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Last Updated Wednesday August 15 2018 02:29 PM IST

Heal Thy Self | Who's pushing your hot buttons

Nirmala Ferrao
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Heal Thy Self Photo: Getty Images

Look to your left, look to your right. You’ll find the ground is spread thicker with manipulators and their victims than the air is choked with carbon emissions.

Come to think of it, why look around you at all? Why not simply look within? Most people, at some time or the other, in some way or the other, use manipulation to get what they want. In fact, psychologists go so far as to say that manipulation is an essential tool for survival. No wonder, then, that its practice begins virtually in babyhood, and that the familiar figures of the early years include playground bullies and toddler queen bees in hot-pink Crocs.

If you’re vigorously shaking your head (“May be others do it, not I”), check it out. How many of these statements are true of you?

I will sometimes act more upset than I actually am to divert an argument or to get attention.

I can make someone feel anxious so that they will act in a particular way.  

I can give someone the silent treatment until they do it.

I can play stupid to get my way.

I can act helpless to get my way.

I can throw temper tantrums to get my way.

I sometimes try to shame people into doing things.

I can play the martyr to get my way.

I sometimes tell fabrications to get something done.

I whine until they do it.    

I nag until they do it.                                                                                           

I would ingratiate myself with someone to get what I want.

I can put on a mask of exaggerated sincerity.

I can turn on the charm to get my way.

I love to flirt.

I would cry in front of my family, friends or colleagues, if I thought this was the only way to get them to listen to me.

I can act depressed.

I can act suicidal.

This is a very truncated list of the hundreds of manipulative behaviours that people use on a daily basis. Manipulation is an insidious process that can seep into and infect our closest relationships – with our spouses and our children, our romantic partners and our friends, our colleagues and associates, even our spiritual advisor or our therapist! The goal is the same: to get the other person to do what (s)he might not have chosen to do of her or his own will, by using methods that are artful, unfair, dishonest, insidious, even vicious. It is, in fact, tantamount to waging psychological warfare on another person.

Sometimes, the manipulation can be deliberate, with the manipulator fully aware of what he is doing: For example, the husband who’s in a rage with his wife may try to make her feel frightened by driving recklessly with the children in the car. At other times, the manipulator is acting out of his own fear, insecurity or other emotional needs and may not be fully aware of the manipulativeness of his behaviour. This is the case, for instance, when children manipulate. During this year’s monsoon, a 7-year-old girl whose estranged parents are attempting a reconciliation, spent the best part of a day out in heavy rain without protection so that she would fall sick enough that they would have to care for her – together. As an act of desperation, it pulls at our heartstrings – but it was also manipulation.

Modus Operandi

The head games that manipulators play are legion. Some use the carrot, some the stick, some a combination of both. The carrot approach also goes under the umbrella title of “positive reinforcement”. The manipulator offers inducements in an attempt to get someone to do something that he wants. Here’s a closer look at how some of these enticements are put to work:

» Flattery. When the manipulator is gauche and inexperienced, flattery can be such a transparent sucking-up act, it can make you roll your eyes. (“Great tie, boss”; “Your talk re-defined my entire understanding of human nature, prof”; “You’re so beautiful, you made me forget my pick-up line”).

Heal Thy Self Photo: Getty Images

But flattery can be more urbane, more circuitous, less overtly gratuitous – and therefore not easily seen for what it is. One of the most skilful forms of flattery, it has been said, is to let a person talk on, and be (or fake being) an attentive listener. Again, many people who claim to dislike flattery may yet be flattered, indirectly, by well-seasoned abuse and ridicule of their rivals. And, perhaps the ultimate form of flattery: being told that you are the kind of person who can’t be taken in by flattery.

Most people believe they have the intellect and the judgement to know when they are being flattered, and to sidestep this manipulation. You’d be amazed at what the research actually shows: Even those who recognize flattery for what it is, are still susceptible to being influenced by it. In other words, flattery works!

What gives here? The researchers speculate that the susceptibility to flattery stems from a simple desire among us humans to feel good about ourselves. Since people, it seems, intuitively put themselves in the best light, it is hardly surprising that we are so receptive to messages that reinforce our rosy-eyed view of ourselves. We may dismiss it as soft-soaping when an ad tells us “Because you’re worth it”, but deep down we’re thinking, “You know what?  I am worth it”.

