It is difficult to deal with a narcissist when you are a grown, independent, fully functioning adult. The children of narcissists have an especially difficult burden, for they lack the knowledge, power, and resources to deal with their narcissistic parents without becoming their victims. Whether cast into the role of Scapegoat or Golden Child, the Narcissist's Child never truly receives that to which all children are entitled: a parent's unconditional love. Start by reading the 46 memories--it all began there.

Monday, September 15, 2014

Emotional blackmail and you

According to Wikipedia, emotional blackmail is “a form of psychological manipulation, employing a mixture of threats, appeals and emotionally punitive behaviour to control an intimate. It may occur between parents and children, husbands and wives, siblings or close friends…Under pressure from emotional blackmail, one may become a sort of hostage, forced to act under pressure of the threat of responsibility for the other's breakdown.”

It is pretty much a sure bet that anyone reading this page has been the target of emotional blackmail. Even ignoring narcissists and brutal in-your-face narcissists like my mother use it. The narcissist’s objective, after all, is to get what she wants and there really is not limit as to what she will do in pursuit of that objective, as long as she doesn’t get caught and outed.

Dr. Susan Forward, author of Toxic Parents (a book I recommend regularly to people just beginning to grasp the concept of having a narcissistic parent) has also written a book entitled Emotional Blackmail. In this book she names four distinct types of emotional blackmail:
1. The Punisher—“If you go back to work, I will leave you”;
2. The Self-Punisher—“Don’t argue with me or I will get sick or depressed.” Punishers use threats to manipulate others.
3. The Sufferer—Sufferers take the position that if they feel miserable, sick, unhappy or are just plain unlucky, there’s only one solution: our giving them what they want—even if they haven’t told us what that is.
4. The Tantalizer—Tantalizers encourage and offer us love, money or career advancement—“the proverbial carrot at the end of the stick.” They are considered to be the most subtle blackmailers.

While some narcissists pick a style of emotional blackmail and stick with it…for example, the Sufferer, who uses real or imagined illnesses to get people to dance to their tune…other narcissists may use any or all of the techniques in pursuit of her goals. Whatever works will be the tool of the day. Here are some of the ways my ignoring malignant narcissist of a mother used each one of these techniques:

1) The Punisher: my mother sent me to live with her parents every summer. I loved being there, feeling valued and respected and loved. Every year, when September rolled around and my grandparents told me to pack up my things because my mother was on her way to collect me, I would beg them to let me stay with them. I would cry all night at the prospect of having to go back to my mother and her home, where I was scapegoated at every turn. I would wake up in the morning that she was to arrive with the evidence of my distraught night written all over my face: puffy red eyes, red swollen nose, sniffles. And so she said to me “If you do this again…cry all night and beg your grandparents to stay with them instead of coming home with me…you will never come back here for a summer, do you understand?”

2) The Self-Punisher: my mother was a tough old bitch and she would never, ever, do or say anything that might give me the idea that I had the power to affect her…at least not in advance. But my childish prattle about school, friends or any topic was often greeted with “go to your room, you are giving me a headache.” Occasionally rage would overtake her such that she would neglect to use the strap or a shoe or some instrument to hit me and use her bare hand. Sometimes that would result in a broken blood vessel in her hand that hurt her for days…and for which I would be blamed. And as long as the hand hurt, the blame would be heaped on me. How is this blackmail? I stopped talking around her and became silent in her presence lest I give her a headache; I became quick about fetching the strap at her command lest she hit me with her hand and hurt herself…for which I would suffer for days. This induced tremendous guilt in me, that I gave my mother headaches and caused her to hurt her hand for days…it effectively modified my behaviour and gave my mother what she wanted.

