By: Marilyn L. Davis
“Playing the victim role: Manipulator portrays him or herself as a victim of circumstance or of someone else’s behavior 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.” In Sheep’s Clothing: Understanding and Dealing with Manipulative People by George K. Simon, Jr.
What is Manipulation?
There’s no nice way to put this. Manipulation is a self-serving intention. Merriam-Webster’s definition is not kind, either: controlling or paying upon by artful, unfair, or insidious means to gain an advantage.
So, let’s just get this out-of-the-way; when we manipulate others, we’re trying to:
- Get something from them
- Con them into doing something for us
- Avoid unpleasant tasks
- Not be responsible
There are three essential elements of manipulation. They are:
1. Scheming – To get, get out of, or have someone else do something
2. Calculating – Dishonest, devious, or conniving
3. Controlling – Wily, sly and crafty
When we try to get others to do something for us that we are capable of doing but are just unwilling to do it, we do not take them into consideration. There’s no desire on our part to expend the time, energy, or in some cases, the money to carry out something. Manipulating people like this is self-serving. There are those who then feel smug; that they got over on someone and out-smarted them.
We have all manipulated people. But most of us have a preferred method of manipulation. When you learn to spot yours, then you can decide if your manipulation comes at too great a cost and change the behaviors. Click To Tweet
Manipulation: Multiple Approaches
Manipulators are good at what they do. But if one approach doesn’t work, they adopt another. For instance, we might give a three-year-old what they when they start pouting on the juice aisle, so they don’t have a temper tantrum because it’s easier than dealing with a tantrum.
However, we would not give in to a thirty-three-year-old exhibiting the same behaviors, but that same thirty-three-year-old may still use tears or pouting to get their way. Or the adolescent who continues with, “Please, please, please” trying to get the latest gadget. Some manipulation is obvious.
Then some people continue to re-frame the requests—multiple times. They are hoping that someone will give in and give them what they want.
When Crying Doesn’t Work – Some Get Angry
Anger is another tactic, along with disappointment. Most people are either intimidated or afraid of anger in others, especially someone in a position of authority.
So intimidating, demanding, shouting, or being angry in the request may just cause others to do or not do something just to relieve their feelings of tension and anxiety. Intimidating people or demanding certain things from them makes many people uncomfortable, and they will agree or be quiet just to lessen the stress.
There are clues when either you or someone else is being manipulative. However, most manipulation is couched with one or more of the following:
- Framing the request in a beneficial way
- What body language do you use to ask for help?
- Are there particular words used, so people feel obliged to help?
- Does sympathy for you play a part in the request?
Do You Pull Their Strings?
Mary Treffert, LCSW, ACSW writes in “Are You Someone’s Puppet”? that “Manipulation is usually attempted using power, unsolicited helping, rescuing, guilt, weakness, and dependence, to get the desired outcome. For example, power – physical, verbal, intellectual intimidation or threats, put-downs, belittling, withholding of things needed or wanted.
The goal is to be in a “one up, I am right, and you are wrong” position. Unsolicited helping/rescuing – doing things for others when they do not, request it, want it, or need it; helping others, so they become indebted, obligated, and owe you.
The goal is to be in the “after all I have done for you. Now you owe me” position. Guilt – shaming, scolding, blaming others, attempting to make others responsible, trying to collect for past favors. The goal is to be in the “it is all your fault,” or “after all I have done for you, and now you treat me like this” position. Weakness/dependence – being (or threatening to become) helpless, needy, fearful, sick, depressed, incompetent, suicidal.
The goal is to confuse want with need, with the message “if you do not take care of me, something bad is going to happen, and it will be all your fault” position.”
Do These Manipulation Tactics Work for You?
Can you find yourself in these examples? If you can answer yes, to any of the following examples, then in those situations, you have been manipulative.
If someone confronts me about my behavior, I act helpless or incompetent; confused seems to work well.
I then make statements about being “dumb” or “stupid.”
Then the conversation tends to move away from what I’ve done to how smart I am. It’s almost like they forgot what they were angry about, and I get out of a lecture.
