Emotional Blackmail

Emotional blackmail is a term that describes one person exploiting another person’s emotional vulnerability to manipulate them and make them do things against their will. Implicit in emotional blackmail, is the idea that if you don’t do what was asked, there will be some kind of insidious negative consequence; you will be made to feel guilt and shame.

It doesn’t leave any visible marks or bruises but is a form of emotional abuse. It is an unhealthy way of creating compliance and it develops relationships that become progressively more unhealthy and codependent. It encourages us to doubt and feel bad about ourselves.

Emotional Blackmail and Neediness

Emotional blackmail always involves two people, with one person exploiting the other to deflect from their emotional issues and needs. Certain patterns of neediness and inferiority are typically the mainsprings that drive the blackmailer to deploy emotional blackmail.

These are often very ingrained patterns of manipulative behaviour that have been learned early in life. One of the problems of growing up in families that revolve around emotional blackmail is that there is a risk that we will end up passing these dysfunctional emotional patterns to other people; our children. It is important to try to find ways to break these patterns.

Compliance, poor Boundaries, and Emotional Blackmail

Emotional blackmail thrives on poor boundaries and a lack of straightforward communication. It involves identifying someone’s vulnerabilities and exploiting them in a way that creates emotional pressure and demands compliance. Often, people use emotional blackmail to shield themselves from their own insecurities and to provide a means of maintaining control.

Because emotional blackmail works through patterns of coercion, it is important that we try to set healthy boundaries around us and within our relationships. We don’t want to start using these methods in our relationships

Emotional blackmail is an unhealthy way of relating and getting your needs met. It works rather like gaslighting to undermine confidence in one’s self and makes it hard for you to make sense of your experience. It’s disorienting.

Emotional blackmail, a kind of gaslighting

If you think someone you know is being emotionally blackmailed you might try to find a way to raise your concerns with them and encourage them to speak about it.

Something unhealthy and manipulative is going on, perhaps we can find ways to understand more about how we get caught up in such manipulative situations and to see if we can find ways to break the chain.

In emotional blackmail, we lose our bearings and we are made to feel that we’re responsible for other people’s emotions in ways that are misleading and untrue. We need to all find ways to take responsibility for our own actions and emotions and to encourage our children to do the same. We want to develop as autonomous and emotionally intelligent people. Emotional blackmail works to undermine this.

People who grow up with parents who use emotional blackmail to get their needs met may develop a limited understanding of who they are. In essence, we may have been brainwashed by these unhealthy relationships and may need time to recover and learn more about ourselves and our feelings.

The Silent Treatment is a form of Emotional Blackmail

When we have behaved in ways that are unacceptable to the blackmailer they punish us through the manipulative use of silence. They ignore us and take away our privileges until we come around to their way of thinking. The silent treatment appears subtle though its impact is anything but. The person who is being blackmailed is banished, denied emotional nurture and support, and sent into icy exile until they mend their ways and do what they were meant to do from the start. In the meantime, your calls, texts, and messages are ignored and you suffer alone.

There is no room for dialogue, for a conversation that would allow both parties to better understand each other and to grow as people. The silent treatment puts up a barrier that cannot be crossed.

Emotional blackmail aims at making you feel guilty for not doing something someone else wanted you to do. The guilt will be leveraged either through strategies like the silent treatment, or through guilt-making comments.

“After everything I have done for you you repay me like this?’

Emotional blackmail is often an insidious form of a manipulative relationship. It operates by pressurising the mind of the other person. The target of emotional blackmail can’t easily address the issue in an open conversation because the blackmailer doesn’t enable such dialogue, in fact, any attempts to discuss it will likely be taken as signs of our moral failings.

From this it follows that the blackmailed person can come to struggle with their thoughts and feelings and turn to maladaptive solutions to deal with the problem.

In some cases this can lead to problems such as eating disorders. In anorexia or bulimia the sufferer uses food as a way of managing intolerable and unspeakable emotional stress. They could never find a healthy way of complying with the blackmailer’s conditions and control, so they create their own tightly managed solutions. These can be very hard to unravel and can become life-threatening.

One of the things that psychotherapy explores is that from our earliest moments, we look to please our parents. We are from the beginning empathic and attuned to developing healthy attachments with our carers. We like to let our mothers know that we are pleased with what they do for us so that a reciprocal relationship builds. This is how we thrive and grow.

But in emotional blackmail, relationships do not develop along such straightforward lines. The emotional blackmailer exploits our desire and wish to please other people, corrupting it for their own means. We learn that we are really there to please them and we grow up more attuned to their needs than our own.

Contact me

Having the chance to speak in a confidential setting is often the key to developing a clearer understanding of how we have been influenced by emotional blackmail and codependent relationships. Psychotherapy works by establishing clear boundaries, this is part of what is missing in the life of the person being blackmailed.

By giving yourself a safe space to look at these things you may start to discover a greater sense of possibilities, and this may be the beginning of developing a greater sense of understanding how to relate to yourself and others, how to start living more fully again, and how to start to have healthy relationships with yourself and other people.

The chance to reflect on ourselves, our feelings and experience can be powerful and transformative. Out of this, you may be able to develop a clearer understanding of how you and your sense of your problems have developed, and what you can change.

I have been working with people on issues such like this for more than twenty years.  My work is built around helping you to develop greater insight into who you are, and how you live. 

Contact me to arrange a free telephone consultation to discuss how my approach might help you.


Email: toby@tobyingham.com