Manipulators: Do They Really Believe What They’re Saying?

Manipulative people will say some of the most unsettling things.  This inevitably begs the question:  Do they really believe what they’re saying? Knowing the most likely answer to this question can make all the difference in the world when it comes to understanding and dealing with that problem character in your life.

I first introduced the concept of covert-aggression and its key role in manipulation in my book In Sheep’s Clothing.  That was almost 17 years ago!  I made the case that are people in this world who are by nature unscrupulous fighters who will say or do whatever it takes to win or gain advantage over another.  I also pointed out that sometimes, in the heat of battle, such folks  say the most preposterous things with such passion and apparent conviction that we become convinced they believe what they’re saying and are hesitant to write off their assertions as mere ploys to get the better of us, which is how we end up getting manipulated.  I also asserted that behavior of this sort is actually learned quite early, and if reinforced can easily become a part of one’s personality style.   Here’s an archetypal example from the introduction of the book:

[Jenny was trying] desperately to understand her daughter’s behavior.  No young girl, she thought, would threaten to leave home, say things like “You hate me,” “You’re always being mean to me,” and, “I wish I were never born” unless she were very insecure, afraid, and possibly even depressed.  Part of her thinks that her daughter is still the same child who used to hold her breath until she turned blue or stomped on the floor with violent tantrums whenever she didn’t get her way.  After all, it seems she only says and does these kinds of thing when she’s facing discipline or is trying to get something she wants.  But another part of her is afraid to believe that.  “What if she really believes what she’s saying?” she wonders.  “What if she’s really just hurting inside or I’ve done something to hurt her and don’t realize it?” she worries.  While she hates to be “bullied” by her daughter’s threats and emotional displays, she can’t take the chance she might really hurting inside – can she?  Besides, children just don’t say those things and act this way unless they’re feeling insecure or threatened in some way underneath it all – do they?

The case of “Jenny” and her daughter “Amanda” comprises a whole chapter in the book and details the ordeal of a conscientious mother and a yet untamed, almost tyrannical child.  Jenny’s gut told her that because Amanda said and did the shocking things that unnerved her only when she faced disciplinary consequences or wanted something from her, she was merely throwing another tantrum of sorts.  But, being as conscientious as she was, and taking Amanda’s statements seriously and to heart, she couldn’t allow herself to write off the antics as mere tactics to get her to give in.  Thus she got manipulated.  But think about things for just a minute:  If Amanda really believes Jenny to be the cold, heartless person who “hates” her own child, what prayer would such statements have of changing Jenny’s mind?

In my book Character Disturbance, I cite another example:

Joe, the class bully, strolls up to one of his unsuspecting classmates and engages in one of his favorite pastimes:  pushing the books out of her arms and watching them spill to 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:  Whaaat?”  Does Joe really not understand what just happened?  Does he actually believe he didn’t do what the hall monitor saw him do?  Is he in some sort of altered psychological state (the state of denial) brought about by more emotional pain than he could possibly stand to bear?  Is he so consumed with shame and/or guilt that he simply can’t allow himself to believe he actually did such a horrible thing?

More than likely, Joe is concerned that he has another detention hall coming, which also means another note to his parents and a possible suspension.  So, he’s got one long-shot tactic to try:  Make the hall monitor doubt what she saw.  Make her believe she didn’t really see what she thought she saw.  The hall was crowded.  Maybe it was someone else.  Perhaps it was an accident.  If he acts surprised, innocent, and righteously indignant enough, maybe she’ll doubt herself enough to let him off the hook.

Manipulative people prey on our sensibilities, emotional sensitivity, and especially, our conscientiousness.  And sometimes they speak and act with such conviction, that we begin to believe them.  We can even start feeling responsible in some way for what we perceive to be their pain.  But most of the time, the unscrupulous fighters among us say and do perplexing things as a way of jockeying for position.  They just want to make us doubt and back down or give in.  And they’re antics are just part of their game of deception.  A good rule of thumb for dealing with the problem character in your life:  trust your gut before you trust their words.  But if in fact you find yourself dealing with someone who truly believes some of the preposterous claims they’re making (which can actually be the case sometimes), you should know that they’re probably suffering from an even greater degree of mental and characterological ill-health than even you suspected, which should give you even greater cause for concern about being in a relationship with them.

36 thoughts on “Manipulators: Do They Really Believe What They’re Saying?

