Dear moving-past-the-drama readers,
In my last couple of letters, I mentioned that I’ve been under the gun of a writing deadline. As of this past Monday, I’ve met it. As Fred Flintstone exclaimed at the end of his workday in the rock quarry, “Yabba dabba doo.”
A couple of weeks ago, I shared three exploitable vulnerabilities—human weaknesses that manipulators exploit for drama enticement. Last week, I shared three disorienting effects of getting caught up in those dramas. This week, I’d like to talk about three strategies for drama non-participation.
Over the years, I’ve seen lots of clients who aren’t crazy but sure FEEL crazy. They might’ve come to my office reluctantly, fearful that if I heard their stories, I’d push a button and orderlies would swoop in to escort them off to the state hospital. There, they’d spend their days roaming the grounds in faded pajamas and bathrobes with nothing to look forward to except the Wednesday afternoon pottery-painting class or the Friday night supper where once-a-week seconds of lime Jell-O get served.
Well, I’ve never had to push the orderly button. (Full disclosure: I don’t have one of those). But I have spent lots of time helping clients understand that one can feel crazy without, in fact, being crazy. And up close, ongoing exposure to crazy-makers is all it takes.
The key to sanity is finding ways to exit those crazy-making dramas. Here are three ways. Heck, you’ve been so patient with my writing deadline, I’ll give you four.
Develop Reasoning Alternatives
“Attempting to reason with a person who has rejected the use of reason,” said Thomas Paine, “is like administering medicine to the dead.” The modern expression of that thought is, “You can’t reason with an unreasonable person.”
The almost irresistible human tendency that kicks in when reasoning fails is to . . . reason harder. If I say it louder or more forcefully, the thinking goes, he’ll finally get it. Instead, you’ve only given him or her the gratification of verifying your drama participation. If you can’t reason with an unreasonable person, what do you do? The best answer is . . . drama non-participation.
We need to help clients guard their buttons, substitute pre-planned chosen responses for impulsive reactions, and refrain from pushing buttons. Drama enticement can occur at any of those points and resistance is counterintuitive.
They need help identifying their buttons so they can be guarded effectively.
They need help substituting pre-planned chosen responses for impulsive reactions. Attorney, mediator, and therapist Bill Eddy has articulated such response alternatives in his book BIFF. His subtitle is “Quick Responses to High Conflict People, Their Personal Attacks, Hostile Email, and Social Media Meltdowns.” BIFF is an acronym standing for Brief, Informative, Friendly, and Firm—all counterintuitive characteristics. Instead, we’re prone to be long-winded, vague, hostile, and ambiguous.
Here’s an example of a non-BIFF reaction to an overly-intrusive, advice-giving manipulative mother provocation:
Mom, I’m a grown-up. You can’t tell me what to do. You do this every day. You call me up, ask what I’ve got going on, and then criticize me for not doing it exactly the way YOU think it should be done. Well, I’ve had it. Stop telling me what to do. I’m an adult. Let me make my own decisions. (Note: This is all said through tears and at a jet-engine-decibel-level followed by a nasty back and forth and loudly stated suggestions about where Mom should spend her eternal vacation).
Here’s an example of a BIFF response:
Well, I’ll give that some thought. Oh, look at the time, I’ve gotta run. I’ll talk to you before long. Hope your day goes well. Bye.
It’s brief, it’s informative in the sense that Mom is informed that the call is ending, it’s friendly (no vacation instructions were shouted), and it’s firm (the call was ended). It may take some trial and error, but forging out BIFF responses is worth it because they disable drama enticement.
Finally, they may need help refraining from pushing buttons. We have a human-nature need for observable justice. It’s not right and it’s not fair that manipulators get away with what they do . . . but they often do. We may need to help clients understand that if their emotional well-being is contingent upon seeing manipulators admit to the error of their ways, they’ll be on the hook for a long time. They may have to give up the experience of fairness in exchange for getting their lives back. And that’s a worthy exchange.
Strengthen Object Constancy
“The test of a first rate intelligence,” said F. Scott Fitzgerald, “is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.” In the psychological field, this is referred to as object constancy. “Object constancy means the ability to hold a steady image of the object especially the mother, whether she is present or absent, gratifying or depriving” (Hamilton, 1988, p. 52). Cloud says,
The world around us is good and bad. The people around us are good and bad. We are good and bad . . Our natural tendency is to try to resolve the problem of good and evil by keeping the good and bad separated. We want, by nature, to experience the good me, the good other, and the good world as “all good.” To do this, we see the bad me, the bad other, and the bad world as “all bad.” This creates a split in our experience of ourselves, others, and the world around us—a split that is not based in reality and cannot stand the test of time and real life. . . In short, if we do not have the ability to tolerate and deal simultaneously with the existence of good and bad, we cannot successfully deal with and live in this world, for the world and we are precisely that: good and bad (Cloud, 1990, p. 17).
