Help me put an end to emotional blackmail.
August 29, 2009 7:20 PM   Subscribe

Help me put an end to emotional blackmail.

For some background, I'm in college, I have a job, a few friends (though I don't see them often), and my relationship of one year. I have quite a bit going for me, and I want to enjoy it, I really do.

So, after reading this book on emotional blackmail, I've realized that my behavior in romantic relationships is unacceptable. Deep down, despite self-loathing, I don't think I'm a bad person, and though I don't make excuses for myself, I'm coming to understand why I feel the things I do.

There are many different types of emotional blackmail, and the kind I exhibit deals with me needing constant reassurance, approval, and attention. I'm super sensitive, and if I feel slighted, criticized, or ignored by my SO by even the most trivial things, I go into crazy panic mode, "Oh, he doesn't love me, he's going to leave me, he thinks I'm stupid, he thinks she's more attractive," and sulk and turn it into a big thing where he spends an hour saying the same things over and over, trying to reassure me. So far, he's been very patient and very loving, but I have a feeling that now his limits are being tested. I love him and I want him to be happy, and I know that I make him happy when I'm not taking my insecurities and fears out on him.

I have some pretty deep-rooted abandonment issues from my childhood, and I feel that what I need is a fundamental shift in thinking, a new way of looking at situations that I will be able to feel and not just rationalize intellectually. Intellectually, I understand that I am not being abandoned when my SO goes out with his friends or what have you. Intellectually, I understand that it is good that we develop as individuals so we can grow together and complement one another. Okay, got it...But, wait. Why does it still feel like abandonment?

I've noticed that my "triggers" always involve me feeling left out and ignored by things at which more well-adjusted people wouldn't bat an eyelash. So, what I would really appreciate is practical advice on what to do when I start feeling these things so that I can enjoy the time I spend with my SO, drama-free. Pieces of wisdom and information that can stick with me. I'm basically trying to convince my emotional mind what my intellectual mind already knows, but I need some help.

Thank you for taking the time to read this.
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (21 answers total) 28 users marked this as a favorite
This is my cue to recommend How to Be an Adult in Relationships. There's actually quite a bit in there about how to begin addressing the fear of abandonment (and, for the other side of the same coin, fear of engulfment) that can be so unhealthy and sabotaging for relationships. Good luck -- you're wise to recognize this issue at a young age.
posted by scody at 7:43 PM on August 29, 2009 [3 favorites]

Some people are going to suggest therapy. I am going to suggest a particular kind:

Dialectical behavioral therapy helps people who are very strong feelers to use particular strategies developed by Marsha Linehan. It's a sort of Zen Buddhist approach to cognitive behavioral therapy. However, instead of spending a lot of time talking about the problem as you would do in a more dynamic form of therapy, you talk about the solution. You come up with ways to address the fallout from the problem (you have abandonment issues, so you mistreat people who you are afraid will abandon you). What do you do? What are your strategies for coping with that situation?

Someone who is trained in CBT (always go for the PhD or PsyD) who also knows DBT might be good, because that person can help you with any tendency you may have to intellectualize a problem.

I think if you're going to do serious work on yourself, it's in your best interest to do it with a good therapist.

Good luck.
posted by brina at 7:57 PM on August 29, 2009 [8 favorites]

You say you have some deep-seated abandonment issues that stem from childhood. While knowing what caused the problem you now realize you have is helpful, it's really only part of the solution. Now you need to work with a mental health professional to get back on track. You can't just tell your mind to cut it out like so much Fonzie and it'll stop thinking the wrong way and making you feel what you feel.

I wish you good luck on your journey, though.
posted by inturnaround at 8:27 PM on August 29, 2009

Intellectually, I understand that it is good that we develop as individuals so we can grow together and complement one another. Okay, got it...But, wait. Why does it still feel like abandonment?

It's totally okay to feel abandoned. I mean, it's scary and awful and no fun, but it doesn't make you a bad person. And everyone feels that way sometimes — even in totally healthy relationships, there's always insecurities and fears and whatnot.