  1. [Edited comment] Trusting your gut??? I am just learning how to do that once again. One thing I am having difficulty with is my kind compassionate, eager to please personality. These qualities come naturally for me…to the point of neurosis….so I am having difficulty not looking at myself as all wrong and needing to change as I try and be more assertive etc. My family’s opinion is that I was “weak” to have got beaten down by him. I don’t know how to get in touch with who I am and be the adult without fear of being weak again and becoming prey once more.

    1. Songbird.
      I am the same way and if you look around many people are the same way. Kind compassionate and eager to please and serve. The difference that we must learn is why are we doing this? Why are we pleasing or agreeing?

      If you look at this closely you will see we pick and chose who we are like that to. Think very hard for a moment. e.g. Someone we do not like we do not have contact with, simple as that. Say you ran into a mugger in an alley, we aren’t sweet and kind to him and please him because “that’s who we are” Find the root of why you will try to please some and not others. If you are a pleaser you still need boundaries. You are not going to miss work because your GF may need a ride to the hair dresser. I hope you see my point. It took me awhile to understand this.

  2. I love the very last paragraph and the statement: “But if in fact you find yourself dealing with someone who truly believes some of the preposterous claims they’re making (which can actually be the case sometimes), you should know that they’re probably suffering from an even greater degree of mental and characterological ill-health than even you suspected, which should give you even greater cause for concern about being in a relationship with them.”

    Down to the tea! Absolutelly marvilous and so true!!!
    Thanks a Million Dr. Simon!!!
    I never get tired of hearing words of your wisdom!!!

  3. I think most of the time, those of us who do take responsibility for our actions and care for others feelings,already know before hand these type of people are who they are within our circle. I think the hardest thing we deal with is knowing how to back out of the situation without having the individual cling to us.

  4. So encouraging to come to a site and be able to get a blueprint for my life in dealing with life. I am a bit stuck at the moment in being divorced and having 4 children one of which needs help with what may become a substance abuse problem at 17. Everything I am reading and everything that is said in group counseling at the outpatient center is about parent being on the same page, co-parenting with a manipulator is impossible. I keep throwing myself under the bus and thinking we can that he loves her and wants the best, that he respects me as her mother. NOT the case. Very difficult to see that truth and realizing it will not happen. I seem to be a bull in a china shop when with her and my ex trying over and over to get them out of denial (she lives with him now) I realize that is the definition of insanity….hard to let go when FEAR dominates.

    I would love any feed back from people who have children a shared parenting plan….any wisdom as I navigate these water is much appreciated. I know I lost the maternal gut instinct for awhile and my older ones hold no respect for me…how to gain that back. I always look to the kids as the “bad” guy and my ex is just trying to”help” me.

    Frustrated with myself for still believing him over and over again!!

    Open to any and all feedback, insight and advice from those who have walked with walk.

    1. Hi, I understand how you must feel. Like you, I had a 28 year old son with a severe substance abuse problem, I kept on trying to convince my husband to be on the same page when trying to set some limits for his behaviour, not only he couldn’t or really never wanted to, and you feel so frustrated an hopeless and depressed. I’ve learned during the last few months, and also by reading Dr Simon books, that the best approach is to set limits for yourself and to work on your own self respect, and give up the desire and the wish that maybe one day your husband will understand and behave differently. He won’t. But you can.

  5. I just left my disturbed character 3 weeks ago, Yes, I had lost myself and I am a very strong person. When you start to feel like you’re losing yourself, lose THEM instead!! As fast as you can. You have no control over anyone but yourself, DO NOT give that control away because getting it back is HELL. Trust me, I made that mistake.

  6. Songbird, I have done the same thing. Be there for your children and love them/ respect them. Once they feel safe with you again they will respect and love you back, keep trying.

  7. Yesterday, I came to the house of manipulator who I have recently found out is a “PLOY” and victimizes my mother (his wife’s sister). I ran away from home 5 days and lived in a homeless shelter. I came back because I am a student and passing my medical exam. He tried to tell me I am mentally-ill and makes himself look good doing it, but I understand after reading this book what true motives he holds against me is to “Underhand” me and with covert-aggression make himself look good while doing it. I am thankful for “In Sheep’s Clothing” by Dr. George K. Simon!

