Let’s Talk About… Manipulation

By Jeremy Godwin

Welcome to Let’s Talk About Mental Health, the weekly podcast full of simple ideas for better mental health by Jeremy Godwin. Each episode focuses on practical and simple things that you can do every single day to improve and maintain your mental health and wellbeing, based on quality research.

This is Episode 56 and this week I’m talking about manipulation. I’ll be discussing what manipulation is (including gaslighting), why it can have a negative impact on your mental health, and how to address it for the sake of your wellbeing. So, let’s talk about mental health!

Listen to the podcast episode now in the Spotify player below (or using your preferred podcast service; see below for links) or continue reading for the article/transcript version.

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FIVE-POINT EPISODE SUMMARY
  • Manipulation can sometimes happen in both our personal and professional relationships without us even realising it.
  • Being manipulated can cause all sorts of issues like having trouble trusting people and even doubting yourself and your abilities , and it can do long-term damage.
  • When it becomes an issue is when someone tries to coerce you to do something that you don’t want to do or that isn’t in your best interest; that is where manipulation becomes a force for negativity and it can have a damaging effect on your mental health
  • The reason why most people manipulate others is for control and power, or to achieve a specific outcome that meets their wants and needs.
  • Addressing instances of manipulation assertively, as well as setting and maintaining clear boundaries, is vital to ensure that you look after your mental health and wellbeing.

Hello and welcome to Episode 56, and thanks for joining me! Let’s dive into this week’s topic, which is all about manipulation…

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Introduction

I’m sure I’m not the only one who has been on the receiving end of manipulation in the past, and often it can happen in both our personal and professional relationships without us even realising it. If you’ve been on the receiving end of being manipulated it can cause all sorts of issues like having trouble trusting people and even doubting yourself and your abilities. Because it’s something that can potentially happen in our closest relationships, such as with our partner, family or friends, it’s worthwhile having a chat about how to spot the signs and what to do if you suspect that you’re being manipulated — and so that’s what I’m exploring this week. 

Just a heads-up that next week I’ll be looking at emotions, and I’ll cover off on what’s coming up in that episode at the end of this one so make sure you listen all the way to the end.

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What is manipulation?

Manipulation can be described as when someone does or says something in order to try and change the behaviour or perception of another person or group of people. We see this happen a lot on a social scale, such as when governments use propaganda to try and enforce a particular set of beliefs or way of behaving or when individuals try to convince the public of a particular event or situation without any actual evidence (something that we’re seeing happening more and more lately thanks to social media, and of course the more extreme elements of political and social life which seem to have much more of a platform now than in the past).

On a more personal level, manipulation can happen in our individual relationships and it’s not always negative; think about a time when someone has had a positive influence on you: that is actually a form of manipulation, but where it’s being used for harmless and helpful means. When it becomes an issue is when someone tries to coerce you to do something that you don’t want to do or that isn’t in your best interest; that is where manipulation becomes a force for negativity and it can have a damaging effect on your mental health. Think of it this way: influencing involves having positive intentions towards the other person, while manipulating involves negative intentions.

The thing is that we can all do it to some extent and sometimes we may not even realise we’re doing it; when we tell someone what they want to hear or what we want them to hear rather than the actual truth, it’s a form of manipulation because we’re trying to control that person’s opinion of us or they way they perceive us in that moment. We also do it in our closest relationships with partners, family and friends, where we might say or do something to try and have them respond in a particular way — sometimes that’s simply because our needs aren’t being met in that moment, while at other times it could be more about trying to make them behave in a specific way in order to satisfy our wants. 

The most common example is probably how we react when we get into an argument with someone we care about; the different ways that we react (like yelling or sulking or whatever) will likely have an effect on how the other person reacts, and so often we can find ourselves trying to manipulate the other person whether or not we’re even aware of what we’re doing. I just did it this morning. I was so annoyed at my partner for talking over me repeatedly while we were in the car together that I snapped, and it took a minute or two to calm myself down (in case I haven’t mentioned before, I fully acknowledge the fact that I’m prone to being reactive when I’m angry or frustrated, and I’m continuing to work really hard on being able to hit the pause button so that I can calm down and then respond in a more thoughtful and rational way… the thing is that just because I talk about this stuff all the time that certainly doesn’t mean I get it right all of the time and I am a very long way from being perfect! Anyway…). 