The thing to recognize is, it's your feeling. Your boyfriend can't feel it instead of you, he can't cope with it for you, and he can't make it go away. You're the one who's got to deal with it.

And in fact, you already are dealing with it. You probably think those hours of frantic reassurance from your boyfriend are what makes the scary abandoned feeling go away. But that's not so. They're a distraction at best. You're already doing the real work — feeling the bad feelings, letting them go again, and coming out the other end sane and whole. That's really brave and strong of you. The only problem is that you don't give yourself the credit for being brave and strong. You throw the fit and accept all the reassurance, and then you tell yourself, "See, I can't handle these feelings. He's the one who handles them." Well that's nonsense. They're your feelings, remember? He can't handle them any more than he can dream your dreams for you or digest your food.

It's kind of like Dumbo's magic feather, right? Dumbo convinces himself the feather's what makes him fly. And so he never tries to fly on his own — which means that he never gives himself a chance to prove that he can do it on his own. All along, he's really flying all by himself, but the rigamarole with the feather prevents him from recognizing what he's capable of and giving himself credit for the accomplishment.

Same thing here. The sulking-and-reassurance song and dance is just a magic feather. You're perfectly capable of handling bad feelings on your own. You're already handling them on your own in every sense of the word that matters. You just need to work up the nerve to put down the feather.
posted by nebulawindphone at 9:06 PM on August 29, 2009 [20 favorites]

The old school Transactional Analysis talks about the Child, Parent and Adult in us all. From what you have written it sounds as if your Child takes over at these times. A book that talks about this is I'm OK, You're OK.

If you could become the nurturer of your Child, by understanding her fears and pains this will help you find more ways to allow your Adult to respond to these situations.

Kudos to you for trying to find ways to help yourself grow. I've been where you are and I know it can be very painful. Hugs and good luck.
posted by Kerasia at 9:12 PM on August 29, 2009 [1 favorite]

See your friends more often. Make new friends. Take up a hobby, learn a new skill and explore. If you're inland, find a horse. If you're coastal, find a boat. Go deep and grow. The relationship will follow along with you, or will not, but you will be just fine.
posted by cior at 12:40 AM on August 30, 2009

This post could have been written by me. I found that the way to cope with these emotional outbursts are to keep myself busy (going out with friends, doing something that won't leave me time for brooding), and, counterintuitive as this may sound, hearing his voice (if I'm not around him). Anytime I feel a crazy emotional phase coming on, I give him a call, and just hearing his voice calms me down. This (a) pacifies my fears; (b) reminds me that if I act selfish by sulking, I will make him unhappy. And I love him, so I don't want to make him unhappy.
posted by moiraine at 3:51 AM on August 30, 2009

I agree with brina. Dialectical Behavior Therapy could be very helpful.
posted by Coventry at 4:15 AM on August 30, 2009

2nding Scody's book recommendation.

One thing you can do is to not think of this in terms of criminal language such as "blackmail." I know there are parallels here; on some level you are using the threat of panic and emotional upheaval to coerce your boyfriend into giving you endless reassurances, but at its root this is a defense mechanism gone awry, not a malicious weapon. Look at the subtitle of the book you linked to, and realize that it is being marketed to your boyfriend, not to you. It obviously provided you with some useful insights, but don't imagine that his point of view is the only legitimate point of view. Spare yourself a little compassion.

I'm basically trying to convince my emotional mind what my intellectual mind already knows, but I need some help.