  8. My disturbed character is still clawing in to my anxiety. Of course he blames me or someone else for everything – never himself. He admits he has no intention of changing and admits he has an antisocial behaviour problem. He has no emotion and no urge to compromise. He honed in on me when I was recovering from being widowed and had received a pension lump-sum, and my self-esteem was low and I was lonely. I believe his threats (to torture me) are an agressive display because I finally severed ties. I haven’t responded to his most recent letter in which he is going to ‘take a small claim order’ out to reclaim money spent in gifts over the 18 months we were together unless I compensate him. He will do as he chooses and a response will only make it worse. I realised he was trying to get money from me to start up a new buisness as his own wasn’t doing well. I discovered his deceit in obtaining money from me for a business with the intent of pushing me out once it was up and running and then I would be helpless in recovering it. I accepted that whilst he was incredibly attentive and kindly in the first months. But I was no more than a possession really and he was speculating to accumulate good graces. He had neither love nor concern for me. Eventually after several failed attempts to rid myself of him, I said no more and goodbye ( after some counselling) which then spoiled his buisness and he got quite nasty. Its a fictional amount he suggests he’s claiming but Im afraid he will take action just to cause me pain – that is his ‘win’. I live each day in fear of the post arriving. Im unhappy in my home now and I’m puting it up for sale. My solicitor has said not to worry!!! But she doesn’t realize how disturbed he turned out to be- I could write so much about the trouble he has caused and how I wish I’d listened to friends in the beginning..I feel sick and anxious and have need to use medication to keep me from becoming too depressed. His friends think he’s a great guy- but then they weren’t with him behing closed doors- they dont know the emotional abuse that I endured or his threatening covert-agressive behaviour or the physical pain that the anxiety caused (from put downs in public to abuse in the bedroom.) Be warned!

  9. I read (and enjoyed) this post in the context of researching public liars. I’m interested to know what you do with a manipulator who is bad at it. Saying things you know to be untrue and failing to convince, yet sticking with their preposterous fantasy assertions.

  10. I know my gut feeling has helped me many times in this life. Several years ago, I was attracted to a girl in my college. Besides having beautiful appearance, she seemed like a good person: credible, nice, and trustworthy (in fact she was an active member in her church, a respectable member of community). Anyway, I began to have uneasy feeling after finding that she looked self-centered, was unable to take a ‘No’ for an answer, threw manipulation tactics (especially shaming, playing the victim, and seduction) when I rejected her request. I didn’t aware of those signals at that time but somehow I feel uncomfortable with this girl. The feeling became so strong that I started behaving coldly towards her, although I didn’t have logical explanation for that. After reading your book, I understand why my instinct told me to stay away from her. It is a lesson for me not to ignore my gut feeling.

    You mentioned that we need to trust our guts before trusting their words. However, how can we trust our guts without being paranoid? Our guts are not always right, are they? I mean if we start trusting our guts too much (without logical reason), we may become irrational person, right?

    1. What is trusting our guts too much? If it means our guts alert us near many people, then chances are we’ve run into several covert-aggressors in a short time. Hard as that may be to believe, especially to people, who want to believe only good of others, it’s still possible.

      1. Usually we act not only based on our guts (but also logical reason), right? For example, we show anger towards someone not only because our guts tell us to do so, but also because he/she did something bad (maybe insult, hurt, or deceive us – a logical explanation for our anger). If we are angry with him just because of our instinct, then people may be confused with our action.

        Another example, in the story that I wrote above, I behaved coldly towards my friend just because I didn’t feel comfortable with her. People may say it is an irrational act because I didn’t have logical reason for the action at that time (although my gut strongly told me to stay away from her). One can also say that I had too much negative thoughts towards others (paranoid).

        So, my question is when should we trust our guts? Can we always trust them? Our guts not only warn us against CA, but also against other dangers. However, as they are not always right, we often need logical reason before taking our decision. We cannot rely too much on our guts, can we?

        I hope that makes it clear.

      2. Our subconscious can receive stimuli and alert us before we consciously can pinpoint what’s wrong. If we get a feeling without there being a proper logical reason for it, usually there’s insidious or something else wrong going on.

        1. REI, Maybe our gut instincts should be treated like a traffic light. Instead of just red-stop, green-go, there is also yellow-slow/ with caution? Meaning, if your gut tells you something is wrong it means just slow down with this person, don’t invest any further until you have more information AND keep your eyes wide open? Wait for evidence that it’s OK to proceed or evidence that it’s not.

          1. Thank you, Puddle. That makes sense. If our instincts give us a bad signal, that means we need to be more cautious with this person. We shouldn’t invest too much and even if we have to make a deal with him, we should proceed with extra caution (maybe by establishing clear agreements, finding alternatives, etc. – in case he does something bad). However, if we really have strong feeling against him, I guess we need to avoid him at all costs. That may sound irrational for some people, but I think it will be fine.

