Playing the Servant Role: Manipulating by Casting the Will to Dominate as Duty or Subservience

One of the more subtle ways that a person hell-bent upon power and control can veil their will to dominate is to cloak it under the cover of subservience to a higher cause or the purported desire to be of service.

I’ve been posting a series of articles on behaviors that persons with significant disturbances of character frequently display. When disordered characters habitually engage in these behaviors, they interfere with the normal socialization process, preventing the disturbed character from internalizing pro-social values and standards of conduct and reinforcing maladaptive coping patterns. Such behaviors also have a powerful capacity to manipulate and impression-manage others, thus making them behaviors disturbed characters are unwilling to give up easily. Some of the behaviors we’ve discussed already include feigning innocence and ignorance, rationalization, blaming others, and lying:

One of the more subtle ways that a person hell-bent upon power and control can veil their will to dominate is to cloak it under the cover of subservience to a higher cause or the purported desire to be of service. In my work over the years with disturbed characters and their victims, I’ve seen many examples of this tactic and I know well the damage it can inflict on a relationship.

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Early in my clinical training, I happened to observe a therapy session that involved a young girl and her parents. To put it mildly, the child appeared a nervous wreck. She was not only anxious much of the time, but also she had been having nightmares and was fairly depressed. Her mother confided to the therapist that she thought her father was pushing her too hard. Her father was a prominent and successful businessman who had big plans for his daughter. But whenever the mother confronted the father about what she believed to be the relentless pressure he was placing on their child, he would retort that he was only trying to be a good father, to be sure that he afforded the child every opportunity, and to help her achieve her full potential. Toward that end, he had insisted she be placed in advanced programs, insisted on all-A report cards, and had frequent conferences with the teachers when he thought they weren’t doing enough to help. When the girl buckled under the pressure, he hired a tutor, boasting that he was the kind of parent who would do anything he could to help his daughter achieve her potential. (All this was for a child who the educational professionals had repeatedly indicated was of only average intellectual ability.)

I was so struck by the “dynamics” in this family that I made a case study of it and eventually included a modified version of it in my book In Sheep’s Clothing. What struck me the most about this family was how determined the father was to have his way (the hallmark of an aggressive personality), how self-questioning and guilty the mother felt whenever she questioned his motives, and how differently the child’s emotional suffering affected her parents. The child’s suffering was so obvious it would be hard to ignore. The mother didn’t ignore it but didn’t feel valid in her interpretations of events. The father didn’t seem to care that the child was buckling under the pressure; what was important to him was that she accomplish the plans he had long set for her. I then came to realize how effective playing the servant role could be as a manipulation tactic. It’s hard to see someone as a ruthless oppressor when they’re constantly laying claim to tireless efforts on another’s behalf. My gut was reacting instinctively to this man’s aggression (as was his wife’s), yet it was hard to point out clearly the nature of his acts (even the therapist assigned to this case aligned with the father’s position for awhile). So, I eventually came to understand one of the main reasons people get manipulated, especially by aggressive personalities. They don’t trust their gut-level feelings and instincts. Instead of paying attention to their inner fear and angst, and instead of ascribing validity to their initial response, they “listen” to the rationalizations and buy into the message being implied (e.g., “I’m the servant here, not the oppressor, don’t you see?). They then part company with their intuition and succumb to the manipulation.

One of the early pioneers of cognitive-behavioral therapy coined the term “dominance under the guise of service” to describe the tactic of playing the role of servant. It’s an effective tactic and one that’s hard to spot right away. But like the other tactics we’ve been discussing, it can inflict a fair amount of damage if not challenged.

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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