For about five years now, I’ve experienced a series of unrelated incidents that my brain only this year connected to each other because they shared a couple of common traits: firstly, they were always between myself and male human beings; secondly, they all involved emotional manipulation. Reflecting on these incidents, I’ve had to ask, “How much of the blame I placed on myself was actually deserved?” The answer usually turns out to be: “Much less than I let myself believe at the time.”
One reason I’m writing this is because I’m so tired of being the target of emotional manipulation. Another is that, since emotional manipulation tends to be super insidious and often (almost surprisingly) unintentional on the part of the manipulator, identifying some clear manipulation techniques is useful for developing strategies to resist it real-time instead of just regretting moments in hindsight. I figured that writing this might help victims, potential victims and people who might not even know they’re perpetrators to start developing an awareness.
One of the earliest telling signs that a person is prone to manipulating may be observed through how they receive you into their lives. I recently met someone in person for the first time, and at some point, I found him looking at me strangely. When I asked about the gaze, he told me that he was trying to decide if I could be one of “his people.” This made me uncomfortable, but I couldn’t yet say why, because I didn’t quite know what exactly about it was unsettling. (I do now.) My wariness became justified not too long after that meeting, when he (probably unconsciously) displayed emotionally manipulative behavior. When I was sixteen, I was introduced to a man who was so excited about my existence that he started going on, to me and other friends, about how he’d found his future wife. My sixteen-year-old brain thought it was amusing, I guess. What it actually was, was problematic. Because if a person meets you and immediately starts talking about what you could do for them or be to them, it usually means they are not seeing you as you are. They are overly focused on the person they either want you to be, wish you were, or what void in their lives you might fill. These kinds of statements might not strike you as dangerous when you first hear them, but they play out in ways such that when you turn out not to be their “ideal person,” manipulators may start resenting you for not living up to what they thought you should be (to them). The tragedy is that if you don’t quickly recognize that the standards of “ideal person” they constructed in their minds were never meant for you to aspire towards in the first place, you might start internalizing the insult and blame manipulators try to place on you for falling short of them. Really, they have no right to be angry at you and every right to be angry with themselves for the false image of you they constructed in their minds—which is, of course, not your business.
A more obviously telling sign of manipulators is when they try to tell you what/who you are. This is just as dangerous a red flag on the day of meeting as it can be two years into a relationship. In a similar way to the aforementioned sign, it’s a method of imposing their own (often inaccurate) perception of you onto the person you truly are, under the guise of “knowing you better than you know yourself.” Even if they just met you. Anyone who would rather tell you than ask you about yourself, and then, when you attempt correction, say something as silly as, “You really are [insert characteristic here], you just don’t realize it” or, “You’re just using the wrong words to describe yourself, but we’re saying the same thing” should put you on your guard. Recently, there’s been a New Yorker comic-turned-almost-meme floating around on social media showing an annoyed woman tolerating an enthusiastic man, and the caption is “Let me interrupt your expertise with my confidence.” And truly, there are people whose confidence will blatantly disregard the fact that they’ve known you for ten minutes whereas you’ve been yourself your whole life.
The two paragraphs above cover warning signs of manipulators, and now I’m going to delve into a few features of manipulative interaction itself.
It shouldn’t be surprising that an emotionally manipulative interaction may be saturated with compliments. Compliments are tools of power and are used to enforce unequal dynamics almost as often as they are used in genuine, heartfelt ways. Their power lies in how pleasurable they are to receive; we may fall into the trap of becoming so grateful and softened by those who are manipulating us that we acquiesce enough to either give them what they want, believe whatever falsities they say, or accept a hundred percent of undeserved blame. Recently, a man who had been displaying aggressive, patriarchal and suppressive behavior towards me became ruffled by the fact that I wasn’t just sitting down and taking it, that the attempts to suppress me weren’t working. But it really did throw me off when he addressed my resistant behavior like this: “Last year, you were so intelligent, so bright.” Compliments in the past tense, no less. I knew exactly how this tactic was supposed to work: I was supposed to be thrown into introspective anxiety about how my intelligence may have somehow dissipated over the past few months instead of how my confidence to challenge oppressive horse-crap had grown. I was supposed to regard my legitimate reactions to things that merited getting upset as my “brightness”—whatever that is—having dimmed. Generally, I was supposed to feel awful for refusing to let nonsense go by unchallenged. (Like my morda.) Recently, also, a man went off on me about a matter that I didn’t think he had adequately processed yet. Since I knew from experience that telling men they haven’t finished processing something doesn’t go down well, I did the sensible thing, which was acknowledging that even though I hadn’t done anything objectively wrong, what I had done had hurt him emotionally. So, of course, I apologized. Basic, pacifist decency. He still hadn’t finished processing by this time, but his immediate response was to declare how impressed he was with my maturity for having apologized. I shouldn’t have to explain why his “compliment” annoyed me so much that the safest thing I could do about it, given that setting the email thread on fire wasn’t a feasible option, was to ignore it. I want to briefly re-hash that a lot of manipulation is not intentional/conscious—but it’s still useful to know what not to engage. Like these “compliments.”