            Thanks also to J who has participated in this discussion.

  11. I wanted to share an experience I had resently.l noticed a tactic that a covert aggressive used on me. I noticed that there words didnt match there body language. The words where there only to help disguise the suble aggressive body language , so that the body language comes through subliminally. I think hypnotists use this same trick.

  12. My wife has agorophobia and depression ,and has a history of self harm,we have been married for 14 years and have a son,she has never worked since we have been together,I work really hard,but when I get home I also have to do the shopping and cleaning because she is always suffering some kind of physical ailment,she is super intelligent and very well read,she comes across as very mean and shy with people but also very empathetic,I have always felt extremly emotionally manipulated,luckily her physical violence towards me seems to have gone in the last five years or so,however I now see her manipulating my son against me and it is too much to bare,her behaviour seems to match almost all of the criteria I have read about emotional manipulation,can someone please advise me where I can get help,the situation is becoming confusing and I fear critical.

    1. Hi Carter, My first question is………has she done anything to address her condition(s)? Has she sought out any therapy? This is one of the conditions (agoraphobia) that Dr. Simon speaks about being able to address through behavioral reconditioning such as CBT, Cognitive Behavioral Therapy. It is very hard for anyone to really advise you without intimate knowledge of your situation and without knowing what has already been tried to remedy it but that is the first thing that came into my head. It also sounds like some family concealing is in order now because of the involvement of your son. No easy way around things like this Carter.
      I wish you luck and welcome.

    2. This is really tough, especially with a child involved. I can really relate with the manipulating your son against you, my spouse does this with my children too. It is very subtle, and hard to detect, in my situation.
      For me, with my children, I try to do my best for them to see the real me, I need to be careful not to overcompensate for husband’s attempts at casting me in a bad light, or attempting to get them to see him as the truly loving, giving one in the relationship. I still need to teach them how to live, and the best way to do that is through my example. Manipulation can be so tricky, that my heart truly goes out to you. It is a long, hard road when there are children involved.
      I am still with my manipulative spouse, from my experience there is ABSOLUTELY nothing to do to get them to change. Counseling was vital for me to learn to set boundaries. As far as the helping with household duties, I finally started to determine that which I can truly do, and had to let the rest go. I needed to prioritize what truly needed to be done and accept that I’ll have minimal help (and the little I do get can’t truly be counted on) and leave a lot of things undone.

      Really the best suggestion I can give you is to get help for yourself, find a counselor that can help you determine what your limits are. This was really helpful for me, to set some of my own individual goals, and work towards healthy friendships outside the marriage.
      Reading Dr. Simon’s material has been a life-line for me, just to stay empowered by always remembering what I am dealing with; to realize that I am going around in circles in the relationship. Even though my husband is responsible for the abuse and manipulation, once I realized it, I knew he wouldn’t be responsible enough to be the one to put a stop to the cycle, and I needed to step out of it.
      I understand that it is also overwhelming being the responsible one in the relationship, I often felt guilty for doing something just for me when there was never enough time to work, look after every aspect of a household, and be there for the kids, but it was a real turning point for me to learn to do things just for me.
      People in our kind of relationships seem to be the ones who become overly-responsible, mostly because no one else is and certain things just need to get done. I know it sounds simple, but it was a very hard thing for me to do, and it doesn’t fix anything, but it does give relief … just doing something for myself.

      I am very sorry, as far as the relationship goes, she really does need to be willing to truly turn that corner. It is sad, it is hard, and it is unfair. I wished I had an answer for you (and for me) that could just make things better, easier. But there isn’t. Again, my heart goes out to you. I wish you well, I wish you strength, and I sincerely hope you seek the help you need, they may try their hardest to make things confusing, but by getting the help you need, you do not need to live in the confusion, even when you are with the manipulator.

      1. Sheri, that was beautiful. You are amazing! The best advise ever is what you just gave to Carter. Kind of like, you get yourself in line and let them decide if they want to make the effort to walk beside you. It has to be so hard when there are children involved.

