A guy told me one time, “Don’t let yourself get attached to anything you are not willing to walk out on in 30 seconds flat if you feel the heat around the corner.”

Robert De Niro, Heat

Emotional Detachment – what’s that? Let’s back up a little. People naturally think of assertiveness in terms of how to communicate in situations of conflict or when you are bullied. While it includes this, assertiveness starts from a deeper down place in your own psyche. In our Assertiveness Training workshops, Dawn and I always start with issues of personal assertiveness rights and self-confidence. This includes dealing with the question of emotional management.

Emotional Blackmail

Blackmail is when someone tries to force you to do something you don’t want to do by holding a threat over you if you don’t comply. This force can take an emotional as well as physical form, and usually does. Emotional blackmailers use the leverage of fear, obligation and guilt to control their victims. The closer the relationship, the most powerful the potential for manipulation.

Part of the skill of managing your own emotions comes from your ability to identify when and how blackmail is taking place. You take back emotional power when you discover and acknowledge that such manipulation is taking place. Susan Forward, the psychotherapist who invented the term, identified four types of emotional blackmail:

  • Punisher’s Threat – “Do what I want, or you’ll suffer negative consequences!”
  • Self-Punisher’s Threat – “Do what I want, or I’ll make myself suffer negative consequences!”
  • Sufferer’s Threat – “Do what I want, or I’ll suffer negative consequences from outside!”
  • Tantalizer’s Threat – “Do what I want, and you’ll possibly enjoy positive consequences!”

Do any sound familiar? Assertiveness Training and Coaching teaches you how to deal with each kind.

Emotional Contagion

Emotional manipulation doesn’t have to take a deliberate or direct form. Emotions can be contagious. This means that one person can influence or trigger the emotions of another person simply by behaving in a certain way. It works by our automatic tendency to mimic and mirror the expressions of others. By so doing, we can end up feeling what they feel before we realise what’s happening.

Those with a highly developed sense of empathy are particularly susceptible to emotional contagion, as are Highly Sensitive Persons. Our own emotions tend to be more influenced by others’ nonverbal cues than what is openly said. Those with an underdeveloped sense of themselves as autonomous individuals are also more susceptible. They tend to take on the feelings of those with whom they share familial, societal and organisational bonds.

So how do we defend ourselves again such blackmailing and contagions?

Emotional Detachment

Emotional detachment might sound cold, trauma-induced or even pathological. But it has a positive purpose too. It denotes an ability to engage in emotional connections (unlike a psychopath) along with a decision not to engage. It prevents unwanted emotional demands or impact from others, and supports their independence from you in return. It draws a mental line between where your emotions end and everyone else’s begin.

Emotional detachment is a powerful tool in defending yourself against being manipulated or overwhelmed by the emotions of others. Such detachment is firstly a deliberate mental attitude that comes from affirming yourself as an independent person, worthy of respect and capable of control. But there are skills involved in its performance. Techniques of emotional detachment include:

  • Keeping your statements or demeanor neutral in terms of information and emotion – neither capitulating nor playing their power games
  • Acknowledging your FOG feelings as induced, irrational, and unfair
  • Developing a power statement and power words that encapsulate your determination to withstand the pressure
  • Spending time working on and working out your boundaries
  • Learning and practicing specific assertiveness techniques

And, if you need help negotiating the blackmailers, punishers or contagions in world of work or life, get in touch. Check out our latest blog posts on Assertiveness.