Stories about how to spot manipulators are all the rage these days. A quick internet search will turn up hundreds, if not thousands of pages which describe narcissists and try to tell you exactly how to see the red flags and act accordingly. These well-intended pieces try to show you how to identify a manipulator, label them, and avoid them; and while that’s good, I feel as if there’s a depth that’s often lacking when we try to paint the faces of demons onto people with a wide brush, without a care for nuance, casually throwing out diagnoses here and labels there, and we never seem to really get down to the bottom of what’s going on, truly understanding the situation for what it is. That’s what this story seeks to do, to gain a better understanding of the manipulator. In no way does this story seek to validate or condone the actions of manipulative people, but to simply provide a platform for understanding.
I was a manipulator. For most of the years of my life. I’ll admit it. I’ll also say that I simply didn’t know any better. I was a pretty bad one too, so let me tell you right now, that this story comes from my first-hand experience of what it was like, and what I’m like now. I had to turn my own lens inward and practice a radical commitment to change — change to better myself, and change to better the lives of those around me. This is partly me taking responsibility for my own mistakes, partly telling them to you so you may better see and understand manipulators for who they are, and hopefully provide some decent suggestions that will teach you how to act accordingly to minimize conflict and confusion.
A manipulative person might say they want attention when they’re agitated and just want to be left alone, then seem absolutely tired of your presence — maybe even bothered. They might leave out absolutely vital parts of a story in hopes that you don’t catch it so they can make you seem like the antagonist, and sadly, they might convince you that you were in the wrong. Have you experienced this or something like it? This is manipulation.
As we grow and experience more and more, we all learn generally acceptable ways of communicating with people. Had I been given the choice to either be or not be the manipulator I was in the past, I would have chosen not to have become one, without question. In retrospect, I never had that choice. Manipulation, in my view, is a series of learned behaviors, ways of communicating with the outside world, that are a bit askew. We learn our communication style from what works well with other people, and if we learn how to communicate from dysfunctional people, we learn dysfunction. Looking back at my exchanges, I was constantly as puzzled, as the targets of my manipulation as to why we couldn’t seem to find ourselves on the same page — this is often how manipulators come off as so authentic in their schemes, because to them, it actually is their reality. If we can better understand what manipulative people are actually trying to tell us, in the seeming coded language they’ve learned, we can better learn how to communicate with them and diffuse situations.
If we can learn the methods used to communicate things which are different from what they’re telling us, we can at least somewhat decipher what they’re actually trying to say to us — and we can respond accordingly, rather than leaving everything up to chance, exposing our vulnerable selves to the manipulator’s control.
Yes Means Maybe
For many manipulative people, they’ve simply learned how to ask for things the wrong way. Yes, might mean no, yes might mean maybe, which is a terrifying thought in a world where consent is paramount for a lot of social interactions — I’ve found it best to ask people to confirm their perspective several times before coming to conclusions about where they stand. I have found that it’s best to give people several chances, in a lighthearted tone, to change their opinion on a judgment-free platform of exchange where they can speak their minds openly. Many people have learned to say no when they really want something, sometimes from overly strict parents, sometimes from abusive parents. Not being manipulative isn’t the fault of manipulative people, but it is their responsibility.
The fact is, with manipulative people, “yes” always means “maybe,” and is subject to change at any time — did they say yes when they were attempting to communicate no? Or was it a genuine “yes?” Manipulators missed vital tools that the rest of the population learn when they’re growing up that teach them how to accurately and assertively convey what they’re thinking.
The Child Within
Ultimately, most manipulators are children deep down inside. They absolutely are not infallible, and I think what most people mistake as an intentional act, a well-thought-out, plotted, schemed-up-way to screw them over, is simply just the manipulator doing what comes naturally. This is not to condone it — bold deception is never right. But this is to say that if we want to understand and learn how to effectively deal with manipulative people, we need to speak to their child within, not to the outward mask they present to us — oftentimes, because they’re too afraid to expose the vulnerable, hurt person that lies buried deep down inside.
