According to Wikipedia, emotional blackmail is “a form of psychological manipulation, employing a mixture of threats, appeals and emotionally punitive behaviour to control an intimate. It may occur between parents and children, husbands and wives, siblings or close friends…Under pressure from emotional blackmail, one may become a sort of hostage, forced to act under pressure of the threat of responsibility for the other's breakdown.”
It is pretty much a sure bet that anyone reading this page has been the target of emotional blackmail. Even ignoring narcissists and brutal in-your-face narcissists like my mother use it. The narcissist’s objective, after all, is to get what she wants and there really is not limit as to what she will do in pursuit of that objective, as long as she doesn’t get caught and outed.
Dr. Susan Forward, author of Toxic Parents (a book I recommend regularly to people just beginning to grasp the concept of having a narcissistic parent) has also written a book entitled Emotional Blackmail. In this book she names four distinct types of emotional blackmail:
1. The Punisher—“If you go back to work, I will leave you”;
2. The Self-Punisher—“Don’t argue with me or I will get sick or depressed.” Punishers use threats to manipulate others.
3. The Sufferer—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 that is.
4. The Tantalizer—Tantalizers encourage and offer us love, money or career advancement—“the proverbial carrot at the end of the stick.” They are considered to be the most subtle blackmailers.
While some narcissists pick a style of emotional blackmail and stick with it…for example, the Sufferer, who uses real or imagined illnesses to get people to dance to their tune…other narcissists may use any or all of the techniques in pursuit of her goals. Whatever works will be the tool of the day. Here are some of the ways my ignoring malignant narcissist of a mother used each one of these techniques:
1) The Punisher: my mother sent me to live with her parents every summer. I loved being there, feeling valued and respected and loved. Every year, when September rolled around and my grandparents told me to pack up my things because my mother was on her way to collect me, I would beg them to let me stay with them. I would cry all night at the prospect of having to go back to my mother and her home, where I was scapegoated at every turn. I would wake up in the morning that she was to arrive with the evidence of my distraught night written all over my face: puffy red eyes, red swollen nose, sniffles. And so she said to me “If you do this again…cry all night and beg your grandparents to stay with them instead of coming home with me…you will never come back here for a summer, do you understand?”
2) The Self-Punisher: my mother was a tough old bitch and she would never, ever, do or say anything that might give me the idea that I had the power to affect her…at least not in advance. But my childish prattle about school, friends or any topic was often greeted with “go to your room, you are giving me a headache.” Occasionally rage would overtake her such that she would neglect to use the strap or a shoe or some instrument to hit me and use her bare hand. Sometimes that would result in a broken blood vessel in her hand that hurt her for days…and for which I would be blamed. And as long as the hand hurt, the blame would be heaped on me. How is this blackmail? I stopped talking around her and became silent in her presence lest I give her a headache; I became quick about fetching the strap at her command lest she hit me with her hand and hurt herself…for which I would suffer for days. This induced tremendous guilt in me, that I gave my mother headaches and caused her to hurt her hand for days…it effectively modified my behaviour and gave my mother what she wanted.
3) The Sufferer: my mother was ever the victim of someone…whether it was the poor woman next door whose house didn’t look like a page out of House Beautiful or the woman across the street who was the neighbourhood gossip, or my father, who had the audacity to expect her to be faithful and to allow him to keep at least some of the money he earned from his second job for his own entertainment, or whether it was me, who ruined her entire life simply by being born. It was my fault she was stuck in an unhappy marriage with no glamour or effusive adoration and was my fault that she had a wrinkled stomach with a big scar on it, saggy boobs, and her youth had been subordinated to being a nanny to an “ungrateful brat” rather than the toast of some social scene somewhere.
My father worked two jobs…a full-time day job and a part-time evening job at a mechanic’s shop near home. My mother liked to dress up and go bar-hopping while he was at work (unbeknownst to him) and she would leave me and my younger brother home alone while she was out being a barfly. I was sworn to silence about her activities because if I told Daddy, she would get in trouble and it would be my fault. When they separated and she moved a boyfriend into the house, I was again forbidden to tell my father because it could get her in trouble (this was the 1950s and there were laws against cohabitation) and again, it would be my fault. If I didn’t do what she wanted—like keep silent about her nefarious behaviour—she would get into trouble and it would be my fault for revealing her behaviour, not her fault for doing wrong.
4) The Tantalizer: this is the most subtle form of emotional blackmail. Basically it means holding out hope of something—the carrot on the stick—but all too often we find that the carrot was, at best, an illusion—at worst, an outright lie.
When I was 14 my mother sent me to spend the summer with my father while she took off on a road trip with her boyfriend. As summer came to a close, we had no idea where she was or how to reach her and it was nearing time to enrol in high school. Finally, the weekend before the start of school we received a terse telegram from her, saying I should enrol in school at my father’s house. Nearly a year went by, a year in which she never called me or came to see me. Then, shortly before the next school year was to start, she showed up at the door and asked me to take a ride with her. Unaccustomed to saying “no” to her for anything, I got in the car and found myself in the backseat with my mother while my old singing teacher drove. The next couple of hours I was double teamed by them, using every narcissist’s hoovering trick in the book until I agreed to come back and live with my mother. I went back expecting this wonderful mother-daughter relationship of love and camaraderie…I was only 15, after all…and got nothing except a cot in the kitchen to sleep on and a mountain of household chores. The carrot I thought I was getting turned out to be no more than an illusion.
The problem with emotional blackmail is that is can be devilishly difficult to identify. And, it is not always the narcissist who does the blackmail but an enabler or Flying Monkey who serves it up. When people say things to you that are designed to modify your behaviour or beliefs in order to benefit someone else…someone other than you…then you are being emotionally blackmailed.
