I worked for a boss once who made me feel terrible about myself. He would often make unrealistic requests of me—sometimes long after work hours—and make me feel guilty if I didn’t act like it was “my pleasure” to do it. I worked hard for him. Really hard, always thinking that if I could finally prove myself, he would trust me, and I could relax and feel normal again.
But that moment never came. In fact, the longer I worked there, the more anxious I felt. I kept having to work harder and harder, just to keep him even moderately happy. I never knew how he was going to act. Sometimes he would be jovial and fun. Other times he would raise his voice and scream at everyone in the office.
To make matters worse, he would constantly make comments about how I should be more grateful for my job, or joke about how he paid me too much.
The longer I stayed, the harder it felt to leave.
Then one day, at a work party, I finally had a wake-up moment. I listened to him recite an idea I had presented to him at a meeting months back—and play it off like it was his. When I first presented him with the idea, he shrugged it off like it was stupid. And here he was, announcing it to our coworkers, taking all the credit as if it were his own.
Still, after that night, it took me several months to finally quit that job—for reasons I’ll explain later in this post—but I never looked at him, or at myself, the same. And I did eventually find my way out from under his thumb.
A Lesson In Manipulation.
One thing I didn’t realize about manipulation is it can happen to you without you realizing it. In fact, this is probably how it happens most often. We feel things like anger, frustration, anxiety, depression or low self-esteem. What we don’t necessarily realize is that these feelings can be simply different faces of what we really feel, which is manipulated.
In fact, it wasn’t until I was in my late twenties and finally in therapy that I started realizing just how many times I had been manipulated in my life—including by the boss I described above.
And once I realized how often I had been manipulated, and still was being manipulated, the sensation was overwhelming. On a daily basis I would find myself feeling furious about a phone call I “needed” to make, a friend I “had” to meet for lunch, a party I was “supposed” to show up for, or a work project with an impending deadline.
It was a bit of a personal crisis.
I actually found myself feeling suspicious of everyone—including myself, by the way—not to mention resentful, rebellious and totally uncertain of who I was or what I wanted in life.
So I started seeing a therapist. And together we talked about areas where I felt manipulated, and even about a few ways I had been manipulative myself. We worked on forgiving myself for using manipulation as a way to protect myself when I didn’t have any other method, and on developing healthier boundaries and strategies for creating space and safety.
She also taught me two lessons about manipulation that have changed my life.
The first one goes like this: if you’re feeling manipulated, ask yourself what you need from that person. If you don’t need anything, they can’t manipulate you. She explained how one of the most common manipulation tactics is a sort of unhealthy “exchange.” For example:
- Between a parent and a child: “If you obey me, I will love you.”
- Between spouses: “If you keep me happy, I will stay with you.”
- Between a boss and employee: “If you never upset me, I will keep paying you.”
She talked about how manipulation thrives because each person is upholding his or her respective end of this distorted agreement, and how the only way for the manipulated person to come out from under the thumb of the manipulator is for her to realize she doesn’t need the thing that is being leveraged anymore.
So in other words, as a grown child, the love and approval she craves is already inside of her. As an employee, she can find another job if the demands become unreasonable. As a spouse, she doesn’t need her partner’s approval in order to feel good about herself.
This lesson changed my life.
The only thing that changed my life more was the second lesson she taught me, which I’ll share with you in just a few paragraphs.
9 Different Kinds of Manipulators.
Before I share the second lesson I learned from my therapist—the one that helped me to figure out why it took me several long, awful months to leave that unreasonable job—I thought I’d share another lesson I learned, thanks to a book I read by Harriett B. Braiker called Who’s Pulling Your Strings?.
There are several different ways a person can manipulate you. In fact, according to Braiker, there are nine different kinds of manipulators. No wonder it can be so difficult for us to know if we’re being manipulated, not to mention to find our way out of those relationships.
Below are the nine different manipulative personalities Braiker lists in her book.
As you read, you may begin to recognize some of these tendencies in relationships that are taking place right now in your life. If so, keep reading, because in the following section I’ll tell you the lesson that finally helped me break free.
The Machiavellian. This personality type is named after the sixteenth century political philosopher named Italian Prince Machiavelli. His philosophy toward all of life—romance, military movement, all other matters—went like this: the end justifies the means. In other words, as long as I get my way in the end, it doesn’t matter who is hurt in the process. And the Machiavellian personality is no different. Machiavellian personalities tend to exploit others to their own (often self-serving) end.
