NYC Psychotherapist Blog

power by WikipediaMindmap

Thursday, November 30, 2017

Breaking the Cycle of Emotional Blackmail

Emotional blackmail is a term that was coined by a psychotherapist, Susan Forward.  Basically, emotional blackmail is a form of manipulation where one person is trying to control and manipulate another person through guilt, threats, or by instilling fear or a sense of obligation (see my articles: Why Emotional Abuse Might Feel "Normal" to You and The Effect of Growing Up With a Parent Who Has Borderline Personality Disorder.

Breaking the Cycle of Emotional Blackmail

Emotional blackmail usually occurs between people who have an intimate relationship, like parent-child, a married couple, two siblings, close friends and so on.

When emotional blackmail works, the person who is being controlling intimidates the person who is being controlled.  The intimidation is usually of an emotional nature, but it can also be physical (threats to the person being controlled or threats of self harm by the controller).

This dynamic often becomes a cycle that begins with the controlling person trying to get something s/he wants by manipulating the person s/he is trying to control.

The person who is being controlled might recognize the manipulation, but s/he wants to avoid the feared consequences of not giving in, so s/he acquiesces to the controller, and this becomes the dynamic between them.

Breaking the cycle of emotional blackmail is often challenging, especially if this dynamic has been going on for a while.  It is especially challenging if the person who is being controlled was in this role as a child and, as an adult, chooses people who are manipulative and controlling.

Fictional Vignette:  Breaking the Cycle of Emotional Blackmail

Amy grew up as the youngest of five children raised by a single mother.  She never knew her father.

Since she was much younger than her siblings, they were already out of the house by the time she started school, leaving her to deal with her mother, who was depressed and angry.

Amy tried to please her mother in every way she could because she feared that her mother would fall apart or harm herself if Amy didn't go along with whatever her mother wanted (see my article: Ambivalence and Codependency in Mother-Daughter Relationships and The Role of the Family Scapegoat in Dysfunctional Families).

Breaking the Cycle of Emotional Blackmail
Her mother made a suicidal gesture when Amy was 10.  While in a drunken stupor, she told Amy that she took a handful of pills because she was unhappy about being alone so much of the time when Amy went out to play with her friends.

Shocked and trembling, Amy called 911 and waited with her mother while the EMTs came.  While she was waiting for the EMTs, Amy blamed herself for not giving into her mother's wish that Amy stay home with her rather than go out with friends.  She blamed herself for her mother's unhappiness and made a vow to herself that she would try to please her mother from that time on (see my article: Role Reversal in Mother-Daughter Relationships).

The EMTs brought Amy's mother to the hospital emergency room, but she was discharged the same afternoon because she hadn't taken enough pills to harm herself.

The hospital psychiatrist suspected that Amy's mother had borderline personality disorder.  He offered to make a referral to a local outpatient mental health center, but Amy's mother rejected the referral.  At that point, the psychiatrist told the mother that if she showed up again at the ER under similar circumstances, he would contact the State bureau of child welfare to investigate the situation at home.

After her mother was discharged, she seemed like a completely different person from the person who said she was suicidal only a few hours before.  She told Amy to stop looking so gloomy and offered to take her for an ice cream sundae.

After that day, whenever her mother wanted to get her way, she would remind Amy of the day she took the pills.  This was enough to frighten Amy into giving into her mother.

They lived under very precarious circumstances with Amy's mother losing one job after another.  She would usually start out being an excellent employee and getting along very well with her boss and coworkers, but within a short period of time, she would argue with people at work and she was convinced that they were all out to get her.  At that point, the usual pattern was that her work performance suffered, she took off a lot of days, and she got fired.

After Amy graduated high school, she decided not to go to college because she wanted to work to help with the household bills.  She took a job at the local bookstore.

Amy loved working at the bookstore.  She liked the store owner and her coworkers.  She also liked meeting the people who came to buy books.

She met the man who would eventually become her first boyfriend, John, at the bookstore.  He usually came in a few times a week and would hang around to talk to Amy.

Amy thought John was handsome, intelligent and charming, so when he asked her to go for a drink one day after work, she agreed.  Soon they were dating on a regular basis.

Initially, Amy was afraid that her mother would be lonely when she went out.  But her mother also met a man around that same time, and she was immersed in that relationship so Amy didn't have to worry about staying home with her mother to keep her company.

Several months later, Amy met John for dinner and he told her that he quit his job at the publishing company where he had been working for a year.  He felt he was unappreciated and underpaid.  He said that even though they tried to persuade him to stay, he decided he couldn't stand to be there another day, so he left.

Amy was shocked and asked John what he would do.  He told her that he wasn't worried.  He said he had lots of contacts in the publishing world and, with his skills, he would get another job as a copy editor in no time.

But as the weeks and months passed, John was unable to find another job, and he was running through his savings.  There were times when he asked Amy for money to pay his rent, and he didn't know when he could pay her back.

By that time, they were spending most of their time in John's apartment, and Amy became aware that John was drinking a lot.

In the past, she wondered if he had a drinking problem because she noticed some empty liquor bottles in the recycle bin, but she dismissed this idea because she never saw John drunk.

But after John was out of work for six months, he would come to the bookstore to see Amy reeking of alcohol.  Amy noticed that bookstore owner kept a watchful eye on John, and her coworkers avoided him.

One day when he came to get Amy after work, he was so drunk that he was weaving down the street. Although he refused to talk to her about his drinking in the past, Amy decided to bring it up again because she could see that his drinking was getting worse.

John brushed aside Amy's concerns as they entered into his apartment.  He was silent for a long time, and then he looked away, as if he was embarrassed, and told her that he needed to borrow more money from her.

