With the current interest in mental health topics, a mental health language has emerged with words such as manipulation, boundaries, limits, rescuing, dependence, and codependence. Many people are unclear what these words mean when applied to relationships. I would like to bring some clarity to one of these terms – MANIPULATION – and how it relates to the other terms mentioned above.
Webster’s New World Dictionary defines manipulation as: “managing or controlling artfully or by shrewd use of influence, often in an unfair or fraudulent way; to alter or falsify for one’s own purpose.”
In relationships, manipulation can be defined as: any attempt to control, through coercion (overt or covert), another person’s thoughts, feelings or behaviors.
From this definition, manipulation would seem to have no advantages. However, if you are codependent and defined by others, there can be many advantages. When you allow others to control your thoughts, feelings, behaviors, and make decisions for you,
-- you do not have to think for yourself;
-- you can avoid taking risks and making difficult decision;
-- you can avoid taking a stand on controversial issues;
-- you can avoid feeling responsible for negative outcomes;
-- you get to blame others when things go wrong;
-- you can believe, when others tell you how to behave, what to think, how to feel and what to decide, that you are “being loved” because they “want what is best for you”;
-- you can avoid feeling separate and alone by avoiding conflict;
-- you can avoid the hard work of emotional growth and development.
Appreciating the advantages of not being manipulated is to accept the hard work of living and interacting with others. It is about being willing to grow and develop emotionally. These advantages can be that,
-- you learn to know who you are, what you like, what you think, and how you feel;
-- you learn to make difficult decisions;
-- you get to take credit for your decisions;
-- you learn to handle risks and uncertainty;
-- you learn to handle differences and conflicts;
-- you get to be in control of your life and know the freedom of personal self-reliance;
-- you get to have an increased sense of self worth by feeling competent and capable of taking responsibility for your life and personal happiness.
Manipulation is usually attempted using power, unsolicited helping, rescuing, guilt, weakness, and/or dependence, in order to achieve a desired outcome. For example,
1) Power – physical, verbal, intellectual intimidation or threats, put-downs, belittling, withholding of things needed or wanted. The goal is to be in a “one up, I am right and you are wrong” position;
2) Unsolicited helping/rescuing – doing things for others when they do not request it, want it, or need it; helping others so they become indebted, obligated, and owe you. The goal is to be in the “after all I have done for you, and now you owe me” position;
3) Guilt – shaming, scolding, blaming others, attempting to make others responsible, trying to collect for past favors. The goal is to be in the “it is all your fault,” or “after all I have done for you and now you treat me like this” position;
4) Weakness/dependence – being (or threatening to become) helpless, needy, fearful, sick, depressed, incompetent, suicidal. The goal is to confuse want with need, with the message “if you do not take care of me, something bad is going to happen and it will be all your fault” position.
With manipulation, there is a physical and emotional response, such as a heightened level of anxiety or irritation, although it may not be perceived as such.
Manipulation feels like a struggle or contest, not free communication. The reason is the manipulator is always invested in the outcome of a situation.
This is where boundaries differ from manipulation.
Boundaries (or limits) are statements about our values and where we stand on issues. True boundaries are not threats or about getting the other person to do what we want. True boundaries are not compromised by another’s response.
For example, you discover that your spouse has lied to you and has run up a large gambling debt. You discover the problem by chance, get financial and professional help and are back on track. However, there are new signs of trouble. It is time for some hard decisions.
- What is your bottom line?
- What will you tolerate?
- What manipulative tactics do you use to change your spouse’s behavior – check up on them constantly, bird-dog them, never let them be alone, hide the credit cards, lie to your creditors, parents, and children?
- How much rescuing, guilt, power plays, threats, and protection do you run on the gambler?
- At what point do you stop trying to change their behavior and let them know your bottom line?
You cannot make them do or not do anything. You can only let them know what your position is and what you are willing to do to protect yourself and those you are responsible for.
The problem with loud, threatening bottom lines, is that they keep getting louder, more threatening, and redrawn lower and lower.
We tend to determine what our position and action is by what the other person does, instead of voicing our true position and then responding accordingly. This is the time for tough decisions and actions.
In another example, a friend asks you for a ride to work because she is having car trouble. This is the time to establish ground rules, such as, how long will she need your help, pick up times, expense sharing, days off, etc. A boundary or limit is set when you clearly let your friend know what you are willing to do and not do.
Problems arise – she is frequently not on time morning and evening. Do you wait and be late, or do you leave her? Her car has been in the shop six weeks because she cannot afford to get it out. She has not offered to help with the expense, nor does she seem concerned about the arrangement.
Your friend is using weakness to manipulate and be dependent on you. She has transferred her problem to you and you have accepted it by rescuing and not setting boundaries or limits on your participation in her problem. If you refuse to wait when she is late and she has problems as a result, she will blame you and try to make you feel guilty. What we really want are for others to be responsible and play fair; however, when they do not, we either have to set boundaries, or feel manipulated and victimized with the accompanying advantages and disadvantages.
Lastly, often we confuse UNDERSTANDING with AGREEMENT.
This is when people confuse their decisions with wanting the recipient of a decision to like or agree with it. When we make decisions that oppose the desires of others, there is a cost. We usually attempt to minimize that cost by explaining, in exhaustive detail, our rationale for that decision, somehow thinking if they could just understand our position, they would agree.
Applying that scenario to parent and child – if a parent makes a decision based on the best interest of the child, it needs to be made separate from whether the child is going to like it.
When a child knows it is important to the parent that they be happy with a decision, then it will never be in the child’s personal interest to be happy with an unwanted decision.
If a child knows that their happiness with a parental decision is of equal importance to the decision itself, then all a child has to do is be unhappy in order to make their parent uncomfortable and doubt their decision -- after all, it is always worth a try. This same dynamic can apply to interactions among adults also.
How do we manage manipulation? By becoming more aware of our interaction with others.
- Is the interaction an attempt to communicate or does it feel like a contest?
- Are you beginning to feel anxious or irritated?
- Do you want to get out of the conversation?
- Does the interaction fit into a manipulative style?
- Is there an attempt to use power, service, guilt, or weakness to get your cooperation?
- Are you a willing participant in your own manipulation?
- Is it easier not taking responsibility?
- Are you attempting to manipulate others instead of setting clear boundaries?
- Are you making a distinction between a value and a preference?
Preferences can be negotiated, but values should not.
Our society does not deal well with differences in values and preference. We tend to take it as a personal affront and insult when others disagree with us. We will avoid conflicts at all costs, because it feels like rejection. What we need is to communicate to others, clearly and calmly, our values, preferences, and boundaries. We need to be respectful and dedicated to listening, hearing and appreciating, if not understanding, how we all are different.
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Mary Treffert, LCSW, ACSW, is a Licensed, Clinical Social Worker, who is an individual, couple, and family therapist in Baton Rouge, LA.