Every time you give someone the silent treatment or when you nag at them or yell at a loved one, it’s a form of manipulation because you’re modifying your behaviour in order to try and make the other person change theirs (now whether or not that’s deliberate or subconscious and whether or not it actually works is irrelevant, it’s still an attempt to sway another person to do or say what you want them to… which can potentially be a negative thing if it happens repeatedly as a means of controlling another person). Like I said, we all do it at some point or another so the important thing to be aware of is that when it happens a lot it can become chronic manipulation which can have long-term damaging effects on your relationships as well as your self-esteem (and the other person’s self-esteem).

So I guess the main point I’m making here is that if you find yourself doing these sorts of things, you need to really think about whether or not it’s a healthy choice; there’s a massive difference between influencing and manipulating. Now, the bulk of the conversation today is going to be about feeling that you’re being manipulated by other people, but it would be remiss of me not to have an honest conversation up-front because the reality is that not many of us are completely innocent when it comes to these types of behaviours. Like all things, it’s about being aware of what you’re doing… and if the intention is to help someone in a healthy way and they are happy to receive that help then it’s great [and] that’s a positive influence, but if not then it’s negative and that’s where it can become manipulation. It’s an important distinction to make and be clear on, because for the bulk of this episode I’ll be talking about the negative side of being manipulated by other people along with things you can do to ensure you’re not deliberately or accidentally manipulating other people… because as I often say on this show: how we treat others has a direct impact on how they treat us. Can I just say though that that does not mean  that if you are being manipulated by someone that you have been manipulating them; let me be very clear and say that is not at all what I am covering off in this point. My main point here is that we just need to be conscious of how we’re acting as well, rather than it just being a focus on the external because we need to take responsibility for our own internal behaviours [as well]. So we’ll be talking about both… it’s two kind-of different subjects, but we’ll be talking about them side-by-side. 

Now, speaking of being manipulated by others… at the start of the episode I mentioned a very specific form of manipulation which has become quite well-known in recent years: gaslighting (it’s even been the subject of a recent song by US country pop band The Chicks). According to Healthline (link in transcript https://www.healthline.com/health/gaslighting), “Gaslighting is a form of emotional abuse that’s seen in abusive relationships. It’s the act of manipulating a person by forcing them to question their thoughts, memories, and the events occurring around them. A victim of gaslighting can be pushed so far that they question their own sanity… Gaslighting, whether intentional or not, is a form of manipulation. Gaslighting can happen in many types of relationships, including those with bosses, friends, and parents. But one of the most devastating forms of gaslighting is when it occurs in a relationship between a couple.”

Moving on to the next part of today’s conversation, normally I would jump now into why this topic or why focusing on this topic is important for mental health but because we’re talking about being manipulated by other people as a fairly large amount of today’s conversation, I’m actually going to look at first why do people manipulate others.

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Why do people manipulate others?

The reason why most people manipulate others is for control and power, or to achieve a specific outcome that meets their wants and needs. Some people do it for attention, some do it for power, some do it to achieve a specific agenda or to undermine another person… there are a huge number of different reasons why people manipulate others. Some people do it deliberately while others may not even be aware they’re doing it; a common example of that is when one or both of your parents tries to change your behaviour in a particular way — they may believe they’re acting out of love and the desire to protect you, but the result is manipulation in the form of making you feel guilty for not doing as they wish or making you feel bad about a life decision you’ve made. This kind of stuff is one of the things I talked about back in the Boundaries episode (Episode 53) and the Family episode (Episode 19), and as I said back then it’s always your choice whether or not to engage when this kind of stuff happens (and I’ll revisit that in a little bit). The thing to be aware of here is that being a relative doesn’t automatically give anyone special permission to treat you in a manipulative way.

