The F.O.G. of Emotional Blackmail

Emotional blackmail is the dynamic that most frequently occurs to make you let things slide when you really shouldn’t. Even if there don’t appear to be forms of emotional blackmail (if you don’t do X, you will cause Y), the elements of FOG—fear, obligation, and guilt—will make you avoid speaking up. Sometimes it’s not all in your head, and the people around you are enabling your worst tendencies.

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Emotional Blackmail

Emotional blackmail is the dynamic that most frequently occurs to make you let things slide when you really shouldn’t. Conventional blackmail occurs when one person tries to force another to do something by holding some sort of threat over the victim. For instance, a politician is forced to vote for a horrible law because of a threat to his family. If X is not done, then Y will occur.

The term “emotional blackmail,” which can happen at work, in families, or among friends, was first coined by Susan Forward in 1998. It goes far beyond a physical threat and causes the victim (you) to comply and not assert yourself out of a sense of guilt, fear, or obligation. These are almost never explicitly spoken, but rather exist through implication or pre-existing relationship dynamics. Forward articulated four main types of emotional blackmail that might sound familiar.

The punisher’s threat occurs when the victim receives this message from the perpetrator: “Do what I want, or you will suffer negative consequences.” While the above example of the reluctant politician fits this, many experiences from our daily life subtly do as well.

At work, a victim might feel like her ideas will be criticized in front of the boss if she does not agree with the strategic plan of her team. At home, one partner might feel as if the other will withhold physical intimacy if certain expectations are not met. Even if the threat is not spoken, the victim believes the negative consequence will happen if he or she does not go along.

The self-punisher’s threat takes advantage of the victim’s sense of guilt by sending the message, “Do what I want, or I will make myself suffer negative consequences.” Often this scenario includes high drama. For example, in a dating relationship, one person might threaten self-harm if the other person does not want to continue the relationship.

A child might hold his breath until his mom gives in and buys the candy bar at the market checkout. If this sort of manipulation seems childish and immature, that’s because it is. People utilizing this technique to get their way are desperate to control relationships and are not above resorting to drastic measures.

Closely related to the self-punisher’s threat is the sufferer’s threat. Rather than the threat of self-harm, the manipulator in this situation says, “Do what I want, or I will suffer negative consequences from the outside.” Consequences are external and not self-inflicted.

A classic example of this sort of threat can be seen when a friend begs another friend not to rat him out. Consider Terry and Bob. Terry has a car accident while driving under the influence and destroys Bob’s neighbor’s mailbox. Bob wants to confess the incident to the neighbor so the damage is repaired. Terry, however, convinces Bob to keep quiet about the incident because it could lead to his arrest, prosecution, and incarceration for drunk driving.

Terry could even twist this to the point that Bob would feel responsible for Terry’s revoked driver’s license, even though Bob was not in the car and was not drinking the night of the incident. The manipulator in this situation manipulates the blame so that he becomes the victim while the true victim of the emotional blackmail is made to feel like the bad guy in the situation.

The final form of emotional blackmail is identified as the tantalizer’s threat. Opposite of the other three threats, this one holds the possibility of a reward coming to the victim. Rather than threatening a negative consequence, the perpetrator sends the message, “Do what I want, and you might enjoy positive consequences.” While the use of a reward system is often very effective in behavior modification methodology, it can be used quite harshly in adult relationships.

Take for example, a manager who indicates that a subordinate in the accounting department should approve a questionable expenditure while hinting that the company will allow the accountant to make similar expenditure claims in the future. The accountant may not want to break company policy, but under the direction of a supervisor and with the implied promise of future personal financial gain, the accountant may feel pressured into bending the rules even if he personally finds it unethical.

While it may be easy to look at these four emotional blackmail threats as too obvious and easy to avoid, the reality is that we are driven by emotions and fears. Clear thinking and awareness typically aren’t part of the equation when we already feel stress or tension, so we give in more often than not. Unless you have prior knowledge and a lot of practice, it is nearly impossible to identify what’s happening to you as it is happening.

