Impression Managers and Gaslighting
Skilled impression managers can engender all kinds of inner turmoil in you. Once you’ve uncovered a person’s true character, you often want the whole world to know who they really are, too. But somehow, the bad actor in your life has other folks seeing them very differently. This can be very disquieting, and seriously alienating! Many abusive relationship survivors are at their wits end trying to understand why others are still so positively swayed by the person who treated them so heartlessly. It’s a scenario that produces an intense gaslighting experience.
Good impression managers possess several skill sets. They know how to be likeable, and in many ways, how to relate with ease. The might also know how to charm. And the more someone has the skill to seduce others, the more it hurts to witness them operate so successfully once you’ve come to understand who they really are in character. (Perhaps it was largely their capacity for seduction that captured you in the first place!)
Interpersonal Skills in a Shallow and Superficial Age
Narcissism and other forms of character disturbance are more common than ever, and for good reason. For decades now, we have lived in shallow, superficial times. And we’ve become so used to egocentrism, entitlement, and mutual exploitation that we barely notice the poverty of most relationships.
Having the capacity to relate in a truly loving way requires solid character. It’s what makes genuine intimacy possible. In our times, a person can have tremendous interpersonal skill. And adeptly using those skills can endear others. Of course, for some kinds of narcissists, that’s the name of the game: getting others to esteem them in some way. (See also: 4 A-Words Are Red Flags for Narcissism.)
I’ve said this before, but it’s worth saying over and over again. Looking good is relatively easy. All you need is the innate or learned skills that prompt folks to see you favorably. But being good, that’s another story! It takes hard, consistent work to fashion for yourself a character having the capacity to genuinely love and merit respect.
Learning to Trust Again
Covert characters are some of the most skilled impression managers. And the tactics they employ inherently induce the gaslighting effect. What survivors often realize is that they should have trusted their gut in the first place. But they usually come to this conclusion after much suffering. I wrote In Sheep’s Clothing to help folks who are in or have survived such relationships understand and heal. And I wrote Essentials for the Journey to help change the scourge of our times, one heart at a time. There are good reasons narcissism is so prevalent. For decades, the dominant values in culture have encouraged it and even rewarded it. When you reinforce something, it occurs more often. It’s that simple. And the solution is just as simple. When we make character important again, and reclaim what it takes to instill, encourage, reinforce, and expect it, relationships will become wholesome again.
A new series of podcasts devoted to this subject has debuted on Character Matters.
16 thoughts on “How Some Impression Managers Gaslight”
Dear Dr. Simon,
I’ve been giving some serious thought on your post about how impression managers gaslight. And I have a thought, a question, an observation I would really like your opinion.
We typically think of ‘Playing the Victim’ as an effective manipulative tactic, which it obviously is but I’ve been very confused and puzzled about WHY it’s so effective.
People, I’ve observed, are not, in general, very sympathetic to true victims. A traumatized rape victim is criticized for clothing worn, a mugged assault victim will be asked what time they were out or what streets they were on, an abused spouse will be asked why did they not leave if it was so bad. Even media stories are about the overcoming of obstacles, not the journey of a person victimized. Their struggles are glossed over with a sure, ok but look at you now. You’re a survivor! Whoo!
Overall, I would say people are at best uncomfortable around victims and at worst want to find fault with them so they somehow deserved the mistreatment. Maybe it helps people feel more secure not having to deal with the reality that bad things happen for no reason. Or maybe victims are just seen as weak and therefore unworthy of sympathy. I don’t know, I just know victims feel ashamed, humiliated and guilty and support and help is not necessarily assured with a real possibility of scorn and derision.
So why would playing a victim becomes such an effective, powerful strategy?
I’m wondering if we should include helpless or clueless or woebegone in our list of impression management strategies. I cannot count the times when I was told my ex husband didn’t understand the inner workings of his own mind and I would need to ‘help’ him (by therapists). Or he’s not a complex guy who can handle those complex responsibilities, it’s your jobs as his wife to handle them for him (family and friends). I can’t tell you how often he’d play dumb and I would happily do many somethings for him like I would a child who was out of their depth. (Towards the end of my marriage, I would respond to those types of statements with, this a man with two successful careers, a highly decorated officer in the military and a successful manager in a large national transportation company, he did not achieve these successes by being dumb and clueless.)