3) The Sufferer: my mother was ever the victim of someone…whether it was the poor woman next door whose house didn’t look like a page out of House Beautiful or the woman across the street who was the neighbourhood gossip, or my father, who had the audacity to expect her to be faithful and to allow him to keep at least some of the money he earned from his second job for his own entertainment, or whether it was me, who ruined her entire life simply by being born. It was my fault she was stuck in an unhappy marriage with no glamour or effusive adoration and was my fault that she had a wrinkled stomach with a big scar on it, saggy boobs, and her youth had been subordinated to being a nanny to an “ungrateful brat” rather than the toast of some social scene somewhere.

My father worked two jobs…a full-time day job and a part-time evening job at a mechanic’s shop near home. My mother liked to dress up and go bar-hopping while he was at work (unbeknownst to him) and she would leave me and my younger brother home alone while she was out being a barfly. I was sworn to silence about her activities because if I told Daddy, she would get in trouble and it would be my fault. When they separated and she moved a boyfriend into the house, I was again forbidden to tell my father because it could get her in trouble (this was the 1950s and there were laws against cohabitation) and again, it would be my fault. If I didn’t do what she wanted—like keep silent about her nefarious behaviour—she would get into trouble and it would be my fault for revealing her behaviour, not her fault for doing wrong.

4) The Tantalizer: this is the most subtle form of emotional blackmail. Basically it means holding out hope of something—the carrot on the stick—but all too often we find that the carrot was, at best, an illusion—at worst, an outright lie.

When I was 14 my mother sent me to spend the summer with my father while she took off on a road trip with her boyfriend. As summer came to a close, we had no idea where she was or how to reach her and it was nearing time to enrol in high school. Finally, the weekend before the start of school we received a terse telegram from her, saying I should enrol in school at my father’s house. Nearly a year went by, a year in which she never called me or came to see me. Then, shortly before the next school year was to start, she showed up at the door and asked me to take a ride with her. Unaccustomed to saying “no” to her for anything, I got in the car and found myself in the backseat with my mother while my old singing teacher drove. The next couple of hours I was double teamed by them, using every narcissist’s hoovering trick in the book until I agreed to come back and live with my mother. I went back expecting this wonderful mother-daughter relationship of love and camaraderie…I was only 15, after all…and got nothing except a cot in the kitchen to sleep on and a mountain of household chores. The carrot I thought I was getting turned out to be no more than an illusion.

The problem with emotional blackmail is that is can be devilishly difficult to identify. And, it is not always the narcissist who does the blackmail but an enabler or Flying Monkey who serves it up. When people say things to you that are designed to modify your behaviour or beliefs in order to benefit someone else…someone other than you…then you are being emotionally blackmailed.

I had a boyfriend many years ago whose childish, immature and demanding ways had worn so thin that I broke up with him. The next day he showed up at my house with an entire bottle of sleeping pills and a bottle of beer, rang my bell, and when I answered it, told me that if I wouldn’t take him back he was going to kill himself. That is blatant emotional blackmail. I shut the door in his face, I was so pissed off at his obvious ploy, and he washed down the entire bottle of pills with his beer on my front porch. I called the police, who took him to the hospital but when he got out, he was back at my house saying his attempted suicide was just to “prove” how much he loved me…that he was willing to die for me. Although I knew nothing about narcissism or emotional blackmail or hoovering back then, I knew this was wrong, that this was unhealthy behaviour, and I was indignant that he would go to such lengths to control me…to force himself on an unwilling woman in such a way.

Dr. Forward opines that the bottom line of any type of blackmail is one basic threat, “If you don’t behave the way I want you to, you will suffer.” That suffering can be direct…by denying or taking something away from you…or it can be indirect, by making you suffer guilt or anger or embarrassment. Emotional blackmailers may take intimate, possibly embarrassing secrets that you have shared and use this knowledge to shape the threats that give them what they want: your compliance.

