Thursday 17 January 2019

Pulling the strings - are you being manipulative without knowing it?


There are many shades of manipulation. Photo: Getty Images.
There are many shades of manipulation. Photo: Getty Images.

Ever wondered how to spot an emotional manipulator? Just go online and you'll find list after list of warning signs.

Ever wanted to learn more about the tactics they use? Just visit your local bookshop and you'll find book after book on the subject.

Manipulation has been casually pathologised in recent years, hence the word makes us think of malignant narcissists who prey on weakness and gaslighting predators who slowly erode the self-worth of their targets.

It conjures up images of Machiavellian bosses and sociopathic boyfriends, but rarely, if ever, does it make us think of ourselves.

Emotional manipulation has become a popular psychology buzzword but, for the most part, the literature sympathises with those being manipulated, rather than those doing the manipulating.

On one hand, it's wonderful that people in emotionally manipulative relationships have been armed with a vocabulary that helps them better understand the strings that are being pulled. 'Coercive control' and 'perspecticide' have recently entered popular parlance, and there are many groups raising awareness of the "invisible chains" of emotionally abusive behaviour.

On the other hand, we've lost sight of the spectrum. Conventional wisdom tells us that manipulators are either psychopaths or sociopaths, so we're less inclined to call our own behaviour into question.

Popular discourse focuses on the master manipulator - the predator who both exposes the wound and offers the band-aid. Yet there are many shades of manipulation, some darker than others. Parents can manipulate children during high-conflict divorces, just as teenagers can manipulate divorced parents.

There is, of course, a huge difference between a habitual emotional manipulator and a person who is occasionally manipulative. Nonetheless, it's important to recognise subtle manipulation tactics that you might be employing as, unchecked, they can become detrimental.

Manipulation is common in romantic relationships - especially during the power struggle of the first few months. Proponents of 1990s dating manual The Rules believe that a woman should never initiate contact with a man - and never return his calls. Yet playing hard to get - or indeed playing any game at all - is a form of manipulation, albeit a culturally accepted one.

Sure, you might succeed in winning over the object of your desire but it's important to think about the foundations that you're building your relationship upon. Angst, worry and unease are the enemies of trust.

Intermittent reinforcement, a term coined by the late behaviourist BF Skinner, is another common manipulation tool. Rather than consistently acknowledging and rewarding behaviour, the intermittent reinforcer only occasionally gives the desired response.

In other words, it's the spouse who blows hot and cold, the romantic interest who texts you at 1am after a two-week radio silence and the boss who frequently criticises you and then - out of nowhere - showers you with praise.

While consistent positive reinforcement can be a healthy instigator of change in a relationship - check out Dr Jordan Peterson's video on manipulation - intermittent reinforcement is something else entirely.

The constant highs and lows hijack the brain's reward pathways and it quickly becomes addictive and destructive.

Victimhood can also be a form of manipulation, especially if you've started to rely on what's known as 'secondary gains' - the benefits a person receives when they choose not to overcome their problem.

Secondary gains could be the flowers your boyfriend always brings you when he acts out of line, or the money a parent gives you when you worry - out loud and at length - about your mortgage repayments.

Remember, it's manipulation when you set out to elicit somebody's sympathy just as it's manipulation when you try to provoke their guilt.

It's also worth looking at the language you use, and the way you frame your questions. Are you not going to come with me? / I thought we were going out. / You're going to come with me, right?

Are you really asking a question or is it a veiled imposition? It's a subtle form of manipulation when you plant the seed of your desired answer in your question.

So what makes a person behave manipulatively? The best explanation comes from the late M Scott Peck in The Road Less Travelled.

"Children growing up in an atmosphere in which love and care are lacking or given with gross inconsistency enter into adulthood with no such sense of inner security, no sense of inner identity, and no real sense of what's best in them," he writes.

"It is no wonder, then, that they feel the need to scramble for love, attention, care-taking, wherever they can find it, and once having found it, cling to it with a desperation that leads them to all sorts of unloving, manipulative, Machiavellian behaviour that undermines and destroys the relationships they seek to preserve and be nurtured by."

The truth is that manipulators aren't always cunning. Indeed, some of them aren't even aware of what they're doing. That's why it's important to take a close look at your behaviour from time to time. Our relationships become more open and honest when we learn how to overcome manipulative behaviours. We just have to admit that we're capable of it first.

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