How To Tell If You Are An Emotional Hostage, And What To Do About It

By Nate Miller|Updated June 22, 2022

Have you ever felt like you wanted to make a decision, but you had no idea how—and the situation created uncomfortable feelings like stress, guilt, or sadness? Have you ever faced an emotional conflict where you felt like you only had bad options, any one of which would lead to more frustration or confusion? And have these things happened to you more than once, with many different people or scenarios? If so, you may have been an emotional hostage.

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Being an emotional hostage is generally an unpleasant experience that can escalate into something much more taxing. Learning how to identify what causes it, how to avoid it, and what to do if you are currently undergoing such an experience can be life changing.

Below, we’re going to outline what it means to be an emotional hostage, what common factors lead to it, how can you tell if you are prone to experiencing it, and what steps you can take to move forward.

What Does It Mean To Be An Emotional Hostage?

An emotional hostage is someone who is stuck feeling like they don't know what to do in a particular situation or relationship as a result of being emotionally manipulated. There are a broad number of situations to which this applies. The range includes low-stress/low-stakes events as well as high-stress/high-stakes events.

For example, imagine you are picking your friend up at home. She said she's ready to go, but you've been waiting in front of her house in your car for ten minutes with no updates. What do you do? How long do you wait? When should you call her, and what do you say? The stakes are low, and, depending on your personality, the stress may be too, but you are still stuck until your friend decides to share more information.

Now, imagine you are a parent. You are arguing with your son about a party he wants to attend. He is getting increasingly angry, starting to yell, and even making physical gestures that show his increasing agitation. Finally, he blows up and storms out of the room, slamming his door and exclaiming that you don't care about him. There is potentially quite a bit at stake here, and the situation can be quite stressful for you.

Both situations are examples of being an emotional hostage. In both scenarios, someone is either passively or actively forcing you to focus on what they need to the exclusion of your own considerations. Both scenarios are also examples of the information asymmetry that accompanies emotional hostage situations. Both the friend and the son know something important that they aren't sharing with you. Your friend knows when she’s coming out of the house, and your son likely knows that you care about him.

These are also examples of how being an emotional hostage can vary beyond the difference in stakes and stress already highlighted. The son is creating an emotional response (guilt) that he hopes will drive you to do what he wants (let him go to the party). The friend, however, may not have the intent to create this emotional response. Her actions may be based in thoughtlessness or circumstances beyond her control. Nonetheless, you are still stuck not knowing what to do, and you are essentially held hostage until you learn more information.

Another way that emotional hostage situations can vary is how often they happen. For some people, it may happen very rarely. Maybe your friend is just late this one time but usually they are punctual. For some people, every interaction has the potential to become emotionally taxing. If your son tends to blow up over frequently, then you may end up being an emotional hostage with him more often than not. This may be a symptom of youth and immaturity, and your son (and others who may hold your emotions hostage) may not intentionally use emotional blackmail. These feelings holding you hostage, however, may still cause you quite a bit of discomfort and create serious problems in your life.

Finally, being an emotional hostage may occur only in specific instances, or it can define the way you relate to someone overall. There may have been times, for example, where you created a stressful environment for a friend while they waited for you to make up your mind about something important, but you get along well in general. Some relationships, however, are constant sources of stress caused by one person’s emotionally taxing behavior.

How Do You Become An Emotional Hostage?

Being an emotional hostage can start small and grow over time, or it can start big almost immediately. What determines that are the people involved and the circumstances under which the situation emerges. If you are stuck waiting for a friend to respond regarding a party, it might only be a mild irritant. If you start getting stuck waiting for them to decide all the time, however, and they continually push the envelope further while your patience wears thinner, the problem can grow into a large one.

Instances where it will develop quickly can be easier to spot, but that doesn't make them less dangerous to your long-term mental health. People who create high-intensity, high-stakes emotional situations for others are prone to forming codependent or even abusive relationships. These may be people who get extremely upset over small issues, create dramatic situations, and have extreme reactions. This can leave you feeling like you can't make any decision that could possibly upset them. Because of this, you are often left waiting for them to tell you what to do. Feelings of obligation and guilt can fog your decision-making and judgement, and it can be difficult to escape this cycle of emotional abuse.

If you are facing or witnessing abuse of any kind, the National Domestic Violence Hotline is available for you. Call 1-800-799-SAFE (7233) or Text “START” to 88788. You can also use the online chat

An emotional hostage situation may result because it is often hard to establish healthy boundaries against that type of manipulation. When someone responds negatively over a small issue, it can seem like it's not worth getting worked up about, so you might not say anything. When someone attempts to manipulate your emotions in a more serious way, it can seem like there is nothing to do but go along with their wishes. In the first scenario, you may be held emotionally hostage by social norms, and in the second, by threats or guilt. Either way, your power to act has been undermined by the emotional blackmailer and the feelings holding you hostage.

