Blog Short #39: How to Avoid Being Held Emotionally Hostage

Welcome to Monday Blog Shorts – ideas to make even Monday a good day! Every Monday I share a short article with you about a strategy you can use, or new facts or info that informs you, or a new idea that inspires you . My wish is to give you something to think about in the week ahead. Let’s dig in!


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Lending an ear to someone you care about to help out with a problem, or just listen and provide support, is an act of kindness and empathy. It’s a good thing to do.

But sometimes our kindnesses are exploited and we find ourselves being held emotionally hostage, even though we may not directly recognize it.

Today I want to talk about how you can tell when that’s happening, and what you can do to prevent or stop it.

People who hold others emotionally hostage play on three emotions:

  1. Fear
  2. Compassion and love (and the desire to help)
  3. Anxiety

Here’s some examples:

Your good friend regularly corners you and holds you captive as she regales you with a tirade of complaints, victimizations, blame, and unhappiness. Regardless of how you respond, she continues and rolls over your comments. Things never improve. She leaves you feeling depleted, helpless, and often in a bad mood.

A relative who’s depressed often drops the “suicide” word when talking to you. He’s never made an attempt, but the threat is always there. He doesn’t seek help, and you find yourself thinking about him often and being afraid he might follow through. You worry about it and feel responsible for his safety.

Your partner can be very kind at times, but is easily triggered by little things and flies off the handle when upset. When he’s angry he’s verbally abusive and leaves you feeling guilty, unworthy, anxious, and overwhelmed. You avoid these tirades by walking on eggshells.

In each of these cases, the desired outcomes or needs of one person are extracted from the other person forcefully, with an implied threat if the receiver doesn’t comply. Sometimes the threat is more subtle as in the first two cases, and more overt as in the case of the angry husband.

Very often the person who holds you emotionally hostage is not aware he’s doing it. He’s focused on his needs and doesn’t consider yours in the process. However, his actions are manipulative whether aware of it or not.

Here’s how you know when this is happening:

  • You feel a desire to retreat, yet feel like you can’t.
  • You feel taken advantage of in some way or other.
  • You might feel frustrated, angry, and at the very least, very antsy to get away.
  • You feel responsible for the other person’s feelings and actions.
  • You may feel fear of how the other person will act or react.
  • In all cases, there’s a shift of power without consent.

The two steps for dealing with an emotional hostage situation are:

  1. To recognize quickly when it’s happening.
  2. To take control and stop the process.

Let’s take these one at a time.

Recognize when they’re happening.

To do this, you have to step back a bit and observe from a distance.

Ask yourself these questions:

Is this person taking advantage of my good will, compassion, desire to please, or need to help?

Very likely she is. People who exploit others zero in on these qualities like a radar. If you’re empathetic and willing to help or listen to other people, you’ll attract these exploiters in full force.

You can be sitting in the lunchroom at work along with ten other people, and the person who wants to bend someone’s ear about all her problems will pick you out of the crowd, back you into a corner, and unleash.

The relative who’s suicidal will know that you’re the person in the family who will listen, sympathize, check in, worry, and feel alarmed for him. It may be that this relative is suicidal, but he doesn’t do anything about it other than call you over and over and transfer his depression and fear to you.

The husband with the temper gets his way by scaring you and projecting his feelings of lack into you. Instead of feeling guilty for his bad behavior, you feel guilty for upsetting him, and he knows on some level that this works.

Is the person I’m dealing with equally concerned about my thoughts, feelings, and needs?

This is an important question. In most cases, she isn’t. It might be that she is when she’s feeling stable, or is in a good mood, but when she’s upset or feeling needy, that goes out the window. In the case of the friend who bends your ear, you may see her as just someone who’s a bit chaotic and has a lot of problems, but you still like her. What you’re missing is that she really doesn’t consider your needs at all. She sees you as an ear – someone she can discharge her emotions into.

What you can do about it.

#1) Set boundaries.

When you know you’re being taken advantage of, stop it. You could stop your friend midstream in conversation and say, “I know you have a lot to talk about and feel frustrated. Although I understand, I think you could benefit from seeing a counselor who would be much more qualified to help you sort through these things.” If she persists, reiterate – “I really can’t help you with all of this.”

#2) Take control.

With your suicidal relative, you could say or do three things:

  1. “You need to see counselor. I’m sympathetic and concerned about you, but this is over my head. Here’s the name of someone who can help, and their number.”
  2. Call the police and ask for a well check. They’ll go out and check in with your relative to see if he needs to go to a hospital or not.
  3. Let your relative know you can’t keep this a secret, and that you’ll seek help from someone involved like a parent or a spouse. Then do that.

Whichever choice you make, your objective is to stop the repetitive pattern and shift responsibility so that real help can be accessed.

#3) Directly assert your unwillingness to accept the behavior.

This is the one to use in the third case. Select a time when your husband’s not angry and things are calm to let him know how you feel when he gets angry. Tell him you’re no longer okay with that response, and talk about what the two of you might do to deal with the problem. If he’s unreceptive, seek counseling yourself and decide what you need to do.

Final Thoughts

It’s important to note that we can all be guilty of holding someone emotionally hostage, and it’s good to be aware of that. That said, there are those who do it regularly, sometimes with awareness and sometimes not. You don’t need to accommodate that behavior, nor should you. It’s not in anyone’s best interest.

That’s all for this Monday. I always welcome your feedback! Leave a comment below or send an email.

Hope you have a great week!

All my best,

Barbara

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