Dear confused-by-the-drama observers,
Drama people are nothing if not perplexing.
One of my all time favorite TV shows was The Office (particularly the first three seasons). Michael Scott was the regional manager of the Scranton branch of Dunder Mifflin paper company. He portrayed the quintessential narcissist—pompous, grandiose, self-obsessed, un-empathic, entitled, self-congratulatory, and craving of admiration.
“Would I rather be feared or loved?” he once mused. “Easy, both. I want people to be afraid of how much they love me.” Or, there was the time he said this.
One of the running sub-themes on The Office was the struggle experienced by Michael’s coworkers as they tried to figure out how to cope with his psychopathology. Some ignored him, some ingratiated themselves to him, some made fun of him behind his back, some confronted him to his face but no avail. But most everyone was at times confused by him. Michael would do or say something so incredibly inappropriate or politically-incorrect and the camera would pan the room capturing this look of stunned incredulity on everyone’s faces.
You know how you tell a dog something he doesn’t quite understand and he cocks his head to the side, hoping your words have something to do with massive amounts of hamburger? The look on that dog’s face is exactly how humans often feel around drama people. They throw sand in our mental gears, leaving us perplexed, bewildered, and flummoxed.
For several years, I’ve traveled the country presenting a seminar entitled, Inside the Manipulator’s Mind. I’ll ask the group, “Do you think they (manipulators) know what they’re doing?’’ That’s a question I’m often asked by clients—one of the many things that makes drama people so dadgum confusing. Without exception, I’ll get three answers from the crowd: 1) Yes, 2) No, and 3) Partially.
Those answers aren’t as conflicting as they sound because the drama person’s manipulation-awareness may vary according to the situation. I’d like to say something about each of the three choices.
I had a “friend” once who, to my chagrin, turned out to be a con artist who scammed me and a few others. One person lost a significant amount of money. Mine was not a monetary loss so much as a poorly-performed service which later had to be re-done at my expense, so it was money out of my pocket.
Previous to all this, we would get together from time to time and he’d tell me about his difficult upbringing, figuring that I, as a psychologist, would certainly understand and express empathy. He seemed genuinely insightful, humble, and committed to personal growth. I really liked the guy.
Little did I realize, however, that he was a sheep in wolf’s clothing. The man who lost the most money confronted him when he discovered the scam. This guy wept with remorse, begged for forgiveness, and promised to re-pay the funds only to go out the next day and perform the very same scam on someone else.
Did he know what he was doing? You betcha. His manipulations were plotted, planned, and carefully executed. But his wily ways did eventually catch up with him—he was later arrested, indicted, and convicted.
Unlike the previous example, some people manipulate but seem completely oblivious to their own manipulations. They’ve done it for so long and it’s become so commonplace that they really don’t seem to have any awareness of what they’re doing. Relating through manipulation is all they know.
One my clients has a controlling mother who manipulates through guilt trips. “Don’t worry about me this weekend, I’ll figure out something to do by myself. You may realize some day how hard it is to grow old and be all alone. But have a nice time with your family, dear.”
This infuriates my client because it seems so calculated to induce guilt. She’s confronted her mom about it numerous times (sometimes gently, sometimes angrily) but Mom seems to have no idea what she’s talking about. And perhaps that’s right. It’s not that Mom gets up every morning and deliberately uses Google Maps to plot out her guilt trips, but she does it nonetheless with no seeming awareness.
“The sad truth,” wrote Hannah Arendt, “is that most evil is done by people who never make up their minds to be good or evil.”
There are some people who know they’re manipulating but don’t see it as a bad thing. They’ve convinced themselves their manipulations serve a noble purpose of some sort.
I saw a couple once where the husband was a controller, to put it mildly. He had calculated how much it cost to flush the toilet and would scold his wife for flushing it more than a designated number of times per day. (Yeah, just think about that for a minute). If circumstances ever required her to break his “law,” penalties would follow.
We talked about this in our sessions—that perhaps his restrictions were maybe just a little bit, oh I don’t know, crazy? But he absolutely refused to see it that way. He knew he was being a controlling so-and-so but the way he saw it, that was a good thing because somebody had to rise up take control. He saw himself as a good guy having to put up with an out of control spouse.
(By the way, he later divorced her because she kept breaking this and other of his “laws.” When that happened, she was absolutely flush with excitement. Sorry about that.)
So, I’ll get asked by clients, “Do they know what they’re doing?” And we’ll evaluate their circumstances to see if we can answer that question. But I’ll then say,
“Think about it this way: If they know what they’re doing and you confront them about it, they’ll deny it. If they don’t know what they’re doing and you confront them about it, they’ll deny it. So, the question may be largely academic. The more pertinent question is, what can you do to keep yourself out of the drama? That’s where we need to keep our focus.”