Dealing With Master Manipulators

Figuring Your Way Around Emotional Extortion

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Notes from the Desk of
The Neighborhood Shrink

The MSN Encarta dictionary defines emotional blackmail as the following; Persuasion using sympathy or guilt: the stirring up of uncomfortable feelings in somebody, especially sympathy or guilt, in order to persuade that person to do something.1

We all know manipulative people. Most of us have been manipulated emotionally one way or another. Sometimes we recognize it, and sometimes we don't. There are many forms of emotional manipulation and they are not all necessarily bad. For example, all you need to do react to emotions is watch a television advertisement, hear the ringing of Santa’s bell outside of a department store during the holidays, or negatively respond to a three year old throwing a tantrum in public. There are many situations that play on our emotions and cause us to behave in ways that we were not planning. This Note from the Desk of the Neighborhood Shrink has to do with more severe situations. It has to do with recognizing, calling, and reacting differently when we are emotionally blackmailed.

In my office, many complaints come from clients who feel compelled to comply with the manipulation of their parents or others. Mind you, most of these people are grown adults and otherwise function fully. Below is an example:

Kelly is a 36-year-old divorced middle school teacher. She has two children, Nathan- 12, and Sean-10. The father of her children does not give any support and she believes that it is just easier that way. She has what she considers to be a strained relationship with her mother. She speaks with her at least twice a day and wishes it was less frequent. Her mother comes to Kelly's house unannounced, sometimes lets herself in, and frequently asks about Kelly's (lack of) love life or is critical about her parenting. Kelly does not introduce her mother to any of her friends because she comes off as judgmental and sometimes makes disparaging remarks about Kelly's childhood. Her mother easily finds fault in many situations, rarely apologizes for her behaviors or conflicts that ensue, and keeps Kelly as her closest friend and confidant (she is very socially constricted). Kelly's father left when she was four years old and has not really been part of her life. When her mother drinks, she still complains about how her abandoned them. Her mother feels completely entitled to be critical, give unwanted advice, and be disrespectful about Kelly’s time, money, and intelligence.

Kelly is becoming extremely concerned because she's beginning to see significant manipulative tendencies in her older son. Like with her mother, she has difficulty setting boundaries for Nathan but knows that something needs to be done. She has known for a while that she needs to change the way she deals with her mother but it seems like it was easier to just let it go. Now, however, because of her son, she knows that something needs to be done. She has been divorced for five years and "must" rely from time to time on her mother for financial support and child care.

From the outside the answer may seem simple. Obviously she needs to create some emotional distance from her mother, set better boundaries, and learn some assertiveness skills, right? As far as her son is concerned she needs to take a parenting class.

Remember our definition of emotional blackmail? It is the persuasion and the stirring up of uncomfortable feelings in somebody, especially using sympathy or guilt in order to persuade that person to do something. Unfortunately in Kelly's mind (and many like her) the answer is not so obvious. She doesn't even consistently recognize when the emotional extortion is happening until her frustration piques. She feels compelled to meet her mother’s needs yet very much dislikes her most of the time. This is where using a cognitive and behavioral process begins. Her first job is to create more awareness of when she is being manipulated.

I had her begin to look at the conditionality of her relationship. Conditionality means "something for something". I have her start looking for situations where, when she asks her mother for something, it costs her something. For example, last Saturday Kelly needed to run some errands and asked her mother to watch her boys for a couple of hours. While the mother agreed to do so, it also came at the expense of listening to her berate her for half-an-hour about how the boys need more discipline and "wouldn't she be better if she had a man in her life?” She has attempted to say something about her mother’s criticism before, but the mother becomes defensive and threatens to “just never come back”.

As she begins to log the incidents of being manipulated, her awareness increases. She begins to understand the situations where she gets pushed around. The second-and most difficult-part is to then begin to take her mother out of those situations and replace her with other people. For example, she might consider joining a single mother’s support group where she not only meets other women in her same situation but may be able to trade childcare with some of them. She may also need to consider pushing the father of her children for child support instead of relying on her mother to fill in the gaps. As she begins to take control of her life and fight the path of least resistance, she reports feeling stronger and less manipulated.

Again, one might ask why she puts up with it. What is hard to see are the underlying fears and concerns for people who are subject to emotional manipulation. Some of the core issues for Kelly are that she still seeks her mother's approval, is afraid that her mother might leave, stop loving her, become angry with her, or might withhold financial support. She also fears being alone. At a conscious or subconscious level, her mother knows these things and uses them to her advantage. Be reminded, this is not about vilifying Kelly's mother. Her mother is doing the best that she can with what she has. She is a very powerful (and apparently lonely) woman. This is about Kelly's finding her own way and limiting her exposure to the toxic nature of emotional extortion. The secondary gain is also about Kelly's modeling assertive behaviors for her older son who hopefully begins to learn limitations instead of manipulation.

