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Negotiating With an Emotional Terrorist

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B.B. (identifying details changed) sat at the kitchen table pushing her phone around like a piece on a game board. Waiting to find out whether or not she had to go visit her biological father for Father's Day, she sighed, grimaced, texted, and picked at food in which she had no interest.

I asked her why she didn't just stay home to celebrate with the man who helped raise her, whom she adored. Her face twisted in guilt, she said, "It's not that simple. He's going to do or say something that's going to make me feel horrible or he's gonna get insane. I think I may just ask him to pick me up. He hates to do that and maybe I'll get to stay."

B.B. is a young woman with an old soul. She is sensitive, artistic, and compassionate. She became this way despite being raised for a portion of her life by a deranged and sometimes violent narcissist who took his umbrage at the world out on her mother. They survived and prospered, but it has left her with an emotional Achilles heel: She is terribly worried about being nice, especially when that niceness promises an escape from confrontation or further abuse. She has been trained by an emotional terrorist.

I've known an inordinate number of people who have learned to seek refuge in being careful, who see being nice to people who are incapable of returning the kindness as a way of protecting themselves. They hope against hope for the impossible: That if they just say the right things, tilt their heads the right way, defer at the right time, all will be well. They will be reprieved and the abuser will be redeemed.

But the rules that apply to political terrorists are the same ones that apply to emotional madmen: There is no negotiating.

What I've called emotional terrorism has also been called emotional blackmail by psychotherapist Susan Forward and refers to a form of psychological manipulation that uses implied or overt threats and/or punishments in order to control another person's behavior. Often it can be so subtle that observers can't see it when looking casually. When it works the one who is manipulated becomes (in varying degrees) the hostage of the terrorist. It is a horrific position to be in.

The price for being a hostage is not obvious at first. Initially, it seems like a relief. Ah, I got it. I found the button that will make him leave me alone.

But it doesn't last. And as time rolls on and the manipulations up the ante, the hostage finds himself constantly on edge, disappointed, persecuted and confused, and -- the worst irony of all -- enabling the very behavior(s) they wanted to avoid in the first place. The negotiations turn out to be a psychological gym in which the terrorist gets to work out and build up. The hostage finds himself in an increasingly hyper-vigilant and outgunned position precisely because they are often the sorts of individuals who are conscious of what others feel. An emotional terrorist is not hampered by empathy.

According to Forward, one of the things these emotional terrorists will do is utilize the most intimate knowledge of the hostage to lock them into a psychic neck hold so they will do what the terrorist wants or needs them to do. This is especially easy with more sensitive people like B.B., and others I've known, who long for love, approval and harmony and will go to great -- even self-sacrificing -- lengths to obtain it.

I knew one young man who was caught in the middle of a firefight at the dinner table. His father and younger sister were yelling at each other about a broken fixture in the house. He said she did it, but she denied it and became indignant, even though it was clear she had done it. In order to stop the fighting, the young man admitted to breaking it and had to pay for it out of his savings. The harmony was worth the price for him. It never occurred to him that the fact that his sister didn't step up to the plate to save him by telling the truth was selfish and uncaring. He saw himself as saving her and his family from unnecessary conflict.

Fascinating. There are no straight lines in the human brain.

And in situations like these, the truth is permuted to such a degree as to be nearly invisible. In fact, the avoidance of the truth is the one immutable common denominator in all psychological terrorism. The terrorist doesn't want to face the truth about himself, his life, or his relationships (if there are any).

And in order to maintain short-term survival or safety, neither does the hostage.

Thus, they both lose. Because the terrorist is an easy subject to blame (rightly), and it is easy to forget or downplay the unconscious complicity of his or her victims. Most victims are people who in one way or another have been primed to accept and deal with that sort of behavior. They are highly vigilant, supremely sensitive to the needs and expectations of others, and highly motivated to seek approval.

Is there something intrinsically wrong with wanting to please others? No. Or with empathy? Hardly. There was nothing to blame in B.B.'s desire for harmony, for peace. Her heart was righteous. She wanted people to be happy. The problem was not in her longing, but in her approach. Satisfying the unreasonable demands of a psychological saboteur only leads down a rabbit hole of endless capitulations and anxiety. She may have been raised to do that, but it doesn't have to stay that way. She is grown and free to see -- and take -- other options. For B.B., as for all of us, it starts with recognizing what it is we do that facilitates being victimized so we can stop it and, in so doing, stop them.

Many people feel that psychology has gone off-rail in the insistence on limit-setting, that it is a handy excuse for heartlessness. They say that becoming so rigidly "boundaried" is simply another form of hyper-vigilance and that the unfortunate result is an equal, if not more loathsome lack of empathy, generosity, and kindness on the part of the victim, who now becomes another sort of perpetrator.

Personally, I do not see that happening with good limit-setting or a solid, healthy recovery from a life of emotional imprisonment. Saying "no" may be life-saving not only for the victim but for the perpetrator. I have seen many people let go of being victimized (and the perpetrators) and they turn neither into heartless ministers of vengeance nor benumbed agents of apathy. They live well. They learn to love and receive love. They drop the fear and take up faith. They are formidable human beings on so many levels. And most importantly, they learn to see and tell the truth.

Quite a bit back, I was counseling the parents of a very bright and very manipulative little boy. He had them both turning cartwheels to exhaustion with a mix of tantrums, pouting, and splitting. If he couldn't get what he wanted from one parent, he went to the other. And often he succeeded. The parents fought and eventually he got what he wanted. They wanted to be good parents, loving parents, and thought they were doing the right thing, they gave him what he wanted ("it was such a little thing, really") and they kept it quiet, at least until the next time he demanded something he did not need. By the time I met them, they were fit to be tied.

This was a more common hostage situation than one might imagine. In any case, we worked on a contract with their son, a plan for building unity in the marriage so they could say "no," and a prep course in behavior modification so they could anticipate and tolerate the inevitable peak in acting out they could expect when the "nos" began in earnest. Terrorists do not give in easily. Even though healthy limit-setting often feels like swaddling -- it contains them and gives them a sense of safety -- even young manipulators will usually put up some kind of a fight. So, what actually occurred surprised everyone.

After two weeks, they came back to tell me that something amazing had happened to them. Their son had come in to them demanding a new game that "everyone" at school had. They followed the plan: They talked to each other first. They came to a single decision. "No," they said unilaterally.

"I said to him," the father continued, "No, you cannot have the game. Your mother and I talked and WE decided that it's not something we want to buy right now."

"You won't believe what he did!" the mother exclaimed happily.

"Try me," I said, sitting forward on my chair.

"He stood there."

"He stood there?" I was puzzled.

"He was so stunned that we agreed he just stood there. He never argued. There was nothing."

"It was beautiful," the father leaned back, sighing into the couch. "It was the most beautiful 'no' I ever heard."

Yes, it was.

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