Becoming an emotional hostage may be more likely when we are in emotionally vulnerable places ourselves. When you feel lonely or down, it is understandable that you would look around for easily available sources of support. You may be willing to tolerate behavior you normally wouldn't to get the encouragement you desire. Be wary of making too much of an emotional investment when you are feeling low.

How Do You Tell If You Are An Emotional Hostage?

Because being an emotional hostage occurs in small and big ways, and because it can be a one-off problem or a constant issue, the indicators can be similarly varied.

For dealing with specific situations that may be emotional blackmail, some good questions to ask include the following:

  • Do you feel like you know what your options are, and you understand which one is best for you? If not, is it because the information is being withheld?
  • Do you feel like you are safe clearly stating what you want and acting towards it?
  • Do you believe that the other person is considering your feelings?
  • Is this current issue a one-off, or is this a problem that is starting to form a pattern?

If you believe you may be in a relationship in which someone consistently holds you emotionally hostage, here are some more questions to ask:

  • Is the relationship a frequent drain on your energy, confidence, excitement, etc.?
  • Are you overly careful about what you say or do because you fear the person’s reaction?
  • Do they do things that make you question your reality, like withhold information, trivialize your feelings, or seem to live in a constant state of emergency?
  • Have they had to beg or convince you not to abandon them and promised to change or improve, then returned to their old behaviors?
  • Do you feel like you never know which version of them you are going to get when you are around them?

Neither of these lists are comprehensive, but they can help you start spotting emotional hostage behavior and situations so you can start to address them.

How Do I Avoid Being An Emotional Hostage?

If you believe you are an emotional hostage in a specific situation, there are two simple actions you can take. The first one is internal. Ask yourself: “How am I feeling?” If you are feeling stressed, angry, or trapped, try getting to the bottom of it. For example, in the situation described earlier where you’re avoiding confronting your friend about being late, is it because you are scared of what they might say if you call and ask what's going on? Are you stressed about being late? Are these fears or anxieties based in reality or just a heightened sense of stress? Naming your feelings, exploring their origins, and understanding how they manifest can be very calming and enlightening.

The second thing you can do is speak up about your concerns in a calm and confident manner. It can be hard to speak up because it might feel aggressive. In most situations, however, there is nothing wrong with saying something. If you are waiting for your friend, feel free to call or even knock on the door and ask what's going on. Most people hesitate to do something like that because part of them says it's unnecessary. But what's important is acknowledging and honoring your feelings. From your friend’s perspective, it is easy to assume that everything is fine when you do not speak up. This is why honest and open communication is essential to healthy relationships.

If you believe you are an emotional hostage in a relationship, and that it’s a big part of your relationship with a particular person, support may prove essential for solving the problem. You might try reaching out to friends and family. You can tell them you are starting to have concerns about your relationship, that you think you may be an emotional hostage, and that you want to get their perspective. Use these conversations to explore your feelings and concerns and to discuss ways to talk to the person creating the problem.

You might also want to consider seeking professional support. Trained counselors can help you better determine the nature of the dysfunctional situation you are facing, what behavior patterns and personality traits are contributing, and how you can begin to extricate yourself. This type of support can be especially important if the relationship is becoming abusive.

Finally, be open to the possibility that the relationship may have to go on pause, if not end completely. Being an emotional hostage can be a traumatic experience. People can develop healthy bonds even after enduring such stress, but it is also possible that there is no healthy relationship possible with them.

How Do I Avoid Becoming An Emotional Hostage?

There are a few general guidelines for avoiding emotionally fraught relationships. These can help you navigate interactions in general, but especially situations where your feelings and ability to act become suppressed.

  • Set clear boundaries and stick to them. This can be hard for many people and may take practice, maybe even some training, but being clear about what you will and won't tolerate from other people is an invaluable skill.
  • Take time to explore your discomfort. We all tend to dismiss negative feelings for a variety of reasons. It is important to take some time here and there and reflect on what has been stressing you out or causing you pain.
  • Try to foster emotional resilience. Being able to resist someone else's emotional pressure includes the ability to not take on their feelings as your own. Practice breathing exercises that can help you find a calm center in emotional situations and remember your own values and expectations, even in the heat of the moment.

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Our lives and everything in them are constantly putting emotional pressures on us. We are confronted with emotional challenges from advertising, politics, work, family, and everything in between. At the same time, society is constantly evolving in its perception of what emotional health is. First, society encouraged people to be tough and keep it together. More recently, we have been encouraged to be open and vulnerable. Both approaches have their strengths and weaknesses and can lead to stressful problems. In the end, there are no definitive guidelines on how to manage our emotional lives.

One good rule, however, is to focus on setting healthy boundaries for yourself. It can feel difficult, but it is more about identifying where you can tolerate discomfort and how much, and then communicating that to people who might cause it.

Setting boundaries can ensure personal growth and healthy relationships, and it is something that a certified therapist can help you work on. A ReGain therapist can help you figure out what to say to the people in your life, how to say it, and how to guard against future issues. The experienced providers at ReGain can help you strengthen your emotional resilience and create healthy bonds.

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