The Narcissist—this is a personality you have probably heard of, and although the term is widely overused, it is characterized by an inflated sense of self-image, along with a sense of entitlement. So not only does this person think very highly of himself, he also believes he deserves to be paid special attention, even to be given certain things, simply because he is himself. Narcissists characteristically have a hard time feeling empathy for other people. That, along with his feelings of entitlement, allow him, like the Machiavellian, to use others for his own sense of personal gain.
The Borderline—a person with borderline personality has highly unstable relationships and constantly shifting moods.
For example, the borderline may think of her lover or partner as the most wonderful person she has ever met. But this attitude can shift drastically to one of devaluation and even contempt triggered by a disappointment that somehow proves to the borderline that the partner does not care enough about her or understand what she needs. This sudden precipitous shift catches the mark off balance and makes him vulnerable to manipulation (Braiker).
You can tell the borderline apart from the other manipulative personalities because when you are around her, you likely feel sucked up into her drama and chaos. And despite the fact that borderline personalities can be highly manipulative, they are also great at playing the victim. Since they are acting from a place of their own desperation, fear and other feelings of overwhelm, they have a hard time understanding how their actions could be as destructive as they ultimately are.
The dependent—this person is very reliant on the support and help of others and is also terrified of abandonment. She therefore manipulates others to stay close to her so she won’t have to function on her own. This is the girlfriend who is clingy, needy, and submissive. She has trouble making her own decisions, so she is constantly looking to others for help and guidance. If you have a friend or partner who you feel like you constantly have to parent, you might be dealing with a dependent manipulator.
The histrionic—In addition to the drama of borderline, the histrionic is always attempting to be the center of attention. In fact, this is her primary motive behind manipulation. She might use strange tactics in order to keep the attention constantly on her—either leveraging her sexual prowess, dressing provocatively or in outrageous styles, or even feigning injury to regain attention when it seems to be fading away. The histrionic is usually vain and self-absorbed, and much like the dependent and the borderline, she manipulates largely out of evocation—evoking negative reaction in others.
The passive-aggressive—passive aggressive people are sneaky manipulators. Despite the fact that their behavior is hostile and aggressive, it flies so completely under the radar that you can’t always notice it. Not only do I recognize myself in this form of manipulation, it was a huge shock to realize this behavior is actually quite hostile. Passive aggressive people are filled with rage but haven’t found a way to express it healthfully, so they act passively resistant. Procrastination, dawdling, stubbornness, intentional inefficiency, forgetfulness—these are all tactics of manipulation. Rather than confront the person who they feel puts unfair demands on them, they complain whine, and sulk. THIS WAS ME WITH MY BOSS!
By not doing what is required of them or by seemingly complying with requests that are then sabotaged through passive resistance, the passive-aggressive personality manipulates others by evoking frustration and hostility. They are unlikely to change and display very poor insight or understanding of how their passive resistance affects others.
Passive aggressive people easily justify their behavior since it isn’t outwardly aggressive.
The Type A (Angry)—These folks have what Braiker calls “Hurry Sickness” and often get angry in traffic, or in long lines, or when someone holds them up. They also have an almost insatiable need to win. Their anger, hostility and competitive spirit acts not only as a threat to their own health but it is the weapon they use against others to make sure they always get their way. They are constantly trying to stay at the top of the pile, make sure they are always first in line, and make it where they’re trying to go on time, even if it’s unreasonable to do so. They control using intimidation.
The Con—This personality typically begins young and starts small, with lying about homework or stealing candy. Then, as the con gets older, the lying and stealing escalate until he is highly impulsive, irresponsible, and even dangerous. When I was reading this description, what came to mind was someone who holds hostages to rob a bank, or a young man who open fires on a university campus. Also in this category would be someone like the main character from the movie Catch Me If You Can. The manipulator uses his charm and charisma, as well as other people, to accomplish his means and end. Ultimately he has no conscience and therefore no guilt for his behavior.
The Addict—for the addict, everything takes a backseat to her addiction. Addicts notoriously lie, deny, exploit others, and wreak havoc on their families, work, and social relationships—all for the sake of their substance abuse or addiction. The motive for the manipulation is simply maintaining relationship with the addiction, whatever that looks like. This leaves those in relationship with the addict feeling guilty, depressed, humiliated, angry, frustrated, uncertain, and with a very low self-esteem.
