By Anita Anand
Recognise the signs and take steps to safeguard yourself from abuse
“When you get enough inner peace and feel really positive about yourself, it is almost impossible for you to be controlled or manipulated by anyone else.” – Wayne Dwyer
Do you find yourself doing things that you do not really want to? When someone close to you or in a situation of power suggests that you do something against your will, how do you feel? Probably not good. How often do you experience or hear of people who seem to have been blackmailed into accepting life-changing decisions (such as choice of education, career, and marriage partner), because their parents, partners, bosses, best friends, or children thought it was best for them.
All these and other such acts are manipulation, with a manipulator (the person who manipulates), and the person being manipulated. In any human and social relationship there is bound to be some level of manipulation. The trick is to recognise it and ensure that you are neither a manipulator nor being manipulated, as this represents a dysfunctional relationship.
What exactly is manipulation?
The late Harriet Braiker, an American clinical psychologist and management consultant and author of Who’s Pulling Your Strings? How to Break The Cycle of Manipulation defined psychological manipulation as a kind of social influence – when one person (the manipulator) tries to change the perception or behaviour of another or others through exploitative, underhanded, deceptive, or even abusive tactics.
According to clinical psychologist Dr George Simon, manipulators in many ways are dysfunctional people who conceal aggressive intentions and behaviours; know the psychological vulnerabilities of the victim to determine what tactics are likely to be the most effective, and have a sufficient level of ruthlessness to have no qualms about causing harm to the victim if necessary.
Manipulators also need to advance their own purposes and their own gain, even at virtually any cost to others. They need to attain feelings of power, and superiority in relationships with others and need to feel in control.
There are many methods. As you go through the list, see if you recognise any of them. Braiker suggests:
• Positive reinforcement: includes praise, superficial charm, superficial sympathy (crocodile tears), excessive apologising, money, approval, gifts, attention, facial expressions such as a forced laugh or smile, public recognition.
• Negative reinforcement: Includes nagging, yelling, the silent treatment, intimidation, threats, swearing, emotional blackmail, the guilt trap, sulking, crying, and playing the victim.
• Intermittent or partial reinforcement (both negative and positive): This can create an effective climate of fear and doubt, for example in terrorist attacks. Partial or intermittent positive reinforcement can encourage the victim to persist. For example, in most forms of gambling, the gambler is likely to win repeatedly but still lose money overall.
• Punishment: Withdrawing love and support.
• Traumatic one-trial learning: Using verbal abuse, explosive anger, or another intimidating behaviour, to establish dominance or superiority.
How do you tell if someone is a manipulator? Or if you yourself have manipulative tendencies? Simon identified the following manipulative techniques:
• Lying: It is hard to tell if somebody is lying at the time, although often the truth may be apparent later when it is too late. One way to minimise the chances of being lied to is to understand that some personality types (particularly psychopaths) are experts at the art of lying and cheating, doing it frequently, and often in subtle ways.
• Lying by omission: This is a very subtle form of lying by withholding a significant amount of the truth. This technique is also used in propaganda.
• Denial: The manipulator refuses to admit that he or she has done something wrong.
• Rationalisation: An excuse made by the manipulator for inappropriate behaviour.
• Minimisation: This is a type of denial coupled with rationalisation. The manipulator asserts that his or her behaviour is not as harmful or irresponsible as someone else was suggesting – for example saying that a taunt or insult was only a joke.
• Selective inattention or selective attention: The manipulator refuses to pay attention to anything that may distract from his or her agenda, saying things like “I don’t want to hear it.”
• Diversion: The manipulator not giving a straight answer to a straight question and instead of being diversionary, steering the conversation onto another topic.
• Evasion: Similar to diversion but giving irrelevant, rambling, vague, and weak responses.
• Covert intimidation: The manipulator throwing the victim onto the defensive by using veiled (subtle, indirect, or implied) threats.
• Guilt-tripping: A special kind of intimidation tactic. A manipulator suggests to the conscientious victim that he or she does not care enough, is too selfish or has it easy. This usually results in the victim feeling bad, keeping them in a self-doubting, anxious and submissive position.
• Shaming: The manipulator uses sarcasm and put-downs to increase fear and self-doubt in the victim. Manipulators use this tactic to make others feel unworthy and therefore defer to them. Shaming tactics can be very subtle such as a fierce look or glance, unpleasant tone of voice, rhetorical comments, and subtle sarcasm.
Manipulators can make one feel ashamed for even daring to challenge them. It is an effective way to foster a sense of inadequacy in the victim.
• Playing the victim role (“poor me”): The manipulator portrays himself 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.
• Blaming the victim: More than any other, this tactic is a powerful means of putting the victim on the defensive while simultaneously masking the aggressive intent of the manipulator.
