Psychological manipulation can come in varied forms and from a multitude of individuals, some close to us and others who aren’t. Psychological manipulation is sometimes noticeable, but often remains undetected. It’s hard to spot for several reasons, the major being our desire to remain in denial in order to sustain a relationship with an emotional bully. Although easy to deny and explain away, psychological manipulation and abuse (which are often interchangeable) takes it toll on the victim who’s, at times, left so confused that she or he questions their own sanity: gaslighting.
Psychological manipulators are clever and know how to sniff out weaknesses, or individual needs, which may be a better term in this case. They know what you need and how to exploit it without your ever questioning their motives. There are multiple ways in which they operate, and I’ll discuss the most common ones in this post. One of their most familiar, and most prominent, tactics is the use of flattery; a great example of this is Eddie Haskell from The Leave it to Beaver series who would incessantly compliment Mrs. Cleaver. These individuals ascertain how you wish to be perceived and where you feel you’re lacking, and then proceed to shower you with compliments related to your need. If you consider yourself to be unattractive, they’ll continually praise your beauty; if you see yourself as being old, they’ll remind you of your apparent, and shocking, youthfulness; and if you doubt your intelligence, they will perpetually remind you of their wish to be as smart as you are: all of this in the service of their own ends, a buttering up, as Fritz Perls labeled it in treatment.
Another major form of psychological manipulation is through the use of guilt and the appeal to morality. This common feature is predominant in families, in particular with parents who find it hard to permit their children to individuate and establish their own lives and their identities as individuals, apart from the family structure. Guilt also takes on several forms, and is related to the establishment of a sense of shame in another. When your mother tells you how difficult it was for her to raise you, and that she only asks for little in return; when your boyfriend tells you that he only loves you and simply wants to express his love physically, if you only allowed him to; when your absentee father yells and shouts that he’s still your father and that you’re alive because of him; and when your family tells you that they’ve emigrated for you to have a better life than the one they had in the old country, expecting unquestioning obedience in return: all of these are forms of psychological manipulation, and they’re designed to instill a sense of guilt and shame, engendering capitulation. As terrible as a more ordinary level of manipulation is, it pales in comparison to that which stems from an unhealthy narcissist.
Of the most common forms of manipulation used by the pathological narcissist, the most prominent is the mask of regret, a seemingly genuine act which creates a sense of guilt in their victim. The bully, in this case, convinces their victim of their deep regret and intention for change and self-development, placing themselves in an inferior position when denouncing themselves for their past mistakes and placating their victim through idealized flattery. They’ll tell you how terrible they are and how wonderful and loving you are, stating that they can’t survive without you. They devalue themselves and overvalue you in the service of regaining your trust. But, the expectant change and growth never occurs, as inevitably, once they feel secure again, they revert back to their old, abusive and unreliable selves.
I’m often asked how to deal with these types of individuals, particularly when people decide to continue to maintain relationships with them, or have to, in work or family settings. I first remind them that these individuals’ desires to manipulate, exploit, and criticize have nothing to do with them and everything to do with the bully’s need for control, obedience, and sense of superiority, which only arises when they perceive a sense of inferiority in their victim. Then I teach them how to utilize what Dr. Craig Malkin, author of Rethinking Narcissism, called the empathy prompt. The prompt is essentially comprised of two parts: the first part entails telling the bully how much they and/or your relationship with them means to you, and how much you care for them; and the second consists of informing them of how their actions affect you and make you feel (e.g. “I love you and you mean the world to me, but when you put me down I feel worthless and empty). The goal here is to afford the bully an opportunity to evaluate the consequences of their actions and ask themselves if they need to change.
If, after several attempts, nothing changes, or changes and then reverts back to status quo, I often discuss the need for boundaries, if at that point one chooses to continue to interact with the manipulator. This part is often the most difficult, especially for those who weren’t allowed to set them in their relationships with their parents as children. Too often, a child feels the need to capitulate to their parents’ every need and want in order to feel loved and wanted. Authoritarian parents create rules, including those which exist simply for their own gratification, and expect blind obedience to them. In turn, their children find it difficult to express their needs and create limits in relationships as teenagers and adults. For this part, if you are having issues with boundary setting, I highly recommend seeking a trained professional, as this is a topic which is much too broad and personal to be covered in a blog post, but I want to emphasize, nonetheless the absolute need for boundaries for protection against psychological abuse.
Psychological manipulation comes in many more forms that the most common ones mentioned above. If you believe you’re the victim of emotional and/or physical abuse, please seek the help of a trained health professional; you’re much too precious, and deserve much better.