• Reflective Resources

M is for Manipulation

“Because to take away a man's freedom of choice, even his freedom to make the wrong choice, is to manipulate him as though he were a puppet and not a person.” Madeline L'Engle


What is manipulation in relationships?


“Manipulation, fuelled with good intent, can be a blessing. But when used wickedly, it is the beginning of a magician's karmic calamity.” T.F. Hodge


Manipulation can take place when the actions of one person tries to control the actions of another usually through exploiting a perceived weakness. Manipulation is often used in a negative sense describing how a manipulator usually tries to bring about an outcome that benefits themselves rather than the other person.


“Half of the people lie with their lips; the other half with their tears”

Nassim Nicholas Taleb


Manipulators often use emotional manipulation to persuade others to do their bidding through their words or their actions. They aim to trigger intense emotional reactions which will drain another person’s energy, break down their resistance, create confusion or guilt and plays havoc with their emotional well-being.


“Playing the victim role: Manipulator portrays him- or herself as a victim of circumstance or of someone else's behaviour in order to gain pity, sympathy or evoke compassion and thereby get something from another. Caring and conscientious people cannot stand to see anyone suffering and the manipulator often finds it easy to play on sympathy to get cooperation.” George K. Simon Jr., (In Sheep's Clothing: Understanding and Dealing with Manipulative People )


“If you are an approval addict, your behaviour is as easy to control as that of any other junkie. All a manipulator need do is a simple two-step process: Give you what you crave, and then threaten to take it away. Every drug dealer in the world plays this game.” Harriet B. Braiker


It is often easy to observe emotional manipulation between others, but it can be harder to spot who or what is pulling your own strings.


The people that can manipulate us the most are those that are closest to us.

Parents and children are particularly adept at pushing our ‘buttons’ as often it is through these relationships that they are installed.


The co-dependence and relationship built on unconditional love between parents and children and children and parents leads to a deep desire to provide what the other person wants or needs. In both scenarios however, human nature being what it is, there is room for abuse and unconditional love can deteriorate to contractual expectations


Babies communicate their wants and needs through crying etc when they don’t have what they want and smiling etc when their needs are met. Later on they will learn to use these behaviours to obtain their wants. Youngsters will ‘turn on the waterworks’, shout, stomp around, slam doors etc (sometimes mimicking their parents’ ‘angry’ behaviour) until their wants are met. When this sort of behaviour takes place in public, parents are often quick to cave in and tow the line in order to avoid embarrassment and perceived judgment for fear of not appearing the 'perfect parent'


When children are younger, by necessity, they need to be taught what is dangerous, what is safe, what is right, what is wrong, what is acceptable and what is not acceptable. These parameters are the domain of the parent (according to their own values) however the situation of ‘Do as I say not as I do’ is often where the buttons can be installed.


Adult children never stop being ‘children’ to their parents. Parental love towards a child is often cited as an example of unconditional love but too often this is not the case ; parents, often unwittingly, have expectations that their investment of time and love will produce certain results regardless of whether it is right for their child regardless of age. A sense can develop that a child ‘owes’ the parent when the parent uses phrases like “I can’t believe that you have chosen to do that after all I have done for you”, or “I’m very disappointed you have chosen to do x, y or z as I had always hoped that you would become/do a, b or c”


How to spot manipulation


“You are a manipulator.

I like to think of myself more as an outcome engineer.”

J.R. Ward


A person who is manipulative may use a variety of strategies to persuade you to do what they want, by making you feel that you are being unreasonable, or are in the wrong and ought to do what is demanded.


