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Are Other People’s Feelings Holding You Hostage?

590329_58780489It is important to the health of any relationship to be aware of another person’s feelings.

This is part of how we connect and interact, and is the kind and the right thing to do. This is human.

However, there are two main types of awareness another’s feelings can actually be less than positive and in fact, may be so damaging, they actually hold you hostage.

1. The other person has poor boundaries and expects you to feel responsible for his or her emotional state, to always feel what he or she feels. For example, if they are happy, they simply can’t understand why you can’t buck up and feel good because they are feeling great at the moment.

2. Your own boundaries aren’t as strong as they might be and you “personalize” another’s feelings. For example, someone is irritable, perhaps they had a bad day at work. Your heart pounds with every remark they make, you take their irritability personally.

Hostage Takers Manipulate

Let’s start with number 1. What kind of person holds another hostage? It’s easy to label and say someone who is narcissistic, someone with untreated borderline personality disorder may actively seek to manipulate you with their “feelings.” They lay guilt, they accuse you of being insensitive to their needs, they dump their stuff on you, they threaten suicide. Their own suffering is so great, that they seek an outlet for it.

There are many possible reasons for this kind of behavior which can envelop others (such as panic, fear, depression, rage, or frantic actions). At the root is often (but not always) fear of abandonment. By engaging your feelings with theirs, they find comfort.

If someone isn’t really in touch with his or her feelings, or is experiencing a lot of anger and pain, they may project onto you in order to get a response out of you. That negative feedback that you give is their reward.

Either you become enmeshed so therefore they don’t feel “abandoned.” Or, you get fed up and end the conversation or even the relationship, so they can say, “See, everyone abandons me in the end.”

They attack, you cry. They attack, you attack. They rage, you show fear. They sob, you feel badly. They ask for pity, you comfort ceaselessly until your own boundaries are so blurred you can’t stop thinking about them even when you are apart. This can even happen to therapists if they aren’t well-trained, experienced or aware.

But labeling isn’t really the point and some diagnoses can be confusing. People can be manipulative without having a personality disorder. Sometimes, manipulation can be a defense mechanism. If someone, for example, is suffering from pain, whether emotional or physical, he or she may be manipulative (not even consciously) in order to seek relief.

Sometimes, the hostage-takers are just callous and indifferent. If they are in a good mood, well, then who cares about your grief or depression? Or if they are feeling down, high on life, angry,  irritable, rowdy—they want or even “need” you to get with their program.

You’ll sense the difference. People who “dump” their (usually negative) feelings on you aren’t merely asking for comfort. They want you to be as miserable as they are. They get relief from your pain.

The Sponge

Sometimes a sensitive person with fluid boundaries that don’t support the whole experiences others’ feelings almost as if they are his or her own. It doesn’t matter if the other person is a hostage taker or not—their moods strongly affect the sponge, who soaks it all in.

There are many reasons why someone might be sponge-like. Many times (but not always), the reason is that they had parents who had untreated personality disorders, were narcissistic, alcoholic, drug-addicted, and/or had abusive parents whose moods were unstable at best.

Usually an abuser of any type blames his or her actions on the abused one: If you weren’t so dumb, I wouldn’t have to beat you. If you weren’t such a wild kid I wouldn’t have to lock you in your room without dinner. If you weren’t such a (fill in the blank) I wouldn’t get angry and break stuff.

Over time, the child learns he or she is “responsible” for the parent’s behavior and feelings. This can be a hard lesson to undo.

But a child doesn’t have to be raised by overtly abusive parents to end up with this habit. In Alice Miller’s The Drama of The Gifted Child, we learn that a bright, sensitive child will constantly try to please her parents to the point of burying her own needs. She and her feelings are strangers. She can spend her adult life trying to please others, and this can take the form of living in the thrall of other’s moods, even others who are not hostage takers!

What can you do to strengthen your boundaries, even in the face of hostage takers? Coming soon.





Are Other People’s Feelings Holding You Hostage?

Richard Zwolinski, LMHC, CASAC & C.R. Zwolinski

Richard Zwolinski, LMHC, CASAC is the author of Therapy Revolution: Find Help, Get Better, and Move On Without Wasting Time or Money and is licensed in addiction and psychotherapy with over 25 years experience as well as a consultant to organizations and companies in the fields of mental health and addiction. He is the executive director of an outpatient behavioral health program. Learn more about Richard here.

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APA Reference
& C.R. Zwolinski, R. (2013). Are Other People’s Feelings Holding You Hostage?. Psych Central. Retrieved on September 23, 2020, from


Last updated: 15 Sep 2013
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