Surviving a Manipulator: It’s Like Getting Whiplash

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Just as healing physical whiplash requires avoiding activities that might inflame the affected tissues, getting over an encounter with a manipulator requires avoiding self-reproach and learning to ascribe responsibility where it truly belongs.

I recently received a heartwarming email from a reader of my book In Sheep’s Clothing who, though grateful for the insights and tools the book gave him to survive a manipulative relationship, was still dealing with the emotional aftermath of one of the most difficult chapters in his life. One of the things that really impressed me about his plight was the degree of trauma and turmoil he was still undergoing, even after finally putting an end to the toxic relationship he endured for several years. In responding to his concerns, I was reminded about some of the unique emotional experiences many folks go through in their recovery from relationships with manipulative personalities.

As I say in the book, dealing with a skilled manipulator is often like getting whiplash: you don’t know all that’s really happened until after the damage is done. That’s because the very nature of manipulation most often involves covert aggression — repeated efforts to exploit, abuse, overcome, control, or take advantage of others via subtle, underhanded, and hard to objectively detect ways. So, by the time you realize what’s really happening, you’ve already been placed at a disadvantage and most likely suffered considerably. But in addition to those unfortunate facts, often, when a person finally realizes the true nature of circumstances, they face a new set of emotionally traumatic realities:

  • the trauma of realizing that just about everything they once thought they understood about human nature, about what makes various personalities tick, and why people do some of the things they do, has been turned completely upside-down;
  • the trauma of feeling constantly invited to demean their own character because of the weakness and inadequacy they often ascribe to having allowed themselves to be duped; and
  • the trauma of a new and pervading sense of self-mistrust, especially with regard to their ability to form new, healthier relationships.

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One of the main principles in my writings is that although we all possess character weaknesses that a manipulator is prone to exploit, and although it’s in our best interest to address those things to inoculate and empower ourselves in the future, the manipulator bears primary responsibility for the harm they perpetrated. And because manipulative personalities, like most disturbed characters, are best defined by their lack of conscience — and neurotics are sometimes best defined by the oppressiveness of their well-developed conscience — it should come as no surprise that victims (who tend to be more neurotic than character-disturbed) of abusive and manipulative relationships are often tempted to beat themselves up after they realize what’s happened to them.

Rather than engage in such negative self appraisal, it’s important for survivors of toxic relationships to examine their own character vulnerabilities with genuine self-acceptance and love. The task of re-orienting our perspectives and coming to terms with our vulnerabilities in order to become more empowered is already an inherently arduous and painful task because of the brutal honesty it requires. But the pain can be unnecessarily compounded when we approach that task with anything less than an unwavering attitude of positive self-regard.

In a very real sense, no one is ever really “free” of an abusive or manipulative relationship until the lingering scars are healed. And medical experts will tell you that in order to heal physical whiplash, you must avoid doing things that might continue to inflame the affected tissues. Healing the emotional scars associated with a toxic relationship takes time and commitment. And those recovering must work hard not to re-inflame their wounds. That means avoiding the temptation to engage in self-reproach and learning to ascribe responsibility where it truly belongs, casting off erroneous notions and beliefs that predispose us to misjudge the character of those with whom we might have a relationship, and embracing the tools of personal empowerment that can help us not only to solidify our own character but also to deal much more effectively with those who would do us harm.

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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