Forward identifies these overwhelming feelings as the three underlying components in emotional blackmail: fear, obligation, and guilt (FOG). They manipulate our human instincts and keep us quiet.

Let’s begin with fear. Survival often depends on an appropriate response to fear. A victim of emotional blackmail fears negative consequences and the missed opportunity for reward. Just like fear drives a kitten to hide from an active toddler, fear will drive a person to comply with a blackmailer. The kitten may be avoiding physical discomfort or harm, while the victim is avoiding confrontation or the potential for an unpleasant outcome.

Many people are excellent at imagining the worst-case scenario in every situation, and even though rarely does the worst-case scenario become reality, this allows fear to violently seize control over the brain.

To the second component, many victims feel obligated to their blackmailer. Perhaps it is because they feel a sense of loyalty or the need to repay for past considerations or favors. The blackmailer may even be a scorekeeper who regularly reminds the victim of his or her indebtedness. The victim feels the need to go along, and that they “should” and “must” do certain things for arbitrary reasons. There is a sense of duty, whether real or manufactured.

Finally, guilt can be a factor in causing people to follow the directions of the empowered one in the relationship. In reality, guilt is a natural emotion that serves a real purpose. It provides a sign that an action will harm another. When the feeling is appropriate, guilt protects or helps mend relationships when something hurtful happens. The problem with guilt is that it often appears without appropriate cause. Guilt is rightful when it is out of genuine concern for someone else, but with emotional blackmail, it’s exaggerated to gain compliance.

In his classic book on recovery, Healing the Shame That Binds You (1988), John Bradshaw explains the difference between guilt and shame. “Guilt says I’ve done something wrong; shame says there is something wrong with me. Guilt says I’ve made a mistake; shame says I am a mistake. Guilt says what I did was not good; shame says I am no good.” Like guilt, not all shame is bad. In fact, experiencing shame is a natural part of growing up and helps develop a sense of humility. Toxic shame, however, can prevent people from taking a stand for themselves.

It’s difficult to separate whether the cause of the imbalance within the relationship is fear, obligation, or guilt. In fact, it is actually a combination of the three that creates a desire to comply and not speak up. When someone fears for their position within a relationship, feels an obligation toward the more powerful person in the relationship, and experiences guilt about potential damage to the relationship, the combination reinforces the desire to go along even when feeling overwhelmed and undervalued.

If you feel that your worst nightmare is on the cusp of coming true, you grow desperate and do anything to prevent it.

The key to avoiding victimization is by taking time and learning to recognize feelings of fear, obligation, and guilt. This can be achieved by asking a few very simple questions: “Am I not asserting myself by my own free will? Is this truly what I want, or is there a reason related to fear, obligation, or guilt?” “Am I acting out of anxiety or excitement?” You might have to ask yourself a couple of times to get an honest answer, but this is how you begin to understand yourself better.

By recognizing your patterns and reactions, you can begin to gain more control and restore balance in your relationships. Confrontation, which is often the one thing victims want to avoid most, is inevitable. Victims will have to confront their own fears, senses of obligation, and feelings of guilt. Likewise, they are going to have to confront the blackmailer. While these are daunting tasks, victims must assert themselves in order to break the cycle. There is no way around them.

Just like real fog makes late-night driving difficult, FOG can make people feel paralyzed and powerless in some relationships. Finding the correct path may seem next to impossible. It is conceivable, however, to take control and conquer fear, obligation, and guilt and become more assertive.

Many of life’s greatest achievements are realized when fears are faced and overcome. The thought of riding a roller coaster sends many pre-adolescents scrambling for excuses as to why they cannot proceed, but the exhilaration of the first dip ignites a desire for more that are bigger, higher, and faster.

Self-advocacy in a relationship that is out of balance can be intimidating; it can spark fears and cause anxiety. Yet if the end result produces a more balanced and healthy relationship, the risk outweighs the fear of the potential conflict—at least, in theory. Reality might play out a little differently.