While gathering clinical data for my first book In Sheep’s Clothing, I came across several examples of folks who were on the receiving end of abusive, manipulative behavior but simply couldn’t see the underlying aggression involved, even though their gut told them they were under attack. What’s worse, many times they’d made “interpretations” about the behaviors that bothered them – interpretations they’d sometimes bought into after they were advanced by qualified professionals – that only reinforced the doubts they already had about their gut hunches. One of the main purposes of the book, therefore, became to call attention to how frequently people “fight,” and to make clear what distinguishes a slickly crafted “offense” from a defense. Understanding certain terms and concepts correctly is often the key to dealing with problem situations effectively, and the current series of articles (See also: Misunderstood and Misused Psychology Terms – Part 1, Shame, Guilt, Regret, Remorse, and Contrition, and Misunderstood Psychology Terms – Pt 2: Personality & Character) seeks to clarify some of the more commonly known concepts and terms that are frequently misunderstood or misapplied.
A woman who was having difficulty with her teenage daughter (As always, details and potentially identifying information in this vignette have been altered to ensure anonymity) once sought me out for counsel. The girl had been having problems at school for some time, both for failing to complete assignments (She’d been assessed as not laboring under a learning handicap or motivational deficits secondary to depression, etc.) and for showing disrespect to teachers. She’d also recently been suspended for a physical altercation with one of her peers. The mother tried to talk to her several times about her concerns, but complained that whenever she tried to address important but “sensitive” topics, her daughter would “get so defensive” that a meaningful conversation became impossible. The girl had been to several counselors before, including the school counselor, and both parents had participated in family sessions, so the mother was very familiar with psychological “jargon.” She knew her daughter was probably “insecure,” underneath it all because she hadn’t yet developed good social coping skills and probably had “low self-esteem” as the result of her academic failures. She also believe her daughter was far too “dependent” on her and others who were always going the extra mile to help her out, especially academically (Some teachers suggested the academic issues were less about ability and more about “attitude”). And because she never seemed to accept any of the guidance everyone gently tried to afford her, they knew she must be “in deep denial” about the nature of her problems. The cold, hard facts were probably too painful to bear and potentially toxic to her already impaired sense of self-worth. All this only seemed to make sense because the parents couldn’t imagine why else their daughter would behave the way she did. Both feared their daughter would simply withdraw even further than she already had if they said too much or pressed too hard. She’d already seemed quite “detached” from her family and friends and displayed complete “obliviousness” to her behavior. The mother reported that when you’d confront her about something she’d done, she’d act like she had no idea what you were talking about or make you question whether you even remembered things correctly. One therapist suggested this might be more than just a lack of awareness but rather a type of “dissociation” – a very primitive defense against the unacceptable, so the mother was worried that confronting her too hard or coming down on her too harshly with discipline might “push her over the edge.”
Having scheduled three family visits as for assessment purposes, I got the chance to see the dynamics between mom, dad and daughter “in action.” What I observed was that as soon as either parent called any attention whatsoever to a behavior of concern, their daughter went quickly on the attack: “There you go again, making a big deal out of nothing (minimizing)! You know the teachers have it in for me (blaming) and you never (lying by exaggerating) hear my side. I’m always getting singled out (playing the victim, and again, exaggerating) for stuff everyone else does (generalizing, justifying, exaggerating) and you never take up for me (shaming, guilting, playing the victim, and again, lying by distortion and exaggeration). And what you said about me cussing out Ms. Blakely, well that never even happened! I was just trying to explain something (minimizing, lying by omission) to her and she wouldn’t listen (playing the victim again) like always. Maybe I muttered something under my breath once (minimizing, lying by distortion, trying to escape responsibility on a “technicality”) because she made me so mad (blaming), but I did not cuss her out. Besides, everyone says ‘bitch’ sometimes!” Mom looked straight at me and said: “See what I mean, she gets so defensive! I don’t even think she realizes what she’s saying sometimes, or what the problem is. I don’t know how to get through to her or make her understand what we and her teachers are trying to tell her. I try to get her to see, but when I try to get a point across, I’m afraid she just can’t hear it.”
For a long time it was assumed that everyone struggled with significant social fears and tenuous self-esteem. It was therefore natural to further assume that any perceived criticism would only invite a person to unconsciously mount “defenses” against what they regarded as attacks on their already impaired and fragile self-image. And while such scenarios can and do still occur, they’re nowhere near as common as they once were. As the title of my second book asserts, we now live in an age of more rampant Character Disturbance. And if we’re going to understand and deal effectively with folks of impaired character, we have to be able to tell when they’re engaged in combat and trying to get the better of us as opposed to “defending” themselves. But to do so we first have to rid ourselves of the long-held but erroneous notion that people only fight when they feel “threatened” in some way (i.e. the old notion that what looks like an offense is really a defense).
Using various tactics to throw others on the defensive (and get them to back down or back off) is not being defensive. It’s simply fighting in a less than obvious but nonetheless effective way. That’s the heart of manipulation. And using others or exploiting their willingness to do things you’re not willing (as opposed to truly unable) to do is not dependence. Emotional dependence arises out of a true sense of inadequacy that begets on over-reliance on those perceived as stronger and more capable. And dependent individuals, by definition, in feeling incapable, are generally not only quite grateful for the support they manage to secure but also in that gratitude are often overly submissive (as opposed to combative) to those upon whom they depend. In the example above, “dependent” is not a term that would rightfully apply to the daughter, although it fits the parents fairly nicely. And although there’s a temptation to see “codependence” at work here (more accurately, “mutual” or inter-dependence, with the parents possibly dependent on the daughter’s approval and validation and the daughter being so-called dependent on them for the duties she neglects), in reality there’s only abuse and responsibility-evasion on the part of the daughter heaped upon the only truly dependent parties (the parents), abuse perpetrated by a very independently-oriented and skilled manipulator.
Now “denial” is not at work here either. I’ve written extensively about what denial is and isn’t (See, for example: Denial – What It Is and Isn’t, Denial – Manipulation Tactic 4, and Traditional Therapy Biases and “Denial”). Nor is the daughter’s apparent “obliviousness” to reality of the concerns expressed by others evidence of “dissociation” on her part. This is a young woman who knows exactly what’s going on, what’s being asked of her, and how to get others to back down and back off while carrying on as she wishes. While she might frequently lie to herself as well as to others, and while she may be virtually at war with expectations placed upon her, that’s neither denial nor dissociation. And as for why she would do such things if she weren’t really lacking in self-esteem underneath it all, it would take another article to list all the possibilities, not the least of which might include longstanding attitudes of entitlement, grandiosity (in the face of the apparent success of her manipulative strategy), egocentrism, and lack of empathy (i.e. concern for the impact of her behavior on others).
There’s a lot more to say about the four “Ds” discussed today and next week’s post will expand on these issues considerably.
This Sunday’s Character Matters will be a re-broadcast of an earlier program, so no phone calls can be accepted. But I want to extend a special invitation for all to tune in the Sunday after Thanksgiving for a special program on the psychology of gratitude (the perfect entitlement “antidote”).