Another tactic used within manipulative interaction is exceptionalism. (Note: I will now use the verb “exceptionalize,” which, apparently, does not officially exist, but such irrelevant facts cannot deter a lexivist.) The way this tactic works is that by exceptionalizing you, a manipulator makes you believe you’ve done something exceptionally awful, either because of who you are specifically, or who you are in relation to them. In the same incident I mentioned in the previous paragraph of a matter not having been processed well, the man said something like this to me: “If anybody else had said this, I wouldn’t care, but because it’s you…” When I read that, I clocked out. There’s an ad hominem fallacy in the argument, which is not to say that it’s an invalid reason to get emotionally hurt—but if you’re hurt more because of the person something came from than the actual thing that came from them, it’s not the person’s problem. Think about it. If a person presented something badly, that’s something they can address; if a person has been wrong in an argument, it’s something correction or learning can fix. But if nothing about a person is as problematic for you as who they are (or who they are to you, or who you’d have liked to assume they are to you), well, they can’t very well decide to not be themselves, now, can they? Related: if something I’m used to giving isn’t something you’re used to receiving, it doesn’t quite mean I’ve done something awful; it might mean that we don’t understand or haven’t had a chance to get used to each other yet—in which case you’re being manipulative for trying to make me feel awful for simply not being the person you wished I was before you found out who I am. See previous paragraph about people who try to tell you instead of allowing themselves to discover who you are. Exceptionalism is designed to generate undeserved shame and guilt. Each time someone appears to be exceptionalizing you, even if it’s inappropriate to ask the person in the moment, try to ask yourself, “Okay, but have I actually done something wrong or not?”
During interaction, a manipulative person may try very hard to victimize themselves. Sometimes, that’s fine, because they really are victims in a sense. It’s only not fine when you’re being painted as the perpetrator when you aren’t. Some people, you see, have issues—issues they had before you even walked into their lives. As the saying goes, hurt people hurt people. Your relatively new presence might lead them to (un)consciously peg you as a scapegoat, someone to blame when none of the responsible people are currently available or had already left their lives before you came into it. But truth be told, some people too are just plain old trippin’. One time, a man made several aggravating moves on me over several weeks, and one day he finally did something that had me hitting my threshold. Once again, since setting something on fire wasn’t a viable option, I chose instead to walk out of the room until I felt stable enough to return. A week later, this man who had been aggravating me (very intentionally and strategically, I might add) confronted me about the walk-out moment, feigning innocence and telling me something like this: “I lost sleep the whole week, just remembering your reaction. I felt so hurt by it.” I didn’t respond, because it was not worth responding to. Why would a person who owes me an apology for lowkey-highkey abusive behavior be expecting either apology or explanation from me? Sense biara nni mu.
The last tactic of manipulative interaction I’ll stress on is insistence—specifically, insistence on provoking an emotional reaction out of you. The only way I can explain this is by hypothesizing that emotional manipulators derive temporary satisfaction from being shown evidence that their manipulation is working. Insistence takes many forms, but it’s kind of like this. Manipulator: “What you did was hurtful.” You say nothing. Manipulator: “Like, really hurtful.” You’re still saying nothing. Manipulator: “Nobody has hurt me so badly in years.” Lots more nothing from you. “Like, it sent me into deep depression for three days.” And so on and so forth. Dissatisfaction breeds frustration, which sparks continued attempts. It’s stressful to endure, but I’d still rather not give into it.
I’ll conclude by mentioning that there are people who may be open to being informed that they’re manipulative. However, especially considering how powerful the male ego is, bringing this up may spark a violent reaction. Others too might accept it only eventually, since heightened self-awareness comes in its own time. That said, it doesn’t have to be your burden to “fix” people. It doesn’t have to be your burden to engage in fruitless endeavors. In fact, and especially if it’s the healthiest option for you/the relationship, it’s fine to disengage. Bottom line? Please be safe, and please have sense.