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What is Emotional Blackmail?

written by: Kosjenka Muk

Manipulation by definition presumes covert attempt to control others, usually involving twisting facts and using words in ways that might be difficult to distinguish from honest communication. That's why people are often confused whether they might be manipulated or not. In fact, it's not uncommon for manipulators to accuse their victims of manipulation - which, of course, is just another form of manipulation.

Among other things, people are often confused about what is normal in relationships. When is a demand or even an ultimatum appropriate and "legitimate", and when is it manipulative? It's not always easy to distinguish, but it's easy to superficially label any ultimatum as blackmail. I wrote some suggestions how you might distinguish between the two below.

Indications of emotional blackmail:

  • by inducing unpleasant emotions (guilt, pity, fear...), a manipulator tries to avoid responsibility for their own feelings and decisions, but also the responsibility to communicate clearly and honestly. (Any kind of victim attitude and loud self-pity are good examples.) Shifting responsibility is in the very core of emotional blackmail and a way to upset the balance in negotiations. Sometimes blackmail is used to cover laziness or selfishness.

  • threats of disproportionate consequences, usually in terms of emotional pain, for minor faults, disagreements or decisions. Example: "Granny will be so sad if you don't do this!" (threatening guilt).

  • the manipulator tries to make the other person feel bad, usually through shame, blame or threat of rejection, i.e.: "How can you do this to your mother who sacrificed so much for you?" Or, I had a grandfather who, when I'd call him and tell him who I was, used to answer the phone and keep silent for quite a while, after which he's usually say "Who is that? I don't know your name", until I explained to him that the more he played such games, the less I'd be motivated to even phone him, let alone see him.

  • a (covertly) dismissive attitude toward the target's personal boundaries and integrity, and lack of consideration and empathy for the target's emotions and needs (and sometimes for collateral victims, too - such as a divorced parent using the love for children to blackmail the other parent)

  • the attitude of demeaning the target's whole personality rather than criticizing specific behavior ("it's so selfish of you to..." rather than "I'm frustrated with your lack of consideration for..."). This is often expressed more through non-verbal communication than actual words.

  • trying to evade or take away the target's right to choose; offering one's own perspective as the only possible option. The goal is to make it difficult for the targeted person to make a free and informed choice aligned with their own personality and integrity. ("If you move away, I'm sure I'll get sick and die!")

  • exploiting the target's ideals and qualities such as empathy, responsibility and sense of obligation in dishonest ways. Besides victim games, a common example is to do the target a favor (sometimes unsolicited), only to later hold them responsible to return the favor in a way that harms their needs and boundaries. For example, some young men believe that a girl owes them sex if they do her any kind of favor. As manipulators usually know their demands are disproportionate, they will never announce them up front, while the target still has a chance to refuse the favor. Quite a few parents use their own decision to have children to later blackmail their children into sacrificing for them.

    Another example is a person making a big story about how somebody else helped them (usually while playing a victim in the same time), with the goal of shaming the target into doing the same.

Marks of honest and appropriate demand or ultimatum:

  • you express your requests, emotions and needs without blame (such as "I know you might not be aware of it, but here is why this is important to me...")

  • you focus on specific behavior that bothers you, rather than attacking someone's personality (i.e. "when you keep making that noise, it creates more and more discomfort in me each time")

  • you clearly express that you are asking for something because it's important to you personally, rather than it being an universal truth or right

  • you determine realistic (moderate) and appropriate consequences if your demands are not fulfilled, and you are consistent in putting them into practice (if you don't want to help me with the housework, then I won't have time/energy/desire to spend the evening with you)

  • you are open to negotiations, if it makes sense

  • you are willing to accept the choice of the other person without blame, and face the consequences with integrity (including ending a relationship if you have determined you and are not compatible with them)

Of course, it can be difficult to determine which consequences are appropriate for which behavior, especially if the criteria for acceptable or unacceptable behavior are unclear. That's why you need to first be clear with yourself about your priorities and needs, and make them clear to the other person, too. Another good criteria is non-verbal communication; is it victimy and blaming, or adult and calm? We all have instincts that tell us when someone's non-verbal communication feels honest; use them.

Some people might be so used to emotional blackmail (it's almost a part of the culture in some places) that they are not able to recognize such behavior is not healthy or normal. They might act with strong conviction and non-verbal congruence even when they are avoiding responsibility. Insecure and pliable people might be swayed by such an attitude, so if you are among such people, you need to learn to trust your guts and common sense over somebody else's confidence.

If your upbringing was full of induced guilt, you might have difficulties appreciating your own feelings and recognizing unhealthy demands and unhealthy guilt - after all, they were quite normal in your childhood. Still, most people have at least some instinct that warns them about unhealthy people and manipulation, often in form of anger and emotional resistance. To learn to distinguish between your own healthy and unhealthy emotions, and to learn to deal with unpleasant emotions (which is the primary condition to be able to resist emotional blackmail) practice observing your feelings and check out the article "Emotional Maturity".

"Until you make the unconscious conscious, it will direct your life and you will call it fate." - C.G. Jung

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