Scene: You’re on the phone with a friend. They’ve made you angry and in your fight you told them that you just want to be left alone for a bit. You say they aren’t allowed to come to your house until further notice and that’s when the dam breaks. They tell you that if you don’t let them come over they’ll drive their car over a cliff. This makes you panic. You don’t want to be the reason they do something like that so you agree to allow them to come over right then. While this might seem like a far-fetched scenario it is in fact an example of an emotional hostage situation.
This is sometimes referred to as emotional blackmail and is in fact a form or abuse. By offering up this list, Psych2Go hopes to bring to light a form of emotional abuse many don’t even know exists. If you notice similarities to the above scenario or any of the points listed below, please speak with a licensed mental health professional. The situation may seem benign now but it can escalate very quickly
1. Understanding what emotional blackmail really is
Emotional blackmail, as described by Susan Forward, PhD, in her book Emotional Blackmail: When the People in Your Life Use Fear, Obligation, and Guilt to Manipulate You, is a tactic used by abusers to threaten you to get what they want. The point is to make you feel FOG (fear, anger, guilt) so that they can have things their way. This may be something as simple as throwing a fit, as an adult, to get out of something. Or it could be a case of threatening to go back to drug use if they can’t see someone or be somewhere they want to be. The whole point is to refuse to take responsibility for their own actions and instead blame you, or threaten to blame you, for every bad decision they could make if they don’t get their way.
2. Knowing what constitutes an emotional hostage situation
By the definition above it could be easy to assume that all children take their parents hostage emotionally. As R. Skip Johnson points out in his article Emotional Blackmail: Fear, Obligation, and Guilt (FOG), the use of the term “blackmail” can illicit a negative response. Johnson points out that using such a term equates to there being forethought from the individual, or premeditation if you will. This is often not the case and the things that the people are wanting are in fact legitimate to desire.
A child throwing a tantrum in the store to get a toy isn’t necessarily emotional blackmail as they are merely subject driven and have no concept of the manipulation factor. A teenager exploding emotionally over not being able to borrow the car then running off to their room with a knife is an emotional hostage situation. They want to get something and will make it appear that they will injure themselves to get it. If the parent gives in, then the manipulation worked and their actions are reinforced. If the parent doesn’t then they will worry about their child and feel immense guilt if their child follows through with the threat.
3. Know where your emotional boundaries are
By knowing where your emotional boundaries are you will be able to tell when someone oversteps them. In the early stages of this form of abuse you might not even register that something is truly amiss. You may just assume that the other person is passionate about something and thus gets carried away at times. As time goes on you might start to feel like the other person places you between a rock and a hard place. Either option you have is a bad one but you tend to favor those that are the lesser of the two evils. This is emotional manipulation at its finest. What you want isn’t important, it’s about what the other person can do to illicit the emotional response that they want.
4. You are where their feelings lie
Someone who holds you hostage emotionally will hold you accountable for their feelings. This may take the form of a significant other stating that a breakup from you would cause them to commit suicide. You might see this as them being so in love with you that they would rather die without you. That isn’t the case. They are manipulating you to get what they want. The point is to hold you accountable for the feeling of sadness that would follow a breakup. They may be feeling anxious about the relationship, but instead of facing those fears head on they force you to carry them.
Being an emotional hostage can and will take its toll on a person. Their relationships will suffer, their emotional wellbeing will suffer, and they can become miserable overall. Sometimes we don’t see these things sneaking up on us. We are then left to pick up the pieces when things go off course. Understanding what being held hostage emotionally, and emotional blackmail, really means is a great start. But remember, just because someone makes you feel guilty for something, it doesn’t necessarily mean they are manipulating you. It all has to do with how with the present situation and past experiences.
Have you been in a situation of emotional blackmail before? If so, and if you are comfortable with sharing your story please do so in the comments below.
Other reading from Psych2Go:
Johnson, R. Skip. “Emotional Blackmail: Fear, Obligation and Guilt (FOG).” Borderline Personality Disorder, BPDFamily, 6 Dec. 2015, bpdfamily.com/content/emotional-blackmail-fear-obligation-and-guilt-fog. Retrieved November 29, 2017
Zwolinski , Richard. “Are Other People’s Feelings Holding You Hostage?” PsychCentral.com, Psych Central , 15 Sept. 2013, blogs.psychcentral.com/therapy-soup/2013/09/are-other-peoples-feelings-holding-you-hostage/. Retrieved November 29, 2017
Zwolinski, Richard. “Standing Up For YOU With An Emotional Hostage Taker.” PsychCentral.com, PsychCentral , 15 Sept. 2013, blogs.psychcentral.com/therapy-soup/2013/09/standing-up-for-you-with-an-emotional-hostage-taker/. Retrieved November 29, 2017