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. -- the acronym for "fear, obligation and guilt" -- to obstruct our view from the truth.
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."
If we don't own our feelings or believe we don't matter, we are open to becoming victims of emotional blackmail.
They may not have a personality disorder. How or why people develop these relationship patterns is not as important as their behaviour 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 three emotional clues, fear, obligation and guilt, it is the first step to identifying what our boundaries should be.
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 two 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.
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.
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 and you think it's time to do something about this, grab my "Ask for What You Want Free Cheat Sheet." I'll be in touch with upcoming programs soon. Just click here!
The most successful leaders are not infallible when faced with someone who "drives them crazy!" Monique's strategies to empower others to stand up and take control of their personal and professional lives are appreciated by all who meet her. As a Speaker, Facilitator and Consultant helping to reduce conflict and increase collaboration, Monique Caissie draws from 30 years of crisis intervention work to help others increase their confidence to feel more heard, respected and happier. In her quest to better manage the difficult people in her life, she has studied human relations, spiritual texts, psychology and 12 step groups. Check out her website by clicking here.
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We can get so caught up in negative thoughts that we don't even realize the true cause of our guilt. Take a moment for meditation -- sitting in silence or writing in a journal -- to discover the real source of what's making you feel bad. Getting it out will release negative energy that keeps you from moving forward.
Talking out your guilty feelings with a friend may make you realize that what you thought others felt about you actually wasn't true at all.
Making a list of your values can give you a better understanding of why you acted the way you did. Realizing that in that moment something took priority can give you a better perspective of the situation and help you let go. Practice repeating positive mantras and make sure to give yourself some praise for everything that went right.
It's time to forgive yourself for the "shoulds". Obsessing over what you could have done in the past is keeping you from focusing on the present. You have the ability to be proactive. Address your guilt and make amends with whomever you feel you've wronged. It will lift the weight right off your shoulders.
Guilt may set in when we realize we don't have enough hours in the day. Prioritize time for yourself to do whatever it is that makes you happy. Without this buffer, you may always feel pulled by obligations.
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