I don’t know about you, but as I was reading, I was thinking both of subtle ways I have been manipulative in my lifetime and also of various manipulators who have come in and out of my life. I also couldn’t help but think about how manipulative personalities are not developed in a vacuum, and how much pain and personal tragedy must go into someone developing one of these above traits. I have a great deal of compassion for the deep wounds that motivate someone to manipulate.
But just because we have compassion for someone who might be in this position doesn’t mean we don’t take steps to protect our well-being. Manipulators may change, but we won’t be the ones to change them (TWEET THAT).
The only way to deal with a manipulator is to change ourselves. We have to be the kind of people who can’t be manipulated.
More about that in just a minute.
The Great Danger in Manipulation.
The real danger in manipulation, if you ask me, is that manipulators steal your ability to bring your unique beauty and gifts to this world (TWEET THAT).
They don’t do it because they’re terrible people, and they might not even do it on purpose, but that doesn’t make it any less of a tragedy. When you are in the grips of a manipulator, what we miss out on is you—all bright and shining and beautiful in this world. When I think back to all of the years of my life I wasted living for the purposes of other people, at the expense of my own passion and joy and creativity, I cringe. And when I see other people doing the same, I cringe again. We need you and your gifts. The world is a better place with you than without.
This is the real danger of manipulation. What a tragedy. I can think of few things more devastating.
In addition, those who are caught in the grips of manipulation—both the manipulator and the manipulated—can’t experience genuine love. You might experience the thrill of control; that little rush you get when your manipulative tactics earn you the center of attention, or when complying with someone else’s demands get you their temporary praise or adoration. But those things are fleeting. They won’t last for even a day. You will need more tomorrow. In fact, this is why manipulation is so addicting, no matter what side of it you are on.
There is no amount of center-of-attention, praise, adoration or control that will make you feel like you are good enough.
That feeling comes from the inside out.
If you find yourself in the throws of a manipulative relationship, there are really two things you need to know.
- The most important thing you can do is alter or end that relationship
- It will be very difficult
Why We Keep Being Manipulated
One of the things Braiker mentions in her book that rang really true to me is that certain people, with certain personalities, are more prone to manipulation than others. As I read, I recognized myself as one of those personalities, which meant that I had a lot of work to do when it came to overcoming manipulative relationships.
This was why it took me several months to finally submit my resignation for that job, and it’s why many of the manipulative tendencies of that relationship followed me to other jobs, not to mention other friendships and romantic relationships.
It wasn’t until a conversation about two years ago with my therapist that I realized why.
We were talking about a relationship I was still in that had some manipulative tendencies—both my tendency to be passive aggressive (a form of hostility) and this other person’s tendency to be angry and explosive (just like that old boss had been). She explained to me how I was going to have to find a way to alter this relationship, or end it. My response was, “I’m not ready for that.”
She asked, “why not?
“I’m not ready to give up what I get from it.”
“Feeling like I matter,” I said, without thinking about it.
And there it was, standing like a beacon of hope that I wasn’t sure I was ready to walk toward—the true, honest answer that was both my way out and the handcuffs that had been keeping me stuck all along. The reason I allowed myself to be manipulated, over and over again, was because of what I got from it.
I wasn’t trapped. The only thing holding me back was me.
More often than not, we are manipulated because we choose to be. And if we’re ever going to get out of our manipulative relationships, whatever they look like, the best thing we can do is stop hoping the manipulative person will change, to stop playing the victim to their manipulative tactics, and choose to change ourselves.
If you’re interested in reading more about manipulation and how to find your way out, I highly recommend the following resources:
- Who’s Pulling Your Strings? by Harriet Braiker
- Boundaries by Dr. Henry Cloud
- The Power is Within You by Louise Hay
- Safe People by Dr. Henry Cloud
- Emotional Blackmail by Susan Forward
Have you ever been in a manipulative relationship? How did you find your way out.
I believe a regular practice of writing directly impacts my ability connect with myself. Not convinced?
- Write to Find Clarity
- Why Most People are Missing Their Creative Genius and How to Find It
- Write to Say No
- Depression, Creativity and the Dangers of being Constantly Plugged In