When the People in Your Life Use Fear, Obligation, and Guilt to Manipulate You
By Susan Forward, PhD
With Donna Frazier
You’ve probably heard the joke about the tourist in New York who stops a man with a violin under his arm and asks for directions to Carnegie Hall. “You want to know how to get to Carnegie Hall?” replied the violinist” Practice, practice, practice.”
We all know those familiar directions, and most of us are able to recognize the relationship between practice and mastery in many aspects of life. But when it comes to making important changes in our lives, we often expect results overnight. The unavoidable truth is that learning new skills takes practice, and it may be awhile before you’re comfortable using them.
Patty felt a little bewildered when I told her that the first thing any target of emotional blackmail has to do is nothing. How do you do nothing? Well, the first thing you need to do is give yourself time to think – away from the pressure. To do this, you’ll need to learn some time-buying phrases that will slow things down.
I don’t have an answer for you right now. I need some time to think.
This is too important to decide quickly. Let me think about it.
I’m not willing to make a decision right now.
I’m not sure how I feel about what you’re asking. Let’s discuss this a little later.
F O G - Fear, Obligation, Guilt
If you really loved me…
After all I’ve done for you…
How can you be so selfish?
I told my husband I was going to take a class one night a week and he went ballistic in that quiet way of his. “Do whatever you want, you always do anyway“ he told me, “but don’t expect me to be waiting for you when you get home. I’m always there for you; why can’t you be there for me?” I knew his argument didn’t make sense, but it made me feel so selfish. I asked for my registration fee back.-Liz”
I was planning to spend Christmas traveling with my wife, a vacation we’d been looking forward to for months, I called my mom to tell her the news that we’d finally gotten the tickets and she almost started to cry. “But what about Christmas dinner!” she said, “You know everyone always gets together for the holidays. If you go on that trip instead of coming, you’ll run the holiday for everyone. How can you do this to me? How many Christmases do you think I have left?” So of course I gave in. My wife’s going to kill me, but I don’t see how I could enjoy a vacation while I’m buried under all that guilt. – Tom
How do so many smart, capable people find themselves groping to understand behavior that seems so obvious? One key reason is that our blackmailers make it nearly impossible to see how they’re manipulating us, because they lay down a thick fog that obscures their actions. We’d fight back if we could but they ensure that we literally can’t see what is happening to us. I use fog as both a metaphor for the confusion blackmailers create in us and as a lens for burning it off. FOG is a shorthand way of referring to Fear, Obligation, and Guilt, the tools of the blackmailer’s trade.
The Traits that Make Us Vulnerable to Blackmail
To insulate ourselves against having our hot buttons activated, we develop a number of specific personality traits. They’re so much a part of us that it may not be apparent at first that they’re defenses against what we fear. But as we look at them more closely, we’ll see that all are deeply related to our hot buttons. Ironically, it is these ‘protective’ qualities that open us up to emotional blackmail. They are:
An excessive need for approval
An intense fear of anger
A need for peace at any price
A tendency to take too much responsibility for other people’s lives
A high level of self-doubt
None of these traits is harmful-in moderation. In fact, some are viewed as positive, and even rewarded, when they’re not taken to extremes. But when they control us and go to war with the intelligent, confident, assertive and thoughtful parts of ourselves, we’re setting ourselves up for major manipulation.
The Approval Junkie
It’s perfectly normal to want the people we care about to approve of us-we all want their goodwill. But when we must have it, and it becomes a drug we cannot do without, we aim a spotlight at a hot button that a blackmailer can easily zero in on.
The Anger Avoider/Peacemaker
Many of us live as though there were an 11th Commandment –“Thou shalt not get angry” and a 12th-“Thou shalt not get other people angry with you.” At the first sign of disagreement, many of us jump to make peace, putting out the fire we fear will blaze out of control..
The Atlas Syndrome
People with the Atlas syndrome believe that they alone must solve every problem, putting their own needs last. Like Atlas who carried the world on his shoulders, they weight themselves down with the burden of fixing everyone else’s feelings and actions, hoping to atone for past or future transgressions.
I encourage people to take responsibility for what they do. But many of us think that we have to take the blame for every problem that comes along in our lives or others, even though we had little or nothing to do with creating it. Blackmailers, of course, feed this notion. In fact, they demand that we buy into it. If they’re displeased, we’re the problem. And our compliance with them is the solution.
Eve’s world fell apart when Elliot took an overdose of prescription drugs after one of their fights. Elliot was kept under observation in a nursing facility for several weeks, and when he returned home, he blamed Eve for his pain, his problems and all of his fears. He went off the deep end and he wouldn’t stop telling me that everything was my fault. He said “See, now they’re going to put me in a mental hospital and I’m going to have to kill myself, and you can thank yourself for that. Now I’ve got this record, and they’re going to put me away, and I’m going to be dead because of it.” It was horrible. If felt like I was causing him to suffer just for being who I am, and I didn’t know what to do.
By any objective standards, Elliot’s behavior was ludicrous and his accusations far-fetched. It seems almost inconceivable that a bright young woman like Eve would take him seriously. Yet, she did believe him. She was sure that what he predicted would probably happen-and all the blame would be hers.
The Bleeding Heart
Compassion and empathy inspire kindness, even noble deeds, and we have little respect for people who lack them. It’s hard to imagine how these traits could be troublesome. But compassion can turn into a sense of pity so overwhelming that it moves us to renounce our own well-being for the sake of another person. How many times have we said “I can’t leave him because I feel so sorry for him” or “she looks at me with the tears running down her face and I’ll do whatever she wants”. Or “I’m always giving in to her, but she’s had such a terrible life…”
What gives some people the ability to feel empathy for problems or suffering and offer appropriate help, while others, like bleeding hearts, feel compelled to fly in like Superman and give their all to stop the suffering – even if they have to sacrifice their self-respect or health? As we’ve seen so far, where there’s a compulsion to act and an automatic response that may rebound against us, there’s often a hot button at the root.
There are big payoffs for being a bleeding heart, the one who can bring happiness to a poor suffering soul. You escort the other person from the depths of despair back to the land of the living, an almost mythological journey. The joy of ‘helping; often blind us to the fact that so much pity-evoking behavior is manipulative: Give the sufferers what they want and voila! They’re cured.
Knowing that we’re not perfect and that we’re capable of making mistakes is healthy. But healthy self-evaluation can easily become self-deprecation. In the face of criticism from someone else, we may disagree at first, then come to believe that our sensors and gauges are faulty. How can we be right if someone important to us says we’re wrong? Maybe we’re just deluded.
If we assign wisdom and intelligence to another person, which we’re bound to do if we don’t trust ourselves, it’s simple for them to keep our self-doubts active. They know best, and what’s more they know what’s best for us.
It starts with Little Things
What many of us don’t realize is that emotional blackmail is built on a series of tests. If it works on a small scale, we’ll see it again in a more significant arena. When we give into pressure or discomfort, we’re providing positive reinforcement, a reward for bad behavior. The hard truth is that every time we let someone undercut our dignity and integrity, we are colluding –helping them hurt us.
A Note of Caution
Please don’t use this chapter as a way of beating up on yourself. Until now you’ve done the best you could with what you knew. You’ve been a member of the PTA–that vast group of people whose behavior took shape Prior to Awareness. Look compassionately at the person you’ve been, and then use this chapter to give yourself a deeper understanding of the emotional blackmail transaction and the role you have played in it.