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  • Writer's pictureLinda Buchanan

From Change Your Story - Change Your Life

Manipulation: That Dirty Word

Have you ever told yourself that you can't ask directly for something you need?

Have you felt like you had to act in a certain way to keep friends or partners?

Have you felt like you had to earn love?

Have people told you that you manipulate them or try to control them?

If you answered yes to any of these (and I think we all could to some extent) you have probably resorted at times to using indirect means to try to get a need met.

Did you know that when you attempt to get your needs met in indirect ways, you are manipulating a person or situation? Manipulation occurs when someone attempts to get their needs met without asking directly. But to be clear, manipulation is not necessarily a bad thing.

Manipulation is defined as:

1: to treat or operate with or as if with the hands or by mechanical means especially in a skillful manner as in manipulate a pencil, manipulate a machine

2a: to manage or utilize skillfully as in quantify our data and manipulate it statistically

b: to control or play upon by artful, unfair, or insidious means especially to one's own advantage

To manipulate is just to get something you need, such as manipulating a drawer to get a pen. However, if you experience ambivalence about your needs, you may feel that it isn’t okay to ask directly and consequently must resort to manipulation. A very common manipulation is when you put on a sad or angry face so that someone will ask you what’s wrong. The direct form of communication would be to speak openly about your feelings. The problem with trying to get your needs met indirectly through manipulating or controlling behaviors is that you never learn that you have a right to ask directly. Therefore, even if you get what you want in the moment, it only meets the need temporarily and is less than satisfying in the long run. This is because you believe (probably inaccurately) that you made the person do something that they wouldn't have done otherwise. Such was the case with Janie.

Janie was coming to counseling for an anxiety disorder. We made a plan to work on skills for dealing with anxiety, but we had trouble spending time in this endeavor because each week there was a crisis that demanded our attention. These crises involved fights with her husband, disturbing calls from her mother, feeling slighted by her boss, etc. I felt concerned that, although the issues that she brought into our sessions seemed important, we weren’t making any progress on the initial topic for which she asked help. We would put out fires each week, but I felt like no real change was happening since she continued to bring in the same kinds of problems. I began to believe that this was a pattern that was not due to outside circumstances but had some deeper meaning for her.

After several probing questions, she shared with me that she didn’t think I would be interested in her if she weren’t in crisis. This was something that she had learned at an early age when her busy and sometimes depressed mother paid attention to her primarily when things were going wrong. Until she became aware of this belief and how it was functioning, she was in danger of pushing others away — they became overwhelmed by her need to be in crisis. The self-fulfilling prophesy here was that the very thing that she did to try to be important to others was pushing them away, which then reinforced her sense that she wasn’t important. She needed to learn that she was uniquely interesting with or without a crisis, but she would never find that out with her current behavior. Although she was unaware of it, her pattern of having a crisis every week was a manipulation. She was encouraged to talk about the feelings of not being important rather than try to make (a manipulation) herself important to me every week.

Janie would need to change the original message that she had taken in as a child and begin to believe that she could hold people's affection by being herself. She would need to catch herself when attempting to communicate her need indirectly and replace the old behavior with direct communication. I've written an article (which I hope to expand into a book) about understanding your ambivalence which you can have for free by contacting me through this website.

Challenge Yourself: You might be able to increase your insight into ways that you may unknowingly manipulate others in an attempt to get your needs met by making a list of things that you have difficulty asking for directly. You will need to take steps to begin asking directly.

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