Emotional Blackmail or “Come to the Dark Side. We have cookies!” Part 2

As I mentioned in the last blog post, I’ve been reading Dr. Susan Forward’s book, Emotional Blackmail and got to the hard part… You know, where it takes two to tango and staying in victim position actually equates to actively participating as part of the emotional blackmail dynamic.

Let’s face it, victim position is incredibly seductive. We jockey for it all the time. When we get to play victim, then we can put all the responsibility and blame on our perpetrator/s while we receive sympathy. In the emotional blackmail game though, staying in victim position actually fuels the fire and prolongs the pain.

Forward suggests that we consider the following questions about pressure from an emotional blackmailer:

  • Do you constantly berate yourself for giving in to their demands?
  • Are you often finding yourself frustrated and resentful?
  • Feeling guilty and believe you are a bad person if you don’t give in?
  • Do you fear the relationship will fall apart if you don’t give in?
  • Are you the only one they turn to in a crisis, even though there are others who could help?
  • Do you believe the obligation you have to them is greater than the one to yourself?

Forward tells us that if we answer yes to one or more of these questions, our responses to pressure are helping to create an ideal emotional blackmail situation. She points to “hot buttons” that connect to our stored up resentments, guilt, insecurity, and vulnerabilities. We try to keep the associated memories and feelings buried; we try to avoid bringing this stuff to the surface. However, the pattern of avoidance actually creates a map of our sensitivities. This becomes obvious to those who could emotionally blackmail us should they stop feeling safe and find themselves confronted with our resistance.

Like it or not, WE play a role in perpetuating the emotional blackmail when we accept accusations, take blame, apologize, and comply. Forward points out that compliance has historically brought immediate relief from the pressure exerted by an emotional blackmailer. She then lets us know that our usual repertoire will lead to more incidents of succumbing to the blackmailer. We MUST change. And change is uncomfortable, awkward, scary. Forward lays out the road to change in the second half of her book.

Different responses, different communication style, different words, different emotional tone all play a part is taking us out of the misery that is our automatic pilot go-to and moving to more effective behaviors in the short term and internal, emotional shifts in the long term. The first thing Dr. Forward tells us is to commit to 15 minutes a day to focus on ourselves. Then, she encourages us to sign a contract of promises to ourselves as a symbol of willingness to make change happen. She suggests that since the mantra of those being blackmailed emotionally is “I can’t stand it…” that we commit to a new mantra: I CAN STAND IT. Then, she encourages us to create self-affirming phrases by first writing out the negative phrases we regularly use such as:

  • It’s not worth the fight.
  • I don’t stand up for myself.
  • Giving in is worth it if it gets the other person to shut up.
  • Giving in isn’t a big deal.
  • I do things to please others and am confused about what I want.

The new statements become something like this:

  • My sanity is totally worth the fight.
  • I stand up for myself.
  • Giving in is settling for immediate gratification and I want long-term change.
  • Giving in only makes things worse in the long run.
  • I do things to please myself as well as others and I’m clear about what I want.

She suggests strategies for how to avoid taking on an emotional blackmailer’s urgency. She calls it SOS:

To stop, we must give ourselves time to avoid responding immediately when a demand is made. Forward gives great suggestions for an initial response to slip out of urgency and buy time:

“I don’t have an answer for you right now. I need some time to think.
“I’m not sure how I feel about what you’re asking. Let’s discuss it a bit later.”
“This is too important to decide quickly. Let me think about it.”
“I’m not willing to make a decision right now.”

Okay… but what if my blackmailer doesn’t back down? What if she pouts or keeps dogging me to hurry up and answer? Forward suggests that repetition is powerful and gives the message that you are serious. Just think of an impatient child on a road trip asking every couple of minutes: “How much LONGER?” The healthy response is something like, “We get there when we get there.” (Essentially, it’ll take as long as it takes. Wash. Rinse. Repeat as needed.)

Forward points out that when we say “I need time” we shift the balance of power in the relationship and put the blackmailer in the position of waiting to see what we’re going to do. That means the blackmailer is now in a reactive and less powerful role. This may freak out the blackmailer and cause him/her to panic and increase pressure (aka Fear, Obligation, and Guilt). They may use the FOG to emotionally knock us off balance. Forward suggests telling the blackmailer things like: This is not a power struggle. This isn’t about my trying to control you. This is simply about my need to have more time to give serious consideration to what you want.

The good news is that the interactions will feel more intense and perhaps SUPER uncomfortable. (Okay… and HOW is THIS is a good thing ??!!) Forward tells us that making change is uncomfortable and doing the same old thing is comfortable. Weirdly, our discomfort in stalling an emotional blackmailer (just STALLING, mind you!) is a positive sign that change is afoot. Thus begins our practice of TOLERATING DISCOMFORT.

And more on that in part 3!

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