The title of this post is a music reference, for those of you who for whatever reason don’t remember the 90s or aren’t into obscure tunes; it sounded so much more interesting than my working title “Emotional Blackmail.”
The first time I heard the term “emotional blackmail” I was a child. My mother told me she would not allow herself to be “emotionally blackmailed” by me. I can’t remember what I said or did that prompted it, nor do I know where she heard the term, probably from a book about parenting a difficult child. Out of the Fog, a website for people who have a loved one with a personality disorder, describes emotional blackmail as: “A system of threats and punishments used in an attempt to control someone’s behaviors.” As I’m sure you can imagine, growing up with an undiagnosed emotional sensitivity disorder (or personality disorder if you prefer, I find the clinical term too stigmatizing and prefer to use the phrase that Dr. Linehan mentioned when I saw her speak at the 2012 NAMI National Convention) was difficult both for me as well as my family members.*
I know I said and did many things that were manipulative as a teenager, I think that’s pretty common. Some teens are difficult and it’s hard to know where the line is between “teenager” and “has a diagnosable disorder”, it can be very blurry. What happens though when manipulative maladaptive behaviors aren’t something we grow out of? Some people – perhaps many people – grow into dysfunctional adults who use techniques like emotional blackmail and gaslighting to get their way, people who have no diagnosable disorder at all. It can be hard to know what to take seriously and what to dismiss, and it can be even more difficult to know exactly where the boundaries should be with someone who engages in these types of behaviors whether they are a friend, family member, partner, ex-partner, boss, etc.
One of the most extreme forms of emotional blackmail I have ever encountered is what I call “If you don’t love me, I’ll kill myself.” It happened after the alcoholic and I had broken up. As can happen with relationships, especially dysfunctional ones, a break-up had not stopped us from fighting with one another. I was trying to set and maintain clear boundaries, but that can be difficult for me as I did not grow up with boundaries and didn’t realize I even needed them until I was in my 20s. This particular day I was traveling for work (my job covers the whole state) and I happened to be driving back from the Gulf coast. My ex called me and we started to fight about one thing or another, I don’t even remember what at this point. She was baiting me with some secret mean thing that she had started to tell me but then said “no never mind” knowing it would drive me crazy. During the call, the man that I was working with to secure a mortgage called on the other line. I told her that I had to take the call, my mortgage broker was calling and it must be important. I switched over without giving her time to protest. During the twenty or so minute call with the mortgage broker, the alcoholic called me four times in quick succession. I did not answer, because it made no sense to. I had told her the call was important, in fact this was the middle of my workday and I was traveling for work!
When the call with the mortgage broker was concluded, I picked up the 5th call. I told her that it was inappropriate to call me multiple times like that, especially when she knew I was on an important call. I told her that there was really no point in us continuing to fight, because we had broken up, and then I terminated the call. Not the most mature thing to do but under the circumstances it seemed like the best way to not have to spend another half hour fighting with her on the phone. At some point in the hour and a half between that call and my arrival back home, she sent me a text message saying it didn’t matter anyway. She had taken a “bunch of pills” and was feeling “sleepy” now. Threats of suicide, whether the person is serious about attempting or not, can be a form of emotional blackmail. However, as a mental health professional who is trained in applied suicide intervention (ASIST) and mental health first aid I knew that one thing you should never do is not take someone seriously when they talk about suicide. There is no “boy who cried wolf” when it comes to suicide threats, because the 9th time may be the time they succeed or decide to actually go through with it. Whatever the reason someone decides to either threaten or attempt suicide, action has to be taken. It is possible however, to help the person while maintaining your boundaries.
In this case, I did try to call her, which I am sure was the intended response. I had refused to talk to her before, and now she had manipulated me into calling her. She did not pick up, and I realized that I had a choice. I could frantically continue calling her, violating my previous statement that I did not want to continue talking to her on the phone and validating the power that her threat had over me, or I could take action to make sure that help was given to her whether or not she needed or wanted it. In case you’re not familiar with my story, this ex lived over 1,000 miles away from me in New Mexico. As it happened, I had her mother’s (whom she was mostly estranged from) phone number in my cell phone. I texted her mother and told her that her daughter had told me that she had taken pills in order to kill herself, that I did not know whether or not it was true but that someone needed to get her help. Thankfully, her mother intervened, going to her house with one of her friends and knocking on the door. Apparently she did not answer at first but eventually they did get into contact with her. Her mother texted me to let me know that she was ok.
I do not know whether or not she did what she said she did, and really it doesn’t matter. Every life is important, every person deserves to live. Later, the alcoholic did accuse me of “bothering” her by sending her mother to her home, and claimed that she had been in serious condition, implying she would have died if intervention had not happened. I also do not know whether that is true or an exaggeration/outright lie (she was prone to lying.) I simply told her that because of my licensure with the state, I am a mandated reporter of suicidal or homicidal intentions expressed to me. Had I not been able to get in touch with her mother, I would’ve tried a friend and finally the local police. Truthfully, she has been slowly killing herself with her drug and alcohol abuse all these years, but that isn’t my responsibility. By telling me that she was in the process of attempting suicide, she made her possible impending death my responsibility.
Obviously her intention was not to be bothered by her mother. Whether or not she intended to die that day, the response she wanted from me was attention, perhaps guilt, quite possibly the guilt of feeling like she had ended her life because of me. Often emotional blackmail suicide threats have an attitude of “I’ll show them. They’ll be sorry when I’m gone.” The entire process was very emotionally draining for me, and in a lot of ways she did get what she wanted by upsetting me, forcing me to deal with her, and then acting as though I had somehow wronged her by asking her mother to intervene. Emotional abuse takes a toll on us whether we set boundaries with the person or not. In the end, I had to finally tell her that she had no place in my life. I did not want to be her friend because we were never friends in the first place. Anyone in the throes of addiction is much too self involved to be a friend to anyone else anyway. I wrote this post partially because I find blogging about these things to be freeing, the ability to let out what I am holding inside. This was one of the most extreme situations I’ve ever been in, and it was incredibly difficult to experience.
My final thought is this – don’t give in to emotional blackmail, it does no one any good. Think outside the box if someone’s life is at stake, but you don’t have to allow them to get whatever they are seeking from you. Also, take all suicide threats seriously. You can take measures to save someone’s life even if they don’t want it, and you can do it in a way that doesn’t compromise your boundaries. Read through the different types of emotional abuse on Out of the Fog too. Just because someone has a mental illness, a disorder, an addiction, etc it does not give them the right to treat you in a way that is abusive.
* If you want to know more about BPD and my experience having an emotional sensitivity disorder, visit my “What is BPD?” post.