The Drama Review (October 20, 2017)

Dear vulnerable-to-drama readers,

Last week, I “cheated” by sharing something old I had written in place of something new. I’m going to establish a pattern of cheating by doing it again this week—and maybe next week.

As I mentioned, I’m covered over trying to meet a writing deadline. You know that picture of Sisyphus from Greek mythology rolling that bolder up a hill? That’s how I’m feeling right now.

So, I’m going to share something I’ve written that describes three ways in which we’re all potentially vulnerable to a manipulator’s exploitations. Here they are:

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 just from 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, “Burn me once, shame on you; burn me twice, shame on me.”


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.” (Godwin, 2009)

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” (Cloud, 1990, p. 52).

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.

Cognitive Dissonance

In his Theory of Cognitive Dissonance (1957), Leon Festinger proposed that humans strive for internal consistency. If two contradictory ideas are experienced simultaneously, that inconsistency produces psychic discomfort or dissonance. When this occurs, we tend to diminish one in order to have the other, thus reducing the dissonance.

For example, a soldier sees himself as a nice person, an upstanding human being. But he goes to war and is required to kill. Now, there’s dissonance. He is, at once, an upstanding human being who kills people. So, who is he? A nice guy or a killer?

Cognitive dissonance theory suggests that he’ll diminish one in order to have the other. If he can reduce his enemy to sub-humans, he’s no longer killing actual people. His nice-guy self-perception has been restored and the psychic discomfort is thus alleviated. By altering reality, he eliminates the uncomfortable contradiction.

Manipulators can be—and usually are—simultaneously charming and maddening. They can be wonderful and dreadful, likeable and hateful, impressive and disgusting. The dissonance experienced can cause their targets to minimize, overlook, or explain away their bad parts in order to keep the good parts. In an effort to “think the best of people”, to “find the good in everyone,” or to give that person the “benefit of the doubt,” they disregard those glaring negatives that exist alongside those impressive positives.

This is why some people explain away abusive behavior, endure mistreatment of various types, or “suffer fools gladly” all in an effort to escape the inevitable discomfort that would result from keeping those negatives in view. Once this happens, the exploitation has been achieved.

5 replies
  1. Adele
    Adele says:

    Hello Alan. I am at a meeting this week in Nashville !

    Thank you. That was a good one and important to say and be heard.
    Here and so many times, I have heard a person say, “My mother or father was emotionally, physically, or sexually abusive my whole life but I never stopped loving
    them! ” I often think to myself, Wait a minute here. It is one thing to be understanding of the difficulties their parents may have encountered in their own lives. And there is a chance these people have come to some acceptance and made peace with the way they were treated. We all want to be considered nice,,loving, kind, empathic people, but at whose expense ?

    Abuse is plainly wrong. Vulnerable people whether aduls or children get abused.
    Sometimes I do not think people who say ” I never stopped loving them” know what love is. This is so sad because their early relationships did not teach them love and this frequently sets them up for a lifetime of abuse.
    Often they relive it and repeat those early abusive relationships with others later in life and spend a lifetime reliving and attempting to figure out what is wrong with themselves. They are easily manipulated as they try to get the love they never experienced. They stay trapped.

    They often feel empty, depressed and unworthy of love so they do not make wise choices and take whatever treatment they get. They don ‘t know how to set boundaries and do not even know who they are because they were used for someone else’s twisted needs. It is tragic because children have to take what they get. Abuse of children can be kept hidden. There is usually nowhere for them to go and no one to help. These children are literally trapped.
    Hopefully aduls can be helped, with support, to face what they did not get, mourn that very real loss, and come to know that they are no longer defenseless trapped children.

  2. Karem
    Karem says:

    So if for whatever reason a person chooses to stay in a relationship the manipulator, what suggestions would u have for them

    • Alan Godwin
      Alan Godwin says:

      That’s a great question, Karem. Each situation has its own particulars so it’s not really possible to give a one-size-fits-all answer. In general, you’d have to set clear boundaries to keep from getting pulled into the drama. And people you could confide in to support you in the process. That’s the short answer.

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