Insofar as you'd typically convince people of ideas through rational argument and discussion, you can't really convince your emotional mind of anything because it's not interested in discourse. You can, however, learn to accept those feelings of abandonment without rebelling against them and without demanding that other people (your boyfriend in particular) save you from ever having to feel them. Fears of abandonment are uncomfortable, but it's your unwillingness to feel them that is making them so destructive. You can practice feeling without panicking. Practice, practice, practice. Talk about your feelings, when your BF is willing to have a talk, but own up to them as having come from yourself. Hold fast to that knowledge. If he reflexively starts to reassure you, to say 'Oh honey, I do love you; you're great; Don't worry, I'll be back later, etc.,' stop him in his tracks and ask him to just listen. All you really need from him is support while you unpack your bags and look at the contents. This is something he can do for you, and you can legitimately ask for it.
posted by jon1270 at 4:57 AM on August 30, 2009 [3 favorites]

Get reassurance from him in a healthier way.

Tell him you have observed this behavior in yourself and you don't like it. You want to change it, and you're asking for his help. You believe that this behavior is triggered by insecurity, and you want to find a healthier way of responding to that insecurity. So the next time that you feel it, you're going to turn to him and say something like this:

"Remember what we talked about? I'm feeling insecure and need to be reassured."

And at this point he will do X reassuring thing (hug you, stroke your hair, squeeze your hand, smile, say something kind).

Now you're being honest with him about what's going on, and you're not trying to deal with this all alone. I think that might help.
posted by prefpara at 6:26 AM on August 30, 2009 [2 favorites]

This isn't going to be the best answer here, but I'm going to add it on the off-chance it could possibly help you, or more likely someone else dredging through the archives looking for their own solution...

My history is different, because I was very confident, trusting, assured - and then I was betrayed, in a relationship of 10+ years. Worse, it wasn't just one instance... I found out it was systemic, had probably been happening since day one. When I fell in love again, I suffered from some of what you describe, mostly because I felt that I couldn't believe in either my own feelings of trust, or declarations or reassurances from my partner. I felt that I had to be constantly looking out for signs of potential betrayal since I had obviously been such a naive, gullible fool the first time. I didn't trust myself not to be stupidly credulous, and was constantly second-guessing everything.

I'm lucky that my now-husband was terribly patient, but more lucky that I finally recognized that I was going to ruin the best thing that could ever happen to me if I didn't square up and let go of all that fear. In my case, I had to essentially just decide to be brave, really, fundamentally brave, and live my life with him with an open and trusting heart - even if it meant I might get hurt again. I decided that being hurt again was a more acceptable outcome than trashing this amazing gift of true love out of fear, out of toxic, oozing hurt from an old wound. I realized that I was mining the ground of my very own beautiful true love with dirty bombs. And I stopped. I decided to stop, and I stopped.

Now it's like 20 years later, and I understand a lot more. I understand that the first relationship was bound to be that way no matter what; it wasn't me, it was him. Anybody would have been fooled, and it was pathological. I also recognize how close I came to losing my true love as a result. He was patient - and for a long time, but we wouldn't have survived an atmosphere of extended suspicion. Finally, I realized that, in any case, it would have been just a completely destructive state of mind for me, no matter what. Even if I hadn't found my true love immediately after that bad marriage as I did, even if I dated/had relationships with many men who were not meant to be my "One," everything would have been spoiled and ugly if I allowed my fear to rule me.

I completely understand what you mean when you talk about emotional versus intellectual understanding/knowledge. In my case, I had to use my intellect to decide, and then allow my heart (emotion) to override the remaining doubts and suspicions of my intellect. These two are often at war... the intellect is too much of a cold, information-gathering war machine, and the heart is too much of a gauze-hanging hopeful romantic (or crepe-hanging forlorn tragedienne!). It's difficult for anybody to negotiate their various demands. You are not alone, by any means. Age and experience help a lot, if that's any consolation!
posted by taz at 6:30 AM on August 30, 2009 [10 favorites]

I think you could benefit from some concrete steps that you could take in the moments when you are feeling panicked. One of the things about anxiety is that it can be a bit of a feedback loop: you feel anxious and thus bad, you don't want to feel bad, but you don't have anything to do about it, so now you feel powerless on top of everything else, making you feel worse! (Or, in your case, you feel like you need your boyfriend to do something to make you feel better; you end up feeling powerless because you think you can never stop feeling this way unless he offers you these reassurances.) If you have a recipe for what to do in these situations, on your own, that fact alone will make you feel more secure.

