How to deal with emotional blackmail

Emotional blackmail targets our caring reputation. Photo by Eric Ward on Unsplash

Blackmail is  the exercise of power over another person by threatening to damage their reputation.  In emotional blackmail, the threatener uses themselves as the reputational threat.  The behaviour communicates the message  “Do as I ask, or else my likely behaviour will make you regret it.”


The emotional blackmailer will not always be explicit in their threat.  Sometimes they will establish, by a pattern of behaviour, an expectation of their likely reaction to not getting what they want.

Jane had temper tantrums whenever her husband went out with friends.  Eventually, she didn’t need to warn him; he knew her likely reaction, and simply stopped having a social life.  This is an example of setting up a pattern of likely behaviour.


Emotional blackmailers often pay attention to the self-perceived reputational role of the target.  In particular, if the target sees themselves as caring, then the blackmailer will focus on ‘implied failure to care’ as the reputational threat.

Harriet’s boyfriend David had cared for her through several breakdowns.  It became too much for him, and he wanted to leave the relationship.  Harriet implied strongly that all their friends thought it was very uncaring of him to be thinking such things.  So he became quiet about it, and felt so trapped that he became depressed.  Harriet had successfully focused on David’s self-valued role as caring person.


You will notice that emotional blackmail usually focuses on the target’s caring reputation or self-perception.  This means that, to lessen its effects, we have to bolster our caring reputation in other ways, or care less about our caring reputation.


Doctors receive emotional blackmail all the time.  Patients will imply that, if the doctor does not do what the patient wants, the doctor is uncaring.  Doctors, fortunately, have a reasonable ‘bank’ of reputational currency.  The mere fact of being a doctor is regarded as enough for there to be a presumption of a caring nature.

One way to defend oneself against reputational blackmail is to align oneself with a professional body which itself has a reputation.  It is hard to emotionally blackmail a health professional with a 30-year public career in a caring profession, plus membership of a relevant professional body.

Another way is to build a caring reputation independent of the blackmailer.  This is why so many blackmailers try to isolate their victims socially.  They are easier to control that way.  To fight back, we create a wide circle of people who know us as caring, and would back up our reputation if threatened by one person.


Self-perception is more subtle.  To see ourselves as caring, even when we are applying boundaries to blackmailers, involves careful thought and management of feelings.

Mentors and supervisors can be incredibly helpful in this regard.  Talking to a mentor takes power away from a blackmailer.  Fred had been physically abused by his wife Ann.  She implied that, if he told the doctor about what she had done, he would be a disloyal and uncaring husband.  Fred, however, told the doctor, and broke Ann’s power over him.

We can also be clear with ourselves about our own motivation.  An emotional blackmailer will try to imply we have bad motivation, or have fallen short, with comments such as “You’re only thinking about yourself!” and “You’re supposed to be my mother!”  We need to replace those accusations with rational thinking of our own that is a good defence.

Charlie was a therapist, whose client Helen used emotional blackmail to get longer sessions.  She would imply that a caring therapist would give a suicidal client more time.  This was a very hard argument to counter in his head.  Discussing the issue with his supervisor, Charlie came up with a counter-argument.  He explained to Helen that he needed to tend to other clients as a natural part of his job, but he signposted Helen to several phone lines that could take calls if she felt suicidal between sessions.  Helen still suddenly developed suicidal feelings at the end of sessions, but Charlie had a clearer and stronger procedural argument ready.


Finally, we must never think of ourselves as the only route to happiness a blackmailer has.  Emotional blackmailers are often unhappy themselves (that’s why they need to control people).  Part of standing up to emotional blackmail is the ability to stop thinking that we are the only answer, and to start explaining alternatives to the blackmailer.

  • Jane’s husband can have a social life, and suggest that Jane consult a doctor about her tantrums
  • David can leave Harriet, and suggest that she seek psychological help for her breakdowns
  • Fred can leave Ann, and suggest that she seek help for her aggressive behaviour
  • Charlie can end sessions, and suggest that Helen seek help from a helpline if suicidal between sessions


I want to be clear that we are not failing to care.  We can still offer help if we choose.  But when the help requests become unreasonable, and affect our ability to lead a normal life, then we need to free ourselves.  The power balance needs restoring so that the blackmailer either does without us, or behaves in a less controlling manner.  We are not rejecting the person, but we are resisting the behaviour.

This is incredibly hard for people who see themselves as caring.  That’s why emotional  blackmailers target caring people.  But if an emotional blackmailer sees that they cannot get what they want, they are often miraculously cured of their tantrums, breakdowns, aggression and suicidal ideations.   Sometimes (but not always) the caring behaviour of the target was actually perpetuating the unreasonable behaviour.

Standing up to emotional blackmail does a favour to the target and the blackmailer.  Both can establish more healthy patterns, less codependent and more independent.  The atmosphere relaxes, and enough distance is achieved to allow both to feel their own emotions without being suffocated by the relationship itself.