How To Recognize Emotional Blackmail From Family Members

How To Recognize Emotional Blackmail From Family Members

Emotional blackmail is a series of manipulation techniques that aim to get a victim to behave a certain way by employing tactics of shame, guilt, or threats. It’s essential to be able to recognize the behaviors associated with emotional blackmail, especially when it comes to your family, so you can protect yourself against abuse. If you suspect that you or someone you care about might be the victim of emotional blackmail, read on.

1. They make threats of physical harm.

Bodily safety and autonomy are at the base of our hierarchy of needs. If you’re constantly worried that if you do something wrong you’ll be physically harmed then that’s emotional blackmail. It’s a go-strategy for emotional blackmailers—even if they don’t make good on their promise, it’ll still scare you into submission.

2. They’re not afraid to give you the silent treatment.

Portrait of resentful parent and child keeping silence. They are sitting on couch and hugging cushions with sadness

The silent treatment is a passive-aggressive way of expressing displeasure that plays on our fear of abandonment. If we have a close relationship with our abuser or rely on them, the silent treatment will make us feel like we’ve been left out to dry, and we’re more likely to do whatever it takes to get back into our abuser’s good graces.

3. They use guilt trips.

Emotional blackmailers thrive on guilting and shaming their victims. A great example is: “You don’t love your mother anymore; you never come visit.” Sure, this may convey that a mother wants to see her child more, but the way it’s presented is immature, and places unnecessary shame on the child. Shame plays a huge role in manipulation—when we don’t feel good about ourselves, we’re more likely to let other people call the shots for us.

4. They use rewards to make you compliant.

One of the main archetypes of emotional blackmailers is the Tantalizers. They use the potential of a reward to motivate their victims. It seems less harmful, but it’s still manipulation and negatively affects our minds. Getting addicted to the positive feedback for complying with our abuser’s wishes can be just as effective as pain or shame.

5. They are constantly shifting the narrative.

Husband and wife are arguing at home. Angry man is yelling at his wife.

Emotional blackmailers are often guilty of gaslighting their victims. If you’re not familiar, gaslighting is rewriting the series of events to enforce the abuser’s point of view while simultaneously discrediting the victims. Blackmailers benefit from this tactic as it confuses the victim and chips away at their sense of trust in their perception. When they don’t trust themselves, they become vulnerable to manipulation.

6. They exaggerate the harm you’ve done.

If you trip and break a vase, most healthy families might be annoyed, but they would ultimately understand that you had no intention to cause them harm and forgive you. However, an emotional blackmailer would frame this transgression as a direct attack. They might then tell you how it affected them in the most explicit way possible to inflict a sense of shame or guilt they can leverage against you.

7. They manipulate you to change your behavior.

The ultimate goal of blackmail is to get what the abuser wants, and most will go to extreme lengths to get it. Whether it be sapping your self-worth, threatening you, or making you feel guilty or ashamed, the goal will always be to change your behavior. That way, the abuser will never have to take an active role in managing their emotions or producing the results they want.

8. They shame you.

Shame is a powerful motivator when used correctly. When you feel shame in yourself or that you’re not good enough,  you’re more likely to overextend to prove your worth in your abuser’s eyes. The issue is that the shame doesn’t ever go away, as children who get shamed in childhood often grow into unconfident adults with people-pleasing tendencies.

9. They’re constantly offering ultimatums.


Ultimatums are usually a last-ditch effort to manipulate a victim when showing resistance. Things like “If you don’t start cleaning your room, I’m going to kick you out of the house” or “If you don’t let me use the TV to watch my show, I’ll turn off our cable, and neither of us can watch ever again.” They’re effective because they demand immediate action; otherwise, there will be an extreme consequence.

10. They make you think you owe them.

Family ties are often full of feelings of obligation. You can’t choose your family, but they may not be people you’d choose to spend your time with. Still, you feel like you have to spend the holidays with them or have to be cordial to them even when they disrespect you. Truthfully, this isn’t necessary, and if you feel forced to believe this, it could be a sign you’re being emotionally blackmailed.

11. They threaten self-harm if you don’t comply.

bored couple sitting on couch togetheristock

Another archetype of emotional blackmailers is the self-punisher. These people will often leverage harm on themselves to make you more likely to do as they ask. An example of this is, “If you spend time with your friends, I’m going to be so lonely I’ll self-harm.” Most of the time, there is very little chance that the abuser will actually do this. However, it can be hard to resist protecting someone you care about, even at the expense of your happiness.

12. They leverage acceptance and love.

Couple have a conversation, while he's been ignored by his girlfriend

Withdrawals of affection or attention can be an effective tactic for emotional blackmailers. This is another passive-aggressive technique that can make the victim feel isolated or guilty without the abuser saying anything at all. They may even go so far as to combine it with tantalization techniques to solidify the idea that the only path to being loved is through compliance.

13. They have BPD.

People who have borderline personality disorder or BPD are the most common perpetrators of emotional blackmail. They have an intense need to avoid abandonment or rejection, so they resort to unhealthy ways of maintaining control over their relationships. Not to say that every emotional blackmailer has BPD, but if you have a family member who suffers, there is a higher chance that they will display emotionally manipulative tactics.

14. They act like you’ve hurt them.

Exaggerating harm done is a cornerstone of emotional blackmail. Abusers will often overstate how you’ve hurt them, even in cases where you had no intention of doing so. If the abuser can convince you that you have wronged them in some way, you’ll feel inclined to do something to repay them. This dynamic further enforces the victim mentality that the abuser has and can make the actual victim feel bad.

15. No matter what you do, it’s never enough.

Sad, frustrated young brunette woman is crying with smartphone in hands while she sitting on the chair at apartment

It’s essential to know as a victim that you are not to blame for your abuser’s tendencies. They frequently have difficulty expressing their needs or have deep-rooted fears and poor emotional management. This feeling leads them to seek to control their external world as a way of regulating. In short, no matter how much you comply with or try to help them overcome their feelings, they will still make demands of you because no one has addressed the root.

16. They take away your right to say “no.”

A pivotal insight to avoiding an emotional blackmailer’s manipulations is resistance, and the abusers know that. They will seek ways to discourage you from saying “no” or setting your terms. They know that by removing your ability to resist, they can exert more power over you, but it’s still crucial that you maintain as much autonomy as you can. Remember that you are not obliged to bend over backward for your abuser.

If you or someone you love is experiencing emotional blackmail or physical or emotional abuse, please get in touch with an abuse hotline. Call: 1-800-799-SAFE(7233) or Text: Start to 88788

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