Dear Drama Observers,
I’m often asked the question, “Do manipulators know what they’re doing?” In other words, do they have full awareness of their manipulative ploys and are they doing so consciously and deliberately?
I think that’s a good question and I find myself unwilling to dogmatize either way. I suspect the best answer is: “Well, it depends on the specific manipulator.”
There are some manipulators whose deception of others is purposeful and intentional, being carefully plotted out in advance. We sometimes call these people scam artists or conmen. Sometimes, we call them inmates.
I was once conned by a conman. By all appearances, he was an upstanding individual who exuded the kind of good-natured humility that made him pleasant to be around. And here I was—a guy who’d written and spoken about manipulation, and darn if I didn’t get snookered out of some hard-earned cash. Like a venomous snake whose skin camouflages its presence, I stepped right on it and got bit. Actually, he didn’t get much from me because my financial pool is always pretty shallow, but he did bilk significant sums from some mutual well-to-do friends. He later faced legal consequences for his actions.
But there are other manipulators whose wily ways are not so knowingly calculated. They’ve engaged in manipulation for such a long time and the practice has become so commonplace to them that their ability to self-observe has long since faded away. In other words, they manipulate with no conscious awareness that they’re doing it.
The former group deceives others. The latter group deceives others after having first deceived themselves. By this metric, the latter group is more seriously disturbed than the former.
Let me say a few things about oblivious manipulators:
They’re good at it. We become adept at what we practice. In the realm of relational development, these people discovered a while back that they lacked what was needed to relate in normal ways—like finding reasonable means of solving relational problems. Instead, they learned to use drama to make relationships “work.” Their internal dialogue might sound something like this: “The only way I can feel good about myself is if you’ll praise me, overlook all my flaws, and never point out anything negative.” Others, who try to get along with them, unwittingly buy into that obligation and reinforce this dysfunctional pattern. And since it works so well, they keep doing it.
They live in a pretend reality. It’s axiomatic that truth is our best ally, but manipulators don’t look at it that way. An honest look at themselves reveals personal flaws they lack the capacity to tolerate. So, they create a pretend reality in which their flaws are scrubbed clean. Like switching TV channels from a show they hate to one they like, they convince themselves the new reality is real and the previous one is fake. And they seem to genuinely believe their own fabrications.
They disregard reality feedback. Once this person crosses the line from reality to distortion, it’s very difficult to reverse direction because to do so would require humility, the very quality they lack the most. So, they wed themselves ever more tightly to their distortions and dismiss truth-tellers as cranks and liars.
They’re exasperating. Being around someone who insists you live with them inside an alternate reality is crazy-making and discombobulating. Most of us want to set them straight and make them see the error of their ways. But trying to get someone to acknowledge something they’re unwilling to see is an exercise in futility… and exasperating.
In the book I wrote a few years ago, I described it this way:
One of my favorite shows growing up was Perry Mason. Each episode followed the same predictable formula. An innocent person would be accused of murder. Perry Mason would then be hired as defense attorney who would win the case, out-dueling the prosecuting attorney, Mr. Berger.
The climactic moment of each episode came when Perry Mason would convincingly reveal the actual killer who was usually being grilled on the witness stand at the time. Having been exposed, the guilty person would tearfully and candidly confess to the chagrin of Mr. Berger who would then move for all charges against the defendant to be dropped. Despite its predictability, Perry Mason was a “feel good” show because, each week, a dangerous person was brought to justice. Not only that, the killer would openly confess, telling his or her eager listeners exactly how and why the murder was committed.
Seeing a bad guy get caught and take responsibility for his crime feels good, and we love to see that happen in real life. Unfortunately, such open admissions of guilt on the part of manipulators are rare. Most often, they cling to their innocence despite mounds of evidence to the contrary. They may experience consequences, but their unwillingness to vocalize responsibility leaves us with an incomplete sense of justice—and that feels bad.
Till next week.