Freedom From the FOG of Emotional Manipulation

In their 1997 book, Emotional Blackmail: When the People in Your Life Use Fear, Obligation and Guilt to Manipulate You, authors Susan Forward and Donna Frazier described the fear, obligation and guilt (aptly referred to as FOG) that the loved ones of emotional manipulators must contend with.

Before we describe this emotional fog and its effects, we need to address the somewhat tricky accusation of “manipulation” as applied to individuals suffering from borderline personality disorder (BPD).

Although there is no question that at times (often quite frequently), BPD sufferers resort to emotionally manipulative behaviors, the term “manipulation” implies premeditation as much as intent. However, the nature of BPD causes sufferers to struggle with impulsivity, and a great deal of their behavior in relation to loved ones springs from desperate efforts “to avoid real or imagined abandonment.” Even when we perceive our BPD loved ones as being manipulative, the truth is that their behaviors arise as psychological defenses and coping strategies created by their mental illness — not as malicious plots to manipulate others. Still, making daily distinctions between calculated machinations and symptoms of mental illness can be futile for loved ones and others.

Regardless of the reasons for manipulative reactions, dealing with the emotional chaos frequently generated by a BPD loved one generally creates pain and a sense of the burden of responsibility as well as that cloud of fear, obligation and guilt described by Forward and Frazier and reiterated by Paul Mason and Randi Kreger in their book, Stop Walking on Eggshells: Taking Your Life Back when Someone You Care About Has Borderline Personality Disorder.

Beyond the Blame System

In her book, The Essential Family Guide to Borderline Personality Disorder: New Tools and Techniques to Stop Walking on Eggshells, BPD author and expert Randi Kreger lays out five steps for family members and loved ones that she calls the “Beyond the Blame System.” Kreger’s approach is empathetic and no-nonsense and is helping loved ones step back from the chaos and gain new tools for dealing with old dynamics.

Below you’ll find a brief outline of the approach that can be found in her book:

“Take good care of yourself. This step begins with reaching out for your own support — to friends and trusted family members, but especially to a qualified therapist. Ensure that you are never dealing with your BPD loved one when you are tired, hungry, sick or emotional. Eat right, exercise and take care of you first. Find ways to shore up your self-esteem, and remember not to take your BPD loved one personally. She/he reacts as a result of mental illness, not to hurt you.

“Uncover what keeps you feeling stuck.” Perhaps you have created a rescuer relationship with your BPD loved one, which is not healthy for either of you. Perhaps a history of abuse — emotional and symbolic violence (like slamming doors and throwing objects) are used to control others — keeps you locked in fear and trapped in a repetitive pattern with your BPD loved one because his or her behavior feels familiar to you. Fear may be controlling you in other ways as well; you may be afraid of her or his reactions, afraid of conflict, afraid of being alone — any of these fears and toxic scripts could be keeping you stuck in an unhealthy dynamic.

“Communicate to Be Heard.” Attempting to communicate with a BPD sufferer can feel frightening; it has been chaotic and conflict-ridden in the past, and your attempts were squashed and overwhelmed. But learning to communicate well is a healthy and proactive means of moving forward. When reaching out verbally, demonstrate Empathy, Attention and Respect (EAR). This approach stands a positive chance of calming your listener down. In writing, use the BIFF method: Be Brief, Informative, Friendly and Firm. Stick to positives (don’t accuse or become sarcastic), and remain congenial but firm with your boundaries and intentions.

“Set Limits with Love.” If you have never set boundaries with your BPD loved one, or if you cave on your boundaries as a result of the FOG, this step may feel especially hard, but it will become essential to your mental wellness and to the health of any relationship you hope to have with your loved one. The object here is to be firm but loving. When stating your boundaries, such as choosing to leave when your loved one expresses rage, it is important to communicate that you are not abandoning him or her. You may say, “When you choose to rage, I will need to leave the house. I love you, and am not leaving to hurt you, but to help me. I will return only when you are calm again.” It is important to begin to set limits with your loved one, perhaps by starting small. Always be firm but fair, and do not vacillate. These are commitments you make for both your sakes.

“Reinforce the Right Behavior.” Despite our verbal nature as a species, actions have always counted more than words. When your BPD loved one expresses outsized negative emotions, don’t react. Any reaction from you will become positive reinforcement, no matter how infrequent, ensuring your loved one continues to engage unfairly. Simply choose to walk away or to address only positive contributions.