How to spot a manipulator?
Updated: Jun 19, 2019
"If you know your enemy and you know yourself you don't need to fear the result of hundred battles" cit. Sun Tzu.
In the previous post we laid out the basis of self knowledge in the form of 20 signs that you can look for within yourself to understand if you are a victim of manipulation. Is it possible to take this analysis a step further and be able to identify manipulative behaviors in other people? The answer is YES. There are very specific techniques that we need to look for when interacting with manipulators however, before diving into this subject, it is extremely important to understand the difference between the concept of "denial" as it was defined by Sigmund Freud and "denial" as it is used nowadays by professional therapists. This difference is the foundation of George Simon's theories and the key to crack the manipulator's code.
Sigmund Freud originally defined denial as a defense mechanism that involves the rejection of a fact that is too painful for a person to accept. In Dr. Simon's words "Denial is a rare psychological state that occurs in people who are not "characterologically disordered" ( see Character Disturbance) and who are facing more pain that they can possible endure at a conscious level".
The definition of the term denial has been revised and expanded over the years to encompass behaviors that are the common denominator of disturbed characters and nowadays it is common practice among professionals to treat such individuals with an eye of regard towards their status of "perennial denial". This misconception is a double-edged sword as it allows the abuser to find shelter under the umbrella of pity (or fear) while hindering their victims' capability to identify their aggressive behaviors.
To help you better understand the difference between the two aforementioned concepts, here below are two examples of denial, one according to Sigmund Freud and the other one according to modern psychology.
My aunt's sister (let's call her W) was married to a handsome, tall, funny, spirited man that i will call Y. W and Y met in high school, got married after graduation and had two beautiful children together, a 6 and a 2 years old. Everything was perfect until one day Y noticed something was changing in the shape of his face. He knew it was time to get a check up done and few days later they found out he had cancer in one of his nostrils, probably connected to the fact that he was a heavy smoker since his teens.
The news caught everyone by surprise and when Y died few months later it left everyone in the family heartbroken and in despair. I was only 14 years old but i still remember that event with extreme clarity.
The day of the funeral we went to their house. W was sitting on a chair in the corner of the room, her eyes purple from the prolonged crying, her shoulders slouched and her head nodding slowly. Few minutes after our arrival, W.'s mom entered the room. With eyes filled with tears she walked towards her son in law's dead body, she put her hands around his neck and shook his shoulder while saying "Why? Why did you leave us? You have two children to take care of. Z is only two years old, who's going to take care of him? Who? Why did you leave us?".
That scene shocked me, it was as if she had lost touch with reality. She was talking to a dead body as if he could listen to her. I immediately empathized with her pain and felt a deep feeling of anguish and despair. Now....was she in so much pain that she could not accept yet the new reality she was living in? Was she in denial because not ready to take the enormous burden of her grief? Definitely yes.
One day T. was driving back from his soccer practice and realizing he was late for his favorite TV show he decided to speed up to get back home in time to watch it . He was driving at 90m/h on a 35m/h road when a police car (hiding on a secondary road) spotted him and started to follow him. Few minutes after he was pulled over the cop leaned towards T's window and asked him "Do you know why i stopped you?". T responded with extreme conviction and a nuance of dumbness/innocence on his face "Noo.....why????".
Believe it or not, the cop ended up buying into T's story that he was not speeding and that night vision must have given him the wrong perception of speed and T was let go with a simple warning to stay within the required speed limits. Was T in denial? Was he in so much pain that he could not accept yet the reality he was living in? Probably not.
Manipulative people resort to a range of interesting techniques (labeled by Dr. Simon as active fighting stances) to trick their victims into believing that they are being unconsciously defensive rather than consciously offensive and to carry on their hidden agenda of domination. Understanding the distinction between defensive/offensive and conscious/unconscious is very important as it changes the way disturbed characters are dealt with. In fact, when victims are covertly attacked by a disturbed character they go into an unconscious state of defense that increases their chances of "becoming unnerved and confused therefore backing off, backing down or being swayed". In other words, if we are not aware they are attacking us we end up becoming defensive and throwing the towel to their advantage. Believing manipulators are being defensive rather than offensive disarms the victim and allows the subtle attacks to go unnoticed.
Some of you might wonder how could someone be fighting without being noticed. After all, aggression and fight have very distinctive traits such as an increased tone of voice, overt criticism, leaning forward posture, clenched fists, red face, etc. and in many cases disturbed characters don't show any sign of anger or aggression in their interactions. They actually come across as calm, composed and friendly.
To shed some light on the matter and help you understand the difference between those two behaviors we will use the example that Dr. Simon provides in his book. The example goes like this: a cat is sitting in the garden enjoying the sun when it spots a pit bull turning the corner down the street and approaching the garden. The cat immediately jumps on its feet showing its teeth, hissing and arching its back.
