According to psychotherapist Susan Forward, emotional blackmail is a powerful form of manipulation in which people close to us use Fear, Obligation or Guilt (FOG) in order to get what they want.
Here are some examples:
“If you really loved me, you would do this for me.”
“It’s your fault I yell at you. You shouldn’t wind me up.”
“The boss is always right.”
“I just lost my job. Don’t walk out on me now.”
“How can you be so selfish…”
“If you don’t do x, I’ll hurt myself.”
“I’m in a lousy mood, and it’s all your fault.”
We usually feel resentful and frustrated dealing with people who are manipulating us, but sometimes they may appear quite sweet and nice so that we don’t even realize what they are doing. And they may not be aware either.
The reason they blackmail us is because they don’t want to feel hurt and afraid, so blackmailing is their way of feeling safe and in charge. This is often done without a clear intention to blackmail the other person. In fact, we may have used a form of emotional blackmail ourselves to get what we want at some point in our lives.
But consistent emotional blackmail can be extremely hurtful. It has us giving up our needs and wants. It keeps us weak and victimized.
So what is the way out of emotional blackmail? We cannot be blackmailed unless we let the other person manipulate us, so the key is changing our behavior. If we keep on giving in to the blackmailer, they just see that what they are doing works, so they have no reason to change.
Ask yourself why you give in. Is it because you want to avoid being abandoned? Because you don’t want someone else to be angry or disappointed with you? Because you think you should be the way they tell you to? Because you feel that you are responsible for their happiness? Because their needs and feelings are more important than yours? Take some time to identify your beliefs and then determine if they are really true or based on fear.
In order to deal with an emotional blackmailer, you can:
1. Start telling the truth about what your feelings and your needs are or
2. Learn to set clear and firm boundaries that establish what you will or won’t do or put up with, even if it means risking losing that relationship.
To begin practicing, you can just stop giving in immediately and buy yourself some time. You can say something like:
– “I don’t have an answer for you right now. I need some time to think.”
– “This is too important to decide quickly. Let me think about it.”
– “I’m not willing to make a decision right now.”
– “I’m not sure how I feel about what you’re asking. Let’s discuss this a little later.”
Then, once you have had some time to collect your thoughts and don’t feel pressured in the moment, you can move to letting them know that you cannot do what they want. You can say something like: “I can’t give it right now. Please know I care about you and I am sorry if that is a disappointment to you.”
If the other person continues to pressure you, stand firm: “I see your point, but I’ve made a firm decision. Let’s talk about something else.”
Remember that you are not responsible for other people’s behaviors and actions. They are responsible for theirs, you are responsible for your own. Don’t buy into the guilt. Tell yourself that you can stand the other person acting disappointed, sad, angry, sulking or crying. If it feels uncomfortable, you can walk away.
Changing a relationship dynamic takes time, but it starts with us taking the first step. For more information on this topic, check out Susan Forward’s excellent book: Emotional Blackmail.