Have you been stuck in a cycle with someone that leaves you feeling like you can never win? Where you feel like you are always giving in? Not saying what you are really feeling? If so, you may be experiencing emotional blackmail. It’s not pretty, and you can be left with the uncomfortable feeling that there’s no way out without sacrificing who you are in the process. Don’t despair – there’s hope for you! In today’s episode, we’re going to chat with the world’s foremost expert on ending the grip of emotional blackmail, Dr. Susan Forward, one of the nation’s leading psychotherapists, and a New York Times bestselling author who has spent decades helping people break out of toxic cycles and discover healthier ways of relating.
What is emotional blackmail? The structure of emotional blackmail begins with a demand, followed by pressure to fulfill the request, and finally, being threatened with punishing consequences. The threat can be blatant or subtle. Subtle threats come in the form of pouting, sulking, passive aggressive comments, while blatant threats are overtly articulated consequences of ‘if ____, then ____’.
FOG: Emotional blackmail, although incredibly powerful and hurtful, can become normalized by both the receiver, and the doer. Another way to know if you may be being emotionally blackmailed is to check in on if you feel as though you are in a fog. FOG stands for Fear, Obligation, and Guilt. These three components cause us to feel overwhelmed and make it so it is difficult to find our way out of an imbalance of power, unable to clearly see the dynamics, and make us have a tendency to comply.
The Need to Please Disease- When we are vulnerable we have a tendency to rationalize unhealthy and unloving treatment in an effort to protect ourselves from further guilt and fear. We can end up giving in, no matter the price, just so that the other person is not angry with us. The lethality and toxicity of constant giving in accumulates until the person who is the target of emotional blackmail becomes depressed and angry, and internalizes this to become self-hatred.
Water wearing down the rock: Constant compromise and giving in to something and someone that does not feel aligned with your own needs and desires can wear you down. Like water wearing down the boulder, you become the pebble- a smaller version of yourself. By having the courage to look at what is really happening in the dynamic, you will find opportunities for change and growth.
Stand up for your own truth. Everyone is terrified of other people’s anger and retaliation- this is a core fear that goes back into childhood for many. Despite anger being such a powerful force, there are behavioral strategies that help equalize the balance of power and help you become more assertive and self-protective. It takes courage to stand up for your own truth, however it is worth it.
Honest look at ourselves. None of us are immune or exempt from being emotional blackmailers ourselves. Take time to look at your own patterns around getting others to do what you want. How do you handle when someone disagrees with you, or doesn’t want what you want? Do you plead? Coax? Get pouty? Become punitive? Do you punish through withholding things or love? Do you take their denial personally and as a threat to the relationship itself? Do you say things like “If you really loved me you would…” Or “if you really cared about us you would…” We are all guilty of some of these at times, and the question is not if, but rather to what degree and how often?
Admit and Acknowledge: Do you feel like you have been emotionally blackmailing someone? Begin by labeling your behavior as such. Then, find the courage and humility to sit down and tell the person you are bullying that you are aware of your actions. Naming and sharing this goes a long way. Admitting and acknowledging is a way of fessing up and owning your actions and it creates a climate of much greater safety. With this safety healing and repair can begin. Saying sorry will not be enough however. You will have to show the person you have hurt that you are ready to own your actions through behavioral changes over time. And elicit their help! Ask the person you have hurt what they need from you to feel safer, and more trusting. Find ways together to move forward, and stay open to getting counseling!
Admitting and acknowledging is a two way street! It is important to look at your own responsibility and behavior as the compliant one as well. Read through the following checklist to find out if you are a target of emotional blackmail:
– I tell myself that giving in is no big deal
– I tell myself that giving in is worth it to get other person to quiet down/calm down
– I tell myself that what I want is wrong
– I tell myself that it is not worth the hassle- I’ll give in now and take a stand later
– I tell myself that it is better to give in then to hurt their feelings
– I don’t stand up for myself
– I give away my power
– I do things to please other people and get confused about what I want
– I acquiesce
– I give up people and activities I care about to please the other person
Yes to the above? Don’t wait for the other person to change. Do the above statements resonate with you? If so, it is time to look inside and find the courage to make changes yourself. Find the emotional maturity and empowered stance to stop the victim/blame cycle by realizing that you do not need to put yourself second any longer. Be willing to look to your past to see if complacency is an automatic, inherited, or learned behavior that began in your childhood. Be willing to take the reins in your own hands and set limits and boundaries. You have just as much responsibility as the blackmailer to change the dynamic, and you have just as much right as the other person to have your needs met. This can be a difficult and daunting shift in perspective for anyone who has a history of abuse as it brings up true fear and guilt around displeasing people- reach out for support when needed!
