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

By Nate Miller

Updated March 19, 2020

Have you ever felt psychologically trapped or paralyzed, like you wanted to make a decision, but you had no idea how, and being stuck was stressful, even painful? Have you ever felt like you were faced with an emotional conflict, where you only had bad options, any one of which would lead to more pain and confusion for you? Has this happened to you more than once, with many different people or scenarios? If so, you may be struggling with susceptibility to becoming an emotional hostage.

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Being an emotional hostage can be remarkably painful or moderately uncomfortable. It is always, however, an unpleasant experience, and however mild it may begin, it almost always escalates 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.

So, what does it mean to be an emotional hostage? What common factors lead to it occurring, and how can you tell if you are an emotional hostage? What steps you can take to escape your current struggle, and how you can ward against it moving forward?

What Does It Mean To Be An Emotional Hostage?

A simple definition of an emotional hostage is someone who is stuck feeling like they don't know what to do next in a particular situation or relationship. This definition, however, glosses over the broad number of types of situations to which this applies. The range includes low-stress/low-stakes events and 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 that he can't go to 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 crying about how you don't care about him. Now your worth as a parent is at stake, and nerves couldn't be higher.

Both situations are examples of being an emotional hostage. In both scenarios, you are stuck dealing with someone who is focused entirely on their own needs and 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 goes along with emotional hostage situations. Both the friend and the son know something important they aren't sharing with you (i.e. when is your friend coming out of the house, does your son think you don't care about him?).

They are also examples of how being an emotional hostage can vary beyond the difference in stakes and stress already highlighted. The son is deliberately and forcefully pressuring you to have an emotional experience (e.g., guilt) that will drive you to do what he wants (let him go to the party). The friend, however, may not have malicious intent. Their actions may be more based in thoughtlessness. However, you are still stuck not knowing what to do.

Another way that emotional hostage situations can vary is how often do 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 every little disagreement, then you may end up being an emotional hostage with him more often than not.

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Finally, being an emotional hostage can be something that occurs 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 in general, you get along well. Some relationships are constant sources of stress caused by someone's codependent behavior.

How Do You Become An Emotional Hostage?

Being an emotional hostage can start small and grow over time, or it can start big and powerful almost immediately. What determines that is the people involved and the circumstances under which it emerges. For slow and steady and builds, it can start a small problem. If you are stuck waiting for a friend to respond about planning a party the first time, it's a mild irritant. If you start getting stuck waiting for them to decide anything, and they continually push the envelope further while your patience wears thinner, the problem can grow from a simple opening.

Spotting instances where it will develop quickly and strongly 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 hostages quickly are prone to creating codependent or even abusive relationships. These are people who get extremely upset over small issues, who make big deals out of everything, who have extreme reactions that threaten harm to you or themselves. This leaves feeling like you can't make any decision that could affect possibly upset them. Since anything can upset them, you are left waiting for them to tell you what to do.

Both the small and the big relationships can develop anywhere. They result because it can be hard to establish healthy boundaries against that emotional manipulation. When someone doesn't respond over a small issue, it can seem like it's not worth getting worked up about, so you don't say anything. When someone threatens to hurt you or themselves, it can seem like there is nothing to do but comply. In the first scenario, you are trapped by social norms, and in the second you are trapped by actual threats. Either way, your power to act has been removed.

Becoming an emotional hostage is more likely when we are in emotionally vulnerable places ourselves. When you feel weak or down, it is understandable that you would look around for easily available sources of support. You are willing to tolerate behavior you normally wouldn't to get the encouragement you desperately need. It is good to be wary of making investments in new emotional bonds when you are in a bad place. You should also be on your guard to maintain any healthy boundaries you've established with people up to then.

How Do You Tell If You Are An Emotional Hostage?

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

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For dealing with specific situations, some good questions to ask are

  • Do you feel like you know what your options are, and you can 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 at all?
  • Is this current issue a one-off, or is this a problem (being late for work) or a type of problem (being late in general) that is starting to form a pattern?

If you believe you may be dealing with a relationship that constantly holds you emotionally hostage, here are some questions to ask

  • Is the relationship a constant drain on your energy, confidence, excitement, etc.?
  • Are you constantly on guard about what you say or do because you fear their 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, promise to change or improve, then return 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 is comprehensive, but they can help you start spotting emotional hostage behavior and situations so you can plan to address them.

How Do I Escape Being An Emotional Hostage?

If you believe you are an emotional hostage in a specific situation such as waiting for your friend, there are two simple actions you can take. The first one is internal. Ask yourself how you are feeling. If you are feeling stressed, angry, or trapped, try understanding why. For example, is it because you are scared of what your friend might say if you call and ask what's going on? Are you feeling anxious 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 what those feelings want can be very calming.

The second thing you can do is find a way to calmly but confidently speak up about your concerns. It can be hard to speak up because it feels aggressive. However, in most situations, 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.

If you believe you are an emotional hostage in a relationship, and that it defines your relationship with a particular person, you will need support to solve the problem. First, you should reach out to friends and family. You should 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 those conversations to explore your feelings and concerns, as well as discuss ways to talk to the person creating the problem.

You should also seriously consider seeking professional support. Trained counselors can help you determine exactly what dysfunctional situation you are facing, what behavior patterns and personality traits you evince that are contributing, and how to begin to extricate yourself. This type of support can be especially important if the relationship verges on abusive.

Finally, be open to the possibility that the relationship will need to take a break, 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 you can create with them.

How Do I Avoid Becoming An Emotional Hostage?

There are a few general guidelines for avoiding emotionally fraught encounters. These should help you navigate interactions in general, but particularly situations where your feelings and ability to act become sublimated.

  • Set clear boundaries and stick to them. This can be hard for many people and will 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 gloss over 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 some emotional resilience. Being able to resist someone else's emotional pressure includes some 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 try to practice remembering your own values and expectations, even in the heat of the moment.

We Are All Pressured Emotionally, But We Need Not Become Hostages

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Our lives and everything in them is 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 we encouraged people to be tough and keep it together. Then we encouraged being open and vulnerable. Both 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 hard to do this, as though you have to defy anyone and anything that challenges you aggressively. However, it is more about identifying where you can tolerate discomfort, how much, and then communicating that to people who might cause it.

Balancing setting those boundaries with personal growth and healthy relationships is something that a certified counselor is a great resource for providing. They can help you figure out what to say to the people in your life, how to say, and how to guard against future issues. The professionals at ReGain are well prepared to support you in that work.


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