This was me. I was bold, fierce, brave, and independent outwardly, but inside, I was cowardly and terrified. If a problem came about in a personal situation, I would shut it down, literally getting up and walking out of a public restaurant leaving the person who I’d felt had wronged me to foot the bill. That was wrong and thankfully, I’ve made up for almost all of those instances at this point. See, the only reason I could be strong was by cutting out huge chunks of reality to make my inner-world completely safe, and many manipulators do the same. I needed exposure to the real world piece by piece, and many very amazing people helped me through this process.
The Goals of Manipulation
Once we shift perspectives a bit here, we come to find out that manipulators are using tools that they’ve learned to communicate in a social world, a social world in which they have dreams, aspiration, hopes, and goals. There is always an intended goal of manipulation, even if the person manipulating can’t articulate that goal. The thing is, they’re using the wrong solicitation for the response they desire, which leads to much confusion for all parties involved (give me a silent nod here). Underneath it all, most manipulators want the same things we want, and use tactics to get them. They’ve learned that words, or the words that everyone else uses, aren’t effective tools to obtain what they want or need in life. These desires that they have, include a range of things from material goods, to love, to sex — but most of all, when I manipulated people a lot, it was because I wanted to love, most of all — and understanding. What I didn’t know at the time, is that manipulation always leads to pity, at best — not the love and understanding that I so greatly desired.
A manipulator will tell you to leave them alone when they want to be social, then actually get mad at you for not being present. But there is an intention behind every manipulation, something they are seeking, and we’re in a better position to decide whether we want to continue with them on that level if we actually know what that is.
Imagine for a second, if you will, spending your entire existence in a world where everyone misunderstood everything you were trying to say. You would say, “yes,” but the entire world took that as, “no.” You eventually begin to grow a sense of unbelonging in the world, which leads to a strong desire to be loved and understood. On the rare occasions you are loved and understood, you cling to it like a life raft, you’re terrified of losing that connection, and you’re likely to act out, maybe even self-sabotage and ruin it so you can return to your comfortable world where everything is a bit askew again. This is the world the manipulator has lived in their entire lives, and some tragically always will. I’m not justifying manipulation, here, what I’m trying to do is explain the inner workings of the manipulator, and doing so for a reason…
Manipulators Can CHANGE
I did. Manipulators can certainly change, and we can help facilitate that change to make both our lives and the world a better place. I most definitely did and continue to grow to this day, and have done so largely through the time, efforts, caring, and willingness to help me unlearn all of my poor behaviors of others, through the patient instruction of other people whom, at the time, I wouldn’t have done the same for…I wouldn’t have given them the time and energy that they invested in me back then…but I do now.
I should add a footnote here, that I now feel it both my goal and responsibility to return this favor to others, to give them my time, my thoughts, my energy, my understanding, where I can help them, just like they did for me. I’ve had someone hold me for hours and not pass judgment when I’ve done some pretty horrible things, being patient with me until I finally broke down and cried in their arms for hours. Manipulators, alcoholics and drug addicts included, hide behind self-deception to keep themselves as unaware of the effects of their behavior as possible. This keeps that weird, warped, fragile world of theirs as pure as possible for them.
For a manipulator to change, someone(s) needs to break through this and reach them on a core level…and that takes place by understanding that manipulators are children inside, underdeveloped, and should be dealt with as such. Manipulative people have grown so used to always having the upper hand, that it’s pertinent that we non-manipulators have the knowledge and foresight necessary to deal with them, speak their language, and overcome any childish resistance they give us. It doesn’t matter if you’re a parent, a friend, a romantic partner, or a coworker, I feel like shifting our thinking towards those who manipulate can yield tremendous rewards for both us and them.
If it wasn’t for the kindness of others, I wouldn’t be where I am today, complete with healthy, wholesome friendships and relationships, where each party communicates concisely and clearly, where I say what I mean and I mean what I say, where I’m no longer afraid to voice my own opinions with precision, or ask for attention when I feel alone, and I’m not locked up and frustrated inside of my own angry little world anymore. I’m free, and it’s the love of others which made me free. To those who’ve helped me make it this far, I thank you and I love you.
© 2019; Joe Duncan. All Rights Reserved