I talk a lot about the losses in my life; how I didn’t have advantages that others did. Usually, people feel sorry for me and give in. Those positions create a specific impression of you to others. If you’re incompetent, then clearly, someone else will have to do something for you. You can’t do it.
“Selective Stupidity” means you might not be competent enough or smart enough to do something, so someone else will obviously have to do it for you. When you claim to be incompetent, and you aren’t, the conversation usually addresses that, not your behaviors, and you get out of the lecture or consequences for them. It usually works in your favor.
Obviously, if you are too “incompetent” to do something, then someone else will have to do it for you, and once again, you’ve manipulated people.
How Does Your Manipulation Present?
Pouting Postures get noticed and help create the image that people should feel sorry for you.
Do you ever act ignored, forgotten wounded and unloved? Demonstrate self-pity by crying or talking about all of your losses? I try to placate people who have expectations of me by saying, “Anything you want” when I do not mean it. I’m hoping that they’ll move on and leave me alone.
Talk about how concerned I am for situations and people but do not show this with actions.
I try the “Guilt Trip” I use guilt – with statements like:
- “You’re lucky; I’m not.”
- “You had a loving family; I didn’t.”
- “People help you; I have to beg.”
- “I didn’t get to go to college; you did.”
- “I was abused, and you weren’t.”
- “You weren’t neglected like I was.”
If those manipulative ploys don’t work, you’ll re-frame or re-phrase the request or even show a contrived front, hoping that a different way of asking will work and make others responsible. I’m trying to make people think I’m considerate, understanding or caring, when in fact, I’m only trying to manage their impression of me, without any effort on my part to follow through on these “concerns.”
I present depressed in front of some people, and then can magically appear okay to others.
I am aware of who responds to my sad posture, and it usually works to get something out of them. Sometimes, I “butter up or suck up” to people not meaning the words.
Did You See Yourself?
If these kinds of statements describe you, it’s because you’ve manipulated others into feeling sorry for you and that’s why they’re giving in.
Psychotherapist, Susan Forward popularized the term, “emotional blackmail,” which is a powerful form of manipulation. Blackmailers are usually close to the victim and threaten, either directly or indirectly, to punish people if they don’t get what they want.
They may know the victim’s vulnerabilities and their deepest secrets. Many of the people who use emotional blackmail are friends, colleagues, and family members with whom we have close ties that we want to strengthen and salvage” – parents, partners, bosses, or lovers.
Manipulators Find the Victim’s Vulnerabilities
No matter how much the blackmailer cares about the victim, they use their intimate knowledge to win compliance. Forward and Frazier show four blackmail types, each with their mental manipulation style:
1. Punishers – ‘My way or the highway’ is the punisher’s motto. No matter what you feel or need, punishers override you.
2. Self-punishers cast their targets in the role of the ‘grown-up’ – the only adult in the relationship… you are supposed to come running when they cry.”
3. Sufferers take the position that “if you don’t do what I want, I will suffer, and, it will be your fault.”
4. Tantalizers are the most subtle blackmailers, they offer nothing with a free heart.
Am I Honestly a Manipulator?
They’ll say, “I feel so stupid, why didn’t I see this, or I thought I was going crazy. Most all of us have been emotionally manipulated at least once in our lives, and it usually feels the same for most everyone…bad”. Dr. Lisa Holland
Ask yourself, “What are my preferred methods of manipulation? Who do I use this method with, and when does it work? Think about your favorite methods for manipulation and ask yourself who you tend to use this ploy with; is it:
• Sponsors/accountability partners
• Love interests
Your list should include everyone that you have a relationship with so you can decide the “who,” “where,” and “when” of your manipulation.
Decide if You Like Your Outcomes from Manipulation
If you like the outcomes when you manipulate others, you probably aren’t going to change. Why should you? You might wonder why you would stop something that gets people to do things for you – because their help comes at a price. However, if you do see that you don’t like manipulating others or have uncomfortable thoughts when you manipulate, then you can change. Listen when people are telling you about your manipulation.