The bottom-line: We love flattery because it shows that we are of consequence enough to be courted. Whoever coined the idiom, “Flattery will get you nowhere”, seems to have got it wrong. Adroit manipulators know this: Flattery will get you – almost – anywhere.

» The Rule Of Reciprocation. The way this rule works is, “If someone does you a favour, you owe him a favour in return". This is a “pre-installed” rule, which means you learned it when you were a child. A very powerful belief that almost no one questions. And of course, it can be used to manipulate people:

Heal Thy Self Photo: Getty Images

“Would you like to try this free sample?”

“Well… okay…” (It’s not polite to decline, right?)

And then, “Would you like to buy one?”

How many people who have tried a free sample have then been able to walk away from that request to “buy one”? As a sales approach, the rule of reciprocity works much more dependably than an upfront, honest approach such as, “Would you like to buy this over-priced box of muesli?”

» Bribery. In a country that ranks high on the global corruption meter, there’s so much of finger-pointing at bureaucratic babus, corporate palm-greasers and venal politicians, it becomes easy to overlook the rampant manipulative bribery that goes on in our homes, schools and workplaces. The early years of a child’s upbringing are rife with bribery by parents and other care-givers, although these adults would cringe from tagging it with that awful name. But, scratch the surface a little and here’s the kind of thing you’ll get:

If you’re a good girl, Sweetie, Santa will bring you the doll-house you want. For Santa, read Daddy, and the implied bribery becomes patent.

And gets reinforced when Sweetie works up a tantrum at the mall, and her parent, craving peace at any price, buys her another new toy.

And, right through the growing years, the child keeps getting these messages that payola and plugola are just fine ways to get what you want. She sees mama give her class teacher a crepe silk sari to make sure her daughter will be given a good role in the school play. She sees dad slip a note to the steward in a restaurant in order to get them good places and prompt service. She sees that you can violate the helmet or the seat-belt rule if you give the cop a little something. As the child grows up, one lesson that’s well-learned is this: bribery is the fastest way to get your way.

There are several other carrots that manipulators blandish. Among them: Phony sympathy (crocodile tears); Effusive apologizing; Approval; Public recognition; Seduction.

The “sticks” that manipulators employ are even more wide-ranging. Here are just a few:

» Verbal Abuse. One of my young clients talked about how she’d been labelled a “slut” during her pubertal years in school. “May be because I developed early and lots of guys tried to flirt with me at a time when many of the other girls had not yet matured. The guys were hitting on me all the time. This one guy, he was older than me and very good-looking, he took me out once. The next day everyone was saying I had slept with him. What really happened was that he had tried to sexually assault me, and I had to fight him off. But he started a rumour that I wanted it so no one would know what he had done. Because he was hot and popular, everyone believed him. I lost all my girlfriends, they called me ‘dirty’, and a ‘slut’, though the fact was, I was still a virgin. And the other guys came on to me even more than before. I felt so depressed, sometimes I felt suicidal. “

Heal Thy Self Photo: Getty Images

Labelling is one kind of verbal aggression that manipulators use. There are others: the use of foul and degrading language, blaming the victim, silencing a person’s voice in arguments or in decision-making, and showing unceasing contempt or disregard for her opinions (“You don’t know what you’re talking about”). Like other forms of manipulation, verbal abuse is used to control the victim’s behaviour.

» Lying. Any manipulator worth the name never lets a small thing like the truth get in his way. Manipulators often lie by withholding a significant amount of the truth from you or by distorting the truth. They are adept at avoiding a direct answer to a direct question. Some of them are psychopaths who will lie chronically, pathologically and with clever subtlety.

Heal Thy Self Photo: Getty Images

You may think you have very good B.S. antenna and can spot a story a mile away. But according to Seth Godin, marketing guru and best-selling author of “All Marketers Tell Stories”, people want to be told stories. More specifically, they want to be told stories that fit their world views, make them feel good, and most importantly, make them think and feel that they are doing exactly the right thing by buying the storyteller’s product. Now how difficult is it for a good, manipulative, story-telling marketer to give them what they want?