Amy hesitated.  John already owed her over $2,000.  She was saving her money to buy Christmas presents for her mother, her siblings and John.  If she lent John more money, she would be taking it from savings.

When Amy hesitated, John slammed his hand against the kitchen table, "Goddammit!  I need the money!  You have to help me!"

Amy tried to explain her dilemma, but John interrupted her, "You say you're 'so concerned' about me.  You say you're concerned that I'm drinking too much.  Well, what do you think will happen if I get thrown out into the street because I can't pay my rent!  Do you think that would make things better!?!"

Amy didn't want John to be evicted from his apartment so, reluctantly, she gave him the money.  She rationalized to herself that her new promotion to a managerial position at the bookstore would substantially increase her salary and she would replace the money she lent John.

She also tried to persuade John to take a temporary office job that his friend offered him and that he turned down.  She told him that, until he finds a job that he really wants, if he took the temporary job, at least he would be earning some money.

John was pouring himself one drink after the next, and he was quite drunk at that point.  He raged at Amy for even suggesting that he should take a job that he considered beneath him, "How could you even suggest such a thing!?!"

Amy trembled in fear because she thought John was going to get up and hit her.  But he sank back into the couch and continued to drink and, soon after that, Amy went home.

None of Amy's friends liked John.  They thought he was narcissistic and manipulative.  They were mostly concerned that he was going to drag Amy down with him.  So, Amy didn't feel she could talk to her friends because they would just tell her to leave him.  And she couldn't talk to her mother because her mother spent most of her time at her boyfriend's place, so she was hardly around.

Everyone that Amy knew who knew John had a bad opinion of him.  She knew she needed to speak to someone who was impartial and objective, so she began therapy (see my article: Why Is It That It's Usually the Healthiest Person in a Family Who Goes to Therapy?).

Breaking the Cycle of Emotional Blackmail: Getting Help in Therapy
Soon after she started therapy, Amy became aware that John was manipulating her in much the same way that her mother manipulated her since Amy was a child.  Her therapist called it "emotional blackmail."

Over time, Amy admitted to herself and her therapist that she knew that John had serious emotional problems and she wasn't going to be able to rescue him.  She was also getting tired of his demands for money and his refusal to help himself.

At first, she tried to avoid him by making excuses as to why she couldn't see him.  But he would wait for Amy outside and try to persuade her to come back to his apartment.

One day, when he was drunk and frustrated with her excuses, he shouted at her in the street, "Why are you doing this to me!?!  Are you trying to destroy me!?!"

People on the street turned around to look at them, and Amy felt embarrassed.  Based on the work that she was doing with her therapist, Amy knew that John was trying to manipulate her by making a scene in the street.

She knew that he thought she would do anything to get him to be quiet--including go back with him to his apartment, watch him drink and then lend him more money.  But she was fed up and she had built up enough courage, confidence and self respect in therapy to quietly tell John, "You can shout all you want, but you're not going to control me any more."

John was stunned and stopped in his tracks, but Amy kept walking.  A few seconds later, she could hear him yelling at her from down the street, "Yeah, that's right!  Keep walking! What do you care what happens to me now that you think you're a big shot manager!  You were nothing when I met you.  You're nothing now."

Amy kept walking as if she was in a dream, and she could hear John still shouting down the block, but his voice was fading the further away she got (see my article: Choosing Healthier Romantic Relationships).

She continued to work in therapy to deal with the emotional aftermath of breaking up with John.  Although she never ran into him again, she feared he might wait for her outside the bookstore.

Amy and her therapist also worked on the original emotional blackmail in her life--her relationship with her mother.

Her mother was about to move in with her boyfriend and so she had little time for Amy.  But Amy knew that if her mother's relationship ever ended, she would be emotionally and financially dependent upon Amy again, which Amy didn't want.

She and her therapist worked on helping Amy to overcome the emotional trauma that she went through as a child with her mother (Overcoming the Traumatic Events of Childhood Trauma).

They also worked on Amy moving out and getting her own place.

Six months later, when her mother ended the relationship with her boyfriend and wanted to Amy all to herself again, Amy was able to set a healthy boundary with her mother and deal with her mother's angry threats.

By then, Amy already had her own place, so it was easier for her to set this boundary with her mother (see my article: Overcoming Dysfunctional Ways of Relating in Your Family and Freeing Yourself From Family Expectations That Are Harmful to You).

Working through these issues was difficult, but Amy was beginning to feel that she deserved to be treated better (see my article: Overcoming the Need to Be Everyone's Caretaker).

Emotional blackmail can start in early childhood, which primes the individual to unconsciously seek out people as an adult where there will be a similar dynamic.

Parents who use emotional blackmail often, consciously or unconsciously, choose the most vulnerable child in the family who will respond to manipulation.

If someone has a long history of being manipulated by emotional blackmail, this type of dynamic might seem "normal" to him or her.

Breaking the cycle of emotional blackmail can be very difficult to do without getting help in therapy.

Getting Help in Therapy
Having to choose between taking care of yourself or taking care of the person who is emotionally blackmailing you can be a daunting choice.

The person who uses emotional blackmail is usually very skilled at manipulating and causing the person s/he wants to control to feel guilty and, over time, s/he will continue to up the ante.

If you're feeling stuck in a situation where you're being emotionally blackmailed, you could benefit from seeking help from a skilled psychotherapist, who can help you to break the cycle of emotional blackmail.

About Me
I am a licensed New York City psychotherapist, hypnotherapist, EMDR and Somatic Experiencing therapist who works with individual adults and couples.

To find out about me, visit my website: Josephine Ferraro, LCSW - NYC Psychotherapist.

To set up a consultation, call me at (917) 742-2624 during business hours or email me.