As previously discussed, manipulators are simultaneously good and bad, which leads to a cognitive dissonance in which diminishing one to have the other is more likely. But that’s dangerous if a manipulator’s target disregards or explains away inappropriate behavior. Examining the abusive behaviors of narcissistic leaders, Keller Hansbrough, et al. state,
Indeed, narcissistic leaders seem inclined to view their behavior as entirely acceptable. Moreover, as detailed below, some followers may hold similar implicit leadership theories and consider abusive supervision acceptable. Our point is to observe that in the eyes of the potential abuser such individuals are seen ‘‘as ripe targets for exploitation’’ (Tepper et al., 2006). (Keller Hansbrough, 2014)
Strengthened object constancy gives you a way to “walk and chew gum at the same time.” That is, you can simultaneously keep a person’s good and bad parts in view, diminishing neither to have the other. And if the manipulator’s bad parts never disappear from view, you’re less prone to normalize the abnormal behavior.
Heed Emotional Signals
Like the proverbial frog in the boiling water, clients can “boil to death” when water temperature increases in increments. To prevent that from happening, they need to pay attention to what their emotions are telling them along the way—to “trust their guts.”
Emotions are a signaling system and the signals should never be disregarded. Jonah Goldberg says, “Fear is dangerous when it serves as a substitute for thinking. But fear can be very useful when it informs our thinking, when it focuses the mind on potential dangers ahead.”
Shifting metaphors from frogs to cars, it’s helpful to think of emotions as serving the same purpose as the lights on your dashboard. Let’s say you’re driving down the road and, suddenly, a strange-looking icon lights up on your dash and you think, “Oh no, I hate when that happens.” At that moment, you don’t have a light problem—you’ve got a likely engine problem. If you take your car in and the mechanic fixes the problem that caused the icon to light up, the light served its purpose. Waytago light! But suppose that when you first saw the icon light up, you pulled some black electrical tape out of the glove compartment and covered over the light. You might think, “Whew, now I feel better,” but your engine burns up because you disregarded the light.
Not always, but being manipulated often sets off emotional signals. Like Han Solo, you have an internal sense that says, “I have a bad feeling about this.” Those feelings should never be disregarded. They may be signals that danger lies up ahead.
People with previous experiences of manipulator burnings sometimes bring into the present a “sixth sense” ability to read manipulation before it directly presents itself. It’s as though they can hear the “dog whistle” while those around them can’t. The burning in the past gives them increased sensitivity to what feels like heat in the present. We should encourage clients to pay attention to those subtle cues. They may be valid indicators of manipulation or they may not, but they shouldn’t be disregarded.
Additionally, clients should make use of anticipatory anxiety. If a client says, for example, “I dread that upcoming family gathering,” the feeling of dread may be a signal indicating the likelihood of manipulation. But if the client heeds the feeling and uses it as an incentive to do some pre-planning, the manipulation is less likely to succeed.
Cultivate Self Integrity
Manipulators project their negatives onto those around them, leaving a target thinking, “Is it me or is it him? I don’t know, maybe it’s me.” If successful, the target absorbs those projections and acquires a distorted view of self.
Projections work best when the screens are blank. But not so well when the screens are densely patterned. A poorly-formed sense of self is a blank screen onto which a manipulator can easily project. Therapists should help clients cultivate more densely patterned selves so the projections have fewer places to stick. This is accomplished by:
Helping clients make use of relational mirrors. Close relationships are mirrors in which we catch glimpses of our good and bad aspects. When relationships function well, the reflections are accurate. But manipulator reflections are inaccurate, distorted by their need to see us the way they need us. Therapists can help weaken the manipulator’s internalized projections by reflecting back to clients accurate pictures of self.
Helping clients stick to their principles. Not only are manipulators confusing, they’re exhausting. The option of “going along to get along” may sometimes be taken just to relieve the pressure of drama enticement. But by doing so, the target must participate in a collusion in which reality is distorted and principles are sacrificed. Though easier said than done, clients should understand the long-term gain of keeping their principles vs. the short-term gain of forfeiting them.