Do you find yourself being emotional manipulated? Do you find yourself questioning your own judgment or whether you should do something about emotional extortion? One of the things you might do is try to understand the angle that many manipulators take in order to wedge themselves into your life. These are a few personality characteristics:

  1. The Victim.The victim is always on the downside. There is usually considerable chaos going on in their life. and the world- most of the time- is against them. They feel relatively powerless and they rely on you to fix it. The manipulation comes in when they say things like, "Don't worry about me. I know I am sitting here with my liver hanging out and bleeding all over your floor, but I will be fine." The victim usually needs a hero, and that hero is you. You selflessly clean up their mess again and later ask yourself why! Sometimes when you offer to help they refuse, but keep complaining (help rejecting).
  2. The Martyr. The martyr sacrifices themselves for everyone. They go to great lengths to do everything for everybody. The problem is that there is an unwritten rule that says, "You owe me for this". This is where conditionality comes in. I once heard a great therapist say when lecturing about this particular role, "Get off the Cross, we could use the wood." The idea is you should sacrifice because they sacrifice, but they would never say that. Their manipulative skills have a Ninja-like quality. You never even know what hit you until you are doing their laundry-for the 97th time.
  3. The Privileged. The privileged own the world. They have a great sense of entitlement. They get away with being manipulative because they are either socially, financially, or emotionally powerful. Or, they have something that someone else wants. They may never have given their approval to their children who still seek it. They have “yes” people around them who are usually very impressed by their power. They expect everyone to feel the same.
  4. The False Promisers. False Promisers do just that. They make promises they usually don't keep. However, what they promise is sometimes so tantalizing that it is difficult to resist. Many times their promises are implied. This can happen in the workforce where the carrot dangled in front of you is a promotion. It is ever- present. However, you never quite qualify so you keep trying. False promises can also involve love, approval, sex, or even a willingness to talk about chronic problems.

There are other personality characteristics that influence people to manipulate, but you get the idea. Fixing the situation is not about changing them. It is about observing how they work and how you respond to them. It is about changing yourself.

As stated in our definition, many people get manipulated out of a sense of guilt. However, there are other reasons people respond to emotional extortion. Here are a few:

  1. Coercion. Some people might feel threatened or intimidated because the person they are being manipulated by might release some information about them or tell others some of their secrets. The coercion may be overt, implied, or imagined.
  2. Obligation. Many times people have done things for us-especially parents. If you are over-attached to your sense of obligation to others you can be manipulated by it. Especially when they tell us that we still have not met our obligation.
  3. Distorted Sense of Love. While this goes along with the guilt idea, people believe that "if I really love them I must stick with them", even when it is self-destructive to do so.

So, are you being emotionally blackmailed? Are there people in your life who can persuade, manipulate, or “make you” do things that you would not ordinarily do? Are you aware of these situations and your power to change them? What is going on with your own self-respect that you would allow these things to be happening?

If you find yourself in this position, it is time to begin to learn some assertiveness. Start by identifying situations where you are emotionally extorted, and by whom. Begin to identify your own needs and learn how to assert them. Here are some good places to start:

Alberti, Robert E. (2008) Your Perfect Right: Assertiveness and Equality in Your Life and Relationships. Impact Publishers

Smith, Manuel J. (1975) When I Say No, I Feel Guilty. Bantam Books

Lastly, are you manipulative?

Most of us are manipulative at times - which means we have the ability to use emotional means to get what we want. Many times we don't even realize that we are doing it. Day-to-day manipulations can be subtle. They are not necessarily emotional extortions and come in many forms. Do you ever find yourself saying things like "If you really loved me you would….", or "You never talk to me", or "You always bitch too much". Do you see the manipulative nature of these? If you were brought up around a manipulator, there is a high probability you are one as well. That stuff rubs off. Read this article again and plug yourself in. Do you fit?

1 MSN Encarta Dictionary;, retrieved December 1, 2009

Chip’s practice has a no-nonsense, solution focused approach to counseling therapy and coaching for anyone who needs help.

He offers several Mental Health Professional seminars, including self care for professionals, technology for private practice, and Initial Assessment Review.

He also offers a full complement of corporate training including Stress Management, Giving Great Customer Service, and Dealing With Difficult People.


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