On emotional manipulation

Warning: Emotional manipulation and talk of death/suicide.

It started out so innocent. My grandmother asked if I wanted to wear a dress she’d found to my engagement party. I did not personally like the dress, and I expressed this, but added that I don’t know much about fashion. She gave me a couple websites and asked me to pick out an alternative.

When I say I don’t know much about fashion, what I really mean is that I’m not very feminine and a good chunk of women’s clothing freaks me out. I don’t ‘get’ women’s clothes — why is something trendy, what makes someone ‘look fat’, what cuts flatter what body types, all that stuff Cosmo goes on about. I look at a spread in Cosmo and you can practically see the question marks forming over my head. I quickly determined I did not have the skills needed to pick something out. My grandmother and I get along great, so I sent her an honest email with the few things I’ve figured out I personally like or dislike along with a large helping of self-deprecating humor and vulnerability.

She forwarded this to my mother without telling me or replying.

Suddenly my mother is emailing me to tell me why all the fledgling opinions I’ve managed to form in my adult life are wrong. I’m having flashbacks to clothes shopping as a child — it didn’t matter what I thought or what I liked, the most input I could have was picking out colors and even then she’d overrule me half the time. “Oh, but yellow looks so good on you!” she’d say, when I indicated I liked the soft blue color. I learned early on to just smile and nod and grit my teeth and hope the shopping part would end soon. To this day, I hate clothes shopping, and since my mother loves to buy me clothes and mail them to me, I rarely do it. I know this is dysfunctional, so I’ve been trying to decipher what my own preferences are over time; having her email me out of the blue to tell me how wrong I am really doesn’t help.

Regarding the dress I disliked, she said:

I LOVED the floral print dress that went to the ground and think it will look amazing on you! I think you should DEFINITELY consider prints, they will DEFINITELY flatter you, they are busy, but with your beautiful brown skin and gorgeous bustline, and your hair all being brown,and your eyes,  the bright patterns will be AWESOME, the prints are definitely in for the season, bright floral patterns, and maxi dresses are IN and also are flattering, I think you should have Nana order that dress for you and try it on and take a picture and let us see you in it!!!!!

I realized later that aside from invalidating my preferences (in all-caps and with multiple exclamation points), she also was ignoring the part where I’d said that it was going to be 90F and I don’t tolerate heat well so I wanted a short dress. The original dress was floor-length.

After the initial shock and hurt feeling (if I had known this was going to be sent to my mother I would have chosen to express myself entirely differently and much less emotionally), I composed a quick reply. I told her I had no idea this was so important to her, and what was it that made this dress “dressy” as opposed to other ones, and wouldn’t the style make my large stomach stand out too much? (Cosmo this month, I later found out, says that large prints are a no-no for hiding bulgy stomachs, so apparently I wasn’t that wrong).

Yes, perhaps your tummy will stick out more than your boobs, that will probably happen in ANY dress, so what?  that is the shape you are in right now, what do you propose to do?  LOL

On the surface this sounds fine, but after years of watching my mother obsess over every pound and go on crash diet after crash diet, I have a hard time taking this as sincere HAES-style fat acceptance rather than “Lol you’re fat, fatty, everything’s going to make you look fat”.

She suggested I go shopping and try on a variety of things and take pictures and let her pick something out. I told her that trying things on was a good idea and that I’d just buy my own dress. That, at least, I feel good about — now that I make my own money I’ve found a way to politely disagree with my mother that she can’t overrule. If I buy myself a dress and wear it, I know I’ll like it, and she can’t reasonably force me into something else.

Up until this point, everything’s basically business as usual. My mother is often oblivious to what’s going on in my head and likes to convince me my opinions are wrong, but that’s something I’m used to handling. It’s the next part that threw me.

I had emailed my grandmother a carefully-worded email about how I’d appreciate her not forwarding personal emails on in the future:

Did you share the below email with mom? Because she emailed me, and I’d really rather not have my insecurities made public, I’m aware my self-esteem leaves something to be desired but I’ve had bad experiences when sharing that with people.

Her reply included the following:

Guess I can’t do anything right.  Sometimes I just want to go away and lie down quietly and die.  I’m so tired of  trying to help.


I just.

I don’t even.

In the past I would have assumed that the words were meant solely as a genuine reaction to my statements, that I had said something badly or phrased it in a way that was intensely hurtful. I would have called her, panicked that she’d do something irrevocable. I would have apologized and cried and validated this as a tactic that will get the kind of response she’s looking for. But I know now that this is a disproportionate response to the situation, one that’s a cry for attention more than for honest help. We are not nearly close enough for that to be genuine. She is my grandmother, has been an adult for longer than I’ve been alive. She has her own set of close friends, she has any number of other family members she’s closer to. There’s no reason for her to put this kind of burden on my shoulders and it’s wildly inappropriate to do so.

I don’t know how to handle this. I know that my trust in my grandmother has been permanently shaken, and that what was just starting to be a healthy familial relationship is now being undercut by emotional blackmail and breach of confidence. I knew my mother and aunts were fond of sharing information that was meant to be private, emotional manipulation, and talking about someone behind their back, but I had thought my grandmother was above those kinds of backhanded tactics. I’ve had bad experiences with friends using me and threatening to kill themselves if I didn’t bend to their increasingly onerous demands; I refuse to let family members do the same now that I know where that road leads.

I sent a reply indicating that I was sorry if I’d hurt her feelings and I hope her day improves soon. She sent a moody one-sentence reply and I let the thread drop. I don’t know what I’ll do next time she contacts me but now I know I need to put her in the same category as my mother: be polite, be nice, share irrelevant details, but don’t talk about anything serious or emotional lest it be used against you.

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2 Responses to On emotional manipulation

  1. Colorful One says:

    Guess I can’t do anything right. Sometimes I just want to go away and lie down quietly and die. I’m so tired of trying to help.

    I’m suddenly reminded of the Karpellian Drama Triangle.

  2. smilodon says:

    Ugh. People!

    As for the clothing thing, your mum is simply wrong. Anyone can dress in ways that flatter their body, and looking pretty in the right clothes is not reserved for a specific body type or size. Clothes for a busty, hour glass woman would make a 1920 style slender girl look just as terrible as the reverse.

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