Manipulative Behavior

By coincidence, I have just come out of a meeting on Dialectical Behavioral Therapy, and there was a little rustling of feathers around the idea of the therapist focusing on getting the client’s commitment to therapy and to stay safe, and its resemblence to manipulation. It appears that, not only do we not like being manipulated, we don’t like the thought of being manipulative ourselves.

There are some parts to manipulative behavior that I’m seeing as I think about these questions.

  • It crosses boundaries, that line where you feel, “That’s far enough. Why do you keep going further?”
  • It’s often (passive) aggressive, such that the person probably has the view, “I don’t mean to violate your boundaries. (Therefore I’m not.) Don’t be upset. (Or, what are you feeling upset for? You’re oversensitive.)”
    Also, the person doesn’t seem to be responding “normally” to your implicit cues that are saying, “Stop”.
  • It is covert. It crosses those boundaries but in very subtle, hard-to-notice ways. This fits with the person doing the behavior feeling like a) they’re not doing anything so bad and/or b) you’re overreacting.

For the person “receiving” the behavior:
The covertness fits with the feeling as though there’s no clear “target” to confront the person about, like being on a rowboat in a lake, and there’s something always out of the corner of your eye splashing water but you can’t get enough of a bead on it that you feel you can throw something at it or go diving in after it. Because the behavior is so “slippery”, you want to pin down and confront the person on their intention(!). But it’s hard to even identify the thing you’d confront them about. That is, if you were to choose a topic for that conversation, it might be vague, eg “just some feeling” you’ve been having.

Because it is vague, I think the course of action you’d take depends largely on your relationship, or the relationship you want with that person, is. Do you feel a clear, “Stop!”, coming from you and possibly resulting in distance with that person is that you want. Or do you want some mutual understanding and closeness to be the result i.e., do you want the person to understand the discomfort their behavior has caused you? do you want the other person to feel remorse or guilt that they’ve trespassed?

On the other side, that is, not wanting to be manipulative ourselves: Maybe it’s that we don’t want to be seen with suspicion and diminished trust. Or we want the other person to make (therefore be able to make) their own choices, without any sneaky, sophisticated maneuvering on our part. We want to believe in others’ autonomy. We want to feel that we will be received by the other person straightforwardly, not requiring any sophisticated maneuvering to get our input to be heard.

(To be continued, likely…)

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