emotional blackmail(Published in Huffington Post)

As a recovering doormat, I struggled with setting boundaries.  But first, I needed to figure out when my boundaries were actually being crossed. When working as a counselor in mental health, I got a crash course on personality disorders. These disorders have a strong element of emotional blackmail to them where another’s boundaries are unimportant. This was an eye opener!

According to Susan Forward, PhD (Forward and Frazier 1997), emotional blackmail is a “powerful form of manipulation in which people close to us threaten, directly or indirectly, to punish us if we don’t do what they want”. They use F.O.G. to obstruct our view from the truth which is the acronym for “Fear, Obligation, and Guilt”.

The people who use emotional blackmail are doing so because it works. They rely on our negative emotions where we turn off our logic.  People who use emotional blackmail are also adept at punishing you if you try and play their game.

Emotional blackmailers live by a double standard. “When I get what I want, life is fair. What you want is immaterial.”

They may not have a personality disorder. How or why people develop these relationship patterns is not as important as their behavior towards us. The antidote to being affected by F.O.G. lies in self-awareness and being able to identify our reactive feelings.

If we don’t own our feelings or believe we don’t matter, we are open to becoming victims of emotional blackmail. We develop our own pattern of ignoring the clues that our boundaries are being crossed.

When we can become aware of these 3 emotional clues, fear, obligation and guilt, it is the first step to identifying what our boundaries should be.

[Tweet “Double standard: When I get what I want, life is fair. What you want is immaterial.”]

So let’s go through those three emotions with some examples


Nepotism is alive and well. John’s boss Susan hired her twin sister without going through the regular protocols of hiring. The sister got a job he was vying for.

Susan has a closed-door policy with everyone else except her twin sister. He’s afraid if he speaks up he will lose his job.


When Stephanie was hired, she was asked if she would mind doing occasional overtime. Since her return from maternity leave, there is more and more overtime required than originally.

Stephanie loves her work but is finding the overtime overwhelming. When David, her boss, tells her she’ll need to stay late and she starts to explain how impossible it will be this time, he knows she loves her job and which emotional button to push.

To gain compliance, he reminds her of her initial promise to be available for overtime and that he knows she will keep her word. She scrambles to make it happen: again. Her sense of obligation to that promise of years ago holds her hostage.


During a team meeting, Sam respectfully disagrees with Allison’s approach to solve a customer’s complaint and offers 2 other suggestions. Later, Allison tells Sam that he was aggressive and demeaned her during the meeting.

Surprised, Sam said that he was trying to offer her some alternatives to avoid a new potential problem and didn’t mean to upset her. He states feeling that he had expressed himself respectfully and didn’t personally attack her. Allison falsely says that everyone agrees with her that he was out of line and should be more respectful in future.

Embarrassed, Sam apologizes and hesitates in meetings now, more worried about how he sounds instead of what he has to say. His performance could now suffer because of guilt induced by her false comments.

Home life

Although we understand the importance of boundaries in business, these elements are often easier to spot in personal relationships where boundaries are more mutable because of emotional ties.

I started out focusing on family relationships and you can check out one of my old video blogs as to the importance of boundaries with our loved ones.

I came by these conclusions by baptism by fire. My first marriage had all three emotions being crossed.

With very little education, I was underemployed and relied financially on my husband to support my daughter and myself. He often told me that I am not very bright and too fat. I stayed because raising my daughter by myself terrified me. That was fear.

I started to attend a 12 step group and began to set boundaries around respectful language. The more confidence I demonstrated, the angrier he became. I thought of leaving. My Mom reminded me I was married in the church and I have to make this marriage work because it is my duty as a Christian woman. That was obligation.

When I stated that I would be leaving, he told me that I would be selfishly destroying our daughter’s life by ripping her family apart. I stayed longer than I should have. That was guilt.

How to stop the cycle

When doing things out of fear, obligation or guilt, we no longer do them because we want to. It may be a fear of rejection, a fear of losing love, or a fear of being punished. Guilt is a powerful motivator, especially when if we are made to feel responsible for someone’s happiness or lack thereof.

People who use emotional blackmail at work or in relationships do not usually start off using that form of communication.

More often than not, the new relationship starts off as quite wonderful, warm and hopeful for a mutually beneficial alliance. In intimate relationships, the depth of emotional connection is very alluring.

When the blackmail begins to happen, the victim does not see it as part of the regular relationship but rather as something outside of the norm. They convince themselves it is temporary. When women get involved in abusive relationships, this slow introduction of emotional blackmail is how they become battered women.

The same can happen in a work bully scenario. Relationships start off feeling hopeful and friendly and manipulations seem innocuous and small where the bully is testing our reactions. We turn a blind eye assuming it’s a freak occurrence. We become desensitized to how those makes us feel and we prefer to under-react than to over-react.

The key to reclaiming ourselves in any type of unhealthy relationship is to know and accept ourselves, warts and all. When we can face ourselves with honesty, whatever others say to us can no longer hurt us because we can identify and express our feelings.

[Tweet “We prefer to under-react than to over-react. That may not be good.”]

Manipulators lose their power to hurt us since we already know our flaws and identify and respect our feelings as the compass to our boundaries they are meant to be.

If you’re tired of feeling unheard, maybe it’s time to do something about this. Just sayin’.


Monique works with organizations or people who want to reduce conflict to create a culture of collaboration, engagement and productivity. The most successful leaders are not infallible when faced with someone who “drives them crazy!” Her strategies to empower people to better understand each other and have better outcomes, while having fun, are appreciated by all who meet her. She draws from 30 years of crisis intervention and mental health work, she is a Level II Accredited Trainer for DISC as a Human Behavior Consultant and a Certified NLP Professional Coach. She loves meeting people and getting to know them and their industry. So feel free to reach out.

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