What sort of concrete steps would I suggest? Well, you could try focusing on the physical sensations you are feeling. Try to do it with a curious, kind, accepting fashion. Take some deep breaths, notice the feelings, notice if your muscles are tense, how your heart is beating, how your breath feels. (It's good to practice this at other times, as well... meditation is very good for this.)

The hope is that you'll get a bit of distance from the anxiety, to see it as a bundle of thoughts and sensations but something that you can (and will!) survive. Then, you'll be in a slightly better place to make decisions about how you want to interact with others, like your boyfriend.
posted by wyzewoman at 6:49 AM on August 30, 2009 [2 favorites]

I'm going to third Brina's book recommendation. MeMail me if you'd like any further details or have questions.
posted by foxy_hedgehog at 8:11 AM on August 30, 2009

Yes, like many of the people above have said, talking to a mental health professional is a good idea, and I leave the specifics up to them, but also don't forget to talk to your boyfriend, and let him know that in your more rational moments, you really do feel bad about how you've treated him, that it's caused by factors x, y, and z, that are not his fault, that you do care about him, and that you've identified the problem and are doing your best to solve it. I've been in basically your boyfriend's position, and it sucked, but if I had ever heard something like this question it would have done a lot of good for the relationship. So yeah, again it's really great of you that you are self-aware enough to recognize this in you, but make sure that he is aware that you are aware.
posted by notswedish at 8:12 AM on August 30, 2009

There is a lot of good advice here - the only thing I can add is during the times when you find yourself going to your boyfriend for too much reassurance, try to put yourself in his shoes and think about what he must be thinking and feeling when he, a perfectly nice guy who does x, y, and z for you, is put in the uncomfortable position of having to go that much further because you still don't have faith. Try a little empathy for him, and see if that doesn't help you relax and understand that your fears are in your own head, and not in the world your boyfriend and everyone else lives in.

You might also want to think about the benefits of not asking for too much reassurance - if you never have to ask, you never have to wonder if he is being loving for any reason other than enjoying the intimacy with you. Begin sure that he's doing something tender because he enjoys being that way with you should be positive reinforcement for moving away from your baggage.
posted by Lesser Shrew at 8:53 AM on August 30, 2009

Try to work on your own self-confidence. If you were confident that you were attractive and lovable, you'd probably be less worried that someone might leave you. If you were confident that you could manage happily on your own, you wouldn't NEED to worry that they might leave you; you'd know that whatever was the worst that could happen, even then, you'd be OK.

So, maybe you could try and write down: What are the three things about myself that I dislike the most? How could I try and improve those things?
Then write down: What are the three most dreadful consequences of being abandoned? How could I alleviate them?

So, for example, if you sometimes worry that you look stupid, pick something you're good at and learn more about it; or pick something you're not good at and get better at it.

Maybe if your boyfriend goes out without you, you worry that you will feel lonely; so plan your time so that you have non-boyfriend-centric things to do, whether that's going out with friends, staying in to clean up the house, or having a date-night with yourself, with a bath, a bottle of wine and a romantic comedy.
posted by emilyw at 9:02 AM on August 30, 2009

I have the same tendencies (I call it neediness), and the best thing I know to do is: Remember that you may not be able to control your feelings, but you can control whether you open your mouth.

The thing, for me, is not to make my partner play along in my psychodrama, by which I mean I bottle up my little bit of crazy and don't make her have to deal with it. I don't implicate her in my bad feelings and insist that she make up for the mean version of her in my head. The important thing to remember, here, is that you are not a bad person to feel what you feel--the bad stuff comes in when you make everyone else deal with it along with you. Also, you can't control your feelings--you can't reason them away. You can only control what you do as a result of them.