Emotional blackmailers often entrap us in a web of fear, obligation and guilt, which Dr. Forward calls the FOG. They may obscure their actions by superficially behaving as if they are acting in our best interests, or by appealing to our higher instincts. After my mother irretrievably blackened my reputation with my FOO, stole my children and kept them away from me for eight year and, while they were gone, lied to them saying I didn’t love them and had abandoned them, after she gave my kids away to another family member for adoption (which was why she took them in the first place) my grandmother emotionally blackmailed me. Without even acknowledging that I had every right to be angry with my mother, without ever telling my mother than she had done something reprehensible and that she owed me, in the very least, an apology, my grandmother approached me and asked me to bury the hatchet with my mother (her exact words) for the sake of family harmony. The clear implication was that if I did not capitulate and make nice with my traitorous back-stabbing betrayer of a mother, I would be guilty of perpetuating the rift in the family…the family would continue to be fractured and it would be my fault.

According to Dr. Forward, fear, obligation, and guilt are the tools of the emotional blackmailer’s trade. Blackmailers often “pump an engulfing FOG into their relationships, ensuring that we will feel afraid to cross them.” This, of course, happens over time and because of the slow insidiousness of the process, we seldom even realize it is happening.

One of the emotional blackmail tricks narcissists play is the long game. You become accustomed to the narcissist’s blackmail to the degree that you automatically shape your behaviour around the anticipation of fear, obligation, or guilt being deployed. If there in someone in your life around whom you must tiptoe, some around whom you feel you are walking on eggshells, someone whose reaction is contemplated before you make a final decision about anything, this person is an emotional blackmailer who has trained you to give her what she wants without even having to take action.
Another thing an emotional blackmailer might do is try to control your choices by provoking guilt in you…for example, if you have a friend who is a vegan and she tries to make you feel guilty about eating meat while refusing to acknowledge the fundamental flaws in a diet that has no vitamin B12 in it (essential for brain health). Or, a person who doesn’t want you to make Choice A because it is inconvenient for him and tries to force you into making Choice B through guilt (“You only think of yourself…”). There is the stay-at-home mom who tries to validate her own choice by using guilt and a false sense of obligation to invalidate your choice to have a career, or the family member who forces her wishes on family members through the fear that she will injure herself or another family member or run away or commit some other dangerous act. These are all acts of emotional blackmail, some subtle, some blatant, but all of them designed to control other people through fear, obligation, and/or guilt.

So, how can you tell if you are being emotionally blackmailed? My biggest clue is my own feelings when I contemplate not doing what is being expected of me. Am I afraid of some consequence will befall me…this person will say or do something that will hurt me in some way? Do I know I will feel guilty if I don’t do it, even though that guilt is clearly misplaced? Do I feel obligated to do it, even when there is no clear reason that I actually am obligated? If I answer “yes” to any of those questions, then I am probably being emotionally blackmailed and need to take a step back and examine the situation more closely.

And how do you stop it? Well, let’s start with a narcissist is not ever going to give up a tool that has worked. There is nothing you can do to get your narcissist to stop trying to blackmail you, so the only thing you can change is how you react to it. First, learn to recognize when you are being controlled by fear, obligation or guilt.

Second, make sure you do not feed the troll—don’t give your narcissist information about your personal life that might one day be used against you…and don’t give that information to anyone who might tell your narcissist, not even your twin sister or your beloved Aunt Mary. If they talk to the narcissist, they may well innocuously tell things that your NM can twist, embroider, or use as the grain of truth in an ugly lie, and ultimately use as ammunition to force you into compliance. I knew a teenage girl who had uterine infection and had to have a D&C…by the time her mother got done with the tale, the girl had aborted an illicit pregnancy and was universally reviled by her family as a result. Keep personal information away from all conduits to the narcissist.

Third, decide that you won’t give in to blackmail, no matter what the consequence is. Only by making emotional blackmail unsuccessful as a technique do you have even the slimmest hope of getting the blackmailer to stop.

You basically have two choices with an emotional blackmailer: give in and hope the blackmailer keeps silent on whatever tidbit of personal information she has that you don’t want bandied about or accept that she’s going to tell what she knows and even make stuff up if it suits her, and you might as well refuse to cooperate because the outcome is going to be essentially the same, no matter what you decide.

