"It's For Your Own Good" The Dangers of Moralizing Language

Have you ever had someone try to convince you of something, insisting that it was "for your own good"? This type of communication often hides a form of passive-aggressive manipulation that you must recognize.
"It's For Your Own Good" The Dangers of Moralizing Language
Valeria Sabater

Written and verified by the psychologist Valeria Sabater.

Last update: 08 April, 2023

Many parents are quick to use moralizing language when addressing their children. They do it to guide, advise, and even promote certain values in them. After all, as the old saying goes, “Mother knows best”. Indeed, you probably grew up hearing expressions like this and, for a certain period of time, didn’t hesitate to follow and obey them.

However, things changed when you reached adulthood. That said, you’ve probably still occasionally encountered people who’ve told you “It’s for your own good” and tried to get you to obey them or even to give truth to their lies.

Nobody likes to be addressed with this kind of infantilizing communication. It’s a form of language that invalidates you by assuming that you can’t think and even decide for yourself. Indeed, manipulation comes in many forms. Moreover, it occurs pretty frequently. Has it happened to you too?

People who speak in a moralizing way see themselves as bearers of universal truth.

Couple talking about if it's for your own good
Many people try to condition our behavior through moralizing language.

“It’s for your own good”

Let’s start by examining how you feel every time someone tells you “It’s for your own good.” Unsurprisingly, it tends to make you feel uncomfortable. After all, this individual is assuming that they have some authority over you and can give you unsolicited advice. What’s more, they do it in a moralizing way.

On the other hand, in certain contexts, the phrase may have meaning and significance. For example, a good friend may recommend that you stop (for your own good) an addictive or negative behavior that’s affecting your mental health. Indeed, as always, there are exceptions.

However, in most cases, these words can be seen as justification for inflicting damage. In fact, it’s common for them to appear in abusive relationships. For instance, some people use this type of linguistic resource to dominate their partners. It can also manifest in narcissistic families that seek to control their children.

Some people exercise a position of unconscious domination over others. Moralizing language is an extremely effective way of trying to control the other.

The moralization gap, a sophisticated strategy

Steven Pinker is a renowned experimental psychologist, cognitive scientist, and linguist at Harvard University. One of his most interesting books is The Better Angels of Our Nature (2011). In this book, he writes about the history of violence and how, over the decades, it seems that this dimension is diminishing in us.

Nevertheless, despite the fact that violence as such has decreased, we continue to use other indirect resources that are equally violent. The moralization gap appears in those people who, despite doing something wrong, seek to convince us that what they’ve done has a noble purpose.

One example would be parents who overprotect their children ‘for their own good’, penalizing initiatives and hindering the process of autonomy. This moralizing but harmful act is also carried out by those who repeatedly cheat on their partners and prefer not to say anything ‘for their own good’ so that they won’t suffer. In effect, it’s a sneaky way of justifying an act that’s inherently perverse and harmful.

Manipulative-moralizing communication

There are many ways to exercise control and domination over others. In fact, the most common way of manipulating others is via moralizing language. It’s the kind in which a resource is used to make the other person believe that they don’t know the truth.

Assuming a position of superiority is a way of invalidating the other person. They’re encouraged to accept the idea that they’re unable to make good decisions by themselves or even act for their own benefit. They say things like “Listen to me. You need to leave that job. It’s for your own good” or “Believe me, it’s better that you abandon that friendship. It’s for your own good” or“I’m doing this for your own good, so you don’t have to worry about anything”. These are just some examples.

Manipulative-moralizing communication seeks to take away your autonomy and ability to react. It’s a passive-aggressive strategy in which someone seeks to be your guardian angel. However, in reality, they become a devil that takes control of your life.

Pesky friend telling the other its for your own good
Our friends can try to manipulate us by making us believe that they’re doing certain things for our own good.

How to act

There’s one point you must bear in mind. When someone tells you “It’s for your own good”, it’s highly likely that what they’re actually suggesting is for their own good and not yours. The problem is that this type of communication usually occurs in really close relationships, like partners, family, or even friendships.

An investigation conducted by the University of Granada (Spain) claims that this expression is often heard by women. Indeed, there’s a sexist connotation that justifies this act of protection toward them or trying to decide for them. It’s as if women don’t possess their own sense of volition.

So, what can you do in these situations? It’s an interesting fact that whoever proposes these suggestions have rationalized them. Therefore, you should ask them why their suggestion should work to your benefit. When they tell you, find flaws in their logic. You’ll uncover their real intentions that are camouflaged by their vacuous justifications.

Remember, only you know what benefits you. Only you are responsible for your actions and decisions. You’re an adult. No one has the right to infantilize you or use self-righteous language when speaking to you. In fact, it’s best to distance yourself from those who seek to dominate and manipulate you.

All cited sources were thoroughly reviewed by our team to ensure their quality, reliability, currency, and validity. The bibliography of this article was considered reliable and of academic or scientific accuracy.

  • Moya, Miguel & Glick, Peter & Expósito, Francisca & de Lemus, Soledad & Hart, Joshua. (2007). It’s for Your Own Good: Benevolent Sexism and Women’s Reactions to Protectively Justified Restrictions. Personality & social psychology bulletin. 33. 1421-34. 10.1177/0146167207304790.
  • Steven Pinker, The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined, vol. 75, (New York: Viking, 2011), p. 490.
  • Jason B. Whiting and Jaclyn D. Cravens, “Escalating, Accusing, and Rationalizing: A Model of Distortion and Interaction in Couple Conflict,” Journal of Couple & Relationship Therapy (2015): 1-26.

This text is provided for informational purposes only and does not replace consultation with a professional. If in doubt, consult your specialist.