Most folks who’ve been manipulated find themselves asking afterward: “How did I let this happen?, How do they manage to do this to me time and time again?, What is it that I’m not seeing?” I did my best to address these very questions in the earliest edition of In Sheep’s Clothing. At the time, the perspective I was offering to explain the whole phenomenon was considered fairly radical and even erroneous by my peers, but it almost instantly resonated with those stuck in manipulative and abusive relationships. Basically what I was asserting was that we get manipulated because: 1) we don’t trust our gut instincts, and 2) commonly accepted but erroneous notions about why people do the things they do cause us to misperceive and misjudge the actions and the character of the person taking advantage of us. I also suggested that while it’s tempting to fault ourselves for being duped, the tactics covertly aggressive and other character-impaired people use are inherently powerful manipulation tools because they throw us on the defensive while simultaneously concealing obvious aggressive intent. And universally, folks familiar with my work reported that merely adopting the different perspective I offered about how to view their manipulator’s behavior was key to them putting an end to future victimization and empowering their lives.
Classical psychology had most us believing that many of the behaviors I label as “offensive power tactics” (the tactics that facilitate manipulation) were actually “defense mechanisms” the person unconsciously employed to deal with guilt, shame, feelings of inferiority and insecurity, etc. So when the character disordered person in someone’s life pointed the finger elsewhere (externalized the blame) when they were confronted, it was too quickly assumed that they were defending themselves against pain or perhaps even actually felt victimized in some way as opposed to merely employing a fighting tactic to make the accuser feel bad and back off. But how we perceive the character of an interaction makes all the difference in the world in how we’re likely to respond to a situation. And if we think that someone is “defending” in any way as opposed to “fighting” not only us but also the reasonable standards of conduct we want them to adopt, or we see them as unconsciously protecting themselves against feelings of shame or low self-esteem as opposed to behaving in an entitled and defiant manner, we’re going to end up successfully manipulated.
I don’t think it’s possible to stress enough how important it is to correctly perceive the nature of covert fighting if you’re going to avoid being victimized by a manipulator. And I think this best illustrated through example. Let’s just say you’ve confronted someone about not being truthful with you and therefore damaging yet again any sense of trust you’d like to have in your relationship with them. When they respond with something like: “What am I supposed to do when you’re always exploding whenever I level with you (using the tactic of externalizing and shifting the blame)?,” and “It was just one little thing and I misspoke, okay, it’s no big deal (using the tactic of minimization)!,” and “You always make me out some kind of monster (exaggerating) when you’re no one to talk (subtly adding some ‘guilting’ and ‘shaming’),” and you perceive this behavior as defending themselves as opposed to merely fighting for position, you’re bound to lose. When the character-impaired person engages in these behaviors, they’re primarily doing 3 things simultaneously:
- Fighting you (trying to back you into a corner and get you to back-off or back-down) for a position of advantage in your relationship.
- Fighting to maintain an undeserved positive image.
- Fighting against internalizing the principle they know you’d like them to accept (i.e. that trust in relationships is based on the willingness to be honest with your partner). And it’s this last reality that tells you unequivocally that the behavior you find troubling will definitely occur again. A person simply can’t fight against a principle and internalize it at the same time. It’s just not possible. Accepting the principle and making a commitment to improve would sound something like: “You’re right, I shouldn’t have lied to you. I need to do better on that score. And I’ll prove myself worthy of your trust by doing things differently in the future.”
These behaviors are “tactical” maneuvers, designed to play on the other person’s good nature. And of course, when someone is engaged in these behaviors, they’re largely doing so consciously (although they might be doing them reflexively, out of habit).
Knowing all the common tactics is not the most reliable key to avoiding victimization. Because, as I point out in Character Disturbance, folks who either place themselves above (narcissists) or are at war with (the aggressive personalities) the principles that build integrity into a person’s character, can use just about any behavior or tactic you can think of for manipulative purposes. So your greatest protection against victimization is correctly assessing the character of the person with whom you might have a relationship. It’s admittedly no easy task to find someone with a level of character development sufficient to give a relationship a fair chance these days. As I point out in both Character Disturbance and, more especially, The Judas Syndrome, there are too many socio-cultural factors enabling, encouraging, and even rewarding the things that impair character development, so character disturbance has become fairly widespread. But you at least have to be able to be able to distinguish those folks who lie at the mildly to moderately impaired part of the character-impaired spectrum as opposed to those at the more extreme end if you’re to have a good shot at things. In some upcoming posts, we’ll be taking a closer look at the neurotic vs. character disturbed spectrum and discussing how to better judge where someone lies on this continuum.