But for some reason, being innocently helpless or dumb is somehow charming. I’ve certainly fallen for it multiple times with multiple disturbed characters. I’ve found that it soothes something in me to help someone not struggle with something either I’ve also struggled with and figured out the hard way or in some relatable way that I wish I would’ve been helped.
I’m starting to add helplessness to my list of red flag behaviors because I’m seeing these are not people who are helpless. (People who are truly helpless try to hide how helpless they really are- they’re ashamed.). These people are just manipulating so I’ll do what they want or need or impression managing so I’ll feel sorry for them and be empathetic:/sympathetic to them.
Do you think ‘playing the victim’ can be both manipulative and impression management? Are you able to add any clarity to my confusion and thinking on ‘playing the victim’?
Thanks so much for any assistance you may offer on this difficult subject!
Interesting questions. Wondered that too!
“I’ve found that it soothes something in me to help someone not struggle with something either I’ve also struggled with and figured out the hard way or in some relatable way that I wish I would’ve been helped.”
It’s understandable. I recently heard a therapist suggest this very thing is called over functioning.
Interesting comment on the over functioning. I don’t know if it quite fits me based on what I read.
Basically, I grew up and have gone through adulthood without help, guidance, support or a safety net. So it soothes my internal pain to help others.
A example would be offering easy, good recipes to someone lamenting they can’t cook well. Or offering to come to them or them come to me to make a more complicated dish they feel uncertain about. My helping is more like showing by example, guidance, answering questions, soothing frustrations (everyone wants to be perfect the first time—practice makes perfect, so be patient with yourself, you’re learning.)
I don’t want to overdo because that takes away their sense of accomplishment and I have enough of my own responsibilities so I don’t want to be overwhelmed. But I don’t think someone who is just learning to cook should have to reinvent the wheel. Those of us in the know, should be available to those who are learning.
Another example, I helped my brother buy his house by covering his closing costs. He was young, had been laid off a number of times so no savings built up, and had a baby on the way. My mother (who didn’t know I already offered my brother help) was raging on the phone about how he was going to fail and lose his earnest money. My parents were both in a better position to help than I was but they don’t help, it’s like they like to see us struggle and fail. My brother got his house and still lives in it with his wife and three children so I consider it a good investment.
Maybe it’s just taking a few minutes to answer questions or holding the door open to someone who’s got their hands full. It doesn’t have to be huge, costly or time consuming. Maybe it’s just making someone laugh at a joke who is obviously having a bad day or taking a moment to commiserate.
You know that old adage about treating others as you want to be treated? That’s what I do and it helps soothe the pain of not being treated as I wish I would.
I don’t know if this makes sense to you. I think most people have had more kindness extended to them than I’ve had or maybe not. It’s hard for me to say. However, from what I see, most people treat others as they have been treated so it just passes along the lack of kindness.
I’m like that too, so I was also surprised by the label. I see it as kindness and helpfulness.
He said basically it’s comes from wanting to save someone from the pain that you’ve experienced, or not wanting them to have to learn the hard way. He did it say it like it was a negative, but the label sure does suggest that.
As an aside, I do think that makes us a target for takers.
*He didn’t say it…
The articles I saw on over functioning indicated it’s a new term replacing co dependency. (The definition sounded good and sounded like me but then the description was about co dependency, hovering behaviors which is not like me.)
One of the examples was someone talking too long to make dinner so you just take over. My thought? Rude!!! Bet that would make someone feel horrible and not ever want to make dinner again. Then the person would complain they always have to make dinner. Crazy!
It’s so strange to me how so much psychology is now about labeling good character behaviors as negatives (people pleasing, co dependency, now over functioning) and toxic behaviors as positives (some of the boundary articles shock the heck out of me with how cold, hard and rude they are. Once upon a time ultimatums were to be avoided in creating healthy communications and relationships.)
