Manipulative: The “M Word”

Before studying to become a psychologist, I worked in a psychiatric hospital for children and adolescents, a landing place for distressed kids coming from impossible situations. Life in the hospital relied upon a rigid schedule and a behavior point system. For some, the structure was a welcome relief from chaos, but for others it was a reminder of how little control they had in their lives. These children threw themselves time and again into a state of turmoil. They were violent toward themselves and others, oppositional, deceitful and vindictive. I can recall one patient who told me flat out that she would “go off” that evening simply because it was my night to be on call and she wanted to keep me stuck at the hospital. It felt as though she wanted to punish me, and she delivered with dramatic threats to hurt herself and her peers. We called these patients manipulative because, well, that’s what they appeared to be.

Manipulation is a subject that frequently emerges within mental health circles among patients, families and clinicians alike. Certain individuals, adults diagnosed with Borderline Personality Disorder or children with Attachment Disorders for example, are often perceived as manipulative or calculating. A mother tells her caring daughter who is leaving town for a week, “I’ll probably die off alone somewhere with only the cat to mourn me,” a distressed teenager repeatedly alludes to suicide only to rebound at the first sign of attention, or an upset child flips desks over in the classroom when his tantrums are ignored. We call this manipulation because it appears to be so – we are compelled to respond, and thus we feel manipulated.

Despite appearances, these behaviors are almost never acts of manipulation. First, let’s look at what the word means. According to Google Dictionary, to manipulate is to “control or influence (a person or situation) cleverly, unfairly, or unscrupulously.” Of particular importance here is that the manipulator is in control. He is in control of his feelings and his actions. Perhaps he is in control of you.

Now, look at the individuals we so often call manipulative. Are they in control of whatever is important to them? In their distress, do they possess the ability to get what they actually want? Are their behaviors really working to meet their needs? Of course not. Ironically, the types of behaviors we consider manipulative are almost always the opposite. They are acts of desperation committed by people who struggle to manipulate anyone effectively.

Acts of desperation are knee-jerk impulses – tried and true behaviors delivered under the faulty impression that there is no other way to get what they need. Even when negative behaviors are calculated, a broader perspective will usually reveal that this person is not getting what she needs to feel secure. Consider the patient who “went off” because I was on call that night. She purposefully disrupted my plans, elicited considerable frustration and achieved sufficient attention from the staff to keep her safe. However, she failed to get what she really wanted, which, I believe, was comfort and nurturance. She was incapable of producing an outcome fully within the grasp of most other people. Had she possessed such an ability, she might not have been hospitalized in the first place.

An act of true manipulation violates another’s dignity and self-control. We hold a special type of disgust for this type of behavior because it brings shame upon the victim for participating in his own defeat. It is no surprise that some of the most deviant characters in history (e.g., Adolph Hitler, Joseph Goebbels, Jim Jones, Charles Manson) and literature (e.g., Hannibal Lecter, Nurse Ratched, Iago, Screwtape) were master manipulators. Their crimes were committed not from a place of desperation, but from a place of control. True manipulation is the mark of narcissism or sociopathy, not one of borderline personality.

Consider then what it means to label someone as manipulative. For therapists – and believe me, we need to be particularly mindful of this – it signals a barrier to empathy that slows the process of healing. For friends and family, the label forever designates one as guilty and deviant. For educators, it brings about countless power struggles born from the determination not to “reinforce bad behavior.” When children act out, we tend to withhold our reinforcement. This makes sense in the short-term, but some children need a lower bar for reward if they are to be successful at all, and this is especially true for the children who create havoc.

Educators, parents, and mental health providers would all do well to remove the word “manipulative” from their vocabularies because in most cases it is inaccurate and derisive. Acts of desperation mean something. There is a message in these behaviors, and it reads: “Help me. I am in distress and I don’t know how to feel better. I’m afraid that no one cares.” If you are helping someone who acts in desperation, you must not lose sight of that message and the struggle that it represents. You may feel tired, frustrated and even heart-broken, but know that you are not being manipulated, and you should reconsider withholding your compassion.

Photo Credit: Nadia Blagorodnova

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