The purpose of the next couple of posts is to explain how to deal with the more difficult cases. In this post we will talk about how to break the cycle of emotional blackmail, and in the following posts we will discuss knowing how and when to get out of dysfunctional relationships and how to bring out the best in ourselves and others.
Emotional blackmail is when somebody applies an emotional penalty against us when we don’t do what they want us to do. It is only a problem if we are inclined to change our behavior as a result of the emotional penalty they apply. In other words, if we were planning on acting in the way the other person wants us to regardless of the emotional penalty they are threatening, then it is a non-issue and not worth responding to. Better to just ignore it and do our thing.
The most important thing to know about blackmail is when somebody emotionally blackmails us and we give in to their threats we guarantee that they will attempt to blackmail us again in the future. The other person knows they can control and manipulate us. This is why it is a cycle.
So how do we break this cycle? The starting point is we need to acknowledge that the only reason why people can emotionally blackmail us is because we let them. At the end of the day we have choice over our actions. We can choose not to give in to their threats. The reason why we usually do give in is because we think it is not worth the hassle – the other person will make a bigger problem for us if we don’t go along than the benefit we otherwise would receive if we did what we think is best absent their threats. So we decide that it is not worth the fight. The flaw in this logic is that while it may be true on any given instance, the fact that this destructive pattern will be repeated again and again reverses the costs and benefits. It is not just this one issue, but the blackmail will happen again and again on issue after issue until we finally break the cycle.
Before we take a stand against somebody blackmailing us we need to make sure that we are right. It is not advisable to take a stand on issues where we are wrong because that just makes us stubborn and unreasonable. To break the cycle we need to be willing to accept whatever penalty they throw at us and still not change our behavior. This will demonstrate to them that their emotional weapon of choice is powerless over us. We will not change as a result. This eliminates the power of that particular emotional weapon forever. They will know that it no longer works. Even if they try to use that same emotional weapon again, it will be easier for us to again not give in. Eventually they will no longer try using it because they know it doesn’t work anymore.
Please note when we do not give in to their first level of threats, they will most likely escalate the emotional penalty they throw at us to something worse. We have to be willing to take that as well. The point at which we give in is the point at which they have control over us. They will seek out the point we are the most vulnerable on and attack that. So in parallel we need to train in non-attachment to the things that they can threaten to take away from us. We need to get to the point where mentally we don’t need these things anymore. We need to get to the point where we don’t fear what they can do to us anymore. Our happiness does not depend on having what they can take away from us nor does it depend on avoiding what harm they can throw at us (if they are abusive, then we often need to get out. See the next couple of posts).
Cultivating this non-attachment can sometimes be very hard to do, especially when it comes to losing the love of those who are very close to us, such as our spouse, children or parents. But as Saint Francis said, “ask that I may not so much seek to be loved as to love.” In other words, it doesn’t matter whether they love us, it only matters whether we love them. Our happiness does not depend on them loving us, rather our happiness depends on us being able to love others – something entirely within our control. It is our attachment to things that others can take away from us which enables them to blackmail us. If we didn’t have this attachment, it wouldn’t be possible to blackmail us.
We need to work gradually with this. We often can’t break free from their systems of control too quickly because the other person won’t be able to take it and may do something really stupid. We should start by not giving in on small things at first, and then when we think it is becoming too much (for them or for us), we strategically give in. Then next time we push it a little bit further. Eventually we absorb everything they have to throw at us, and none of it works, so they stop trying.
How do we deal with particularly difficult cases of others threatening to harm us or to harm themselves? We need to be very careful here to assess how credible the threat is. If it is truly credible, then we need to know at what point to stop. Usually people who threaten things like harming us or harming themselves also employ a vast arsenal of smaller threats and emotional blackmail weapons. By gradually wearing away at these smaller threats through the method described above, we can erode the foundation for them to call in their ultimate trump card. Since we don’t give in on the smaller threats, they are forced to escalate until they reach their trump card. But then they will have to threaten the ultimate on smaller and smaller things. In such a situation, they are more likely themselves to not think it is worth it, for example, to kill themselves if we don’t go to the movie of their choice! By eroding the smaller threats we make the ultimate threats less likely and less credible. Sometimes we may need to call their bluff; and if we are right that they are bluffing, they become highly unlikely to employ that particular threat again. This helps us because then we are not threatened in this way again and it helps them because they are forced to learn new ways of dealing with others. If, however, the situation is really extreme, and we have done everything we can think of, then we might need to get them help and get ourself out. We will talk about this in a later post.
How can we do all of this with a compassionate motivation? Our motivation for breaking the cycle of emotional blackmail should be as compassionate as possible. By allowing somebody to emotionally blackmail us we are enabling them to accumulate all sorts of negative karma for themselves which will result in them being similarly emotionally blackmailed in the future. They blackmail us because they think their happiness depends on us doing particular things. By giving in, we feed their attachment and therefore make them dependent. This doesn’t help them. We also need to help them realize that their happiness does not depend on what we do.
The bottom line is we don’t help people by indulging them in their delusions. This doesn’t mean we jump to the extreme of never doing so in one go, but it does mean we have a general direction of our relationship with them. With an intention to save others from all of the negative consequences described above, as an act of love towards them, we simply stop giving in.
It will be hard, and sometimes people may conclude it is not worth having a relationship with us if they can no longer manipulate us. So be it – the relationship was doomed anyways. But most of the time, we can bring about a change in the dynamic between us and others by engaging in Ghandi-style non-cooperation with wrong behavior. If we succeed in doing so, after the long ordeal, our relationship will then be put on a healthy foundation and we can begin to enjoy the fruits of mutual love and respect.