Another piece around why people manipulate is often rooted in a whole bunch of stuff like the way they were brought up, their emotional baggage, their level of mental wellbeing, their level of self-awareness, and some really fundamental emotional drivers like fear and security. Regardless of whether or not they are aware of what they’re doing, the result is the same and quite frankly ignorance is never an excuse to treat another person poorly. It’s why I’m so vocal about how important it is to be assertive (the subject of Episode 45) and why you absolutely should not put up with shit from other people, which you do by setting clear boundaries and sticking to them (but I’ll come back to that a little bit later).

There are also a number of personality disorders which can commonly involve manipulative behaviours, such as borderline personality disorder [or BPD] and narcissistic personality disorder [or NPD]; like anything there are lots of different ways it can manifest and it may not be the same for every single person with these specific disorders. One example of why this type of behaviour is often found in people diagnosed with those disorders is noted in an article by GoodTherapy (link in transcript https://www.goodtherapy.org/blog/psychpedia/manipulation):

“For many with BPD, manipulation may be a means of meeting their emotional needs or obtaining validation, and it often occurs when the person with BPD feels insecure or abandoned. As many people with BPD have witnessed or experienced abuse, manipulation may have developed as a coping mechanism to get needs met indirectly… Individuals with narcissistic personality (NPD) may have different reasons for engaging in manipulative behavior. As those with NPD may have difficulty forming close relationships, they may resort to manipulation in order to “keep” their partner in the relationship. Characteristics of narcissistic manipulation may include shaming, blaming, playing the “victim,” control issues, and gaslighting.”

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Why is it important to be aware of and address manipulative behaviours for the sake of your mental health and wellbeing?

Manipulation can have a damaging effect on your mental health and wellbeing. According to that same article I mentioned before from GoodTherapy (and the link for this is in the transcript):

“If unaddressed, manipulation can lead to poor mental health outcomes for those who are manipulated. Chronic manipulation in close relationships may also be a sign emotional abuse is taking place, which in some cases, can have a similar effect to trauma—particularly when the victim of manipulation is made to feel guilty or ashamed.

Victims of chronic manipulation may:

  • Feel depressed
  • Develop anxiety
  • Develop unhealthy coping patterns
  • Constantly try to please the manipulative person
  • Lie about their feelings
  • Put another person’s needs before their own
  • Find it difficult to trust others”

Source: https://www.goodtherapy.org/blog/psychpedia/manipulation  

Let’s be very clear about this: chronic manipulation, including gaslighting, is a form of emotional abuse, which can leave very deep wounds that take a lot of time and a hell of a lot of work to heal. It completely undermines your self-confidence, self-esteem and even your self-respect, and in cases of serious abuse it can put you in a dangerous position or force you to make unhealthy choices. 

Some of the common signs of manipulation include:

  • Lies and dishonest behaviour
  • Threats
  • Withholding information
  • Using sex or affection as a tool to achieve specific outcomes (or deliberately withholding it as a tool to get their own way)
  • Verbal abuse
  • Isolating someone from their friends or family 
  • Feigning ignorance or innocence, but then repeating the same behaviours
  • Making you feel guilty about not doing or saying what they want 

I could spend hours here talking about the different signs of manipulation but instead I will put a link in the transcript to an article from PsychCentral called ‘How to Spot Manipulation’ which is a fairly quick read and may be useful if you think you might be on the receiving end of manipulative or controlling behaviour but would like a bit more clarity first on some of the common forms it can take (find it here: https://psychcentral.com/lib/how-to-spot-manipulation/), plus another one from Psychology Today titled ‘14 Signs of Psychological and Emotional Manipulation’ (find it here: https://www.psychologytoday.com/au/blog/communication-success/201510/14-signs-psychological-and-emotional-manipulation). 

Revisiting that article on gaslighting which I mentioned earlier (published by Healthline and available at https://www.healthline.com/health/gaslighting), 

“Signs that you are a victim of gaslighting include…

  • feeling like everything you do is wrong
  • always thinking it’s your fault when things go wrong
  • often questioning whether your response to your partner is appropriate (e.g., wondering if you were too unreasonable or not loving enough)
  • avoiding giving information to friends or family members to avoid confrontation about your partner
  • feeling isolated from friends and family
  • feeling hopeless and taking little or no pleasure in activities you used to enjoy”

You might experience the person saying things to you that they later deny having said, or hiding things from you or claiming people are talking about you when they’re not… in general it’s about making you doubt yourself in order to control you. And so that’s why being aware of these behaviours (and also doing something about it) is so important for your mental health and wellbeing, because of the long-lasting damage these types of behaviours can have on you.

