These things can be done whether the recipient appears to appreciate them or not. These things can be done even while declining to do other things that may be demanded through guilt-inducing pressure tactics.

It’s not easy to stick to a course of assertive kindness when it is misunderstood, misconstrued and resisted. But our service is not ultimately directed at the human recipient. Our true Master and Judge is the One who sees us with clear vision and weighs our true intentions. He will be pleased when we are diligent in good will towards others. He’ll be working alongside us to win their hearts.

 Let us not be weary in doing good, for we will reap in due season, if we don’t give up. So then, as we have opportunity, let’s do what is good toward all men…

(Galatians 6: 9-10)


Love…is not provoked, takes no account of evil; doesn’t rejoice in unrighteousness, but rejoices with the truth;

1 Corinthians 13: 5-6)


  1. Wow! What an excellent lesson. I call it a lesson because I learned so much. We run into situations like this and our first impulse is to try to solve the problem with suggested remedies. Your examples are very helpful. We may not recognize that we are dealing with a manipulator. Your suggested responses are outstanding. Thank you for showing us how to show assertive kindness in these situations and for sharing the Bible passages as a guide.