      2. Thank you Puddle. It is actually a very simple concept. But not an easy one to follow. I need to remind myself everyday. Lately things seem okay in the home and I find myself falling into old patterns of thinking, putting my guard down etc. that’s why reading, reminding myself that just because we’re in a down time so to speak doesn’t mean any true change has happened in him. So I need to not count on a changed relationship. I can only count on a changed me. Grow stronger. I don’t fall for a lot of the old tactics anymore. But he can sure throw out new ones or altar the old ones just enough that I often get caught up in it again for a bit. Then walk away ant go wow. And add it to my list and work out a way to respond the next time

        1. Something else, just a side note, I’ve often found it almost funny how they can change and altar their ingrained manipulation tactics so easily to serve their own purpose, but can’t seem to change or altar their ingrained manipulation tactics to become a better person. Just kind of a ‘hmm’ kind of thought. Thinking this helps me contradict those times where he comes to me so sorry, says he’s trying so hard, I just need more patience, he can’t help it, etc. But seeing that he can easily discard, or altar a tactic to further his impression management and manipulation shows me 100% that he is fully aware of what he is doing, he can help it, and he really is doing exactly what he’s trying to do. (trying to further manipulate and control me); so change is possible with them, it’s just not the kind of change that benefits anyone but themselves and their own agenda.

          1. Sheri……..that is a very interesting observation. You are so fortunate to have your eyes open now but I can totally understand how slippery the ground your walking on is. Hang in there girl, Just reading your words……… are worthy of so much more than the situation you are in right now.

      3. Carter. Something that I missed commenting on last time is your concern about the situation becoming critical. I am not sure what you mean by critical. It is truly important for you to decide what your limits are. If you mean physical abuse than drastic steps need to be taken. My life is not set up to leave the person I married. However I am prepared no matter what to leave in the event of two situations. These are physical violence of any sort towards anyone in the home and pornography in the home. I have to,d my spouse this. I am firm in it. And, through the counsellor, set up a safe house that would be available in a short notice emergency situation. But it is one thing that my counsellor really helped me work through. To determine that line that you will not accept them crossing and truly be prepared to follow through with the consequence. Your safety and your child’s safety is far more important than any losses you might experience by sticking to your limits

  13. My family has been the target of my sister’s anger for over a year. We have received dozens of guilt-inducing, disrespectful, mean emails from her: some CC to other members of the family. We know that she has gossiped about us to my mum, her ex, her son, our adult daughter, and others, because she mentions them as siding against us and with her on various issues.
    She demands full access to our children, holiday invites, and no rules, but her actions are manipulative and deceitful. At this point, we have allowed her to text the kids through our phones and have suggested that we meet in person only. Help us move forward?

    1. Mrs. Mac,
      I think you are trying to set boundaries, and she is testing them, and trying to bring those boundaries down. You need to stay on course, or maybe set stricter boundaries to keep her away. For example, my comments for you post…
      She demands full access to our children [what??, ask her to get lost], holiday invites [what?? do not dare show up without invitation, I invite those people that I want to invite], and no rules [my house, my rules, get lost if you don’t like them], but her actions are manipulative and deceitful [set boundaries, and call her out on her manipulative ways in cool & calm fashion]. At this point, we have allowed her to text the kids through our phones and have suggested that we meet in person only. [what?? your kids, why she wants direct access to them??]

      I think you should stick around and read few blogs. I would have suggested you few books to get a consolidated text on handling your situation better, but I have been warned that I suggest too many books. And, I should stop doing that as many people don’t like reading books and they just may throw them back on my head. 😉 Ask again please, if you want names of the books that I think will be useful for you.

      1. Mrs. Mac,

        I would not invite her to family events. I’d not allow her any access to your children. It’s your duty to protect you kids from people like her. Just check the “block” feature. I’d not receive emails from her.
        What good does she bring to your and your family’s life? You don’t have a duty to your sister. She’s an adult. Don’t let her invade your family with her toxicity.
        This is what I’m learning . . . . be done with toxic people. We do not need them in our life.
        Sorry if I’m more blunt than you’re used to hearing, but I’m going through a lot with the STBX CDN.
        Lil’ Sis can find new victims. It needn’t be you and your family.

        1. Lucy,
          YESsssssssssss!!!!!!!!!! BE DONE WITH TOXIC PEOPLE!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!



    2. “I have been warned that I suggest too many books. And, I should stop doing that as many people don’t like reading books and they just may throw them back on my head.”

      While I haven’t been warned(and I haven’t been you would’ve been warned, either), I can relate. 🙂

  14. I recently watched a film on childhood obesity in Brazil. A little boy who was clearly obese was throwing a tantrum, and rolling about the floor, whining and kicking his feet around because he was not being allowed to eat a bag of potato chips. That lasted for a mere few minutes, before his parents gave in claiming that they did not want their child to be unhappy. Everyone appeared happy and relieved that the little boy was now savoring a bag of potato chips. The parents were of course obese themselves. Games people play…

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