“Emotional Blackmail: When the People in Your Life Use Fear, Obligation, and Guilt to Manipulate You” By Susan Forward, Ph.D. with Donna Frazier
- “Emotional blackmail is a powerful form of manipulation in which people close to us threaten, either directly or indirectly, to punish us if we don’t do what they want.”
- “If you don’t behave the way I want you to, you will suffer.”
- “Emotional blackmailers know how much we value our relationship with them. They know our vulnerabilities. Often they know our deepest secrets. And no matter how much they care about us, when they fear they won’t get their way, they use this intimate knowledge to shape the threats that give the payoff they want: our compliance.”
- “Emotional blackmail can only operate when we let people know they’ve found our hot buttons and that we’ll jump when they push them.”
- “Our compliance rewards the blackmailer, and every time we reward someone for a particular action, whether we realize it or not, we’re letting them know in the strongest possible terms they can do it again.”
- “Manipulation becomes emotional blackmail when it is used repeatedly to coerce us into complying with the blackmailer’s demands, at the expense of our own wishes and well-being.”
- “If someone confronts us fairly about something we’ve done, the words and feelings may be strong, but if there are not threats and no pressure, there is no blackmail. Appropriate limit-setting isn’t about coercion, pressure or repeatedly characterizing the other person as flawed. It’s a statement of what kind of behavior we will and won’t allow into our lives.”
- “If people genuinely want to resolve a conflict with you in a fair and caring way, they will:
* Talk openly about the conflict with you
* Find out about your feelings and concerns
* Find out why you are resisting what they want
* Accept responsibility for their part of the conflict”
- “If someone’s primary goal is to win, he or she will:
* Try to control you
* Ignore your protest
* Insist that his or her character and motives are superior to yours
* Avoid taking any responsibility for the problems between you”
- “Punishers, who let us know exactly what they want–and the consequences we’ll facee if we don’t give it to them–are the most glaring.”
- “Self-punishers, who occupy the second category, turn the threats inward, emphasizing what they’ll do to themselves if they don’t get their way.”
- “Sufferers are talented blamers and guilt-peddlers who often make us figure out what they want, and always conclude that it is up to us to ensure they get it.”
- “Tantalizers put us through a series of tests and hold out a promise of something wonderful if we’ll just give them their way.”
- “Sufferers take the position that if they feel miserable, sick, unhappy or are just plain unlucky, there’s only one solution: our giving them what they want–even if they haven’t told us what it is. They don’t threaten us or themselves with harm. Instead, they let us know in no uncertain terms, If you don’t do what I want, I will suffer, and it will be your fault.”
- “Sufferers look in the mirror and see a victim. They rarely take responsibility for clearing the air or asking for what they want.”
- “Sufferers may look weak on the surface, but they are actually a quiet form of tyrant. They may not yell or make scenes, yet their behavior hurts, mystifies and enrages us.”
- “Of course, these sufferers let us know that if they don’t get a break–that is, if we don’t give it to them–they’ll fail. And that failure, which they can evoke in excruciating detail, will be on our head.”
- “The problem is, if we give them the ‘just one break’ that they ask for, they’ll almost certainly be back for more.”
- “A typical tantalizer, Alex was full of gifts and promises, all accompanied by conditions for Julie’s behavior: ‘I will help you if….’ ‘I will ease the way for your career if…’ And finally, Julie realized that the testing would never end. Every time she got close to the carrot, Alex pulled it away. Tantalizers offer nothing with a free heart. Every seductively wrapped package has a web of strings attached.”
- “As I’ve mentioned, I use FOG as an acronym for fear, obligation and guilt, the three feeling states that all blackmailers, no matter what their style, work to intensify in us.”
- “The terms they offer are tailor-made for us: do things my way and I won’t [fill in the blank]:
* Leave you
* Disapprove of you
* Stop loving you
* Yell at you
* Make you miserable
* Confront you
* Fire you”
- “Blackmailers never hesitate to put our sense of obligation to the test, emphasizing how much they’ve given up, how much they’ve done for their targets, how much we owe them. They may even use reinforcements from religion and social traditions to emphasize how much their targets should feel indebted to them.”
- “Some blackmail targets feel so passionately about their obligation to their children that they will make what they mistakenly see as a noble sacrifice and give up their right to have a good life.”
- “Most of us have a terrible time defining our boundaries, where our obligations to others begin and end.”
- “Undeserved guilt may have nothing at all to do with our harming someone else, but it has everything to do with believing that we did.”
- “One of the fastest way for blackmailers to create undeserved guilt is to use blame, actively attributing whatever upset or problems they’re having to their targets.”
