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.