Are you a people pleaser? To a certain extent, there's nothing wrong with that. We've all done things for others we didn't really feel like doing, right? For example, taken on extra work to help out a co-worker, canceled a night out with friends because our spouse didn't feel like going, or succumbed to another Sunday dinner at our parents' house, even though we swore last weekend would be our last overcooked brisket for a while.
It's natural to want to please. It makes us feel good when we give without expecting anything in return; the quintessential "pat on the back."
But what happens when we have a moment of clarity and realize that we've crossed that thin line? That we find ourselves becoming involved, or perhaps knee deep already, in a relationship that does nothing but suck the life out of us while giving nothing in return? Well, you're either involved with a vampire (which seems to be in vogue these days) or you're tangled in the web of a manipulator. Either way, you might be in trouble.
Manipulation according to the dictionary is: exerting shrewd or devious influence, especially for one's own advantage. Manipulators can only survive by constantly inflating their own ego. And to do so, they must fill themselves up with a sense of dominance by exerting power over someone who can be easily influenced.
What's interesting about manipulation is that we see it happening from early childhood all the way through adulthood. It's common on school playgrounds, though at this stage we call it peer pressure. In college settings, we see it in some fraternities, when young people are manipulated into engaging in degrading or demeaning acts just for the sake of belonging. And by the time we are adults, we can find it in any number of work relationships - or even in our own families.
So what qualities in personality make you an easy target? There are quite a few, but the one I encounter the most in my practice is the need for approval. At the core of this need is a disproportionate fear of rejection, abandonment or criticism. The manipulator feeds on this need, creating a dependence. By giving the victim what they crave and then threatening to take it away, they create a similar dynamic to that of a junkie and a dealer.
Now maybe that's a dark analogy to use, but the truth is, this habit can be just as hard to break as a drug addiction. I'm sure that if you think hard enough, you've witnessed these types of dynamics, leaving you perplexed as to why a person remains in such a relationship. It's actually much more prevalent than you might think.
Depression or anxiety are common byproducts of manipulation, eventually taking a toll on a person's emotions and well-being. But it's these symptoms that will hopefully motivate a person to seek help.
You might not be surprised to hear that in all the years I've been practicing, I've never had a manipulator come in asking for help on how to stop this controlling habit. It's always the receiver, or victim, that musters up the courage to ask for help. And more often than not, they are unaware of the effect the manipulator is having on them.
One tell-tale sign is when a client tells me they're keeping the therapy a secret. That they are looking for ways to become a better partner, or a more caring daughter or a more efficient employee, to name a few. With couples, another sign is when a partner goes out of their way to say things like, " I'm here for you - I want to help you get better," taking no ownership or responsibility for their contribution to the crisis at hand.
I wish there was a quick fix to this type of relationship. Breaking the cycle of manipulation is extremely hard. It involves changing personality traits which are deeply entrenched and often too scary to confront. But above all, what we need when we find ourselves in this position, is courage. The courage to confront our fears. The courage to cut the strings and find our freedom. And if things don't get better, the courage to walk away.