I had a boyfriend many years ago whose childish, immature and demanding ways had worn so thin that I broke up with him. The next day he showed up at my house with an entire bottle of sleeping pills and a bottle of beer, rang my bell, and when I answered it, told me that if I wouldn’t take him back he was going to kill himself. That is blatant emotional blackmail. I shut the door in his face, I was so pissed off at his obvious ploy, and he washed down the entire bottle of pills with his beer on my front porch. I called the police, who took him to the hospital but when he got out, he was back at my house saying his attempted suicide was just to “prove” how much he loved me…that he was willing to die for me. Although I knew nothing about narcissism or emotional blackmail or hoovering back then, I knew this was wrong, that this was unhealthy behaviour, and I was indignant that he would go to such lengths to control me…to force himself on an unwilling woman in such a way.
Dr. Forward opines that the bottom line of any type of blackmail is one basic threat, “If you don’t behave the way I want you to, you will suffer.” That suffering can be direct…by denying or taking something away from you…or it can be indirect, by making you suffer guilt or anger or embarrassment. Emotional blackmailers may take intimate, possibly embarrassing secrets that you have shared and use this knowledge to shape the threats that give them what they want: your compliance.
Emotional blackmailers often entrap us in a web of fear, obligation and guilt, which Dr. Forward calls the FOG. They may obscure their actions by superficially behaving as if they are acting in our best interests, or by appealing to our higher instincts. After my mother irretrievably blackened my reputation with my FOO, stole my children and kept them away from me for eight year and, while they were gone, lied to them saying I didn’t love them and had abandoned them, after she gave my kids away to another family member for adoption (which was why she took them in the first place) my grandmother emotionally blackmailed me. Without even acknowledging that I had every right to be angry with my mother, without ever telling my mother than she had done something reprehensible and that she owed me, in the very least, an apology, my grandmother approached me and asked me to bury the hatchet with my mother (her exact words) for the sake of family harmony. The clear implication was that if I did not capitulate and make nice with my traitorous back-stabbing betrayer of a mother, I would be guilty of perpetuating the rift in the family…the family would continue to be fractured and it would be my fault.
According to Dr. Forward, fear, obligation, and guilt are the tools of the emotional blackmailer’s trade. Blackmailers often “pump an engulfing FOG into their relationships, ensuring that we will feel afraid to cross them.” This, of course, happens over time and because of the slow insidiousness of the process, we seldom even realize it is happening.
One of the emotional blackmail tricks narcissists play is the long game. You become accustomed to the narcissist’s blackmail to the degree that you automatically shape your behaviour around the anticipation of fear, obligation, or guilt being deployed. If there in someone in your life around whom you must tiptoe, some around whom you feel you are walking on eggshells, someone whose reaction is contemplated before you make a final decision about anything, this person is an emotional blackmailer who has trained you to give her what she wants without even having to take action.
Another thing an emotional blackmailer might do is try to control your choices by provoking guilt in you…for example, if you have a friend who is a vegan and she tries to make you feel guilty about eating meat while refusing to acknowledge the fundamental flaws in a diet that has no vitamin B12 in it (essential for brain health). Or, a person who doesn’t want you to make Choice A because it is inconvenient for him and tries to force you into making Choice B through guilt (“You only think of yourself…”). There is the stay-at-home mom who tries to validate her own choice by using guilt and a false sense of obligation to invalidate your choice to have a career, or the family member who forces her wishes on family members through the fear that she will injure herself or another family member or run away or commit some other dangerous act. These are all acts of emotional blackmail, some subtle, some blatant, but all of them designed to control other people through fear, obligation, and/or guilt.
So, how can you tell if you are being emotionally blackmailed? My biggest clue is my own feelings when I contemplate not doing what is being expected of me. Am I afraid of some consequence will befall me…this person will say or do something that will hurt me in some way? Do I know I will feel guilty if I don’t do it, even though that guilt is clearly misplaced? Do I feel obligated to do it, even when there is no clear reason that I actually am obligated? If I answer “yes” to any of those questions, then I am probably being emotionally blackmailed and need to take a step back and examine the situation more closely.
And how do you stop it? Well, let’s start with a narcissist is not ever going to give up a tool that has worked. There is nothing you can do to get your narcissist to stop trying to blackmail you, so the only thing you can change is how you react to it. First, learn to recognize when you are being controlled by fear, obligation or guilt.
Second, make sure you do not feed the troll—don’t give your narcissist information about your personal life that might one day be used against you…and don’t give that information to anyone who might tell your narcissist, not even your twin sister or your beloved Aunt Mary. If they talk to the narcissist, they may well innocuously tell things that your NM can twist, embroider, or use as the grain of truth in an ugly lie, and ultimately use as ammunition to force you into compliance. I knew a teenage girl who had uterine infection and had to have a D&C…by the time her mother got done with the tale, the girl had aborted an illicit pregnancy and was universally reviled by her family as a result. Keep personal information away from all conduits to the narcissist.
Third, decide that you won’t give in to blackmail, no matter what the consequence is. Only by making emotional blackmail unsuccessful as a technique do you have even the slimmest hope of getting the blackmailer to stop.
You basically have two choices with an emotional blackmailer: give in and hope the blackmailer keeps silent on whatever tidbit of personal information she has that you don’t want bandied about or accept that she’s going to tell what she knows and even make stuff up if it suits her, and you might as well refuse to cooperate because the outcome is going to be essentially the same, no matter what you decide.
That was ultimately my choice…I told the truth so it is out there for those who want to hear it…and then let the blackmailers do their worst…they were doing it anyway, so my capitulation had actually bought me nothing in the long run.
It is worth becoming aware of and giving some serious thought to.