- “The blackmailer is only too happy to explain to us how and why we bear all the responsibility for a situation and why they bear little or none.”
- “In politics, this process of running events through the good-guy/bad-guy filter is called ‘spin,’ and emotional blackmailers are the original spin doctors, masters of putting a halo around their own character and motives and splattering ours with serious doubts, or even blacker mud.”
- “We buy into the spin because we want our friends, lovers, bosses and family members to be right and good, not mean, unfeeling or oppressive. We want to trust the other person instead of acknowledging that he or she is manipulating us by labeling us in ways that make us feel ashamed or inadequate.”
- “In addition to discrediting the perceptions of their targets, many blackmailers turn up the pressure by challenging our character, motives and worth. This type of spin tactic is popular in family conflicts, especially those in which parents are clinging to control of their adult children. Love and respect are equated with total obedience, and when that’s not forthcoming it’s as though a betrayal has taken place.”
- “Obviously, we might be labeled heartless, worthless or selfish in any relationship with a blackmailer, but those labels are especially difficult to withstand when they’re coming from a parent, whom we spent our formative years regarding as a repository of wisdom and righteousness. Parents who use the spin against us can wipe out our confidence almost faster than anyone else.”
- “Pathologizing is a way of making us appear ‘sick’ when we don’t go along with a blackmailer.”
- “Pathologizing often arises in love relationships when there’s an imbalance of desires. one person wants more than the other–more love, more time, more attention, more commitment–and when it’s not forthcoming, he or she tries to get it from us by questioning our ability to love. Many of us will go to great lengths to prove that we are loving and lovable, and many of us have the erroneous belief that ‘If somebody loved me, I’m supposed to love them, too–or there’s something wrong with me.'”
- “There’s nothing ‘wrong’ with you just because you don’t want someone as much as they want you.”
- “But when a blackmailer tells us that we are somehow psychologically deficient, we may accept their description as rational feedback. We know we can’t be completely objective about ourselves, and many of us are terrified that we have unknown demons inside. Pathologizers play on that fear.”
- “Like the spin, pathologizing makes us unsure about our memories, our judgment, our intelligence and our character.”
- “Blackmailers often hold up another person as a model, a flawless ideal against which we’ll fall short.”
- “The danger is that in trying to measure up to a tough standard set by someone with vastly different needs, talents and circumstances, we can find ourselves sacrificing our families, our outside interests and even our health to our jobs.”
- “She had a core belief common to many emotional blackmailers: I don’t trust that I’m going to get what I need, so I have to give myself every advantage. That justified all the clinging and all the blackmail.”
- “When people close to us resort to emotional blackmail, we’re struck by how their personalities seem to shift, a process that may be gradual or surprisingly fast. Much of the pain and confusion of emotional blackmail, in fact, arises from seeing people we care about and who we believe care about us become people who need to get their way so much that they are willing to ride roughshod over our feelings.”
- “Yet when emotional blackmail comes in, we quickly encounter some appealing aspects of their personality–self-centeredness, overreaction, an instance on short-term gains even if they result in long-term losses, and a need to win, no matter what.”
- “The ferocity of their desire only makes sense when you realize that they are not reacting to the current situation but rather to what they are not reacting to the current situation but rather to what that situation symbolizes to them from the past.”
- “Any logic or ability to see the consequences of their actions is obscured by the urgency blackmailers feel to hold on to what they have. They’re in a FOG of their own that makes them oblivious to how much they alienate other people with their bullying. All that matters is finding immediate relief from their deprivation fears–whatever that relief costs.”
- “Punishers don’t see themselves as punishing, but rather as maintaining order or keeping a firm hand on things or doing ‘what’s right’ or letting us know they can’t be pushed around. They see themselves as strong and in charge. If their behavior hurts us, so be it. The end justifies the means.”
- “And as we’ve seen, many punishers see themselves as victims. In fact, the more abusive the blackmailers, the more they twist reality. Their extreme sensitivity and self-centeredness magnify the hurts they feel and help them justify retaliating against us for what they see as deliberate attempts to thwart them.”
- “It’s one of the most fascinating paradoxes of human behavior that angry, punitive peopel are really very frightened, but they rarely confront or diminish those fears. Instead they lash out at others when they are frustrated to prove how strong they are. They create so much unhappiness with their behavior that they often cause people to leave them, thereby ensuring that the thing they fear the most will happen.”
- “Devaluation is a common tactic for angry blackmailers. It softens the sting of confrontation and enables them to downplay their feelings of loss. But as they do this, they give their targets confusing double messages. it’s as if they were saying ‘You’re no good, but I’ll do everything in my power to hold on to you”–a further illustration of how desperate they’re feeling.”
- “Like parents who believe that punishment will mold a child’s character, blackmailers may convince themselves that they’re helping us with their punishments. Instead of feeling guilt or remorse about hurting someone they care so much about, they can actually feel pride. They’re making better people of us, they reason.”
- “Most blackmailers believe they really are teaching us valuable lessons.”
- “It’s fairly apparent, especially to the person on the receiving end, that punishment doesn’t’ produce the result the blackmailer believes it will, yet there are attractive payoffs to clinging to this erroneous idea of punishment as training. Blackmailers can live with almost anything if they can make their targets seems like dunces. In this way they can avoid any introspection or hint that something in them is driving off the love or connection they so desperately want.”
- “Odd as it seems, punishment keeps a blackmailer in a strong emotional connection with you. In creating a highly charged atmosphere, blackmailers know they are activating the target’s feelings for them, and even if the feelings are negative, they’ve created a tight bond. You may resent or even hate the blackmailer, but as long as your focus is on them, they haven’t been abandoned or discarded with indifference. Punishment keeps a lot of passion and heart in a fractured relationship.”
- “And like many divorced blackmailers, both women and men, she’s using the most powerful weapon in her arsenal–their children–to keep an emotional connection with him.”
- “The use of children as a weapon against the noncustodial parent is one of the oldest and cruelest forms of emotional blackmail. There are no higher stakes. It’s especially effective because of the intensity of the emotions involved. It keeps people who once cared about each other looked in a terrible battle in which everyone loses.”
- “When faced with blackmailers’ pressure do you:
* Constantly berate yourself for giving in to their demands?
* Often feel frustrated and resentful?
* Feel guilty and believe that you’re a bad person if you don’t give in?
* Fear that the relationship will fall apart if you don’t give in?
* Become the only one they turn to in a crisis, even though there are others who could help?
* Believe the obligation you have to them is greater than the one to yourself?
If you answered yes to even one of these questions, your responses to pressure are helping to create an ideal climate for blackmail.”
- “In fact the most common strategy for people attempting to deal with these hot areas can be summed up in four words: avoid at all costs. We may not realize what we’re doing, but as we take this path of avoidance we reveal ourselves more clearly than we know.”
- “Ironically, it is these ‘protective’ qualities that open us up to emotional blackmail. They are:
* An excessive need for approval
* An intense fear of anger
* A need for peace at any price
* A tendency to take too much responsibility for other people’s lives
* A high level of self-doubt”
- “People with the Atlas syndrome believe that they alone must solve every problem, putting their own needs last.”
- “When faced with a blackmailer’s pressure, do you:
* Change or cancel important plans or appointments
* Give in and hope it’s the last time
Do you find it difficult or impossible to:
* Stand up for yourself?
* Confront what’s going on?
* Set limits?
* Let blackmailers know that their behavior is unacceptable?”
- “What many of us don’t realize is that emotional blackmail is built on a series of tests. If it works on a small scale, we’ll see it again in a more significant arena. When we give in to pressure or discomfort, we’re providing positive reinforcement, a reward for bad behavior. The hard truth is that every time we let someone undercut our dignity and integrity, we are colluding–helping them hurt us.”
- “* I take a stand for what I believe in.
* I don’t let fear run my life.
* I confront people who have injured me.
* I define who I am rather then being defined by other people.
* I keep the promises I make to myself.
* I protect my physical and emotional health
* I don’t betray other people.
* I tell the truth.”
- “One of the most serious effects of emotional blackmail is the way it narrows our world, We often give up people and activities we love in order to please our blackmailers, especially if they are controlling or overly needy.”
- “Emotional blackmail sucks the safety out of any relationship. By safety I mean goodwill and trust–the elements that allows us to open ourselves to someone without fear that our inner most thoughts and feelings will be treated with anything but care. Remove those elements and what’s left is a superficial relationship empty of the emotional candor that enables us to be our true selves with another person.”
- “In a blackmail-tainted situation, relationships with friends, lovers and family members that once had real depth begin to get thinner as the roster of safe topics shrinks.”
- “In one of the great paradoxes of emotional blackmail, the more we feel the blackmailer demanding our time, our attention or our affection, the less we feel free to give. We frequently hold ourselves back from expressing even casual affection because we’re afraid it may be misinterpreted as a sign we’ve given in to their pressure. We turn ourselves into emotional misers, not wanting to feed the blackmailer’s hopes or fantasies.”
- “The first thing I’d like you do is sign a contract that lists a number of promises I’d like you to make to yourself–ground rules for this process.”
- “Second, I’d like you to learn and practice saying a power statement, one short sentence that you can use to keep yourself grounded when blackmailers turn up the pressure. Power statement: I CAN STAND IT.”
- “SOS: Stop. Observe. Strategize.”
- “Patty was a little bewildered when I told her that the first thing any target of emotional blackmail has to do is nothing. That means you don’t make a decision about how to respond the moment a demand is made.”
- “And you’ll keep repeating, ‘It’ll take as long as it takes,’ I told her. The blackmailer may resent you for wanting time, pout or use other forms of pressure, but the power of repetition is generally enough to deliver the message that you’re serious.”
- “You might want to say something like:
* This is not a power struggle.
* This is not about my trying to control you.
* This is about my needing more time to give thought to what you want.”
- “There’s another version of the do-nothing technique that’s useful when you find yourself in the middle of a conflict between two other people, or when a third party is using emotional blackmail on you to benefit someone else. The action you need to take: Get out of the way.”
- “Just keep answering that you haven’t made a decision, repeat that it’ll take as long as it takes to decide–and then change the subject.”
- “Putting some physical distance, even a room or two, between you and the blackmailer can take a lot of urgency out of the transaction and give you some all-important emotional distance as well.”
- “When I talk about emotional distance, I mean turning down the flame and allowing your feelings to cool. When confronted with emotional blackmail, your feelings may be so intense that you can’t think, reason, judge or look at what your choices are. Emotional blackmail is in your face: intense, pressured, demanding–full of frantic energy. The cacophony of feelings often seems overwhelming. You’re in a state of pure emotional reactiveness, and you need to move into a more cognitive, detached mode, Taking a few minutes to quiet yourself will do that for you. Calm yourself, repeat ‘I an stand it,’ and resolve to buy yourself time.”
- “1. What did the other person want?
2. How was the request made? For example, was it posed lovingly, threateningly, impatiently? Use any description that applies to your situation.
3. What did the blackmailer do when you didn’t agree immediately? Here, you’ll want to take into account facial expressions, tone of voice, body language.”
- “* Is something in this demand making me uncomfortable? What is it?
* What part of the demand is OK for me, and what part is not?
* Is what the other person wants going to hurt me?
* Is what the other person wants going to hurt anyone else?
* Does the other person’s request take into consideration my wants and feelings?
* Is something in the demand or the way it was presented to me making me feel afraid, obligated or guilty? What is it?
* What’s in it for me?”
- “As you look over your answers, you’ll find that most demands fall into one of three categories:
1. The demand is no big deal.
2. The demand involves important issues, and your integrity is on the line.
3. The demand involves a major life issue, and/or giving in would be harmful to you or others.”
- “* Is a pattern developing here?
* Do I seem to be in the habit of saying ‘It’s no big deal,’ ‘No problem,’ ‘I don’t have a preference’ or ‘I don’t care’?
* If ti were entirely up to me, what would I do?
* Is my body telling me something different fro what my mind is telling me? (For example, you’re thinking: It’s only a movie, so even though I don’t feel like it, I’ll go–but you notice that your stomach is pumping more acid than usual.)”
- “Keep in mind that sometimes what’s most objectionable about a demand is they way it is presented. Sometimes style is substance, and we can’t ignore it.”
- “Conscious compliance is a good choice when:
* You examine the demand and find that it has no negative impacts. Perhaps it was delivered with whining or mild sulking, but none of the behaviors that accompany it are habitual and you and the other person are not frozen in a blackmail pattern.”
- “You examine the demand and find it will have no negative impact as long as it involves an even trade with the blackmailer. You will comply this time but the blackmailer agrees to let you make an equivalent decision next time.”
- “You examine the demand and find that you can say yes willingly, and without harm to yourself or others, but only to parts of it. When this is the case, conscious compliance involves striking a deal–saying yes to what you want. In exchange, you ask the blackmailer to drop the elements that you find disturbing.”
- “You examine the demand and decide to say yes for a time–and you label your compliance as strategy. You know why you are saying yes, and you develop a plan for changing the parts of the situation that are not acceptable to you.”
- “When you become clear about your decision before you respond to the blackmailer, you can find compromises that quite frequently satisfy you both.”
- “* Am I taking a stand for what I believe in?
* Am I letting fear run my life?
* Am I confronting people who have injured me?
* Am I defining who I am rather then being defined by other people?
* Am I keeping the promises I’ve made to myself?
