Recognizing the Varieties of Manipulators and Controllers

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If you’re really going to defend yourself against victimization, it’s important to know the kind of person you’re dealing with, how they might try to manipulate and control you, and why.

One of the most common complaints I’ve heard from clients over the years is how they felt manipulated by others in their lives. So early on in my career I began taking a critical look at manipulative and control-oriented people and the kinds of problems these types can bring into a relationship. There are some individuals whose very personalities can be defined by their penchant for manipulation and control. The covert-aggressors I describe in In Sheep’s Clothing are prime among these. But manipulators and controllers actually come in many different varieties, each one unique not only in the reasons for (and motivations behind) their troublesome behaviors but also in the manner in which they typically go about managing others and the situations around them. Some personality types are more predisposed to manipulate than others, and some personalities attempt to manipulate and control with more malevolent intent.

Borderline personalities (see “Borderline Personality Disorder: A Primer”) are among the more emotionally distressing manipulators. Although they can be, they’re not necessarily deliberate, ill-intended manipulators. Rather, for the most part, because their sense of self is often fractured and tenuous, they’re chronically anxious, insecure, needy, “clingy,” and live in constant dread of “abandonment.” As a result, they quickly become emotionally “enmeshed” with their relationship partners, which can be quite emotionally draining for the partner. Emotionally exhausted and all too frequently on the receiving end the borderline personality’s unpredictable, impulsive, angry outbursts, it’s natural for the partner to seek distance or consider opting out of the relationship. But this only fuels the borderline’s fear of abandonment, which in turn triggers some of their more dramatic (and grief-causing) behaviors such as self-harm gestures, intense emotional displays and pleadings, etc. And while to the person on the receiving end of them these behaviors can easily be seen as deliberate, malevolent attempts to punish, manipulate, and control, in reality, a good deal of the time, while these behaviors do in fact often have a manipulative and controlling effect, the borderline personality may not necessarily be doing such things for those purposes. In short, just because borderlines do things that manipulate doesn’t necessarily mean they do those things to manipulate. Because BPD is by nature a failure of personality integration, and because many different traits can be present in a borderline individual to a greater or lesser extent, some borderline personalities (including those with pronounced narcissistic and/or aggressive personality traits) can indeed be quite deliberately manipulative and controlling, which only compounds matters.

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“Dependent” personalities — those excessively dependent on external sources to satisfy their emotional needs — are also prone to manipulative behaviors. Because they generally look to others to get their needs met, they’re prone to interacting with their environment in such a way that others end up tending to those needs. The more active-dependent (histrionic) personalities do this in a very active and dramatic fashion, using seduction and attention-seeking behaviors to lure others into involvements, whereas the more passive-dependent personalities manipulate by default, inviting the emotionally “stronger” person in the relationship to pick up the slack without really lifting a finger.

Perhaps the most insidious and potentially dangerous manipulators and controllers are the covert-aggressors. That’s because their desire for power and control is not based in either fear or emotional insecurity. Rather, like all aggressive personalities, they simply enjoy exploiting, abusing, and dominating others and controlling all situations. And they’re skilled at concealing their nefarious agendas until it’s too late for their intended victims. It’s all part of the game of “impression management” whereby they cast themselves as both benign and well intentioned while they subtly yet craftily plot to get the better of the other party. The most dangerous of all these types are the psychopaths:

Psychopaths know well and have nothing but disdain for the characteristics of good-natured people and use those very qualities — including most people’s willingness to trust and afford others the benefit of the doubt and the conscientiousness most people have and discomfort they typically have when they think they might be the cause of anyone else’s pain — against them. Possessing a narcissism so malignant (“Narcissism: Pathological Self-Love”) that they consider truly decent folks as inherently weak and inferior, they feel “entitled” to prey on such folks, and deliberately play on their sensitivities and sensibilities to con, exploit, and otherwise victimize them. Worst of all, they do these things for the pure pleasure of it. It’s not fear, insecurity or emotional pain that drives them, just an incapacity to care and a craving to dominate.

Manipulation has always been a big problem. But because we live in a time when radical ideologues increasingly lure vulnerable young persons into joining their ranks, it’s arguably a bigger and more dangerous problem than it’s ever been. (See “Radical Ideologies, Deadly Ways of Thinking”.) But not all manipulation is the same and not all folks who manipulate do so for the same reasons or are of the same character.

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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