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). This is part two of a two-part series. FOG was proposed by Susan Forward in her book Emotional Blackmail. It's a very good book and I urge you to get it!
Rounding Up the Usual Suspects
In a notebook, make a list of people in your life who try to engage you in emotional blackmail. Use your feelings as a guide: if it feels like blackmail, it probably is. Think about some situations in life in which emotional blackmailers play with your sense of fear, obligation, or guilt to manipulate you. What is it that they want from you, and how do they usually try to get it? Write down an example or two in your notebook. Try to recall who said what, how you felt, and what you told yourself when you capitulated.
DeFOGging Your Life
To deFOG your life, start by identifying places where you are vulnerable and installing FOG-alert devices. The following are examples to help you recognize the process.
“Anger seems to magnetize fear, pulling it quickly to the surface . . . for many of us, this emotion seems so dangerous that we’re afraid of it in any form. And we fear not only other people’s anger, but our own” (Emotional Blackmail, Forward and Frazier, 1997).
On a scale of 1 to 5, with 1 being low and a 5 being high, how afraid are you of the following scenarios? Explain your fear in your notebook: Take your vague feeling and think as practically as possible. What exactly are you afraid of happening? What is your best- and worst-case scenario? Be as realistic as you can.
I am afraid of:
- Losing my family member's approval
- Getting my family member angry with me
- Getting the “silent treatment”
- My family member getting into danger
- My family member getting into legal trouble
- My family member attempting suicide
- My family member self-harming
- My family member getting depressed
- Being thought of as “selfish”
- Taking responsibility
- Being found out
- Being a bad son/daughter/parent
- Fear of abandonment
- Fear of retaliation
- People thinking that I’m a bad person
- Trying something new
- Losing the relationship
- Loss of love/friendship/companionship
- Losing contact with or custody of my children
- Distortion campaigns
- Being alone
- Living by myself
- Taking care of certain practical matters
- Being called names
- Being embarrassed in public
- Being threatened
- Being falsely arrested
- Hitting someone
- Becoming depressed
- Failing to live up to expectations
- Getting angry
- Losing control
“When our sense of obligation is stronger than our sense of self-respect and self-caring, blackmailers quickly learn how to take advantage” (Forward and Frazier, 1997).
On a scale of 1 to 5, how obligated do you feel about the following things? Again, explain your answers in your notebook: Why do you feel obligated? Where is it written that you are obligated? Who obligated you? What do you feel obligated to do? Be as realistic and as reasonable as possible.
- I think of myself as a good partner/friend/child/parent.
- My family member needs me.
- My family member gave me something(s) and I should be grateful.
- People are supposed to love their partner/friend/child/parent.
- I am trying to live up to the expectations of my partner/friend/child/parent.
- Since BPD is a brain disorder I am obligated to make adjustments.
- If I didn’t do this, people would think badly of me.
- I put this much time into this relationship; why quit now?
- People like me have a duty.
- My religion teaches me to be this way.
- My parents taught me that I should do this.
- If I didn’t live up to my obligations, I would feel like a bad person.
- My values prevent me.
“Emotional blackmailers encourage us to take global responsibility for their complaints and unhappiness, doing all they can to reprogram the basic and necessary mechanisms of appropriate guilt into an undeserved guilt-production line where the lights continually flash ‘guilty, guilty, guilty’” (Forward and Frazier, 1997).
Fill in the blanks in the lines below to make the statements specific to your life. Then, on a scale of 1 to 5, rate your sense of guilt. Again, write in your notebook: Why do you feel guilty? Where is it written that you are guilty? Who served as judge and jury? How long is your sentence? Be as realistic and as reasonable as possible.
I feel guilty for feeling __________ instead of __________ .
I hate confrontation so much that I just say “I’m sorry” and hope that ends it.
I feel like a bad person when
If I had known about BPD earlier, I wouldn’t have messed everything up.
When my family member feels ______ she blames it on me.
I would __________ if it weren’t for the fact that I would feel guilty.
My family member blames me for a lot of things.
Sometimes I feel guilty for thinking
Sometimes I feel guilty for doing
Sometimes I feel guilty for being
Sometimes I feel guilty for having
I did something years ago that I still feel guilty about.
My family member told me I was guilty because ______________
Cutting through the FOG
In real life, fog can lead to collisions, people getting lost, and general confusion. FOG can do the same thing. FOG destroys relationships because the people who exploit it and those who let themselves be exploited are not acting out of love or caring. Real love isn’t won by manipulation. It only leads to anger, burnout, resentment, and sometimes the loss of the relationship. When you eliminate the FOG, BPs can clearly ask for what they want and non-BPs can choose to give it because that is what they genuinely want to do.
Anticipate and Practice
In your notebook, anticipate an entire conversation in which you are being emotionally blackmailed. What is the blackmailer likely to want? What pressure or threats will he use? Go back to your worst case/best case scenario. Remember that each person is responsible for his own actions. That means you own your decision and the blackmailer owns his. Changes are highly likely that you will feel uncomfortable with it at first. But chances are good that no one will turn into a frog, go to hell, or end up begging on the street. Each time you do this successfully, you will gain a newfound respect for yourself and become more confident. And it will be easier to do the next time.
If your family member notices a change in your outlook and says so, avoid saying something that could imply “I’m putting myself first, now.” While that may be true, saying it would push a very hot fear-of-abandonment button. Simply say, “I feel I am doing what is best for both of us. I’m sorry if you don’t agree.” Because you are doing it for both of you. The better you can meet your own needs in this relationship, the more likely it is that the relationship will improve.
Keep the Benefits in Mind
Change will be difficult for both you and the blackmailer. So it’s vital to keep in mind that you’re doing this both to reclaim your life and to ensure the health of the relationship. You won’t be happy in the long term in a relationship in which you feel you’re being blackmailed. Most likely, ending the relationship or detaching yourself emotionally would be much, much more painful than coping with blackmail. At the same time, you’re teaching your family member healthier ways to get what he needs while you take care of you. Keep telling yourself, “I can stand this feeling. This is what it feels like to make adult choices. This is normal.”