Manipulation and power games

While some manipulators are relatively harmless (think Mrs Bennett in Pride and Prejudice), others can inflict wounds that take a long time to heal.

After leaving an emotionally abusive relationship, I found myself needing to understand what had happened. Like most people who leave a volatile situation I was, quite simply, unable to process and articulate what was wrong. Apart from being incredibly vulnerable, I was also just too close to my own situation to see it objectively.

So I decided to read Power Games: Confronting Others’ Hurtful Behaviour and Transforming Our Own by Kay Douglas and Dr Kim McGregor. What I found was a wealth of information confirming what I couldn’t express or even see for myself. Here are some choice insights from the book, as well as some of my own thoughts*:

  1. Control is always at the heart of a power game. The need to assert control will usually involve undermining and/or discrediting another to achieve our own ends. For example, we are using power games when we:
    • evoke and play on another’s feelings of compassion, obligation, insecurity, guilt, shame or anxiety in order to get our own way;
    • refuse to listen to their point of view, speak down to or ridicule them;
    • bully or intimidate someone into agreeing with our demands;
    • withhold attention and affection as a punishment;
    • deliberately confuse the situation by distorting the facts, denying the truth or lying;
    • discriminate against someone, based on any number of factors;
    • bait and provoke others through disturbing statements or actions and then claim they’re being over-sensitive/emotional, crazy or irrational (known as gaslighting); and
    • engage in name calling, put-downs, harsh criticism or threats.
  2. Manipulators often feel they have no control over their own lives. They may be unable to process rejection or disappointment and they likely struggle with insecurities, an exaggerated sense of entitlement or need for control, neediness and a fear of abandonment. Because of this, it’s incredibly easy to let reasonable emotional responses give way to irrational perceptions and behaviour. Manipulators are very skilled at telling themselves (and anyone else who will listen for that matter) a story where they are the victim and everyone else is to blame for their misery and must be punished. As a result, manipulators find themselves pushing away what they most want to hold onto.
  3. Manipulators are not concerned with taking responsibility for their decisions/behaviours/feelings. Instead, they create a smokescreen by shifting the focus or blame to others. And consequently, the other party must assume the responsibility for making the situation ‘better’. If the other party is a ‘good’ person, they will comply with whatever demands are issued (peace at any price). As soon as they resist, however, the manipulator is likely to go on the attack.
  4. Unprovoked (and therefore unanticipated) attacks cut the deepest. These are designed to bewilder, but also to elicit anger in the other party. This anger can then be used as evidence when gaslighting (‘See how sensitive you are? You’re crazy!’). It is the emotional equivalent of detonating a bomb and then blaming the other party for the explosion. Essentially, the person on the receiving end is set up to fail; it doesn’t matter whether they challenge, capitulate or strive to avoid conflict altogether, it will never be enough to stop that bewildered feeling or help them or get the relationship on an equal playing field.
  5. Losing personal power, such as the right to speak up, assert boundaries and be respected, often happens incrementally, so that you’re not even aware of it. Little by little though, it becomes much harder to negotiate from within the relationship without offending, displeasing or inviting further confrontation and abuse.
  6. Manipulators often seem to be in a hurry. Urgency is a theme of manipulative interactions. A rush to make a decision, a relationship that develops a bit too quickly, an insistence that you give up your right to feel whatever it is you feel. This is the manipulator’s way of gaining control over the situation.
  7. Once de-coded, power games are quite simple. On the surface, it may seem that power games consist of a confusing barrage of activities and accusations that defy logic. Looking closer, manipulators select peace-keepers, problem-solvers, care-takers to bear the brunt of their abuse because they are easy targets. Their natural disposition (and possible social conditioning) means they will try even harder to compromise, sacrifice, take responsibility and make things right. And with each instance of abuse, the less likely they will be to fight back.
  8. Not all abuse is ugly on the surface. In fact, manipulators will often argue in the negative, revealing their insecurities. Consider the character of Edward Rochester in Jane Eyre. Knowing he needs to create just the right situation to allow him to marry Jane, he says:

    “I have a strange feeling with regard to you. As if I had a string somewhere under my left ribs, tightly knotted to a similar string in you. And if you were to leave I’m afraid that cord of communion would snap. And I have a notion that I’d take to bleeding inwardly. As for you, you’d forget me.”

    Right on cue, Jane is moved to protest and re-assure. And, as we know, she falls into Rochester’s dexterously-laid trap. Later, after his deception is discovered, Rochester attempts to sweet-talk Jane into running away with him. And so, just as manipulators are skilled at inflicting damage, they also skilled at restoring people’s trust with remorse and charm. Highly charged emotions, stormy bust-ups and passionate reconciliations can bind us closely together, but desperation and fear are usually behind this and as such, roller-coasters of emotion are misleading.

  9. For the receiver, cumulative exposure to such tumult may reduce self-esteem and increase anxiety, resentment and fear. Receivers will experience intense emotional reactions and may end up interpreting these as proof they are selfish, unbalanced, over-sensitive and unreasonable. They may lose their sense of self; either over-compensating to ‘get it right’ and ‘be better’ or even adopting manipulative tactics against others.
  10. For the receiver, regaining personal power starts with a shift in one’s thinking. More specifically, an acknowledgement that the manipulator must take responsibility for their feelings and behaviours and any future change. It is accepting that the dynamic needs to change and learning to distinguish between real and manufactured guilt. It is constructing and defending boundaries and a willingness to listen to what anger is trying to say. It is the ability to cut through the smokescreen tactics and see the situation clearly. It is the ability to speak one’s truth and articulate one’s feelings. It is honouring the self. And, sometimes, this will mean leaving.

What I learned is that while not everyone who feels inadequate is a manipulator, every manipulator feels inadequate. So do we all, I know. But, what sets manipulators apart is the way they consistently and systematically re-distribute this inadequacy onto others.  What I also learned is that by disengaging I was not giving up, but that I was actively saying ‘I am worth more than this’.

* While there is some overlap between these insights and those expressed in part two of de-mystifying narcissism, this article aims to address manipulation and power games on a broader scale and, in so doing, acknowledges that these behaviours are not exclusive to narcissism.

Photo credit: Viral Novelty


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Melita Caulfield

Melita believes in living mindfully and authentically which is reflected in her writing and artistic expression.

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