So with all of that in mind, let’s get into the how-to part of this week’s episode…

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How to tackle manipulation

So I’m going to cover two different things here: first, how to ensure you’re not deliberately or accidentally manipulating someone, and then second, what to do if you’re being manipulated or that you might be being manipulated by someone. 

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How to ensure you’re not deliberately or accidentally manipulating someone:

Let me say this as simply as I possibly can: don’t manipulate other people. You’re responsible for your words and actions, and so trying to control another person or make them do what you want when it isn’t in their best interests is just plain wrong (but you kinda don’t need me to tell you that). 

You don’t get a free pass because you’re in love or because it’s a family member or long-term friend… manipulating other people is unkind and it can do real harm, and something I talk about all the time on this show is that our goal should be to do no harm and be kind to both ourselves or others, along with giving more than we take. 

I think the simplest way to do this is to stop and reflect in each situation, and to consider your intentions. If your intentions are good (i.e. If you are trying to help but you also understand and accept that it’s up to the other person whether or not they accept your help), then great! But if your intention is to get your own way or control the other person, then I think deep down you have to know that isn’t a fair and decent thing to do… and how you treat other people will have a direct effect on how they treat you, so choose to do no harm, be kind and give more than you take. 

Focusing on building and maintaining your self-awareness is vital because it helps you to be more honest with yourself about what you might need to focus on in order to be the best version of yourself possible (and just FYI self-awareness is a topic that I’ll be covering in more detail early next year in its own episode). If being self-aware and modifying your behaviour is a challenge for you then it’s important to do something about it; find a counsellor or therapist who you feel comfortable with (which might take a few attempts, so be patient) and work with them to dig into what’s going on so that you can address the root cause or causes.

OK, so now let’s talk about… 

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What to do if you’re being manipulated or suspect you’re being manipulated by another person: 

First, reflect and listen to your instincts. Regular listeners will know I love reflection (which I explored in detail back in Episode 12, so check that out) and it’s a way of sitting and looking at things in a non-judgmental and more objective manner than you might if you just react to the emotions you might be feeling; emotions are usually a sign that there’s something that needs our attention, but if we just react to them without taking the time to consider why they’re happening then we can potentially end up making things more difficult for ourselves. The thing about a structured reflection exercise is that it makes you sit down and look at your feelings, and then begin the process of digging into them layer by layer in order to better understand what sits deep down in your core so that you can address that; like I often say on this show, it’s about treating the root cause rather than just the symptom. If you’re feeling like you’re being manipulated, dig into that feeling and find out what’s going on and what issues might be lurking under the surface.

Next, confront the person in a calm and objective way. This isn’t about having a screaming fit or creating a drama (you’re not on the Real Housewives…); instead, it’s about having a rational conversation. Explain what it is that you’ve noticed happening (for example, “I feel that often I need to justify my decisions to you”). Now, it’s up to you whether or not you want to say how the behaviour or action has made you feel (and of course counsellors and therapists often tend to encourage you to speak your truth in this way, because it’s about encouraging you to take back your control and power) however in the case of manipulative people you may find that these sorts of statements are used against you at a later date. My advice is this: by all means share your feelings the first time that you address the issue, but be aware that if you have to address it more than once then the time for explaining how you feel is over because that person knows exactly what they’re doing at that point; it’s that old saying, “Fool me once, shame on you… fool me twice, shame on me.” One piece of advice here in all of these interactions is to avoid absolute statements (like “you always do this” or “you never let me do that”) because they are like a red rag to a bull and will quite likely result in an argument, which is counterproductive. Your focus should be on a rational and calm discussion (or at least remaining that way yourself — you can’t control what the other person does or doesn’t do); if that means you need to remove yourself from the conversation if things become heated, then do so.