If it's really, really bad--like, I'm just dying for reassurance and it's bleak in my head to the point that it's going to show--I might give her a heads up that I'm feeling looped in the head and may be really quiet or distant until it calms down. She knows the anatomy of these feelings, because I've described them to her in a calmer time, so she just nods and lets me do what I need to do. And she might hug me a little more often.

Then, just like with any bad feeling that there's no need to analyze because I've been there before and know it, I read. Or I play video games. Or I go to a bookstore and browse. Or I write.

It's interesting--I feel like I still have this issue where I let my feelings dictate my behavior far, far more often than I would like, and as a result of this post I'm thinking "hm, maybe I'll try DBT," but when it comes to my friendships and relationships I really do feel like I have this under control. Sometimes it means that I need a little more time to myself than I might if I didn't ever have these feelings, but at least I'm not an emotional vampire.
posted by hought20 at 9:54 AM on August 30, 2009 [3 favorites]

Nth-ing the recommendation of How to Be an Adult in Relationships and also suggesting Facing Codependence by Pia Mellody et al.

if I feel slighted, criticized, or ignored by my SO by even the most trivial things, I go into crazy panic mode, "Oh, he doesn't love me, he's going to leave me, he thinks I'm stupid, he thinks she's more attractive," and sulk and turn it into a big thing where he spends an hour saying the same things over and over, trying to reassure me

This is textbook codependent behavior. Mellody cites an example where her husband said, "Honey, I wish you would stop leaving so many lights on--it's wasteful and expensive" and she went off to figure out how she would cope with getting a divorce.

I have so been there. I didn't do the "emotional blackmail" thing because my particular flavor of codependence was the "good soldier" style--"I was not perfect, therefore you must hate me so I will pack up my things and go"--but it's a tough mindset to break out of.
posted by Sidhedevil at 12:56 PM on August 30, 2009 [1 favorite]

I must be posting anonymous askmes in my sleep. Seriously. Except I'm well past college and I'm married.

I wish I had The Answer, or this wouldn't resonate so completely with me. Things that have helped:

- being very mindful of when I'm Doing It Again, and catching myself right when I start getting sulky

- not beating myself when I do get sulky

- realizing that it has a lot to do with brain chemistry - i.e. these thought patterns have "worn a groove" in my brain due to repeated firings of neurons, and thus I am predisposed to have this reaction

- utilizing meditation and other treatments for anxiety disorders - after all, this makes you anxious, right?

- being honest with my husband about my past so he understands exactly why I am this way (my childhood makes this blatantly obvious)

- realizing that it's impossible to EVER get enough reassurance - it's like trying to fill an abyss - and thus it's counterproductive to even start

You might want to check out some literature on Love Addiction, as it directly addresses this type of neediness. I recommend Women, Sex, and Addiction by Charlotte Kasl.

Best wishes - I completely understand what you are going through to a degree you cannot imagine.
posted by desjardins at 5:14 PM on August 30, 2009 [3 favorites]

Have you considered getting a dog? Dogs love you and always want to be with you no matter what. A dog will keep you company and give you the love and affection you need when you are feeling abandoned or neglected by other humans. I'm not suggesting that you replace your human relationships with a pet, but a pet dog might be a good supplemental source of love, affection, and companionship and could take some of the pressure off your human relationships.
posted by Jacqueline at 6:53 PM on August 30, 2009 [1 favorite]

My advice is to stop trying to reassure yourself that you're ok, that you're not being abandoned, etc., and start trying to instead reassure yourself that being abandoned is OK. He's just some guy - if he doesn't like you or if he thinks you are stupid or (whatever is in your head), then he's wrong and a schmuck.

I mean, I don't want to encourage you to get crazily hostile instead of crazily insecure, at all, but sometime it helps to reassure yourself that what you're afraid of is not that bad. Nobody adores and approves of another person all of the time and it's OK if your boyfriend is annoyed with you at some particular moment. It really is.
posted by tamaraster at 4:26 PM on August 31, 2009 [4 favorites]

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