Covertly aggressive people are among the most manipulative personalities. They use certain tactics to accomplish two things simultaneously: 1) conceal their aggressive intentions, and 2) invite you to fear, be doubtful, or optimally, to concede or give in. And there are a handful of tactics covert aggressors tend to use more frequently – tactics that are generally the most effective in manipulating others – especially neurotics. Recognizing these manipulation tactics and knowing how to respond to them are the keys to personal empowerment.
I can’t stress enough how capable the more skilled manipulators are of using just about any behavior imaginable to accomplish their aims. This is especially true when the manipulator has a “good read” on the character of their target of manipulation. When a covert aggressor (CA) knows his or her “opponent” inside out (i.e. knows their sensitivities, fears, insecurities, core beliefs, level of conscientiousness, etc.), a vast opportunity opens up for using that person’s traits (often, their most socially desirable traits) against them in a covert war for dominance. Because it’s so unrealistic to list all the possible ways a covertly aggressive individual can get the better of another person, I find it helpful to focus attention on the more common tactics CAs employ and to explain in depth why the tactics are so effective. Understanding the basics of how manipulation works gives the potential victim of covert-aggression a better intuitive grasp of the nature of troublesome encounters with all disturbed characters and heightens their sensitivity to the many possible tactics a manipulator might employ.
Let’s talk first about the tactic of rationalization. Actually, a better term for this tactic would be “excuse-making” or “justifying.” The term rationalization derives from the Freudian notion that people sometimes unconsciously defend themselves against the anxiety they might experience by engaging in actions that violate their conscience. By finding reasons that seem to make their actions more benign, appropriate, acceptable, or understandable, any qualms of conscience are assuaged. But this scenario, of course, assumes that the person actually has a well-developed conscience. And this type of rationalization is a strictly internal and largely unconscious process.
When disturbed characters make excuses for their behavior, they know what they’re doing. They have a clear purpose in mind when they’re seeking to justify themselves. They use this tactic only when they know full well they’ve done something or plan to do something most everyone would regard as wrong. But even knowing it’s wrong, and knowing how negatively the action reflects on them, they remain determined to do it. They might feel “entitled” to do it (as in the case of more narcissistic individuals) or they may simply pit themselves against the generally accepted rules (as in the case of the aggressive personalities. What’s most important to recognize is that at the very moment they’re making the excuse, they’re not “defending” at all or unconsciously fending off any anxiety. Rather, they’re actively fighting against a principle they know society wants them to adopt. And more importantly, they’re also trying to get you to go along with it. Covertly aggressive folks prefer this kind of tactic as opposed to open defiance because it not only helps conceal their aggressive intentions (as well as some telltale aspects of their character) but also simultaneously helps them maintain a more favorable social image (by getting someone else to see things their way or buy into the purported reasonableness of their actions). And once they get the other person to become more accepting of their premise, they’re well on their way to winning the contests of image and interpersonal control.
Think just a little bit more about this tactic. It’s a testament to what I’ve said all along about disturbed characters and their level of awareness (for more on this you might want to read the post: They Know What They’re Doing). Why are the elaborate “explanations” and justifications necessary if the person doesn’t realize how most people would judge their actions? It’s not that they don’t know most folks would regard their behavior as wrong. And it’s also not that they truly believe in their hearts that what they’ve done is okay. Rather, they simply don’t want you to negatively appraise their character and possibly be done with them. And, more importantly, they don’t want to accept and internalize the notion that such behavior should not be done again. The very fact that at the moment they engage in the tactic they’re resisting accepting a principle and obstructing the internalization of that principle into their own social conscience is the best indication they’re likely to do the very same thing again in any similar circumstance. Think about it. How many times have you relented after half-heartedly accepting someone’s lame excuse only to find yourself dealing with the exact same behavior time and time again?!
Let’s look at another tactic: denial. Now this is also a term that had its roots in classical Freudian psychology. Freud conceived it as a primitive and unconscious defense against unbearable emotional pain. And there actually is a type of denial that fits this classic definition. I give an example of it in my book Character Disturbance:
A woman has been married to the same man for 40 years. She has just rushed him to the hospital because, while they were out in the yard working, he began having trouble speaking and looked in some distress. The doctors later tell her that he has suffered a stroke, is virtually brain-dead, and will not recover. Yet, every day she is by his bedside, holding his hand and talking to him. The nurses tell her that he cannot hear, but she talks to him anyway. The doctors tell her he will not recover, but she only replies, “I know he’ll pull through, he’s such a strong man.” This woman is in a unique psychological state – the state of denial. She can hardly believe what has happened. Not long ago she was in the yard with her darling, enjoying one of their favorite activities. The day before, they were at a friend’s home for a get-together. He seemed the picture of happiness and health. He didn’t even seem that sick when she brought him to the hospital. Now – in a blink of an eye – they’re telling her he’s gone. This is far more emotional pain than she can bear just yet. She’s not ready to accept that her partner of 40 years won’t be coming home with her. She’s not quite ready to face a life without him. So, her unconscious mind has provided her with an effective (albeit most likely temporary) defense against the pain. Eventually, as she becomes better able to accept the distressing reality, her denial will break down. When it does, the pain it served to contain will gush forth and she will grieve.
