Fear, obligation, and guilt (FOG) is one of the most popular topics among people with someone in their life who has borderline or narcissistic personality disorder. Here is what I said about it in the Stop Walking on Eggshells Workbook (New Harbinger, 2002).
According to Susan Forward, Ph.D. (Forward and Frazier 1997), emotional blackmail is a “powerful form of manipulation in which people close to us threaten, directly or indirectly, to punish us if we don’t do what they want." The main tool of the trade, Forward says, is FOG: fear, obligation, and guilt.
People with borderline or narcissistic personality disorder may use emotional blackmail because it’s the best or the only way they know to get what they want or need. Unwilling or unable to make a direct request, FOG becomes the lever of choice to those who suffer from low self-esteem and have difficulty setting personal limits and stating what they want. Victims capitulate because they often possess these same qualities. And perpetrators use whatever works again and again.
All children seem to come equipped with the emotional blackmail toolkit—it’s not just kids with BPD who say, “But Jennifer’s mom let her wear this same short skirt to the mall!” The borderline child tends to use the extra heavy-duty version: “I hate you because you won’t let me wear that skirt!” and before you can stop her, she grabs a knife off the counter and races to her room, which is suddenly and grimly silent. You’re left frantically beating on the locked door, fearful for her safety, resentful of the obligation to be a “good” parent, guilty that you left the knife where she could get it.
FOG in Action
FOG works in the dark. It resides in the land of emotion, not logic. At the heart of it is this flawed reasoning: “It is permissible for me to push your buttons to get my needs met, but if you try the same thing, I’ll make sure you will regret your selfishness.”
That’s right: the emotional blackmailer’s reasoning is illogical; he lives by a double standard. That’s why emotional blackmail is never discussed outright: the minute you try to shine a light on it, by discussing it or asking pointed questions, it will scurry away like a cockroach. If you try to pin a blackmailer down—“Are you saying you will pout if I refuse to go to the party with you?”—he will project the FOG back onto you, deny its existence; or try to distract you by changing the subject, being dramatic, or getting angry. The supposed anger may have nothing to do with the particular topic—a combination of anger with a request to change the subject is designed to throw you off-balance.
Emotional Blackmail Takes Two
Most BPD behaviors don’t need the implicit agreement of another person to take place. A rage is a rage is a rage. But emotional blackmail takes two: the blackmailer and the “blackmailee” who permits it to happen. If you refuse to participate, the blackmailer’s efforts will be fruitless. This is your defense.
The film Ruthless People illustrates this point in a comical way, although it is about real blackmail. In the film, a married couple who have been wronged by a ruthless tycoon (Danny DeVito) kidnap his wife (Bette Midler) hoping to collect a ransom. But the plan backfires when DeVito’s character refuses to pay because he wanted his wife out of his life anyway. Thus, the plan fails (at least in the way they had hoped).
If you, like DeVito’s character, refuse to be held prisoner by fear, obligation, and guilt, and you are willing to install personal limits, treasure yourself, and not be blinded by your own emotions, you can avoid capitulating to the blackmailer’s selfish demands. And each time you succeed, it is less likely that the BP will try this technique again.
How Blackmailing Works
A “FOG transaction” has four parts: the demand, the resistance, pressure and threats, and compliance.
The Demand. This can be direct (e.g., “I want custody”) or indirect (“Nothing’s wrong. I know you don’t have time to listen to my petty relationship problems”). In the latter case, for example, your friend Sheila may call to talk about her latest fight with her boyfriend. The unspoken demand is that if you don’t insist on a full accounting of the fight right now—and take her side—she will sulk and get angry.
The Resistance. In your heart, you know you don’t want to play this game. You want to take a brisk walk on this beautiful day, so you ask if the discussion can wait until another day. Sheila pauses, sighs, and moans, “I guuuueeeeessss so,” meaning, “I want to talk about it now.” This may hit one of your hot buttons—you feel you are a giving person who cares about your friends—and the blackmailer is counting on your image of yourself being more important than your own needs and wishes.
Pressure and threats. Depending on many factors, pressure and threats can be subtle or quite direct. Since Sheila has been a friend for a long time, she knows that you pride yourself on being kind to others. So she uses this card to play on your sense of FOG. “I guess I can wait,” she says, “but I really need to talk now. I feel like you did when you called me about your father’s illness and I rushed right over. If you can’t find time for me now, I just don’t know if you’re really my friend.”
Compliance. You’ve heard this same story from Sheila dozens of times, and you know that if you keep rushing over, she’ll never learn how to start dealing with disappointment on her own. Reminded of what a “good friend” the blackmailer has been, afraid Sheila might not want to be your friend, feeling a bit guilty for wanting to exercise when your friend is in misery, and not looking forward to being called “selfish,” you listen to a full accounting of your friend’s miseries during the hour you had set aside to do something for yourself. Bingo, you’re been successfully FOGged.
(By the way, one possible answer to this particular dilemma is asking Sheila to come over and take a brisk walk with you. If you can compromise and create a win-win situation, by all means, go ahead.)
FOG and Its Use in Emotional Blackmail
Manipulation can take many forms. Here are some other examples.
- Grant is fully aware that his wife is having an affair with a man named Trent. He knows because she talks about him and compares them sexually. But he’s afraid if he demands that she stop seeing Trent, she’ll just leave him. That’s fear.
- As an adult, Susan tries to avoid her mother’s rages, complaints about others, and contagious sour moods. But Susan feels compelled to call her mother Judith back when she leaves a message on the answering machine. If she doesn’t, eventually Judith will reach her and demand to know, “Where were you?” Judith has been living alone since Susan’s dad finally left, and Susan likes to think of herself as a “good person.” For her, this means that she has a tendency to put the needs of others above her own— something Judith is counting on. This is obligation.
- Jack and Ramona have a teenage daughter they think is borderline. She’s totally out of control; normal discipline doesn’t work. They don’t know where she goes at night, and they’re afraid she’ll get pregnant—or worse, contract AIDS. But they just can’t put their own daughter in a residential treatment center. She would hate it. Down deep, Jack and Ramona are worried that something they did caused their daughter’s disorder. They feel guilty.
So what to do about FOG? In the next blog post I'll outline some techniques.