• Playing the servant role: Cloaking a self-serving agenda in the guise of a service to a more noble cause. For example saying, he is acting in a certain way for ‘obedience’ and ‘service’ to God or a similar authority figure.
• Seduction: The manipulator uses charm, praise, flattery or overtly supports others, in order to get them to lower their defences, and give their trust and loyalty to him or her.
• Projecting the blame (blaming others): The manipulator often finds scapegoats, in subtle, hard-to-detect ways.
• Pretending innocence: The manipulator tries to suggest that any harm done was unintentional or did not do something that they were accused of. The manipulator may put on a look of surprise or indignation. This tactic makes the victim question his or her own judgment, and possibly his own sanity.
• Pretending confusion: The manipulator tries to play dumb by pretending he or she does not know what you are talking about or is confused about an important issue brought to his attention.
• Brandishing anger: The manipulator uses anger to brandish sufficient emotional intensity and rage to shock the victim into submission. The manipulator is not actually angry, he or she just puts on an act. He just wants what he wants and gets angry when denied.
Vulnerability to manipulation
Look at these traits. Do you have any of them? If you do, according to Braiker, you are more vulnerable to being manipulated.
• The “disease to please”
• Addiction to earning the approval and acceptance of others
• Emetophobia (or fear of negative emotion)
• Lack of assertiveness and ability to say no
• Blurred sense of identity (with soft personal boundaries)
• Low self-reliance
• External locus of control
Emotional manipulation is very common, particularly in the Indian context. According to psychotherapist Susan Forward, emotional blackmail is a powerful form of manipulation in which blackmailers who are close to the victims threaten, either directly or indirectly, to punish them to get what they want. They may know the victim’s vulnerabilities and their deepest secrets. They could be their parents, partners, bosses or coworkers, friends or lovers. No matter how much the blackmailer cares about the victim, they use this intimate knowledge to win their compliance.
Knowing that the victim wants to love or approval, blackmailers threaten to withhold it or take it away altogether or make the victim feel they must earn it. If the victim believes the blackmailer, he/she could fall into a pattern of letting the blackmailer control his/her decisions and behaviour. Emotional blackmailers use fear, obligation, and guilt in their relationships, ensuring that the victim feels afraid to cross them, obligated to give them their way and feeling guilty if they don’t.
Are you being manipulated?
Recognise the first sign – how do you feel when the person is around you? Do you often feel guilty or humiliated in their company? Do they make you feel this way when you are with a group of people? Many of these people are not confident enough for emotional manipulation when in public or in the company, and that is why it is so common in marriages and relationships. When you are alone with your partner, do you argue over who said what and what they meant? Emotional manipulation often involves denial that something was said or done, so that you feel guilty for either doing something wrong or not doing enough. Additionally, if you are experiencing emotional manipulation, then you might notice a difference in how you feel within yourself. For example, are you relieved when someone else comes to stay, because it means you do not have to deal with your manipulator by yourself?
Dealing with emotional manipulation
• Conflict, the first sign: Relationships with manipulators are generally conflict-ridden. It is sometimes difficult to know that you are being manipulated. However, with time, your frustration with this person grows and you know that something must be wrong with the relationship. You may feel drawn and repulsed by the manipulator at the same time.
• Awareness of your own emotions within the relationship: Your emotions are your best tool for sensing that there is a problem between you and the other person. Examine whether you feel defensive, guilty, angry, or sympathy towards the other person.
• Define the emotion and understand the pattern: When you think about what happens between you and the manipulator, describe the emotions that you feel. Put your feelings into words. What specifically was said that led you to a certain feeling? How did you respond at the time? What was the effect of your response? You may want to write these down in a journal.
• Ask yourself whether you want to continue with the relationship or not. It might be in your best interest to terminate it, or else place-specific boundaries around it (like limiting our time with the other person). Some relationships cannot, or should not, be terminated unless there is a pattern of abuse. This is especially true of relationships with parents, siblings and children.
• Whenever a manipulation attempt occurs, point it out to the other person immediately. This is your way of taking control of the manipulation. There is no need to express anger when you give the manipulator this feedback. Be assertive and calm. Take a few deep breaths. The manipulator at this point might come back with a guilt trip or an angry response. You could say, “I don’t feel good about the way I am feeling. I would like a healthy interaction between us, so could you try to say what you need to say in a more positive and direct way.”
In some ways, the goal is, to begin with strengthening yourself and taking charge of your life. Emotional manipulation techniques are often used by cowards. They cannot do direct combat; so they usually resort to sneaky ways to get you to do what they want. Empowering yourself with knowledge is a surefire way of preventing abuse.
Anita Anand is a Delhi based hypnotherapist and crystal healer. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
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