Manipulation can be a funny, subtle thing.
Sometimes it’s so subtle we don’t even realize it’s happening. We just feel a little disjointed, or notice a slight separation between our face-value impression of the interactions at hand and how we really feel about them. Maybe we feel a murmur in our gut that signals there’s more going on here than meets the eye -- that undeniable visceral feedback about our experience of the relationship. It might simply register as a heightened awareness, though for what purpose we’re not quite sure.
Other times manipulation can be much more distressing. It can feel like our ability to determine our own destiny within the context of the relationship is being undermined. Maybe it’s difficult for us to experience someone in the usual easeful way that we relate to people. Maybe we question ourselves about things we’ve never doubted before. Or maybe we feel hooked by someone or a set of circumstances that we know is uncomfortable but that is also strangely alluring, magnetic. One that we simply can’t seem to say no to.
Manipulation can be so curious because it doesn’t always feel insidious in the way it’s chalked up to be. Manipulation. The word itself carries a sort of distaste. But sometimes manipulation can look like receiving exactly what we thought we’ve always wanted in a relationship, before our experience of that vision eventually rings hollow and we can’t figure out what went wrong. What’s more troubling is that manipulation can sometimes look very similar to some other completely innocuous behavior -- it’s just used in a way that is ultimately harmful or destructive.
Since we know not so deep down that controlling another person for personal gain -- imposing our will on the free will of others -- is a big no-no, manipulation hides itself away like this, in the shadows, in disguise. If it were any more obvious it would be more easy to interrupt. And the ultimate goal of manipulative behavior is self-preservation. To guarantee love at any cost.
Manipulation at its core is a hedge against the inherent risk and unpredictability of being vulnerable with other human beings who we know deep down we ultimately cannot control -- who can reject us, abandon us, hurt us, or treat us in whatever other way triggers our deepest-seated fears.
Manipulative behavior can also be especially hard to pin down if we’ve never been manipulated before (or if we’ve never realized we’ve been manipulated before) and we find ourselves experiencing the uneasy feeling but cannot discern its source.
We can’t identify it more clearly because we don’t know what to look for.
Even if we have a hunch that this is what’s going on, there’s so much complicated energy surrounding manipulation that we hesitate to label someone' behavior that way.
It’s a loaded word. It feels like an accusation (because it is). We resist opening this can of worms because we don’t trust that we can reliably recognize manipulation in the first place. We don’t want to go there if we’re not sure, and we’re not sure.
Any reluctance we have about advocating for our own emotional needs in relationships -- fears about “being too much,” “feeling too much,” or “asking for too much” -- can also interfere with our ability to speak up for ourselves when things feel amiss.
Finally, we’re unwilling to name this kind of behavior for what it is because we’re afraid of what it will mean about the people in our lives, the partners we have chosen to be with, or even more frightening to us -- what we think these circumstances and choices will say about us.
We have an idea in our minds -- a judgment -- about the kinds of people who manipulate and we fear the repercussions for our relationship, and for ourselves by association, if we call another person manipulative.
But aside from the elusive nature of manipulation or the hangups we have about labeling it that way, we can preemptively disarm our impulse to call this behavior out into the open for an even more innocent reason -- one that causes us to endure manipulation longer than we have to.
It comes down to one simple assumption we make about the nature of manipulation, and about manipulative people themselves.
A belief that short-circuits our desire to get to the bottom of what’s really going on.
What’s this innocent reason we excuse manipulative behavior?
We think manipulators are aware they’re manipulating us.
We assume manipulators intend to manipulate.
And since we know -- we just know -- the other person would never mean to hurt us on purpose, we don’t see the manipulation right in front of us.
We excuse it.
More troublingly (and painfully), we accept it.
We stop ourselves from asking the more probing questions about what’s really going on because we think we’ve already answered them for ourselves.
We think the matter is already settled, resolved.
We’ve told ourselves it can’t be happening, so it must not be.
There’s a deeper truth here though.
More often than not, a manipulative person doesn’t know they’re being manipulative.
When we realize this we drive a wedge into the center of our own misunderstanding and begin to separate the belief that the other person would never hurt us on purpose from the behavior that nevertheless hurts.
This gap opens up a field of expanded possibilities we couldn’t have accessed before.
We breathe life into the cramped quarters of our own misguided thinking.
Black and white become shades of grey. We reconcile impressions that had once seemed to contradict and cancel one another out -- the very short-circuiting of the empowered actions we might otherwise take -- into a more complete and accurate picture of what manipulation really is, and where it really comes from.
It’s an understanding, a wholeness, that allows us to lay down the burden of our own judgments -- that armor we wear against the world and all of the places we find it lacking.
Because can we really hold as tightly to the judgments we have about manipulation and the kinds of people we think manipulate when we know that people who care about us -- and who we care about -- can manipulate us too?
The reality is more complex than we had originally thought, but it is also strangely more liberating.
We realize we are all flawed. Complicated. Contradictory. Human.
Relieved of our judgments, we’re left with this simple truth:
Manipulation is a learned pattern of behavior adopted over time to help cope with a situation that is loveless in some way. It’s an attempt to guarantee ourselves love in a world where people can (and do) choose not to love us.
With this understanding we can approach these kinds of situations with a more open heart -- with honesty, compassion, and empathy.
This does not mean we let ourselves be taken advantage of. It just means than any action we take moving forward will be made with love.
It’s from this same wholeness that any impulse to condemn ourselves for not knowing any better also falls away. Our own innocence emerges, quieting the inner voices that would punish us for making a choice that prolonged our pain and suffering.
Because how could we have set about to change something we simply weren’t aware of?
Now we know.
This wholeness is also where forgiveness lies: for ourselves, for excusing manipulation at our own expense, and for the manipulator, for adopting this coping mechanism in the first place.
This does not mean we ignore the fact that some people are aware they control others for their own gain, but our wholeness would have us forgive them too.
Because in either case, a manipulative person’s intent does not ultimately matter -- what we make our impression of the importance of their intent mean (or not) about what we can or cannot accept for ourselves within the context of the relationship absolutely does.
This looks like learning to value outcomes -- how we feel about ourselves in our relationships -- more than we value intentions. Because even the best of intentions don’t matter if they leave us feeling lost, confused, stymied, upset, or in pain.
When we fully shift this perspective we remove all of the barriers we once had to improving our relationships on our own terms.
We allow ourselves the probing questions, even if we may not like the answers. We allow ourselves the frank conversations, even if they are hard. We allow ourselves our emotions, even if we think they don’t make sense. We allow ourselves to trust our sense that something is wrong, even if we can’t name what it is.
We allow ourselves to ask for help.
When we do this we unlock a new experience for ourselves -- one where we are the ones who determine how we feel in our relationships.
Because by this point we’ve fully unraveled the innocent assumption that led to our original misunderstanding in the first place.
We know now that even though another person may not mean to hurt us, we’re still being hurt.
And we resolve to do something about it.