November 6, 2020

Dear Drama Observers,

I’ve written many words in this weekly missive about how to understand manipulators. They can’t relate in normal ways because they lack the internal psychological equipment to do so.

But what makes the rest of us vulnerable to their manipulations? Below are three exploitable vulnerabilities:

#1 Common Naivete

We start out naïve but develop savvy as we grow and mature. Balance is needed. Some people develop too much suspicion and too little trust, becoming paranoid in their relational expectations. Others develop too little suspicion, granting trust freely and often to those who don’t deserve it. These are the ones most vulnerable to a manipulator’s enticements. They’ve become chronological adults with childlike gullibility. “You can fool all the people some of the time,” said Abraham Lincoln, “and some of the people all the time, but you cannot fool all the people all the time.” Manipulators are skilled at exploiting the naivete of those who can be fooled.

The first stage of Erik Erikson’s psychosocial development is “trust vs. mistrust.” A successful negotiation of this developmental task lays the foundation for a balanced trust system. Perhaps it’s due to unsuccessfully navigating this passage but, for whatever reason, some people arrive in adulthood temperamentally wired to trust people before such trust is earned or warranted. They give the benefit of the doubt too easily and overlook the flaws of others to a fault. That’s just the way they’re wired.

In other cases, it’s less wiring and more learning. Some people are over-taught being good to others and under-taught being careful about others. Maybe they were instructed to be “good Samaritans” but not instructed to be “wise as serpents and innocent as doves.” Perhaps they’ve come to view being suspicious of others as synonymous with being “judgmental.” They were never taught how to be good to people while reserving trust until such trust is earned.

So, naivete can stem from nature or nurture. Or from just being human. We’re all capable of episodic naivete. That is, we get snookered at times. Perhaps that’s because manipulators are so invested in drama and we’re not. Pickpockets can pick our pockets because we’re not expecting our pockets to get picked.

It seems to be a rite of passage into adulthood to get fooled by a manipulator. It’s going to happen sooner or later just by virtue of being alive. The question is, will we learn from it?

In 1786, George Horne wrote, “When a man deceives me once, says the Italian proverb, it is his fault; when twice, it is mine.” The modern-day translation is, “Fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, shame on me.”

#2 Isolation

Isolated people are vulnerable people. The drive for attachment is a feature of human nature.

The term attachment refers to the ability to form close, personal connections to others.  It enables a person to love others and to be known and loved by them.  Attachments provide a foundation upon which a clear sense of identity is constructed. As a plant needs connection to its source of nutrients, connecting well to others provides the fuel to grow and live a meaningful life.  The timeframe for the primary development of attachments is in the first six months of life.

Speaking of the foundation needed for attachment needs to be met, psychologist Henry Cloud states:

“If everything goes right, we begin to bond naturally as infants . . .We move from our mother’s womb where all our needs are automatically met to a world where we need to depend upon fallible people to take care of us . . .He turns to his mother for warmth, for food, and for love.  Emotional bonding to his mother has begun . . .Over time the child gradually internalizes his mother’s care.  He begins storing up memories of being comforted by her. In a sense, the child takes his mother in and stores her inside his memory. This internalization gives him a greater sense of security.  He has a storehouse of loving memories upon which to draw in his mother’s absence.  A self-soothing system is being formed in which the child can literally have a relationship with the one who loves him in her absence . . .Through thousands of moments of connection the memory traces must be built up.”

But what if this self-soothing system fails to develop adequately? Such people are then prone to either avoid attachment at all costs or seek attachment regardless of the cost. Their need for connection overwhelms their instinct for protection and they form attachments that shouldn’t be formed. They take the stance reflective of a line from an old Barbara Mandrell tune: “I’d rather be used than not needed at all.”

Manipulators make relationships “work” through drama. The unspoken arrangement is: “My role is this; your role is that. As long as we stay inside of our drama roles, we’ll have a ‘good’ relationship.” So, the manipulator’s target is being used for his or her own self-serving purposes.

If someone has pre-concluded that being used is an acceptable price to pay for connection, then exploitation can easily occur.

#3 Conflict Avoidance

Some people are reasonable, possessing the abilities needed to resolve conflict problems. But some are unreasonable or un-reason-able. That is, they have neither the ability nor willingness nor to resolve conflicts in a reasonable manner. They opt, instead, for a different method of handling conflict problems—drama. We’ll “get along” as long as we both stay inside of our drama roles, the thinking goes.

For example, let’s say you’re in a relationship with a manipulator who relates through control. The unspoken—but very real—role obligations are these: “My role is to be in charge; your role is to do what I need you to do and be who I need you to be. As long as we stay inside of our obligatory drama roles, we’ll have a ‘good’ relationship.” Relational “success”, therefore, is contingent upon drama participation.

Moreover, there’s a price to pay for refusing to participate. This price may be exacted in many ways including being shunned, coerced, shamed, pressured, humiliated, or demeaned. In short, the only way to escape the negative consequences is to acquiesce and accept your role.

The old adage is, “You can’t reason with an unreasonable person.” If you’ve tried and failed repeatedly to reason with the manipulator and have been exhausted from the effort, it’s awfully tempting to just go along to get along.

At that point, another age-old adage comes into play: “If you can’t lick em, join em.” You’ve now been exploited.

Till next week.