» Emotional Blackmail. This is a whole big bag of tricks, a powerful form of manipulation in which people close to us play on our emotions to control us to their advantage. The manipulator gets his way by eliciting feelings of shame, guilt, personal inadequacy or self-hatred in his victim. At the core of his manipulation is this message: If you don't behave the way I want you to, you’re going to feel bad about it.

Heal Thy Self Photo: Getty Images

Emotional blackmailers know how much we value our relationship with them. They know our vulnerabilities. Often, they know our deepest secrets. And no matter how much they care about us, when they fear they won’t get their way, they use this intimate knowledge to shape the threats that give them what they want: our compliance. For example, if you pride yourself on being generous and caring, the blackmailer might accuse you of being selfish or inconsiderate if you don't accede to his wishes.

Emotional blackmail is typified by verbalizations like, “If you’re really my friend, you would do this…” “If you really loved me, you would not do that…” “Don’t you care about the company?” The ground rules that allow for healthy give-and-take simply go out the window.

Your Resistance Movement

Okay, you’ve got the picture. Now how do you crack these bad eggs?

First, the don’ts:

Heal Thy Self Photo: Getty Images

» Do not think you are invulnerable to being manipulated. Everybody is vulnerable, though some people are more vulnerable than others. In fact, our very assurance that we won’t get taken actually makes us more susceptible to persuasion because we fail to take precautions. This has been called “the illusion of invulnerability”. If you believe you’re invulnerable, it’s worth remembering that the most effective persuaders are the least obvious. We can easily guard ourselves against the fast talkers, the pushy salespeople, and the blustering politicians, but it’s the nice guy who gets through to us.

» Do not think you can out-manipulate a skilled manipulator; do not even try. It would be as futile as re-arranging the deck chairs on the Titanic would have been. As a tactic, it will probably backfire. The manipulator will likely turn right around and accuse you of using tactics that are manipulative and subversive and could sabotage productivity – or derail the marriage. He will suggest that you need help, that you should see a psychiatrist, or that you come from a dysfunctional family – all of which are, of course, just more manipulative mind games.

» Do not think you can talk the manipulator out of his game-playing. Do not kid yourself that he will decide to change his ways if only he had an aha moment of insight. The habitual manipulator has a pathological need to control others. Some manipulators act out of their own fear, insecurity or other emotional drives – and shining too bright a light on their motives will tend to make them anxious, defensive and often angry.

» Do not imagine you can appeal to his feelings, either. It would be a futile exercise to point out that his tactics are unfair or that you feel unhappy with the way the relationship is going. Chronic manipulators do not care about your feelings – just their own interests and goals, and if they can advance them only at your expense, then that’s what they’ll do.

» Don’t run away. Moving to a different college or changing your job isn't the solution. All you’ll get is a change of environment, not a change of mindset – which is what you need to fight the manipulator.

And the do’s:

» Rule Number 1 if you think you’re up against a manipulator is: Trust your gut. Trust your senses. Always pay attention to what the manipulator does, not what (s)he says. Manipulators often say they have your own interests at heart. “I’m doing this because I care for you”; “I’m telling you what to do because it is my responsibility.” Good lip service is part of the manipulator’s tactics. Know that when your intuition tells you’re being taken advantage of by excuses or rationalizations it’s probably right on.

» Boldly take your troubles directly to their source. Manipulators we will always have in our midst. But it is you who hold the key to enabling the manipulator to succeed with you – or not. It’s up to you to change the power balance of the relationship, to stop rewarding the manipulator by cooperating, complying, pleasing, acquiescing, apologizing or responding to intimidation or threats. When you stop giving the manipulator what he wants – power and control – you set the wheels of change in motion.

» To change the power balance, you need to first identify and then strengthen those areas of your personality that set you up as a soft target or a “mark” for the manipulator. Which brings us back full circle to those “vulnerability points”, your hot buttons. You need to know your weak spots – whether it is an addiction to approval, the “disease to please”, or low self-reliance – because these soft marks are what the manipulator comes looking for.

» How do you go about building your resistance movement? On your own, it is an uphill journey because these vulnerabilities are rooted in low self-esteem. There are many paths to building self-esteem, but a good therapist can get you there faster.  

(The author is a former editor of 'Health & Nutrition' magazine, and now works as a counseling therapist)

The opinions expressed here do not reflect those of Malayala Manorama. Legal action under the IT Act will be taken against those making derogatory and obscene statements.

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