Next, set boundaries and stick to them. I talked about this extensively in Episode 53 so check that out for more, but in short the goal here is to state what you will and will not accept from them and then stick to it. That includes boundaries for yourself as well, such as committing to just not engaging the next time the person tries to manipulate or deciding that you will call out the behaviour when it is happening to stop it in its tracks. I tend to work on a ‘three-strikes and you’re out’ approach to boundaries however for bigger issues I’m very assertive in the sense of saying, “This is not acceptable” and then if it happens again there are consequences such as changing the nature of my relationship with that person. Maybe that’s just because my tolerance for bullshit has gone out the window over the past few years! You need to decide what works best for you and provided your intentions are to do no harm, be kind and give more than you take, you’re on the right track. You may also find the episode on assertiveness (Episode 45) to be quite helpful here, plus there’s a book by Dr Harriet B. Braiker (published in 2003) called ‘Who’s Pulling Your Strings?: How to Break the Cycle of Manipulation and Regain Control of Your Life’ which you may find useful, especially as it contains practical advice you can use to help you address these types of issues.

And then my final point here is that if the manipulative behaviour continues then walk away. You know, I often make the point in this show that we shouldn’t just stop talking to someone (because ghosting is bad) and if there are issues then we should try to work them out like rational and compassionate adults… but sometimes the other person just doesn’t want to cooperate, and if that’s the case then you are wasting your time and also potentially putting yourself in a vulnerable and even dangerous position, so cut the cord. There are far too many stories of people having their lives shattered by someone who manipulated them into a substance abuse issue or ruined their finances or completely isolated them from family and friends, and I know it can be tough to hear but if someone is manipulating you into doing things that are not healthy and they refuse to change their behaviour, then you need to walk away. That can be terrifying and of course every person’s situation is unique, so my advice here is to always put your overall health and wellbeing first in all things and if that means that you need to find support to get yourself out of a situation where you’re being manipulated then there are plenty of services that can help you — but take that next step. 

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Summary and Close-Out

Because when it comes to manipulation and mental health, what it all boils down to is this: You are in charge of what you do and don’t do in life, and when other people try to control you in order to achieve their own needs or wants it can have seriously negative effects on your wellbeing. Chronic manipulation, including gaslighting and other forms of manipulative behaviour, can do a lot of harm over time if not addressed, and the reality is that when this type of behaviour occurs repeatedly (especially when you tell the person to stop but they continue regardless), it is a form of emotional abuse. Regardless of the person’s relationship to you, nobody has the right to try and control your life, and so if you are being manipulated then you owe it to yourself to take back your power. 

Each week I like to finish up by sharing a quote about the week’s topic, and I encourage you to take a few moments to really reflect on it and consider what it means to you. This week’s quote is by an unknown author, and it is:

“If you allow people to make more withdrawals than deposits in your life, you will be out of balance and in the negative. Know when to close the account.” 

Unknown

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Next week I’ll be talking about emotions. We live with our emotions every day, but how often do we actually sit down and think about what’s driving them and what they might be trying to tell us? In next week’s episode I’ll be talking about what emotions are (and what they are not), why understanding your emotions is important for good mental health, and how to better manage your emotions.

I hope you’ll join me for that episode, which will be released in the morning of Monday 14 December in the Asia-Pacific region including Australia; the evening of Sunday 13 December in the UK, Ireland, Europe, Africa and the Middle East; and the afternoon of Sunday 13 December in the US, Canada, Central America and South America. 

Head over to letstalkaboutmentalhealth.com.au for past episodes (including audio links and full transcripts) and while you’re there join the Let’s Talk About Mental Health mailing list to have exclusive updates land in your inbox — those of you on my email list find out about new stuff at least a week before anybody else, so if you like this show then sign up at the website: letstalkaboutmentalhealth.com.au.

You can also find Let’s Talk About Mental Health on Instagram, Facebook and Pinterest as @ltamentalhealth, and discover additional content on the Let’s Talk About Mental Health YouTube channel (click here) — if you haven’t already subscribed to the YouTube channel please do as there will be a lot of extra content coming to that platform very soon.

Thank you very much for joining me today — look after yourself and make a conscious effort to share positivity and kindness in the world, because you get back what you put out. Take care and talk to you next time.

Jeremy 🙂

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Let’s Talk About Mental Health. © 2020 Jeremy Godwin.

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