May 27, 2021

How to Safely Navigate the F.O.G. of Emotional Blackmail.


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Bizarre Conversations from Christopher’s Life: Part 1,005 (of a Seemingly Endless Series)

This particular conversation took place a year ago. Such was the confusion it caused; it’s taken me that long to fully process and understand it.

It was never going to be a pleasant one. I knew that from the outset. It involved telling someone about something they had done to hurt me. In fact, it was more than one thing, but let’s keep it simple.

Added to that was the fact that this was someone with whom I found it incredibly hard to communicate. Whether it was me never eloquently saying what I wanted to, or them never listening, the fact remained that “difficult” conversations with this person rarely happened. Or if they did, they were hugely unfulfilling affairs.

So, my hopes weren’t high. But given what happened and the repercussions it had caused, this conversation needed to be had. I didn’t have any expectations that things would be resolved, but I had to at least try.

Except I wasn’t expecting the curveballs they threw at me on this occasion.

I told them, clearly, why I was upset about what they had done. I was calm and backed up my argument.

Although I have often fallen short of this standard, I do try and live by the mantra, “When someone tells you you’ve done something to hurt them, you don’t get to decide you haven’t.” I wasn’t necessarily anticipating that they would shower me with apologies, but I would’ve settled for the mere acceptance that this event had occurred—that I had been hurt. (And we are always allowed to give voice to that, regardless of intention.)

Neither was this about blame, for I was far from blameless in the sequence of events that led to this specific incident. Besides, blame is futile, and I knew that what they had done had not been born from a deliberate attempt to cause pain: it was an action stemming from insecurity, not malice.

No, this was about someone you say you cared for telling you that you’d pained them. It was about that person mattering to you. It was about fixing a problem, not mudslinging.

I waited for a response. When it finally came, it was possibly the weirdest one I’d ever received:

“How can you be so cruel?”

Pardon? Cruel?

I looked back over the messages I’d sent. At no point had I personally attacked this person. At no point had I invented anything—everything I said happened truly did. How was that “cruel?” How was it “cruel” to point out something they had done that hurt me?

The confusion was compounded when I received a follow-up message.

Far from discussing anything I had raised, this person then proceeded to throw the metaphorical kitchen sink at me. There was no mention of what I’d said earlier; instead, I was treated to a series of vignettes about every hardship they had ever endured. I would’ve had no issue if I’d contributed to those hardships; I’m far from being a saint, and I’ve hurt others as much as others have hurt me.

But the ones they unleashed? I wasn’t even part of them, and in some cases, they involved people I never knew, and situations utterly unrelated to me. How they were connected to my grievances was a mystery.

Then it came again,

“I don’t understand how someone who says they love you can be so cruel.”

Although my expectations had been low, I also hadn’t expected the nails to be driven into the coffin of this particular relationship. I walked away knowing I never wanted to have this conversation again. You’ve done this thing that caused me a huge amount of pain and I’m cruel for pointing it out? Yeah, no — goodbye.

However, given who this person was, emotionally extricating myself fully was going to be a long, drawn-out affair. I may have said goodbye literally but it was going to be a while until I felt okay about it. And for a long time, I didn’t. Their response rattled around my brain for a year.

The resolution came, as it so often does, indirectly.

A few months ago, I completed a training course in Emotionally Unstable Personality Disorder (formerly called Borderline Personality Disorder). Many of the people I support have this condition, and it can be a hard task to help them. People with EUPD can often exhibit behaviours that people without the illness would deem maladaptive, and which can alienate and antagonise others.

The trick (if there is one) is to see these behaviours in the light of the condition;  they are the result of a mental illness and not proof that this person is inherently “toxic.” In fact, if these behaviours are presenting, it is often a sign that the person is struggling. They’re not trying to upset you: they’re in crisis and need compassion.

One of those behaviours is emotional blackmail.

This is simply when someone attempts to either make you think a certain thought or perform a certain action through manipulation. Instead of directly asking for something, this person will try and coerce you into thinking, feeling, or doing something specific. If you’re confronting them about something they’ve done, the same tactics are used, except this time as a diversionary measure.

They do this through one of three ways, or even a combination of all three: fear, guilt, and obligation (F.O.G). For example:

Fear:  “If you don’t help me, I’ll kill myself.” Or, “If you don’t reply to my messages, I’ll sit here all night crying.

Guilt:  “After all that I’ve done for you, how can you say that?

Obligation: “I’m your parent/child/partner/friend/client: I deserve to be treated better.” Or, “You owe me.”

Again, if one of my clients begins going down one of these routes, I know it’s a cry for help. It’s a red flag that, as a mental health professional, I can’t ignore. But as all the support workers sat there listening to the instructor explain this condition, we later admitted that we’d all had the same thought: It’s not just people with EUPD who employ this tactic—we all knew someone in our lives who has.

(I refer you back to my aforementioned, bewildering conversation.)

The “cruel” barb? It was emotional blackmail. It was a diversionary tactic designed to make me feel guilty, and one that played on the perceived sense of obligation I had to that person.

It was also, quite frankly, nonsense. I wasn’t being cruel; I was being honest. I was legitimately telling someone who said they cared for me that they had hurt me. Instead of any acknowledgement of that, I got shrouded in F.O.G.

Once this lightbulb flickered on, I began to look back over past interactions. The same approach had been employed time and time again. Only, this was going to be the last time I experienced it. I now had the emotional divorce I’d long been striving for.

Was I right to walk away? Yes, because there was literally nothing else I could do.

People with EUPD employ emotional blackmail because they are in thrall to their illness. People without EUPD do it because they do not possess the emotional intelligence to either admit a mistake or treat you as an equal.

To people struggling with EUPD, being “wrong” is not just part and parcel of daily life (and something that, for most of us, happens multiple times a day)—it’s a severe psychological injury that jabs straight at their chronically underdeveloped self-esteem and stunted emotional maturity. If you try to tell them they’re wrong, they’ll often deflect blame, and then fear, obligation, and guilt (and their cousins: projected blame and redacting history) all come into play.

And it never ends. They’d rather lose you than admit they might have screwed up. That is the less embarrassing option.

The truly sad thing is that it doesn’t matter who you are to them. Parent, offspring, sibling, partner, best friend—in the final analysis, these are just words. All that matters is not being the one in the wrong. And they are willing to employ fear, obligation, and guilt to ensure that, when you do walk away, the impression given is that you were the one in the wrong.

I finally realized I can meet them halfway as someone who loves them but I can’t do anymore. I can’t make someone change who they are. I’m a mental health support worker, not a psychiatrist. It’s beyond my limited powers.

And I shouldn’t have to consider such things anyway. It’s wrong to be made to feel guilty, to be told you’re in the wrong for simply wanting a healthy, reciprocal relationship with someone.

If someone needs to employ fear, obligation, and guilt in their dealings with you, then that’s not one of your tribe. If that’s all they know, then thank them and wish them well as you say goodbye.

You’ll find that the world seems a far more beautiful place when that fog has lifted.


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