Counselling Resource

Psychology, Philosophy & Real Life

Dr George Simon, PhD

Leveling as a Manipulation Tactic: Equating One’s Character with Someone Else’s

Leveling is a slick tool which manipulators use to try and “level the playing field” or field of interpersonal contest.

I’ve been posting a series of articles on behaviors commonly displayed by persons with disturbed character. These behaviors interfere with the normal process of socialization and character development, and they also often serve as tactics to manipulate and control others.

One of the more subtle but nonetheless highly effective responsibility-avoidance and manipulation tactics is “leveling.” Leveling refers to the disturbed character’s attempt to put himself on equal standing with others of different character. It generally takes two forms: setting oneself up as a person of equal stature to a person in authority; and trying to equate one’s own character, personal value, integrity, etc. with someone else’s, especially one of more mature or superior character.

Leveling is a slick way to try and “level the playing field” or field of interpersonal contest. Once, I witnessed a woman confronting her husband about his frequent displays of verbal abuse. She stated: “I’d like you to simply ask me for what you need instead of launching into me, cursing, and berating me. When I want something from you, I ask for it.” His retort, in a very provocative tone: “Are you saying you’re better than me?” The implied message he was sending was that the two of them were of equal character standing — just two human beings of equal worth. He was also implying that the wife was being demanding or “uppity” by challenging him to do things differently (and insinuating that her way was better than his way).

Now classical psychology would have us thinking that the woman’s confrontation represented a “threat” to her husband’s “ego” and that his response was “defensive.” Further, the popular wisdom would reinforce the notion that both of these individuals are human beings of equal value, although the behavior patterns of each may not be equally laudable. The woman in the above example may or may not have been familiar with the tenets of classical psychology or the many commonly accepted beliefs that flow from it, but she was definitely vulnerable to the tactic. Instead of thinking to herself, “This is just another way he’s trying to take the wind out of my sails and put me in my place,” she thought, “Maybe I am putting him down and of course I don’t mean to imply that I’m better he is, so I’ll back off.” So, in the end, she did just as he wanted and the tactic worked.

The tactic of leveling surfaces as an insidious and subtle challenge to the therapist’s authority whenever disturbed characters enter counseling. Whenever I introduce myself as “Dr. Simon” (an advanced-degree trained professional) to a disturbed character, it’s almost inevitable that he or she will say something like: “May I call you George?” It may seem like a petty issue to be concerned with, but such statements almost always represent the first subtle step down the slippery slope of resisting the guidance and direction that are so essential when providing services to the disturbed character. Remember, what disturbed characters need in the therapy experience is not at all the same as what therapists most often provide to average “neurotics.” (See “Neurosis vs. Character Disorder: Contrasting Needs in Therapy”.) I always politely say that I prefer “Dr. Simon” and then observe carefully their response to my endorsement of the authority position for indications that they have any modicum of motivation to accept therapeutic guidance. By the way, many of my long-term “neurotic” patients call me George (and I’m very okay with that) even though their own high levels of conscientiousness and respect for authority prompted them to address me as “Doctor” at first.

There’s a lot more I could say about the tactic of leveling. As I mentioned earlier, it’s often done with such subtlety that it’s hard to detect, but it’s almost always effective. It’s also a behavior that intensely interferes with the process of developing any respect for authority or for the value of certain principles or standards. Not everything is equal. Some values, beliefs, principles, and standards of conduct are superior to others. Respect for that makes civilization possible. Contempt and disregard for that through the use of “leveling” techniques allows the disturbed character to set his own rules and wreak havoc in the lives of others.

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