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. Here is an example:
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:
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:
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;
http://encarta.msn.com/dictionary_701705883/emotional_blackmail.html, retrieved December 1, 2009
Chip’s practice has a no-nonsense, solution focused approach to counseling therapy and coaching for anyone who needs help.
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