Whether we get stuck in offenses with “irregular people,” --those who don't respect us enough for some reason -- or those who are intentionally malicious towards us, we usually end up struggling with some type of manipulative behavior. Christians in particular usually do not prepare ourselves to resist manipulation on a personal level, and we don't really learn much about it in the general sense, either. We tend to see everything in terms of doctrine and fail to teach one another about how powerful manipulation can be in our interactions with one another socially. Sadly, some of us are taught that we have a duty to submit to manipulation without recourse because all Christians are supposed to “seem nice.” Some of us fall for it because we feel so badly about ourselves that we don't believe that we have the power or the right to stand against it. False and malignant beliefs about ourselves and how we fit into the world make manipulation that much easier for others who seek to take advantage of our goodness and our best hopes. Myths that Christians should always be pushovers and sweetly agreeable make this an even bigger problem within Christian circles.
But you need not be a Christian to get caught up in a relationship with a manipulator – people who control others through emotional blackmail, superiority, insult, inappropriate poor opinions of others, and especially the mind games. These kinds of toxic relationships erode our sense of worth, our good beliefs about ourselves, and we can lose healthy perspective when we encounter offenses within these relationships. That loss of perspective can inhibit our ability to respond well to offenses, interfering with our ability to forgive.
Avoiding Offenses Before they Occur
One way of avoiding this kind of tension in relationships comes through avoiding offenses in the first place. But how does one go about becoming more “offense resistant.” We've discussed realism and more realistic ideas about ourselves and our relationships as one primary way. If we don't expect unreasonable things from people, we reduce the likelihood that we will get offended. But how do we change our expectations, in addition to examining our thoughts, measuring them by the Word of God? We can make ourselves “hard targets” for manipulators, thus avoiding the offenses that follow from exploitation.
The Best Offense is a Good Defense
Obviously, we get offended by all of the people in our lives at some point or another, especially those with whom we spend the most time, including our family. But I think that Robert Hare in Without Conscience offers us some good advice on this subject, even though his book discusses psychopaths/sociopaths. Those who wish to avoid manipulation should be not only aware of the behavior of others, but perhaps their greatest means of resisting manipulation comes through self-awareness and an honest assessment of natural weaknesses in personality and habit.
Know yourself. Psychopaths are skilled at detecting and ruthlessly exploiting your weak spots, at finding the right buttons to press. Your best defense is to understand what your weak spots are and to be extremely wary of anyone who zeros in on them. Judge such people more critically than you do those who do not seem to be aware of, or catering to, your vulnerabilities (pg 212).
Likewise, George Simon tells us in his book, In Sheep's Clothing: Understanding and Dealing With Manipulative People, that no one can interact with others in a healthy way if they approach the relationship from a “one down” position, assuming a place of lower esteem. When dealing with a manipulator, the interaction is not just unhealthy but can also be quite harmful to the person being manipulated. To avoid exploitation, Simon lists three primary ways of “redefining terms” with a manipulator. “Becoming a better judge of character” considers the manipulator himself and the ways in which they operate, much like the theme of the recent posts on this blog in terms of less-than-ideal forgiveness. He also offers the same advice as Sandra Wilson's radical realism by noting that developing realistic expectations by way of “letting go of harmful misconceptions” as a means of changing the power dynamic in a manipulative relationship.
Shifting the Balance of Power through Self-Awareness
But he offers the sage advice of knowing oneself as the third means by which a person can shift the balance of power back into a more healthy and equitable place for all involved in a disagreement. Part of a manipulator's power rests in their knowledge of their “mark's” weaknesses. By paying full attention and respect to one's own limitations, you can “level the playing field” somewhat which will help you make better decisions. As a potent means of self empowerment, Simon suggests that most people fall prey to manipulation through naivete, over-conscientiousness, low self-confidence, over-intellectualization, and emotional dependency. He reminds the reader that the best place to put one's effort should be in their strengths. In this case, knowing oneself can become a strength which is right in line with any person's greatest strength: that of their own behavior.