Is the cat adopting an aggressive or defensing behavior?
Though we might be tricked into thinking that this is an aggressive behavior and even if the cat is displaying all signs of aggression we all know that in reality it has no intention to launch an attack. The cat actually feels threatened by the approaching dog and in the attempt TO AVOID a fight it uses its best tools to scare the danger away.
Now, imagine the same cat sitting in the garden and spotting a mouse few meters away. It quietly hides in the grass making no sound, its belly flat on the ground, waiting for the unaware mouse to get closer to its reach.
Is the cat being aggressive or defensive?
There are no evident signs of aggressive behaviors however its intentions are anything but friendly. The cat is indeed planning to victimize the mouse and the adoption of a covert aggressive behavior provides it with a great advantage in the fight as the mouse is unaware of the ambush.
In the exact same way, disturbed characters hide the aggressive nature of their actions to confuse their victims and dominate them. The power of manipulation relies indeed in the fact that objectively there is no sign of aggression however the victims are unconsciously pushed in a defensive mode that causes them to back off and give in. This is what makes manipulation so effective and hard to give up.
"Doing the right thing is never easy" and giving up instant gratification for the greater good is even harder. That's why the disturbed characters need to be firmly corrected and constantly encouraged in their path towards recovery.
Traditional psychology teaches that disturbed characters engage in manipulation techniques primarily as a defense mechanism, which is unconscious and primarily aimed at protect against the experience of unbearable emotional pain. However, the hard truth is that most of these behaviors are perfectly conscious. They might be habitual and fairly automatic, but still...perfectly conscious.
So, now that we have shredded the myth of denial, aggressive/defensive and unconscious/conscious behaviors, let's dive into the most common manipulation techniques. Please note these are only few of the ones described in Dr. Simon's book. Also, for simplicity, i will refer to the disturbed character as a He and to the victim as a She.
1) FEIGNING INNOCENCE/IGNORANCE: This tactic is based on the concept that if the disturbed character can convince the victim that she did not see what she saw, then he did not do what he did and, as a consequence, he can avoid adverse consequences while laying down the basis for future repetition. All that it takes is to act innocent enough or outraged enough to tap into the consciousness of the victim and capitalize on their desire to not judge or do wrong.
2) RATIONALIZATION (Making excuses): This tactic consists in the attempt to justify a wrong behavior by finding an excuse that makes it look more socially acceptable.
3) COVERT INTIMIDATION: Disturbed characters can use intimidation in an overt or covert way to get what they want. In the latter, they will used veiled threats to force others to cave in to their demands.
4) MINIMIZATION: The disturbed character always tries to trivialize bad behaviors trying to convince others that what he did was not really that bad or that harmful. (Ex. "Yes i punched her in the face but I didn't really hurt her")
5) BLAME SHIFTING: With this tactic the disturbed character refuses to accept responsibility for a bad choice and projects the blame on someone else (ex. i punched my wife because she is always provoking me)
6) LYING: This tool is extremely effective and can be used in different ways such as lying by omission (i.e avoiding to mention certain details) or using vagueness (i.e. being purposely vague to keep other off track).
7) BULLYING: This tactic is used by disturbed characters to get their victim to give up their wishes and obtain what they really want. In order to achieve that they terrorize others and use fear as a weapon to get others to do what they want.
8) SHAMING and GUILT TRIPPING: Disturbed characters know how effective shame and guilt are as manipulation tools and they use them to make their victims easy to manipulate and control. (Example: Girlfriend trying to keep her boyfriend from breaking up with her: " I am with you because you flirted with me and you tempted me into this relationship. I was already dating someone else when you came into my life, you made me fall in love with you and now that i cannot live without you you want to break up with me? What kind of person are you?).
9) VILIFYING THE VICTIM: Disturbed character use this tactic to make the victim feel as the bad person and the unjust attacker. This is an effective way to shift his position from attacker to defender putting the victim in an unconscious state of defense.
10) PLAYING THE SERVANT: With this tactic, disturbed characters pretend to be taking care of their victim when in reality they are taking advantage of her.
11) PLAYING THE VICTIM: Disturbed characters use this technique to divert the attention from their wrong doing and soliciting sympathy from others in order to gain their assistance in supporting or enabling the abuse of the victim.
When disturbed characters are confronted by therapists about their wrong behaviors and engage in any of the active fighting stances listed above, they are actually fighting against the standards that they are asking them to adopt and they are covertly trying to gain advantage over them by having them accept their point of view. This is why is vital for therapists to have clarity of mind and clarity of vision. The path to recovery for an underdevelopment character is rocky and full of relapses, but with the help of a good therapist and the will to become a better human being there is no obstacles that cannot be overcome.