Listening is how you’ll learn the harm that it has caused, and what you can do to change. If you decide to stop manipulating, you’ll need to learn:
- Your preferred method of manipulation
- Know who you use this with
- What are the circumstances and situations where you use manipulation
- Know why you use it
An incentive to stop using manipulation is that when people realize you can do something, you alienate them. They no longer trust you or believe you when you genuinely need help. It’s rather like the little boy who cried wolf too many times, and it wasn’t true, and then when it was legitimate, no one believed him. When you are manipulating or emotionally blackmailing people, you run the risk of ultimately pushing people away.
They may finally realize that you are capable of doing whatever it was that they did for you and resent you in the end. You attempted to “make them feel bad” about your life. Again, they will probably get tired of bailing you out and start distancing themselves from you.
If that happens, then you can get mad because they actually have abandoned you; because they were tired of the dishonesty and manipulation. They felt used, exploited, and in some cases, betrayed, or put in financial hardship because they helped you through manipulation. Know Who Buys into your Manipulation Two of America’s quintessential “Dumb Blondes” were Marilyn Monroe and Jayne Mansfield.
Monroe stated to a reporter once, “If I play a stupid girl and ask a stupid question, I’ve got to follow it through, what am I supposed to do, look intelligent?” Marilyn Monroe understood who bought into her reputation and when her manipulation worked, “Arthur Miller wouldn’t have married me if I had been nothing but a dumb blonde.” ~ Marilyn Monroe
Unfortunately, each time manipulation works, you can start believing your lies. You have created this image – helpless, stupid, incompetent, or worthless. Those labels can then become another cost that you pay for what you get from others. With this as your reputation, it will be challenging to gain job promotions, advancements in other social settings, or gain respect from some people.
That seems like a hefty price in the long-run. Ask yourself if you value the relationship enough to stop manipulating. If you find that you do, then begin to be honest in requests to that person or group of people. Ask those people who you want a better relationship with to discuss your manipulation with you. You can tell them that you know you have been manipulative and wanted to change this behavior, but you need some response from them.
Relationships vs. Manipulation
Be ready to have an honest conversation with them and be prepared to hear how they felt without defending your actions.
Discuss what you’ve done, why it wasn’t proper, and what potentially could have been more appropriate to do. These types of conversations can help you to learn about your behaviors and then start to change and adjust them.
If you want to stop being manipulative, a better way to deal with this problem is, to be honest with yourself and others.
Sometimes people are manipulative because they need something or want something, but they don’t know how to get it in a healthy way. You just need to learn how to get it honestly.
You can learn to say:
- “I would like it if you did this.”
- “Can you to help me with it.”
- “I have a want. I would like you to help me get it.”
Owning that you have a self-serving motive in your request may not sound like the best alternative. However, your honesty may be refreshing to others, and they might be more inclined to help. But they are assisting with a legitimate request and not a manipulative request.
50% for You, 50% for Me is Not Manipulative
A working rule of thumb is to assess the percentage of self-serving motives in your actions: 50% of this request will benefit me, and 50% will be helpful for them.
Starting at 50/50 is a fair exchange, and you can build on that. Try to find the balance in your self-serving motives.
You also have to learn to accept that sometimes people will tell you:
- “I can’t help you with that.”
- “Not now.”
- “No, that is not something that I can do for you at this time.”
Changing Your Manipulation Will Take Work
These responses can seem abrupt sometimes if you aren’t used to hearing them. But if you are going to have relationships based on mutual respect and honesty, these responses are appropriate for the person who needs to tell you, “no.”
Accepting that at this time, they are not in a position to help you does not say anything about how they feel about you, how much they value you, or whether they like you. It only means that they cannot help you at this time. Every change in behavior takes practice, and you may not, to begin with; you may still try to manipulate.
If that happens, and you are aware of it, just stop yourself and get honest:
- “I was still attempting to manage or control the situation.”
- “I’m trying to change my manipulation, so can I ask again and not give you the sob story”?
- ” Can I own my self-serving motive and get it out in the open and then ask for your help”?
Better Outcomes without Manipulation
Once you start getting better outcomes without manipulation, it strengthens your resolve to discontinue using manipulation. Keep striving for honest, authentic communication, not manipulation. Even if your method isn’t listed, isolating and changing your process will get you more honest outcomes and help you become more emotionally mature.
Writing, and recovery heals the heart