It’s just so odd and my guess really reflects the issues we’re having in the U.S.
Charlie, your observations are very insightful. It is a real conundrum why the real victims get so little sympathy but the fake ones get it. Perhaps a pre-emptive smear campaign on the targets of the abuse, and a great deal of prior impression management on the part of the abuser is part of the equation. I’d sure like the answers to your questions, too.
It’s a real puzzle to me why so many sympathize with those who I find unsympathetic and treat with contempt those I feel so empathetic towards. I don’t know if it’s a narcissist thing or what, I just know something is really off about it and I can’t quite get it sorted out in my mind.
Re ‘playing the victim’, Charlie above, raises a very good question. Why indeed is that particular device so effective? Martha Stout, author of The Sociopath Next Door, says “The most reliable sign and universal behaviour of unscrupulous people is an appeal to our sympathy.” And while I think it’s true that some people may not be very sympathetic, enough people are, and these ones make good targets for the covert character to make the play for sympathy worth it. It is one of the most universally used tactics, as Martha mentions. I have seen it so many times myself. And after doing a bunch of research, which included reading Dr Simon’s excellent material and learning everything I could about covert aggressive characters, these people no longer fool me.
Charlie and Healing,
I never thought of helplessness to be a red flag, but now I do. We have to take in the whole picture to discern if someone’s character is for real or a ploy to get us to do their work.
The list just goes on and on what we have to be aware of.
I think we can discern when someone needs a little helping hand between those who won’t help themselves. I hate to admit it but I have a hard time helping those who I know suffer from depression because I see them not helping themselves. And as I don’t fully understand it, I am just not much of a friend to someone suffering from depression. But that’s a whole nuther issue.
There is truth in what you say re: depression, with the differences of can’t versus won’t.
My understanding is people with true desperation can’t help themselves, their loss of motivation, interest and energy is so profound, sometimes so profound they can’t even get out of bed. I don’t think it’s something one can easily comprehend without experiencing it. Best I can do is a comparison to a really bad flu were getting up to get a glass of orange juice from the kitchen takes too much energy so you just don’t.
I’m pretty sure that’s an accurate description but I’m not really educated enough to be certain.
Depression not desperation,
Lucy and Charlie,
Learned about the helplessness ploy the hard way! I agree, over time you learn if someone is lazy, or, like most of us, needs help now and then. Found myself needing more after all the abuse and it is a source of frustration. I’m an independent person.
So true! Seems like the list is never ending.
Was deeply depressed after lost 4 members of my family in less than a year. The last two were within weeks of the other. All out of the blue. Was a zombie and looking back am stunned how debilitating it can be.
That is a horrific loss. My goodness. How do you even process that many losses. I know me, and I’d have been hospitalized. I do understand how debilitating it can be. I was thrown into a depression when an event occurred years ago. Lost 25 pounds. Like you say, zombie like. Somehow I got myself to work every day, because I had to. That probably helped tremendously. I would wake up in the morning and wish I were dead. it all worked itself out in time. but the medication sure didn’t work. I do feel for those who are debilitated from it. Really, there is nothing anyone can do to bring you out of it.
I think it’s the ones who are functional but constantly complain. I just don’t want to be around it. And they won’t do the things to help themselves.
I’m all about helping those who help themselves.
It was incomprehensible at the time. Think that’s is right on…how do you process that many losses? Very slowly, in my experience. Lots of grief and self care (I quit my demanding job with severely CD bosses). Dismissed the people who wanted me to just get over it and move on because my grief/depression made them uncomfortable, or whatever.
After some time, I started working with cognitively impaired children to help move out of the grief and into helping others. It was helpful.
I’m sorry that happened. That’s sounds really painful. Sounds like you handled it well and going to work helped. Sometimes changing the environment (or the people in the environment) can really help.
So true and well put. My experience is that many want to pathologize pretty much everything, not unlike the medical profession.
I take much of it with a grain of salt now. Have had enough. Becoming a hermit is looking pretty good right about now!