That was ultimately my choice…I told the truth so it is out there for those who want to hear it…and then let the blackmailers do their worst…they were doing it anyway, so my capitulation had actually bought me nothing in the long run.

It is worth becoming aware of and giving some serious thought to.


  1. Thank you, I needed this post just now. I have been having trouble communicating my discomfort with certain showy, public outpourings of love and affection from my mom (social media with a large guaranteed audience) and I think this helps. I have not wanted to participate in the show but I've been chased by these feelings of guilt and failed obligation. That, I think, is done now. I'm not going to perform and I'm not going to allow myself to feel poorly for it.

  2. B12 is one of the easiest things to get in vitamins just FYI. I agree it's not cool to pressure others. But I think there is a big difference between pressuring others and being passionate about something you find morally reprehensible. Just as we all wish outsiders had stepped in or said something when they witnessed our parents' wrong doing, and that wouldn't be emotonal blackmail.I think everything you say is true except that we can't and shouldn't be expected to shut down or empathy and morality to avoid criticizing others.

    I'm not a vegan BTW. I just think it's ridiculous to expect people to say nothing if they do think meat is murder/animal abuse. I think most of us would say something if our friends were doing something we considered that wrong. Even if it sometimes gets awkward or hard to navigate, I think that is a tendency we should encourage, however this is nothing like what narcissist moms do

    1. Veganism is lacks essential nutrients (the fact that the diet requires supplementation is, in and of itself, proof that it is inherently unhealthy) and studies have shown that children raised on a vegan diet are smaller than their omnivorous peers. Infants nursed by B12 deficient vegan mothers have died from a lack of B12 in the milk. Vegetarianism is much healthier because it includes eggs and dairy, which do not require the killing of animals. Veganism is an extreme that is not only unhealthy nutritionally, but panders to an unhealthy mindset...anthropomorphizing taken as fact.

      I know three people in my own personal life who have adopted veganism as a "healthy" diet...using the availability of supplements as a way of ignoring the diet's inherent lack of nutritional completeness. Over time, all three of them have become condescending animal rights activists in a way that is completely irrational: they all have carnivorous pets (2 of them have dogs and 1 has cats) and their animal rights activism doesn't seem to extend to killing animals to feed their pets. They engage in cognitive dissonance and denial of facts: if the human had not evolved to eat animal products, why does the human body require B12, naturally available only through animal products? These people are lying to themselves, allowing themselves to be hoodwinked into a lifestyle in which they can feel morally superior to people who are, in fact, making healthier, more natural dietary choices than they are. To watch an intelligent, socially engaged person degenerate into a self-righteous, condescending person who disdains those who opt to eat as their body is designed to eat (i.e., animal products full of B12) is painful. I have long wondered if the lack of B12 (which is required for brain health) is not at the root of the personality changes I have seen.

      I am a particular foe of PETA...and most people who support the organization have never bothered to look into it and its founder, Ingrid Newkird. Ingrid is a misanthrope whose organization is quite the opposite of what it holds itself up to be. Headquartered in Virginia, PETA is annually required to submit certain documents to the state, documents which are publicly available from the Commonwealth of Virginia website. PETA self-reports that it kills between 90 and 97% of all animals turned over to its "shelter" in Virginia, a rate 3x that of the "high kill" shelter just up the road from it. If you have the stomach for it, google "PETA kills animals" and you will find a website that has done the research and has gathered and published the news articles, the government documents, the photos of what PETA is really about.

      My objections to animal rights activists and veganism as it is publicly practiced it that they attempt to convert people through shaming. Everyone has the right to their own opinions and we have a right to express those opinions...what we do not have a right to do is to shame and apply guilt trips and manipulation to others or to force our opinions on others through such things as damaging personal property, stopping traffic, spreading false information, concealing the truth, or attempting to coerce others to join us using these tactics, as well as shame, guilt, and manipulation. This, unfortunately, is my experience with avid vegans and animal rights activists and while I feel they have a right to their opinions, so do those who disagree with them and those activists have an obligation...which they completly respect that.