This is classic denial. And to this day it’s simply amazing to me how many people, especially mental health professionals, will simply assume that this is what’s always at work when character disturbed people deny their wrongdoings. Character disturbed patients will resist admitting things everyone knows they have done and the therapist might say: “Give him (or her) time, they’re still in denial.” And they make equally unwarranted assumptions, like mounds of shame and guilt must certainly underlie the denial. Why else would they deny, especially the obvious? They must have more shame and guilt about what they’ve done than they can bear, right? Wrong! Refusing to acknowledge the truth is not the same thing as neurotic denial. It’s simply lying and very different in character from the phenomenon I described in the first example. At first glance, someone’s denial might look like classic, neurotic denial. But when CAs and other disturbed characters engage in denial, it’s a very different thing. I give an example of denial the manipulation tactic at work in my book also:
Joe, the class bully, strolls up to one of his unsuspecting classmates and engages in one of his favorite mischievous pastimes – pushing the books out of her arms and spilling them on the floor. It just so happens that the hall monitor catches the event and sternly hollers: “Joe!” to which Joe, spreading his arms wide open and with a look of great shock, surprise, and innocence on his face retorts: “Whaaaat?” Does Joe really not understand the reality of what has happened? Does he actually think he didn’t do what the hall monitor saw him do? Is he in some kind of altered psychological state? Is his possible altered state brought about by more emotional pain than he could possibly stand to bear? Is he so consumed with shame and/or guilt for what he’s done that he simply can’t allow himself to believe he actually did such a horrible thing? More than likely, none of the aforementioned possibilities is correct. Joe is probably more concerned that he has another detention hall coming, which means another note to his parents, and possibly even a suspension. So, he’s got one long-shot tactic to try. He’ll do his best to make the hall monitor believe she didn’t really see what she thought she saw. The hallway was crowded. Maybe it was someone else. Maybe it was just an “accident.” If he acts surprised, innocent, and righteously indignant enough, maybe, just maybe, she’ll begin to doubt herself. He hopes that, unlike him, she might be just neurotic enough (i.e. has an overactive conscience and excessive sense of guilt or shame) to think she might have misjudged the situation. Maybe she’ll even berate herself for jumping to conclusions or for causing a possibly innocent person unwarranted emotional pain. This tactic might have worked before. Maybe it will work again.
Manipulators will often couple denial with other tactics such as feigning innocence. This is when the person you’ve confronted acts like they have no idea what you’re talking about or pretends in a self-righteous manner that they’ve done absolutely nothing to be ashamed of or guilty for. Sometimes they can use denial and feigning innocence with such intensity and seeming conviction that you begin questioning your perceptions and your sanity. You start out knowing that you’ve nailed them on a behavior and somehow they get you to wondering if you haven’t gotten it all wrong. A very effective one-two manipulation punch indeed.
By far, however, the biggest weapons in any CA’s arsenal are the tactics of shaming and guilt-tripping. And the reason for this is quite simple: neurotics, by definition, have a high degree of conscientiousness and hate to think they’ve said or done anything wrong or shameful. So, the perfect way to control them is to make them think they’ve done something about which they should feel guilty or be ashamed. Sometimes conscientious people try to lay guilt or shame on disturbed characters, thinking it will somehow prompt them to modify their behavior. But they quickly learn that these tactics don’t work on disturbed characters. You have to have a big sense of right and wrong and an equally big desire to be a good person for these tactics to have any effect. In short, you have to have a pretty well-developed conscience, something disturbed characters lack.
In next week’s post we’ll discuss some of the other more popular manipulation tactics. Then, in the following week’s post, we’ll be concluding the series on the aggressive personalities by taking a close look at predatory aggressors (i.e. psychopaths, sociopaths). Following that there will be some posts on topics that readers have been asking for information about. So, stay tuned!