Minimization: Trivializing Behavior as a Manipulation Tactic

When he uses the tactic of minimization, the disturbed character is attempting to convince someone else that the wrongful thing he did wasn’t really as bad or as harmful as he knows it was and as he knows the other person thinks it was.

This article is the second in a series of posts on the “tactics” disturbed characters use to resist accountability, manage the impressions others have of them, and hoodwink and manipulate others.

A prior series of posts dealt with some of the most essential differences between individuals best described as “neurotic” as opposed to individuals best described as disturbed in character. (See “Neurosis vs. Character Disorder: Levels of Awareness”.). Neurotics and disordered characters also differ from one another in how they typically react to problem behaviors. When neurotics do something they think might negatively impact another, they tend to “catastrophize” the situation or become overly concerned with the damage they might have done. Conversely, disturbed characters are overly prone to minimizing the seriousness of their misconduct and trivializing the damage they cause in their relationships and to the general social order.

Minimization is a close cousin to the tactic of denial, which is also often misinterpreted as a defense mechanism and which I wrote about extensively in a prior post (See “Understanding Denial as a Defense Mechanism”.). When he uses the tactic of minimization, the disturbed character is attempting to convince someone else that the wrongful thing he did wasn’t really as bad or as harmful as he knows it was and as he knows the other person thinks it was. He might admit part of what he did was wrong, and usually not the most serious part. By using the tactic, he tries to manipulate others into thinking he’s not such bad a person (impression management) and continues his active war against submission to a principle of social behavior.

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As is true when other tactics are used, when the disordered character minimizes the nature and seriousness of his conduct, you know for sure that he is likely to engage in the same or similar behaviors again. As long as he continues to minimize, he won’t take seriously the problems he needs to correct. It isn’t that he doesn’t recognize the seriousness of the issues. If he didn’t think others regarded the issue as serious, he wouldn’t feel the need to trivialize it. But refusing to accept the principle at hand and to accept the need to change his stance indicate he’s sure to repeat his misconduct.

I remember one of the first times I witnessed the effectiveness of the minimization tactic. A couple had come to my office for counseling, and the woman’s main complaint was that she was becoming increasingly fearful of what appeared to be her husband’s escalating level of aggressiveness. She complained that during an argument, he shoved her, and because he’d never done that before it concerned her. His comment: “Yeh, I might have touched her and pushed her a little bit, but you could hardly call it a ‘shove’ and there’s no way she can claim I hurt her or meant to hurt her. She’s making me out to be a monster, and I’m not. Besides, she pushed me to the brink!” This man’s statement combined several effective tactics from minimizing and trivializing the event (“touched her and pushed her a little bit”) to denial of malevolent intent (“no way she can claim I meant to hurt her”), vilifying the victim (“She’s making me out to be a monster”) and externalizing the blame (“She pushed me to the brink!”) among others. Before long, the woman was back-peddling and feeling bad for even bringing up the issue. It became all too clear that people use these tactics for a lot of reasons, but the biggest reason of all is that they generally work!

In my work with this couple, it also became clear how traditional notions about human behavior — especially paradigms designed to understand neurosis — are inadequate and sometimes even destructive when it comes to understanding the modus operandi of the disturbed character. Having been a veteran of traditional therapy, the woman in this case commented many times that she knew she was “making him [her husband] defensive” and she that didn’t want to make him feel badly about himself but didn’t know how else to address the issue. Clearly, she perceived him to be in a “defensive” posture when he was in fact on the offensive. What was even more disconcerting was the look of resignation on her face as she herself assumed the submissive position after his barrage of tactics succeeded in their intent. It’s still amazing to me today how many folks (including therapists) can’t distinguish an offense from a defense. (See “An Offense is Not a Defense”.)

Upcoming posts will examine some of the other more common tactics disturbed characters use to resist accountability, take advantage of and manipulate others, and manage the impressions others form and keep of them.

All clinical material on this site is peer reviewed by one or more clinical psychologists or other qualified mental health professionals. This specific article was originally published by on and was last reviewed or updated by Dr Greg Mulhauser, Managing Editor on .

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