By Shivi Verma
Getting emotionally blackmailed is like being slowly poisoned. Learn how to identify it and put an end to it, says Shivi Verma
Do you often feel suffocated and drained in your relationship? Do you feel that too much is being demanded of you to keep things going? If so, perhaps you are being emotionally blackmailed.
We have all come across people who force us to do things we don’t want to be playing on our guilt, fear or insecurity. The tools range from subtle coercion, passive-aggressive behavior, to outright aggression. You are made to feel like a villain, while the other acquires the role of a hapless victim.
An emotional blackmailer can come in a variety of forms. He or she can be a parent, a sibling, a friend, a spouse, your colleague, or even your own child. Resisting emotional blackmail is difficult since it usually takes place in close ties. It continues as long as the victim allows it to happen for fear of losing the relationship, security or reputation. The blackmailer thrives on this insecurity. Many good people lose control of their entire life and its divine purpose through such vicious manipulation.
Gunjan Rastogi was a young woman married to a tyrant of a husband. Though educated, she did not have a professional qualification. Whenever she would dare to speak her truths to her husband he would call up her ailing father and complain about her lack of values. Gunjan slowly stopped speaking up because she did not want to give pain to her old father.
Thousands of people stay locked in unhealthy relationships because the victim is unable to say no, and the manipulator keeps exploiting this weakness.
Why does it happen?
If we examine closely we will see that almost all of us have been using it subtly since childhood. We all have thrown tantrums to get that elusive toy, food, or dress which our parents could not buy for us. Our parents too have indulged in emotional blackmail by linking their love and appreciation to us getting good marks, being successful, or marrying someone of their choice.
Says Shirin Rai, a homemaker from Delhi, “All of us do it subtly or aggressively. This happens because we want everything our own way. We do not want to give freedom to others to decide for themselves. All this happens at a subconscious level. If you have been controlled and dominated by others, the more you will replicate their behavior. Trouble starts when it becomes extreme, making us feel weak, dependent, unhappy and helpless.”
Says Irma Battig, coach, healer and seminar facilitator, “Toxic emotions like fear, guilt, and shame make us susceptible to emotional manipulation. Women may be more affected by it because we have been in a position of weakness and disempowerment for generations. And when we are weak, we are more susceptible to emotional blackmail.”
She adds, “Men tend to be a bit more straightforward in their approach because they have been allowed to be. In their case, they may tie sexual intercourse to love. If you love me, you will have sex with me. The girl, or the wife, gives in because she doesn’t want to lose the man’s love. How many teenage girls fall into that trap!”
She continues, “A lot of emotional manipulation happens via illness. So many people would rather remain in pain and reap the secondary benefits – the additional attention and even pity which they interpret as love – than heal. They would rather feel loved for their powerlessness than for who they truly are! And if a close one doesn’t comply, we will suffer a little more to make him or her feel guilty for “causing” more pain. Mostly this happens at the unconscious level.”
Suniti Raman was a young woman married to a high flying corporate person who lost his job in a global recession. Whenever Suniti would try to tell him that he should start with a low paying job…he would throw a fit. He blamed her arrival in his life for the loss of his job and would start vomiting and convulsing on being even gently told that he was shying away from his duties. Suniti pampered him as much as possible fearing that he would kill himself if not loved and supported. When three years passed and the pattern did not stop, Suniti understood that her husband was feigning illness to avoid taking responsibility. “I understood that he needed to become responsible and would open his eyes only when there was nobody before him to fix blame and emotionally blackmail. I had to walk out after taking guidance from my friends and near ones.”
We allow emotional blackmail because of our intense desire to be loved, accepted and appreciated by others. When we seek validation outside, we give away our power and become susceptible to having that power abused by others. Basically, both the victim and the blackmailer are emotional slaves of each other. One says, “Do as I tell you otherwise I will raise hell…fall sick…create a scene and make you feel bad about being wicked, cruel or stupid. When you do as I say, I feel powerful and capable. When you do not, I feel the opposite.” The victim says, “I am changing myself for you, please love me, appreciate me, adopt me, protect me.” It is a vicious cycle…which follows a pattern everywhere…spoiling relationships and creating unhappiness.
Says Pulkit Sharma, a clinical psychologist at Imago-centre for the self, New Delhi, “Emotional blackmailers feel deprived of within. They feel unloved, uncared for, and disrespected unless the other person bows to their whims.”
It is also a case of unrelenting ego which resorts to unethical tactics to protect itself and its needs. To counter this, the victim of emotional blackmail needs to find himself, believe in himself, and stand up for himself. Breaking out of this emotional prison requires courage, faith, and overcoming the fear of what others will say. It asks the individual to discriminate between true suffering and a fake one. It is of utmost importance to cultivate self-esteem, for only that will give us the strength and inner power to withstand the manipulation and protect our boundaries.
Often we are so lost in our guilt and fears that we do not recognize that we are being emotionally manipulated. Only when our inner resources have exhausted, and yet the complaints have not ceased, do we realize that we are being exploited.
