May 22, 2020
Dear Drama Observers,
For several years, I traveled the country presenting a seminar on emotional manipulation for mental health professionals. I’ve done several versions of it, but one of the brochures described the seminar this way:
From guilt trips to gaslighting, emotional manipulation takes many forms, and it’s often so covert that clients have difficulty articulating how and when it’s happening. This seminar explores the manipulator’s motivations for relating to others through drama, offering an inside-out analysis of the manipulation process.
If you’ve ever been on the receiving end of manipulation (Spoiler alert: If you haven’t been, you will), you’ve probably asked yourself this post-manipulation question: “What is WRONG with that person?” Here’s the simple answer:
The manipulator can’t handle being wrong.
Now, none of us likes being wrong and when our flaws show up in close relationships, our first reaction is to defensively cover them up. But engaging such cover ups doesn’t sit well for normal people because they ultimately value truth more than rightness.
For manipulators, however, it’s the other way around. Lacking the necessary internal equipment to face what’s true, they’ll deny their flaws, rationalize them, explain them away, and alter reality in such a way that the other person is the possessor of the flaws. Manipulators do precisely the wrong things with personal wrongness.
What I’d like to do for the next five weeks is to lead a spelunking expedition into the caverns of a manipulator’s mind for the purpose of describing what missing down there. Maybe we’ll discover a more complete answer to the question: “What is WRONG with that person?” What’s missing are five essentials that enable one to do the right things with personal wrongness. We’ll look at the first one this week.
Before we begin, let me say this. We call these people many things. I’m calling them manipulators here but, as you know, I often refer to them as Drama People. I could give you a whole long list of derisive terms that describe them. These people are so exasperating that some of those terms are formed by combining body parts and cuss words. (Come on, you know the ones I’m talking about). Clinically, the people to which I’m referring are called personality disorders.
We most commonly use that term to refer to individuals, but I’m increasingly convinced there’s such a thing as a collective personality disorder in which groupings of people are characterized by the same flaw-denying features. I’ll provide some examples along the way.
What follows is an excerpt from my seminar on emotional manipulation where I discuss the first of the missing qualities (referred to as “muscles”): humility. I’ll then give you individual and collective examples.
The first muscle needed to handle wrongness well is the humility muscle, which gives a person the ability to acknowledge potential personal wrongness. When reasonable people use this muscle, the stance is, “I could be wrong, you could be right, let’s talk.” Reasonable people, who have healthy humility muscles, can handle being wrong if being right requires sacrificing the truth. They believe, though perhaps reluctantly, in the maxim, “Truth is your best ally.” It may be painful to acknowledge wrongness, but they’ll do so because being truthful has a higher value to them than being right.
Unwilling to allow for the possibility of wrongness, manipulators will sacrifice truth if being truthful means being wrong. They’ll even lie to avoid being wrong. In fact, some manipulators revise truth so routinely that they delude themselves and come to believe their own revisions. The stance taken is, “I’m right, you’re wrong, end of discussion.” They can be arrogant, inflexible, and never wrong about anything. That’s why “you can’t reason with an unreasonable person.” Your attempts at reasonableness won’t work because they’re not interested in reason; they’re only interested in winning or in being right.
The following statements reflect an atrophied humility muscle:
- He refuses to admit wrongness even when proven wrong.
- He doesn’t listen to or consider contrary opinions, either from you or from others.
- He holds his positions rigidly with little flexibility.
- He’s “often wrong but never in doubt.”
- He audaciously lies, re-arranges information, or alters history and appears to sincerely believe his own revisions.
- He skillfully persuades others to believe the revisions.
- He rarely, if ever, apologizes. And if he does, the apology is qualified (i.e. “I’m sorry, but you . . .” or “I’ve told you I was wrong. Can we now move on?”)
- He consistently emphasizes your mistakes and errors.
- He wrongly ascribes to you dishonorable intentions and then attacks you for having them.
- He distorts the meaning of your words and won’t allow you to correct the misinterpretation. In other words, “he hears what he wants to hear.”
An Individual Example
Dave seemed like a great guy which is one of the reasons Sally married him. But what she failed to notice at first became abundantly clear with the passage of time.
What she discovered was that getting along with her husband was predicated on her ability and willingness to never call attention to his shortcomings. What she first chalked up to normal human defensiveness was actually something more sinister and pervasive.
This became overtly problematic when kids came along, and they had to make joint parenting decisions. Dave was incapable of saying, “You might be right, Sally, I hadn’t thought about it that way. Let’s try that.” Instead, he clung tenaciously to his rigid authoritarianism and mislabeled Sally’s methods as “coddling” the children.
Instead of developing a unified mom-and-dad system conducive to the children’s growth, his was a dad-system dedicated to proving the mom-system wrong.
His atrophied humility muscle, it turns out, was detrimental to his wife and kids—the relationships he ostensibly cared the most about.
A Collective Example
Gary Kasparov, former World Chess Champion and previous member of the Communist Party, tweeted something interesting this week. In describing the blame-shifting, flaw-denying methods he had observed first-hand in the Soviet Union, he noted:
If you’re a thief, accuse your enemies of thievery. If corrupt, accuse your rivals of corruption. If a coward, accuse others of cowardice. Evidence is irrelevant; the goal is to dilute the truth and the case against you with “everyone does it.”
This has been the ploy of dictators for decades, to say that everyone accusing them of crimes are hypocrites. Not that they are good but that we are all bad, that there is no good or evil, just power.
Here, the missing collective humility muscle was detrimental to a whole society.
We’ll look at the second atrophied “muscle” next week.
Interesting read, I have a question. I know of a person who totally fits your manipular bill. But when that person has a high office and people below them support their needs for person power and gains (but I assume they have their own different issues) then are they also a manipular or something else.
I would be interested in your thoughts.
Reality, it makes all the difference!
Manipulators can’t manipulate without people who get manipulated. Some are manipulated unwittingly and don’t realize what’s happening. Others may have some awareness but willingly go along with it for some supposed gain. That second group probably couldn’t be referred to as manipulators per se, but close to it because they enable the manipulator to succeed.