Negotiating for a healthier relationship. We all have choices when a relationship goes off the track. We can accept things the way they are, we can negotiate for a healthier relationship, or worst comes to worst you can end the relationship. That said, there are strategies, communication skills, and behavioral changes that are worth trying in an effort to shift the dynamics before giving in more, or giving up.
Feeling your fear: Shifting yourself out of an emotional blackmail situation requires the willingness to tolerate the discomfort of displeasing someone, and often this can bring up fears. Many of our fears are old feelings that we mistake as coming from current events. We confuse our past with the present, and so when we get hurt we react in accordance with prior experiences. We will do nearly anything to protect ourselves from our fear of other people’s anger. Differentiating the present from the past will leave you with more confidence and many more choices for ways to react. Help yourself see that you are now an adult, no longer hopeless or dependent, and that your past does not need to dictate your experience any longer. From this knowing, ask yourself ‘what is the worst thing that can happen?’ Then believe you have the courage and resilience inside to handle this. Lastly, it comes down to allowing yourself to feel fear, and being with it.
*NOTE: There are certain situations and people where the fear is very warranted. If the person emotionally blackmailing you is completely locked into their angry defensive way of being, then you must ask yourself if it is really worth it or possible to work with them. Listen to your fear in these situations as it may be protecting you from true threat.
Be with your guilt: Guilt, along with fear, is often the major contributor to complacency. The fear of guilt itself is a powerful force. Realize that you can tolerate the guilt- no one died from guilt! Your dignity, self-respect, and health will all thank you for addressing this. Have a talk with your discomfort- take a close look and ask yourself the following questions:
-Is what I did or want to do malicious?
-Is what I did or want to do cruel?
-Is what I did or want to do abusive?
-Is what I did or want to do insulting?
-Is what I did or want to do belittling?
-Is what I did or want to do demeaning?
-Is what I did or want to do truly harmful?
If you answer no to these questions, then there is nothing to be guilty of. That is not to say that changing your behavior won’t be uncomfortable, but you can begin to redefine the discomfort as a sign of growth and change!
Do it and the feelings will show up! Many people incorrectly assume that they need to feel stronger before they can take steps and make changes in reaction to emotional blackmail. This is not true! As you begin to shift to a new set of behaviors, the sense of empowerment will follow. Others may be shocked by your changes, and have strong reactions. Allow for this and do not take it on! It may not feel great at first, and that is OKAY.
How to de-escalate the conflict: Blackmail thrives on conflict and escalation, and pushing one person lower and lower on the power structure. A natural tendency when we are emotionally attached is to get defensive, however defensiveness breeds defensiveness. If you can find non-defensive responses, the emotional blackmailer will no longer be able to attack and you WILL shift the dynamic. This requires learning to protect yourself, versus defending yourself. Doing so requires non-defensive communication skills. For example, try saying “I am sure you see it that way, and you are entitled to your feelings, however I am not willing to have this conversation now, let’s talk about it when you are calmer…” Other non-defensive communications that can shift the other person’s resistance and defensiveness sound like:
“Can we talk about why this is so important to you?”
“Will you help me understand?”
“It is not acceptable for you to continually make me feel guilty and scared- how can we work together to find a way to get your needs met in a way that doesn’t compromise mine?”
“I feel as though you are pushing me and our relationship to the edge of a cliff and I don’t know if you are taking me seriously when I say I am not happy. I want to find ways together to solve our problems and conflicts in a way that doesn’t leave one of us feeling emotionally battered- can we talk about this?”
“I am not willing to live this way any more, I need to be treated with respect and caring and want to find ways to make us both feel safer and more loved”
“You could be right, however I am feeling…”
Stop! And take a breath. Next time you are asked to do something you are not okay with, first thing to do is to STOP. Take a breath. This immediately pulls you out of your habitual pattern and away from the automatic reaction. Instead of saying yes, or no, say “I am not able to make this decision right now, I need to think about this. I’ll get back to you- but I need some time to figure out how I am really feeling about this”. This stance will allow you to calm down, garner your strength, and have the time necessary to connect with yourself beyond the fear and guilt. A healthy decision is made when we are able to balance and check in with both our intellect and our emotions- this takes time. Putting things back on your own timeline will make for your ability to be in your integrity and this will inevitably shift the power structure!
Find out more about Susan Forward’s work at her website
Our Relationship Alive Community on Facebook
Amazing intro/outro music graciously provided courtesy of: