Emotional Blackmail: Definition, Examples & How to Stop It

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Discovering you are a victim of emotional blackmail stirs up mixed emotions. More so, if someone you care about is using this form of psychological manipulation to control you.

Emotional blackmailing typically occurs in close relationships, especially between romantic partners. It could take place in other types of close relationships, such as within the family or friendships. Notice these are people who know you at the core.

Unfortunately, blackmailing may persist for a long time before you recognize you’re a victim. There’s a valid reason. Many people do not know what emotional blackmail looks like or even how to navigate this toxic situation.

Nevertheless, the practice can be harmful to your emotional and mental well-being, regardless of who the manipulator is. On the bright side of things, you have a level of awareness and are ready to take the 10 steps below to end blackmailing.

Today, I’m going to unpack key things to know about emotional blackmail. Don’t be surprised if you have an “Ah, ha!” moment once I explain how blackmail works and provide examples of statements and behavior by blackmailers.

You may want to blame yourself for not noticing the signs earlier on.

Having been a victim of emotional blackmail myself, I understand how easy it is to self-blame. Rest assured, you are not responsible for another person’s manipulative behavior.

That being said, I will guide you on everything you need to know about emotional blackmail and how to end the manipulator’s game. Let’s begin by gaining a better grasp of what it means for someone to blackmail you emotionally.

What Is Emotional Blackmail?

Emotional blackmail is a dysfunctional manipulative practice where someone attempts to get what they want by using threats. The tactic is akin to emotional abuse. The blackmailer may openly threaten or imply that you will suffer in some way if you do not comply with their demands. Usually, it’s someone who knows things about you and is aware you won’t want them to share.

Threatening to do something or expose you causes FOG, or (F) Fear, (O) Obligation, and (G) Guilt. You may then unwillingly comply to avoid shame, embarrassment, or harm to your reputation.

In other instances, the person may direct the threat towards themselves or someone you love. For example, threatening to harm themselves, expose your loved ones, or harm your pet. All of these instances also create the FOG effect, which is key for blackmail to work.

The term emotional blackmail gained popularity once authors began writing about the manipulative tactic. A book that stands out is one written by the late Susan Forward, Ph.D.“Emotional Blackmail: When the People in Your Life Use Fear, Obligation, and Guilt to Manipulate You.”

She is also known for introducing the term, “FOG,” in explaining how people use emotional blackmailing tactics to maintain control. Forward also regards the behavior as an abusive strategy emotional blackmailers use.

Creating FOG also allows the person to shift the blame and responsibility for their wrongdoings to the victim.  

9 Examples of Statements Emotional Blackmailers Use

Blackmailing you by targeting your feelings can take different forms. In many cases, manipulative behavior by the person takes the form of making demands and threats or giving ultimatums.

The intent is to play off of your fears about a particular thing they know puts you in a very vulnerable state. Not only that, but the strategy forms a power dynamic where the manipulator becomes the one holding the power.

If you’ve experienced any of the following emotional blackmail examples, you may have been a target:

  1. Creating FEAR and GUILT:“If you break up with me, I’m going to harm myself, and it will be all your fault!”
  2. Causing FEAR through conditions or ultimatums: “I won’t help you unless you do X.”
  3. Causing GUILT: “You are cruel and uncaring for not meeting my needs.”
  4. Creating FEAR by threatening to reveal secrets: “You owe me. Remember what I did for you? You won’t want anyone finding out.”
  5. Causing a sense of OBLIGATION: “If you really loved me, you would do it for me.”
  6. Inducing FEAR through ultimatums: You better do this for me, or I’m going to cut you out of my estate.”
  7. Creating OBLIGATION to illicit a favor: “A good husband will do this for his wife. Why wouldn’t you do it for me?”
  8. Creating GUILT to make you feel bad about yourself: “I’m an alcoholic all because of you. You weren’t there for me when I needed you the most!”
  9. Causing a sense of OBLIGATION:“Adult children are supposed to help their parents. Otherwise, it means they don’t love you.”

Why Do Some People Use Emotional Blackmail?

Emotional blackmailers tend to resort to psychological manipulation because they lack the communication skills needed to say what’s on their minds or what they need.

The behavior may have been learned in childhood. They become hardwired to use blackmail tactics to get their way by the time they are adults.

This is a problem when your agreement goes against your will, feelings, and well-being. However, you comply because you don’t want to be punished or suffer the threatened consequences.

Individuals with certain types of personalities are more prone to using FOG techniques to get compliance from others. They include people with narcissistic personality disorder, sociopathic tendencies, or borderline personality disorder.

Individuals in all three groups have been found to rely on manipulative methods to get what they want.

They learned, usually in childhood, that they get results easier by playing on people’s emotions, weaknesses, and vulnerabilities, instead of being forthright about their concerns or needs.

While a healthy-minded person would easily speak up, a blackmailer uses FOG. They say, imply, act, or threaten actions that play on your fears. For example, threatening to use knowledge about your past to destroy your reputation unless you give in to their request.

They have already studied you. They know your fears and are not afraid to use the knowledge to their advantage. You then feel obligated to do as they demand to avoid the consequences threatened.

Blackmailers aren’t always aware they’re manipulating you. However, a lack of awareness is not an excuse or makes emotional blackmail acceptable. Once you become aware of it, you owe it to yourself to take control of the situation.

How to Deal with Emotional Blackmail in 10 Steps

The blackmailer could be a romantic partner, parent, adult child, sibling, friend, boss, or even a random stranger who believes they can play off of your emotions.

Regardless of the relationship with the person, threatening to blackmail you isn’t something to take lightly.

Getting blackmailed by anyone constitutes emotional abuse against you. Being a target can impact your mental health. You may feel confused, guilty, ashamed, depressed, doubtful, or even question your sanity. 

However, the blackmailer isn’t concerned about your feelings, respect, trust, or love. They have an agenda and you are the target.

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When the person tries to instill fear, show them courage. If they try to instill guilt, counteract it with self-compassion.

There are also reasons why blackmailers tend to get away with what they do. For one, it is a subtle form of manipulation. Their sinister motives are sometimes hidden behind their charming or saintly personality.

Some of them have earned your trust, which makes it harder to spot blackmailing signs and the effects of their abusive strategies.

Now that you’ve grown in awareness of this subject, the next thing is to take steps to manage the situation. Consider these 10 actionable ways to protect yourself and regain your dignity.

1. Ask the person for a one-on-one conversation

Maybe you’re not one to ‘rock the boat’. You don’t want to upset anyone, so you either tip-toe around the problem or you comply to avoid disagreement.

In the case of emotional blackmail, the situation calls for an assertive approach. Begin by setting up a proper day and time to discuss your observations and concerns.

You could say something like, “I’m concerned about the way we interact and would like to discuss it further at your earliest convenience.” 

At the meeting, explain what you’ve noticed the individual doing. Let them know how that affects you. Next, ask them to ask you directly for what they need instead of making you feel fearful, obligated, or guilty.

2. Highlight the unacceptable conduct

Manipulators, such as narcissists, tend to ‘play the fool’ when you call out their toxic behavior. They are also ready to quickly shift the blame to you or someone else. With this in mind, carefully point out what they’ve been doing wrong and hold them accountable.

For example, by saying, “I noticed I’m usually on the receiving end of threats, conditions, and ultimatums when you’d like to get something. I will no longer accept this or similar behavior.” (or something along those lines)

You can achieve results without expressly calling them an “emotional blackmailer.” The intention is to get compliance from them without creating any friction. Taking this approach may be more effective.

Not only that, it lowers the risk of straining your relationship with your partner or other loved ones.

3. Keep your emotions in check

Narcissists and other manipulators are always looking for the weaknesses in others to play off of. While expressing your concerns, be careful not to demonstrate anger or emotional pain.

Don’t beg, don’t cry, don’t plead. You have to appear stone-faced. Otherwise, they will find a way to use it against you later on.

The goal here is to be assertive about pointing out emotional blackmailing tendencies while keeping yourself together.

To show emotion or weakness is to give the blackmailer power to manipulate the present situation.

4. Don’t negotiate with the emotional blackmailer

Being true to nature, the blackmailer may attempt to negotiate their way out of the situation. They hate being cornered or exposed.

If shifting the blame to make you feel guilty doesn’t work, they may agree to change by setting a condition. For example, by saying “I’ll change and I won’t tell your secrets if you do [this or that]). Let them know the matter is non-negotiable and stick your guns.

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Keep reinforcing your decision not to be a part of their little emotional abuse scheme.

Their manipulative response makes sense when you put their traits in context. They operate from a place of low self-esteem, which is why they resort to abusive and manipulative strategies such as FOG.

Deep down inside, they don’t feel worthy of receiving love, respect, and the benefits of close relationships. They believe the only way to get these things is through underhanded tactics.

5. Set limitations

Being open to whoever and whatever comes your way creates opportunities for blackmailers and narcissists to exploit you. You can reduce the chance of getting influenced by the person by setting up healthy boundaries.

Think of it as a fortress to keep you physically and emotionally safe. Here are some responses that can work:

  • If they threaten to harm themselves, offer empathy and compassion and tell them you can call for help.
  • If they use emotional blackmail to extort money from you, say, “I’m truly sorry to hear about your situation, but I won’t continue giving money.”
  • If they use the FOG approach, tell them you may be able to assist if they clarify what it is they want.
  • Point out behaviors you will no longer abide by, including their attempts to instill fear, guilt, or obligation.
  • Let them know you will be taking threats seriously and will take steps to protect yourself.
  • Reassure them you will follow through with consequences if they disregard your wishes.

6. Quit people-pleasing

Blackmailers are all too familiar with the vulnerabilities of people-pleasers and will use them to their advantage to get their needs met.

People-pleasers are individuals who have difficulty saying “No.” The people-pleasing personality develops from a poor image of one’s self. It can also stem from getting gratification, validation, or a sense of self-worth from being nice and helpful to others.

You can combat the tendency to help or please by learning the power of saying, “NO.” The one-word response sets a limit to what the blackmailer gets, which is nothing in this case.

You will get better at foiling their plans to abuse you the more you practice denying their attempts to trade off your emotions.

7. Build up your self-esteem

Manipulators find people who lack self-confidence to be easier targets for emotional blackmail.

Having low self-worth or personal insecurities makes an individual more willing to do things to get approval, affection, or praise from others. Blackmailers prey on those insecurities to get their own needs satisfied.

You can flip the script by learning the ways to improve your self-image and become secure. For example, set realistic boundaries and consequences for those who disregard them. Another thing is to practice self-compassion.

Don’t be too hard on yourself for being generous toward others. At the same time, recognize the boundary line between their needs and your self-preservation.

8. Show no fear, obligation, or guilt

To me, one of the most effective weapons for ending emotional blackmail is to neutralize the very things that cause the situation to prevail.

When the person tries to instill fear, show them courage. If they try to instill guilt, counteract it with self-compassion.

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We cannot control people, but we can establish boundaries to protect ourselves from those who are unreasonable and manipulative.

When they impose an obligation, rebut it with freedom. Let them know you are free to do as you like.

As simple as they seem, these counter strategies can neutralize the power and control the person is trying to wield over you. In the end, you would have effectively beaten them at their own game.

9. Do not engage with the blackmailer

Blackmailing cannot work unless there is a willing participant. You are the participant in the instant case.

Realize that you hold all the power and can easily take power away from the blackmailer by disengaging. Simply check out of the toxic dynamic they’ve created to achieve their agenda.

Since you are a valuable asset to them, they won’t easily give up. They are aware they will need to find a new person to manipulate to satisfy their needs. The process takes time and work to learn someone else's vulnerabilities and weaknesses.

On that note, be prepared for pushbacks and attempts to break through the personal boundaries you’ve established.

Keep reinforcing your decision not to be a part of their little emotional abuse scheme. Eventually, they will accept they’ve lost the battle and are now powerless against you.

10. Distance yourself from the toxic situation

Even with the best of intentions and actionable steps to deal with an emotional blackmailer, things may not turn out as expected.

That’s okay. You can simply walk away, disconnect, or tune out. You’re in self-preservation since you’re aware the person only cares about themselves.

They used your love, kindness, and willingness against you and got away with it long enough. Now it is high time to ‘put the final nail in the coffin’.

We cannot control people, but we can establish boundaries to protect ourselves from those who are unreasonable and manipulative. We can shield ourselves from those who do not honor our wishes or do right by us.

Final Thoughts on Emotional Blackmail

Since being the target of manipulation of this nature can adversely impact your mental health, it is imperative to address it as soon as you become aware it’s happening.

I believe you’re empowered to handle the situation confidently by applying the information and tools acquired here.

Note, that dealing with the blackmailer may not be an easy task. They may try to manipulate their way back into your good graces. Stay firm on your commitment to ending emotional blackmail for good.

Remind yourself that this is about protecting your well-being and taking back your power. Chances are the blackmailer in your life is a narcissist? Find out 19 Weird Things That Narcissists Do to Manipulate People.

And if you're looking for more articles about relationships, be sure to check out these blog posts:

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