    2. I'm late to this conversation, but I would like to add that humans not only digest and use animal products for their health, but they also have canine teeth -- specifically designed for eating meat. Animals not able to process meat for their bodies, like deer, have no canine teeth.

  3. Hi, this is possibly one of the best written and most helpful blogs I have read. Surrounded by N's and married one too. How do I access your 46 stories, think it said it was in the archive but can't find this on the menu? It feels like I know what is going on but don't trust myself and hoping reading your stories will help. Thank you.

    1. Thank you for your kind words.

      To find the 46 stories, go to the archive and scroll down to the last entry (2012) and click on it. Once the 2012 archive is open, scroll down to "March" and open that archive. Now, scroll down to the entry entitled "The Sandwich." Open that. This is the first of the 46 stories. When you get to the end of the page, click on the "older post" button and it will take you to the next in the series.

  4. My stepdaughter is trying to break away from her NM, now many friends of her NM are now contacting her and saying she should connect with her NM. On top of that, her Grandma from her Father's side is using emotional blackmail. If she doesn't begin calling her Uncle and doing what Grandma wants, then she (grandma) is not coming to her wedding in 2016. My daughter is thinking that Grandma will come to her senses and start being the Grandma she used to be. I don't see that happening. I also think this has more to do with my husband and his relationship with his mother and a couple brothers. My husband is not jumping over the hurdles to please them anymore, so they are going after the kids. Both my husband and I are standing our ground, neither of us see this as healthy behavior, we can be at the wedding with them there and not let it ruin our daughter's day. My mother in law states she cannot be there with everyone fighting. I don't see it as fighting, but rather a difference of opinion. My mother was nothing like her, she didn't use emotional blackmail or play these ridiculous games. We had a healthy relationship, so this is difficult for me, I don't know how to help. My mom died unexpectedly almost two years ago, she was my confidante, my advisor. She would be able to guide me. I could use some advice. Anyone?

  5. I am reading this a few years later, but it could not have come at a better time. I am currently on the receiving end of severe and blatent emotional blackmail from my daughters biological father who has never offered financial support in 4 years. He currently sends me threats via email, texts and has even called my elderly mother threatening me through her.
    This man has used threats of suicide in the past, blaming me and everyone else for his unhappy life. A life, he created by making poor decisions in his past over and over. I am at the point of hiring a very respected attorney and former judge to handle him. I cannot let this man continue to threaten hurt upon me, my ex husband and my family to get whatever he wants. Ultimately, this man will emotionally destroy my daughter and damage her emotional development. This is a man who manipulates anyone to get his way, I've never seen anything like it. He literally said, "I will make your life hell for many years if you try to..." Fill in the blank. "You'll wish you I would die, but I will just keep coming like the energizer Bunny to destroy you." It's amazing, all my family or I have done is give to this man,helping him in times of need and encouraging better behavior.
    Only a few months ago, I had a stroke at the age of 41 after a string of threats via email. Would someone please tell me what I can do leagally? I've changed my phone number and email once, but in essence that's him.controlling me as well. :(And, he still tries to reach me through my work and family. I've shut down LinkedIn and Facebook, now for over a year.
    Im exhausted from constant worry each day over what will happen next.

    1. Get a restraining order that prohibits him from stalking or contacting you directly or through 3rd parties. Then every time--without exception--report his violations. He will eventually be sent to jail for contempt of court and could even be remanded for psychiatric examination. But if you don't do your part--get the RO and report EVERY violation--then nothing can change.

  6. Thank you. I know someone who is using their own children as emotional blackmail to their grandfather. I hope he will read this as he recently gave in, in a big way. I fully expect it to be better for a while and then get far worse than it was before. Simply because it worked.