* Am I protecting my physical and emotional health?
* Am I betraying anyone?
* Am I telling the truth?”
- “When someone asks to borrow money, it usually appears to be a question of whether you can afford to lend it and whether the other person is trustworthy. But money is never just money among intimates. It’s a powerful symbol of love, trust, competence, who wins and who loses. Friends and relatives at different levels of achievement or monetary success frequently have seething envies and resentments toward one another that severely contaminate their relationships.”
- “One request for money usually leads to another.”
- “If we are not careful, we wind up making decisions about sex based on all the wrong reasons: To prove we’re desirable. To show how free, liberated or spontaneous we are. To assert our claim on the other person. To punish. To escape from FOG.”
- “Is this about love, or is it about power, control, winning and domination? If it’s about love, the other person will have some compassion for how you’re feeling. And if it’s not, it’s vital to protect your self-respect and your integrity.”
- “1. Don’t tolerate anything that’s harmful to your health.”
- “2. Decide to define your job to yourself in a different way.”
- “3. Make a timetable and a plan.”
- “4. Decide to take small actions to improve your situation.”
- “If you are living with or involved with someone you feel is volatile and potentially dangerous, do not inform them in advance of your plans to leave them. Protect yourself and get out.”
- “What would happen if the sparks of the other person’s blame, therats and negative labels fell on damp ground? What would happen if you don’t try to change the other person but instead change the script? What if yo responded to their pressure with statements such as:
* I’m sorry you’re upset.
* I can understand how you might see it that way.
* That’s interesting.
* Yelling/threatening/withdrawing/crying is not going to work anymore and it doesn’t resolve anything.
* Let’s talk when you’re feeling calmer.
And the most nondefensive response of all:
* You’re absolutely right [even if you don’t mean it].”
- “* That’s your choice.
* I hope you won’t do that, but I’ve made my decision.
* I know you’re very angry right now. When you’ve had a chance to think about this, maybe you’ll change your mind.
* Why don’t we talk about this again when you’re less upset.
* Threats/suffering/tears are going to work anymore.
* I’m sorry you’re upset.”
- “Because you’re serious about breaking that pattern, don’t argue, don’t explain, don’t defend, and don’t answer a why with a because.”
- “* I knew you won’t be happy about this, but that’s the way it has to be.
* There are no villains here. We just want different things.
* I’m not willing to take more than 50 percent of the responsibility.
* I know how upset/angry/disappointed you are, but it’s not negotiable.
* We see things differently.
* I’m sure you see it that way.
* I’m sorry you’re upset.”
- “Behavior can change. Personality styles usually don’t.”
- “* Remember that you are dealing with people who feel inadequate and powerless and who are afraid of your ability to hurt or abandon them.
* Confront them when they’re more able to hear what you have to say. Consider writing a letter. It may feel less threatening to them.
* Reassure them that they can tell you what they’re angry about and you will hear them out without retaliating.
* Use tact and diplomacy. This will reassure them that you won’t exploit their vulnerabilities and bludgeon them with recriminations.
* Say reassuring things like ‘I know you’re angry right now, and I’ll be willing to discuss this with you as soon as you’re ready to talk about it.’ Then leave them alone. You’ll only make them withdraw more if you don’t.
* Don’t be afraid to tell them that their behavior is upsetting to you, but begin by expressing appreciation.”
- “* Stay focused on the issue you’re upset about.
* Expect to be attacked when you express a grievance, because they experience your assertion as an attack on them.
* Let them know that you know they’re angry and what you’re willing to do about it.”
- “* Accept the fact that you will have to make the first move most, if not all, of the time.
* Let some things slide.”
- “* Can you help me understand why this is so important to you?
* Can you suggest some things we can do to solve the problem?
* Can you help me find some things we can do to make our relationship better?
* Can you help me understand why you are so angry/upset?”
- “* I wonder what happen if…
* I wonder if you can help me find a way to…
* I wonder how we can do this better/make this work.”
- “When you want another person to change his or her behavior, and at the same time you acknowledge that you need to make changes of your own, a barter may be in order.”
- “But bartering creates a win-win situation that’s easy for everyone to accept. It also cuts through another dynamic that keeps us from working out problems with someone else–the feeling that they’ve done us wrong, we’re mad about it, and they need to suffer. We wont’ give an inch because they need to be punished more. But somehow, the sense of getting something from the other person lets us put our resentments aside more easily.”
- “Loud, angry punishers and passive-aggressive sulkers are really frightened little kids inside. That doesn’t make their behavior any less unacceptable–but it can make it less scary.”