The element of over-intellectualization that Simon includes in his list can be quite complex. Many people can avoid their own emotions by perceiving all social interactions as a matter of logic, just because they are uncomfortable with their own emotions. In this way, over-intellectualization could be stated as what I would call a lack of emotional self-awareness. Feelings are as much a part or even more of a part of an offense, but many people can handle them as matters of cold logic. Also, perfectionists can also get caught up in the “paralysis of analysis” through over-intellectualization about the right thing to do in a given conflict. Every one of these factors can give a manipulator a powerful foothold in a conflict which they can use to exploit others.
Fears and Desires
Awareness and management of weaknesses helps to protect a person from manipulation, but one must also become mindful of both desires and fears. A good manipulator can smell both desire and fear like a shark can detect blood in the water, something that drives the predator to its prey. The very skilled manipulator can hold out the promise of something good to you that will solve many problems for you, allowing you a means of obtaining that which you want more than anything else. For some, desire to possess something that they deeply desire presents an area of vulnerability to many. And for others who struggle with fears, the manipulator may offer a means by which those fears and threats can be avoided. These promises become much like bait by which the manipulator hooks their prey.
When you face your fears and your desires and treat them honestly, you “gain an edge” over the manipulator. The best of manipulators exploit others without being noticed to gain influence which they use as leverage to get what they want. By self awareness concerning weaknesses as well as desire or a tendency to avoid certain experiences, you can prevent the manipulator from establishing sway over you.
Tools to Help You Identify Your Weak Areas
I often recommend Harriet Braiker's book, Who's Pulling Your Strings, for a host of reasons. It includes a very concise review of the characteristics of a manipulator as well as how the manipulator perceives the world and how they think. Many excerpts along those lines appear here at UnderMuchGrace.com. The book also includes specific strategies about how to confront and stand one's ground with a manipulator, too. But what might be the most valuable element of the book includes it's set of self-assessment tests to help the reader determine their own weaknesses – those which are very similar to the list offered to us in Simon's book.
Some people who Braiker identifies as “soft targets” for manipulation make the manipulator's job very easy. All human beings are imperfect, therefore all human beings experience some degree of shame or disappointment over their inadequacies. People who are “soft targets” for manipulation tend to have more shame and a more ambiguous sense of self, and these characteristics give manipulators an even greater foothold and opportunity than they have with people who are “hard targets.” Braiker lists personal tendencies that are associated with “soft targets” for manipulation. Expanding upon her list and also drawing on some of the literature from the anti-cult movement, those tendencies can include but are not limited to people pleasing tendencies, approval/acceptance seeking imperatives, poor ability to tolerate negative emotion, difficulty with ambiguity, lack of assertiveness, blurry sense of identity (what one might call problems with boundaries), low self-reliance, and external locus of control (sense of peace and worth derived from performance and approval – those things external to the self). The concept of locus of control is discussed in this post as it relates to forgiveness, while this post talks about how an unhealthy locus of control can develop.
But the author doesn't leave the reader to despair over their faults, resigning them to the knowledge that they're easy prey. She gives readers strategies to also build up and shore up their weak points. I think that it's my favorite place to have people start to develop this kind of self-awareness because her book encompasses such a broad range of personal traits. Who's Pulling Your Strings can be a great tool to help those who are just beginning to learn about how to protect and defend themselves when negotiating forgiveness after they've been offended by a chronic manipulator. I consider it to be essential reading for understanding manipulation in general, the exploitation that takes place in spiritual abuse, a tool for understanding how manipulators think, as well as a tool for resisting this kind of undue influence. They all help to transform a “soft target” into a hard one, a tool to help a person learn how to balance self-love with love and concern for others in both a healthy and a Biblical way.
One more post on forgiveness that
doesn't go according to the ideal,
and then on to ideas about how to foster trust
in order to encourage forgiveness and to help us
in the process of repentance