  7. I am one of these people. I've been using emotional blackmail, negative bullying histrionic tactics since I was a child. I am now 31, soon to be diagnosed with Borderline Personality Disorder amongst other things. The best thing you can do is ignore us. Ignoring us doesn't give us the "in" we crave to cut you down, to cause pain to do whatever it is we can to have some control over you. It's perverse, wrong and disgusting. I have used my parents and the people closest to me to destroy anything good that has come into my life because I am so emotionally detached and vain to believe that anything I do has the outcome of being good. I am a sadistic weirdo that prefers an insult to a compliment. A blog, was the most eye opening bit of information I ever came across that was helpful in opening my eyes to my disgusting, manipulative behaviours. I think someone posted here that a suicide threat is the most classic case of emotional blackmail there is. I wouldn't disagree with that at all. It is what I do the most if something, anything doesn't go my way. I don't know how to empathize until it is too late. A mentor did pass along a book that I have yet to finish that is called "Emotional Intelligence" by Gill Hasson. I am not sure why anyone would believe that I have any potential at all to change but that's probably the most shred of human kindness that I have ever deserved by being given this book. To the victims of histrionic, narcissistic abuse on this page as I mentioned, ignoring one of us is the best way to deal with the constant abuse. Unless one is using physical violence or various forms of harassment than a restraining order is necessary.

  8. Thank you for your blog.. I have a very toxic mother that I've been struggling for years to understand and come to terms tô why our relationship is so bad.. after reading your blog it makes more sense - she used all the technics of a narcissistic emotional blackmailer to get what she want - which most of the time was attention or money .. Money I don't give to her in a long time, but the need for attention drives me crazy sometimes , and I'm starting to think she is showing signs of dementia (she is 68 years old) that makes our relationship be even more draining .. I feel sorry for her most of the time, because she is lonely, but she does have a side that is toxic and love to be the victim , she never takes responsibility for the things she says and do, and that by itself makes me crazy..
    but after reading your blog it does makes more sense of who I'm dealing with.. it sucks that is my own mother and the only way I can be free and in peace is when I don't have contact with her.. which makes me sad, but my relationship with her doesn't bring me any good either.. so it's a little tricky - whenever I make contact with her I always fall into feeling trapped into her need for daily attention and that drives me crazy! I know what I neeed to do, which is keep my distance , but sometimes is hard..

  9. Thank you for this post--I've been reading your blog voraciously over the past few days and find it valuable beyond belief. On the subject of emotional blackmail, here are two other points I wanted to add to the discussion:

    (1) As important as it is not to give in to emotional blackmail, I also think it's possible to *feel* emotionally blackmailed even when it isn't really happening. For example, as someone who constantly worries about offending others and anticipates shaming and rejection if I do so even inadvertently, I wouldn't say that everyone I know is emotionally blackmailing me. Usually I'm just doing it to myself because I expect to be hurt based on past conditioning, not because anyone is actually threatening me. Again, this isn't meant to invalidate genuine emotional blackmail, only to say that sometimes the "blackmail" is unwittingly self-inflicted and learning to tell the difference by testing those expectations of pain takes courage and practice.

    (2) There are also times when someone is giving you legitimate feedback about how your actions affect them, which can feel like emotional blackmail but is not really the same thing. I can remember when trying to set boundaries with my mother (who is not a N but does have fleas from her own NM and doesn't know anything about narcissistic abuse) being accused of emotional blackmail when I told her something she did was upsetting to me. Now, in retrospect, I should probably have just asked her to stop rather than justifying that request by telling her it was hurtful, but afterward I was afraid to object to things she did because I didn't want to be seen as manipulative. Again, this is not to suggest that emotional blackmail isn't real, but that it may come in more- and less-harmful degrees. After all, part of the reason we treat each other well in society is that we don't want to hurt each other, emotionally or otherwise, and it's not always clear when we're doing so unless someone tells us. So in that sense we are all subject to "emotional blackmail" of a very moderate and prosocial kind. It's only when it crosses the line into real manipulation that it becomes toxic, and telling the difference can be a challenge.


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