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The deadlock of guilt traps

This month, I’d like to share with you some of my observations and self-reflection on the issue of the “guilt trap”, and how much this little devil can cause us grief in life.

Essentially, there are two sides to this coin. We can fall victim to “guilt traps” that others set up for us and we can also set up “guilt traps” for others as well.

The people who seem able to trap us in “guilt traps” are usually the people who have helped us the most, such as our family (especially our parents or our spouse), friends, teachers, your employers & work colleagues. Different cultures and the way children are brought up in families can have a lot to do with how easy and willing it is for someone to end up trapped by guilt.

For example, if you find yourself torn between your spouse and your parents, who both want your attention, you may feel trapped between two guilt traps that have been unintentionally set up by your parents and your spouse. When I say“unintentionally” here, I mean both your parents and your spouse did not intend to trap you with guilt, but because you couldn’t meet both sides of their expectations 100% at the same time, you somehow feel guilty about not disappointing them. (Most of us know how hard it is to meet the expectations of just one of these 2 parties, let alone both at the same time ☺.)

On the other hand, we often unknowingly set up guilt traps for others around us.

For example, we may go out of our way to help someone or sacrifice our immediate needs to make another person happy, regardless of the motives at the time. However, as a result of this, most of us somehow expect the favour to be returned somehow or at least we expect to be treated with a little bit more attention. When the receiving party doesn’t make us feel acknowledged or appreciated the way we wanted them to, we can feel disappointed, and often make that person feel guilty directly or indirectly (by hinting or passing on remarks behind their back).

You may wonder why I bring up the issue of “guilt traps” in an investment newsletter.  Essentially it’s because I have realised that a big part of people’s financial and business decisions can be based on “guilt” rather than good reasoning.  Here are some examples:

  • You hire one of your relatives to work in your company because your parents have asked you to help. If you happen to be already feeling guilty about not being able to look after your parents properly, you may just hire that relative to lessen the feelings of guilt towards your parents, regardless of whether this relative is the right fit for your business;
  • You promote a long term employee not because of their productivity or competence, but just because you would feel guilty if you didn’t as they have been with you for a long time;
  • You decide to get into an investment that a friend of yours recommended, not because of his expertise or the merit of the investment, but because you have helped him a lot in the past and you believe that he “owes you” and would  therefore look after your interests.  This is an interesting phenomenon where we often tend to rely on people for assistance and advice as long as they are under our guilt trap, regardless of whether they are the right people for us to rely on.

You simply can’t stop people trying to burden you with guilt traps, especially those that come from your own family at an early age.  You may notice that if you grew up in an environment where you had guilt traps put on you all the time, then you might find yourself trapping others with guilt as a means of survival when you become an adult. 

For example, if you grew up in a family where you were constantly reminded of how much your parents had to sacrifice for you, you will grow up feeling trapped by the guilt of never being able to repay the emotional debt that you owe to your parents.  Then if you look at your own behaviour towards others, it is likely that you will constantly remind others around you how much you have sacrificed for them, be it your spouse, your kids, friends, staff or even your boss. You may find yourself working very hard and sacrificing a lot so that others can be controlled by the guilt you put on them.  You can then become very critical towards otherswho don’t seem to appreciate your sacrifice, just like your parents can be critical of you for not being able to meet their expectation. So your life can become a series of betrayals or disappointments that repeats what your previous generation would have felt.

So how do we break this deadlock of guilt traps?

We all know it is a lot harder to control what others do to you than something you do yourself to others.  I have often found the most effective solutions to break out of the guilt traps are the ones that enable you to stop putting guilt traps on other people around you.

Here are a few practical tips I have found effective:

  • When you are helping someone with a problem, do so without any expectation of anything in return. Simply tell yourself that you’re doing this because you want to do this and they don’t owe you anything in return.  This includes donations and charity work that you do. In fact it is often much easier if others don’t know about your good work or donations, unless they need your story as an inspiration. Simply consider that you are doing a good deed to keep yourself happy and so no one owes you anything as you have already got what you want: happiness;
  • Whenever you are thinking about doing something simply for the sake of someone else at the expense of your own wellbeing, you need to stop and think about whether you are still willing to do so if the recipient becomes critical about you later.  In other words, don’t enjoy the feeling of sacrificing for others too much as you can then be setting up guilt traps for others and disappointment for yourself;
  • When someone goes over the top trying to be nice to you and trying to help you, try and be aware that a guilt trap could be coming.  Ask yourself whether you can ever return the same level of favour to them, before accepting the favour in its entirety. It is important that you keep a balance here if you want to maintain a more sustainable relationship with this person.  Usually our bitterest adversaries today were once our closest friends.  In fact, staying too close can be a recipe for falling into guilt traps.  A more sustainable formula, in my experience, is to “love your friends and family, but allow for some distance”.

After some practice, hopefully you will find that the more you make an effort not to trap others with guilt, the harder it will be for others to trap you with guilt as well.

Until next month, happy guilt-free investing.

Click here to read Bill’s full bio

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