Skilled manipulators can get the better of you while preventing you from knowing for sure who they really are or what they’re really up to.
Dealing with a manipulative person — the folks I call covert aggressors, can make you feel pretty crazy. There are many reasons for this. For one, skilled manipulators are talented at looking good on the outside, while harboring ill intentions underneath. They’ve refined the art of what some psychologists call impression management. That’s the very reason I titled my seminal book on the topic, In Sheep’s Clothing. These character impaired individuals can have you doubting and questioning yourself because while they’re most certainly aggressive personality types — determined to get what they want and without proper concern for who might get hurt in the process — they keep their aggression “under cover.” Your gut might tell you they’re trying to get the better of you, but they’re subtle and deceptive about how they go about it. It’s hard to objectively prove what your gut suspects. And that’s what makes you feel crazy. Some mental health professionals these days call this “gaslighting,” which I first wrote about in “Gaslighting as a Manipulation Tactic: What It Is, Who Does It, And Why”. Gaslighting is not so much a particular tactic (although it can be a manipulator’s specific objective) as it is the effect of any and all of the tactics a manipulator might use to get the better of you while cloaking both their true nature and their agendas.
The tactics manipulators employ carry a virtual one-two punch. When they use one tactic (or a combination of tactics), you go unconsciously on the defensive. But while you’re feeling uneasy, like you’re under attack, you can’t readily and objectively point to why you should rightfully feel that way — and that’s precisely why you end up feeling crazy. Of course, a manipulator can set out to drive you crazy, but that’s not usually their intent. Instead, their intent is to get the better of you without you knowing for sure who they really are or what they’re really up to.
Let’s take the tactic of guilt tripping as an example. Perhaps you’ve confronted a manipulative spouse on their treatment of you. Perhaps the vulgar names and hateful words they just spewed your way cut like a knife, and you called them on it. But they come back with how you “never have a nice thing to say” about them. Or perhaps they complain that you’re more critical of them than “anyone else” they know (a likely exaggeration). You might start thinking this is a reasonable justification for their actions. That’s because they’ve combined the tactic of inviting you to feel guilty with the tactic of rationalization or excuse-making. Before long, they’ve cast themselves as the victim and you as the perpetrator. (Playing the victim role while vilifying the true victim are two other very effective tactics!) Then you start to feel bad. Maybe you’re actually the bad guy in the situation, you might say to yourself. What if you have it very wrong? You couldn’t stand to see yourself as the heavy, but in your heart of hearts you might still feel they’re the one who’s crossed the line. You’ve just taken a course in Gaslighting 101: crazy-making, manipulator’s style.
In the book I mentioned above, I talk about the most common tactics which covertly aggressive people use to have their way with you and still somehow manage to look good while doing it. And I explain how some of our most popular notions about why people do the things they do — notions handed down to us from traditional psychology paradigms — can put us at a serious disadvantage when it comes to fully understanding the folks among us who possess various disturbances of character. Last month, the book celebrated its 20th year in print, and while it’s been updated a few times, for all those years it’s been a true bestseller. (In recent years, that’s been true not just in the US but also in many foreign countries and languages.) I think that’s largely because many of those who have read it, and who once felt “crazy,” finally came to see their manipulator for the wolf in sheep’s clothing they truly were, and were able to wrest free of the gaslighting effect.
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