Says Shirin, “I wanted to be called a good daughter-in-law. I humbly bowed to every diktat of my in-laws. Yet they would get upset with me for minor errors. They would restrict my movement and pull long faces if I went out without seeking permission. They would many times even blame me for any disharmony in the house. When I checked myself internally and found that I was doing nothing to upset them, I realized I was being abused. When every single day of mine began to be spent in tears I decided to seek counsel.”
Says Irma, “A client of mine grew up with a mother who threw tantrums to get what she wanted. Afraid of her behavior, he became meek in response, like his father. He would agree to everything to the point where he didn’t know what his needs and wants were anymore. Then he married a woman who exhibited the same traits. The known seems safe, even if it is uncomfortable! After a year, he couldn’t take it anymore – being cornered from two sides now, and the couple came for coaching. I assisted him in becoming more self-confident and less afraid to speak his truth. That surprised both his wife and his mother! It also created friction. But by staying in his truth, he at least gained his self-esteem back!”
Says Shirin, “We blackmail our children too. When they do not obey us we sulk. They quickly realize that in order to keep us pleased they must do our bidding. Ideally, parents must tell them about the repercussions of their actions, and leave them to decide about it.”
Says Pulkit Sharma, “Although people find it difficult to identify when they are being emotionally blackmailed, they should rely upon their feelings to detect it.” He lists eight points to tackle emotional blackmailing.
• Pay attention to the feelings of emotional discomfort, suffocation and accept them.
• The blackmailer pressurizes a person to ignore these negative feelings but if a person can accept these feelings in a non-judgmental manner they can realize that they are being bullied.
• Accept the feeling of being emotionally blackmailed.
• After that, a person should strike a balance between their own comfort, and those of near and dear ones.
• If you feel that what is demanded of you is unfair, hold your ground even if the other makes a scene. Say no politely and firmly. Do not get provoked, and stick to your stance despite the pressure.
• If you learn to tolerate pressure on some occasions, the person will retract.
• The blackmailer will test your boundaries but you have to firmly repudiate them.
• If he threatens to kill himself, tell him that it is his life and he is ultimately responsible for it. You care for him and want to see them alive, healthy, and happy, yet its burden should not be put on your shoulders.
Counsels Irma, “Release as many negative emotions like fear, shame, and guilt as possible. Without them, emotional blackmail has no hold on us. Secondly, rather than seeing yourself as a victim of emotional intimidation, I would encourage you to pay attention to where you practice this form of manipulation yourself. When we change and drop that behavior, we become aware when others try it on us. When we don’t play that game anymore, we are not affected by it. It happens at a different wavelength. This is how the problem is solved. If I don’t depend on your love or approval to exist, you can try coercing me emotionally as much as you want, it has no grip on me. If I do – because I have maneuvered myself into a position of weakness (by giving up my job and thus being financially dependent, for instance) – I had better get back on my own two feet!”
Adds Shirin, “The more you trust nature and life, the less you would need to blackmail anybody. The more you are in touch with yourself the more you will let people be.”
Financial independence does give people the strength to counter emotional blackmail although that alone is not enough. Says 36-year-old Rubeena Sheikh from Pune, “My father married me off when I was only 17 against my will. Coming from a conservative Muslim background, I had no choice but to surrender. Ironically, my husband passed away in an accident within a month of our marriage. I returned to my parental home. My father had me enrolled in a college. I studied, earned a degree in Computer Science, and became financially independent. Recently, at the workplace, I fell in love with a Hindu boy. When I told my father about my desire to marry him he threw a fit.
“My relatives called me shameless and disrespectful. My father stonewalled me completely. He even fell ill and I felt I would have to bend again to appease them. During this time a friend supported me. She told me that though we must respect our parents, it was after all our life. I had sacrificed my life once for them only to regret it. Today, I have decided not to let all this blackmailing and manipulation get to me. I meet my boyfriend every day and am confident that my folks will come around sooner or later.”
Says Irma, “The last time I remember feeling emotionally threatened was with my ex-husband. He suffered from paranoia and would get into a rage when his jealousy got triggered (which could happen in the most benign ways and at the drop of a hat). My grandfather had a bad temper, and I was intimidated by his anger as a young child. As such, I was an easy victim for my husband. To avoid his anger, I stifled who I was more and more. I ended up not looking at anyone, attending my yoga classes without talking to anybody, limiting my interactions in general, and sinking ever deeper into depression… I wasn’t living life anymore, and I certainly wasn’t being myself.”
“Eventually, I had the guts to call it quits, even though it meant taking the plunge into total insecurity in a foreign country where I was still awaiting my legal residency. But the price I paid to keep some semblance of peace in the house was too high. I had let it become my prison. Since at that time my husband wasn’t willing to grow and to question his ways, I had to break out to save my skin. Empowering ourselves and leaving a situation of emotional blackmail at times means breaking close bonds! But that is the risk we have to be willing to take in order to be authentic.” Standing up to emotional blackmail can become a powerful source of self-growth since it is not easy. There are incidences when people have even killed themselves to make others feel guilty. Resisting such threats to our consciousness is a tough task and requires courage, conviction, and self-worth. And when we do it we come out stronger and better. We find inner resources of self-love, self-respect, and faith in the Universe to stop this cycle of abuse. We realize we are not weak or helpless, and nor is the other person.
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