With the current interest in mental health topics, a mental
health language has emerged with words such as
manipulation, boundaries, limits, rescuing, dependence, and
codependence. Many people are unclear what these words mean
when applied to relationships. I would like to bring some
clarity to one of these terms ' MANIPULATION ' and how it
relates to the other terms mentioned above.
Webster's New World Dictionary defines manipulation as:
'managing or controlling artfully or by shrewd use of
influence, often in an unfair or fraudulent way; to alter
or falsify for one's own purpose.'
In relationships, manipulation can be defined as:
any attempt to control, through coercion (overt or covert),
another person's thoughts, feelings or behaviors.
From this definition, manipulation would seem to have no
advantages. However, if you are codependent and defined by
others, there can be many advantages. When you allow others
to control your thoughts, feelings, behaviors, and make
decisions for you,
-- you do not have to think for yourself;
-- you can avoid taking risks and making difficult decision;
-- you can avoid taking a stand on controversial issues;
-- you can avoid feeling responsible for negative outcomes;
-- you get to blame others when things go wrong;
-- you can believe, when others tell you how to behave, what
to think, how to feel and what to decide, that you are
'being loved' because they 'want what is best for you';
-- you can avoid feeling separate and alone by avoiding conflict;
-- you can avoid the hard work of emotional growth and development.
Appreciating the advantages of not being manipulated is to
accept the hard work of living and interacting with others.
It is about being willing to grow and develop emotionally.
These advantages can be that,
-- you learn to know who you are, what you like, what you
think, and how you feel;
-- you learn to make difficult decisions;
-- you get to take credit for your decisions;
-- you learn to handle risks and uncertainty;
-- you learn to handle differences and conflicts;
-- you get to be in control of your life and know the
freedom of personal self-reliance;
-- you get to have an increased sense of self worth by
feeling competent and capable of taking responsibility for
your life and personal happiness.
Manipulation is usually attempted using power, unsolicited
helping, rescuing, guilt, weakness, and/or dependence, in
order to achieve a desired outcome. For example,
1) Power ' physical, verbal, intellectual intimidation or
threats, put-downs, belittling, withholding of things
needed or wanted. The goal is to be in a 'one up, I am
right and you are wrong' position;
2) Unsolicited helping/rescuing ' doing things for others
when they do not request it, want it, or need it; helping
others so they become indebted, obligated, and owe you. The
goal is to be in the 'after all I have done for you, and
now you owe me' position;
3) Guilt shaming, scolding, blaming others, attempting to
make others responsible, trying to collect for past favors.
The goal is to be in the 'it is all your fault,' or 'after
all I have done for you and now you treat me like this'
4) Weakness/dependence being (or threatening to become)
helpless, needy, fearful, sick, depressed, incompetent,
suicidal. The goal is to confuse want with need, with the
message "if you do not take care of me, something bad is
going to happen and it will be all your fault" position.
With manipulation, there is a physical and emotional
response, such as a heightened level of anxiety or
irritation, although it may not be perceived as such.
Manipulation feels like a struggle or contest, not free
communication. The reason is the manipulator is always
invested in the outcome of a situation.
This is where boundaries differ from manipulation.
Boundaries (or limits) are statements about our values and
where we stand on issues. True boundaries are not threats
or about getting the other person to do what we want. True
boundaries are not compromised by another's response.
For example, you discover that your spouse has lied to you
and has run up a large gambling debt. You discover the
problem by chance, get financial and professional help and
are back on track. However, there are new signs of trouble.
It is time for some hard decisions.
- What is your bottom line?
- What will you tolerate?
- What manipulative tactics do you use to change your
spouse's behavior? check up on them constantly, bird-dog
them, never let them be alone, hide the credit cards, lie
to your creditors, parents, and children' - How much
rescuing, guilt, power plays, threats, and protection do
you run on the gambler?
- At what point do you stop trying to change their behavior
and let them know your bottom line?
You cannot make them do or not do anything. You can only
let them know what your position is and what you are
willing to do to protect yourself and those you are
The problem with loud, threatening bottom lines, is that
they keep getting louder, more threatening, and redrawn
lower and lower.
We tend to determine what our position and action is by
what the other person does, instead of voicing our true
position and then responding accordingly. This is the time
for tough decisions and actions.
In another example, a friend asks you for a ride to work
because she is having car trouble. This is the time to
establish ground rules, such as, how long will she need
your help, pick up times, expense sharing, days off, etc. A
boundary or limit is set when you clearly let your friend
know what you are willing to do and not do.
Problems arise she is frequently not on time morning and
evening. Do you wait and be late, or do you leave her? Her
car has been in the shop six weeks because she cannot
afford to get it out. She has not offered to help with the
expense, nor does she seem concerned about the
Your friend is using weakness to manipulate and be
dependent on you. She has transferred her problem to you
and you have accepted it by rescuing and not setting
boundaries or limits on your participation in her problem.
If you refuse to wait when she is late and she has problems
as a result, she will blame you and try to make you feel
guilty. What we really want are for others to be
responsible and play fair; however, when they do not, we
either have to set boundaries, or feel manipulated and
victimized with the accompanying advantages and
Lastly, often we confuse UNDERSTANDING with AGREEMENT.
This is when people confuse their decisions with wanting
the recipient of a decision to like or agree with it. When
we make decisions that oppose the desires of others, there
is a cost. We usually attempt to minimize that cost by
explaining, in exhaustive detail, our rationale for that
decision, somehow thinking if they could just understand
our position, they would agree.
Applying that scenario to parent and child if a parent
makes a decision based on the best interest of the child,
it needs to be made separate from whether the child is
going to like it. When a child knows it is important to the
parent that they be happy with a decision, then it will
never be in the child's personal interest to be happy with
an unwanted decision. If a child knows that their happiness
with a parental decision is of equal importance to the
decision itself, then all a child has to do is be unhappy
in order to make their parent uncomfortable and doubt their
decision -- after all, it is always worth a try. This same
dynamic can apply to interactions among adults also.
How do we manage manipulation? By becoming more aware of
our interaction with others.
- Is the interaction an attempt to communicate or does it
feel like a contest?
- Are you beginning to feel anxious or irritated?
- Do you want to get out of the conversation?
- Does the interaction fit into a manipulative style?
- Is there an attempt to use power, service, guilt, or
weakness to get your cooperation?
- Are you a willing participant in your own manipulation?
- Is it easier not taking responsibility?
- Are you attempting to manipulate others instead of setting
- Are you making a distinction between a value and a
Preferences can be negotiated, but values should not.
Our society does not deal well with differences in values
and preference. We tend to take it as a personal affront
and insult when others disagree with us. We will avoid
conflicts at all costs, because it feels like rejection.
What we need is to communicate to others, clearly and
calmly, our values, preferences, and boundaries. We need to
be respectful and dedicated to listening, hearing and
appreciating, if not understanding, how we all are
Mary Treffert, LCSW, ACSW, is a Licensed, Clinical Social
Worker, who is an individual, couple, and family therapist
in Baton Rouge, LA.