Are you always a “Yes” person? If the answer is yes, maybe you will realize people around you always ask you to do something for them and you are the one who doesn’t know how to say no. If you don’t do what other people ask then you might feel very guilty and are probably concerned that something bad will happen as a result. If this seems familiar then you are probably engaged in a cycle of Emotional Blackmail. 

What is Emotional Blackmail?

In the book “Emotional Blackmail,” Susan Forward and Donna Frazier, defined it as the condition when someone uses fear, obligations, and guilt to manipulate another person to give in to their demands. Emotional Blackmailers utilize a person’s fear of displeasing others to compel them to capitulate to the blackmailer’s demands, while also making those who don’t comply feel guilty.

It usually happens to two people with close relationships, especially between parents and children. Knowing that someone close to them wants love or approval, blackmailers may threaten to withhold affection or take them away altogether, making the other person feel that they must earn them by agreement. Some emotionally immature parents use emotional blackmail to control their children often because those parents have low self-esteem caused by a difficult childhood. Those parents can only feel loved and important when their children fulfill all their demands. 

It’s natural for children to try anything to feel connected to their parents. Receiving approval or affirmation from parents creates connections that make children feel more secure. As they  grow up in these manipulative relationships, they might develop core beliefs such as, “What I need is not important,” as well as, “If I don’t do what my parents ask, then I am a bad person.” However, if a person always puts other people‘s needs before their own then sooner or later they might neglect their own emotions and needs.

Since they have given up recognizing their own feelings and demands, others have no obligation to be responsible for their mental health. As a person starts to pay attention to their own feelings and needs, they start to love and take care of themselves. When one starts to know how to reject others for self-protection, they will start to feel their inner strength, which empowers them. During this process, others will also learn how to interact and respect those feelings and boundaries. 

How to Respond

If a person suspects that they are engaging in the emotional blackmail process, they can use the SOS principles, which stands for Stop, Observe and Strategize.

Stop: Do not respond immediately and give some time to think and step away from the pressure. A person could say, “I don’t have an answer for you right now. I need some time to think about it.” Once a person stops complying with the demands in order to calm their fears and deal with the guilt, they can regain control over the situation and their life. 

Observe: Become an observer of both oneself and the other person. Explore the demands objectively and be aware of internal thoughts and feelings. 

Strategize: Use strategies such as non-defensive communications to present boundaries to the blackmailer and hold ground no matter how the other person reacts. You could say, “I am sorry you are upset, let’s talk about it when you feel calmer” or “Maybe you are right, but I think we just see things differently.”

Building Emotional Boundaries

Some people feel very guilty when their parents have negative emotions. They feel responsible for other people’s feelings and never build emotional boundaries. However, everyone should only be responsible for their own feelings, not others. When we say no to people, the rejected person might feel hurt and upset. However, it is precisely at this moment that a person needs to accept and allow themselves to be responsible for managing their own emotions and feelings.

If someone is too guilty to take care of their own needs then they are living the life of other people’s expectations, thus making the purpose of life just worrying about how to satisfy others. A person can be kind and caring to others but at the same time avoid over sacrificing. He or she is only responsible for his or her own behavior and actions, not for other people’s emotions. If only one person is allowed to express their feelings and needs in a relationship then the relationship is no longer healthy or balanced. 

Emotional boundaries should also be flexible and not on a thin deadline. Sometimes the boundaries will change, depending on the situation. We all need to learn how to express ourselves, guard our boundaries, and escape from emotional manipulation to live our own life. Otherwise, we may fall victim to Emotional Blackmail.

​If you would like to speak with a counsellor about how we can support you, please contact us.

By Cecilia Yu

Find out more about Cecilia here

Other Articles Written by Cecilia Yu:

Befriend your Nervous System

Negative Emotions Can Be Good for You

Trauma & EMDR Therapy

Nonviolent Communication

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