Manipulators use a variety of tactics including: exaggeration, blaming, blatant lying, trying to solicit the support of others to strengthen their position (often again through guilt trips or manipulation), criticising, gaslighting (when someone to manipulate another person by making them question their reality. This type of emotional abuse is designed to make the victim doubt themselves and their own experiences), guilt-tripping (using shame to try and manipulate the other person..e.g. ‘If you loved me you would….’), isolation – cutting you off from outside emotional support, passive-aggressiveness ( e.g. "It’s no point in asking you to do something, because I know you don't have time for me anyway" ) , sarcasm, screaming/shouting, sulking, the silent treatment, turning on the waterworks, threats or coercion to force you to do something, withdrawing or withholding ‘to punish you’


If you are being manipulated you may feel confused as to what to think or feel, you may struggle with feelings of guilt if you don’t want to or can’t do what the other person demands. You can feel guilt even if you have been accused of something that you haven’t done leading you to feel that you ought to apologise for something that hasn’t happened!


Why do manipulators do what they do?


People manipulate others to get what they want because they are incapable of, or find it extremely difficult to, communicate their needs clearly without resulting to threats or manipulative behaviour. This unhelpful behaviour can be caused by a variety of things including interpersonal dynamics, personality characteristics, a dysfunctional upbringing (where manipulation has been needed in order to get basic needs met or avoid harsh punishment or they may have been emotionally manipulated by their parents and learned how to interact with others through what they observed and experienced.). People who have attachment issues and people who have high levels of anxiety may be more likely to use emotional manipulation. In some cases, manipulative behaviour is linked with symptoms of mental health conditions such as borderline personality disorder or narcissistic personality disorder.


How to deal with manipulators


“There are those whose primary ability is to spin wheels of manipulation. It is their second skin and without these spinning wheels, they simply do not know how to function. They are like toys on wheels of manipulation and control. If you remove one of the wheels, they'll never be able to feel secure, be whole.” C. JoyBell C.


The first step is to recognise that you are in a manipulative relationship.


Clear communication is then key to setting boundaries explaining to the manipulator any facts, what is unacceptable and why. When communicating, it is worth remembering that there are ways and means of expressing yourself. If you can remain polite rather than reactive you are more likely to be able to get your message across clearly and not regret anything you say later. It is also useful to take time to pause before you respond so you are not ‘triggered’ by another's aggression or comments and can respond calmly, clearly and rationally rather than emotionally.


To do this it is essential to be clear in your own mind what your values and standards are and be consistent.


If setting boundaries doesn’t work and they are repeatedly ignored it is the case of having the confidence to walk away from the relationship or be prepared to follow through and risk a tantrum or verbal abuse. It can be helpful sometimes to call in an appropriate third party that the manipulator respects to act as an intermediary e.g. seeking the support of a mental health professional.


You develop more confidence in yourself when you can build up a support system away from the person that you feel is manipulating you.


Emotional manipulation can be subtle or blatant, but regardless of how it is manifested, manipulation is damaging to relationships, one’s confidence, self-esteem and general well-being.


However much you like it or not, the only aspect of any relationship you have any real control over is what you give to it. You have no control over how another person responds or not. Your actions might have an element of influence on others but you have no direct control.


When dealing with a manipulator any action is most effective when it is aligned with your values i.e. it will be more effective to set boundaries or request changes needed in the other person’s actions or lack of them, if you are speaking consistently, calmly and with confidence rather than crying, threatening or being generally emotionally manipulative or venting spleen.


Connections work best when your ‘best self’ is communicating effectively with another’s ‘best self’.


“When you stop rewarding manipulative tactics by ceasing to cooperate, to comply , please, acquiesce, apologise or respond to intimidation or threats you will unilaterally alter the nature of the manipulative relationship” Harriet Braiker


When you participate in a manipulative relationship, you unwittingly collude with the person who seeks to control you. Every time you comply, capitulate, cave-in or otherwise satisfy your manipulator’s wishes and purposes, you reinforce the toxic cycle that is compromising your self-esteem, co-opting your values and corroding your emotional wiring.


“Manipulation is used because it works. As long as you allow a manipulator to exploit and control you, he or she will continue to manipulate. However if you make the manipulation ineffective by changing your behaviour the manipulator will be forced to change tactics or seek an easier target elsewhere” Harriet Braiker


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