First of all, I would like to make a general comment about manipulation. As such the term may carry a negative connotation and to some extent, it should because we probably have all been in the situation where we enter a shop and minutes later, depart with a product we originally had no intention in buying. It’s as if someone else outside of us has been pulling the strings and controlled our behaviour. The clever, friendly and savvy sales clerk sold us something, which we knew fine well that she would try, but we sometimes wind up feeling tricked. Yet, we accept that these manipulative skills are simply part of life. We apply them ourselves more or less subtly when we need something from someone or wish to achieve a goal. These skills though don’t carry the kind of malice and danger that are employed by malignant manipulators who exert their control over long periods of time, without people realizing it and when they finally do, it is often too late. They have lived in worry and self-doubt for too long. The damage has been done and despite an increased awareness on bullying and abuse, still too many victims either end up as headlines in a newspaper or remain hidden, unable to ever seek help.
The following five points describe the initial steps that can help a person break free from a toxic relationship (with a malicious work colleague, manipulative partner, friend or controlling parent).
STEP 1 is becoming fully aware of your unease, increasing self-doubt and fear when you are in the presence of a particular person. An event, a comment, reading an article or maybe a book makes you recognize that you are indeed the victim of toxic manipulation at work, in school or at home. You manage to observe the manipulator’s diversion and intimidation techniques and notice that they have gained an unhealthy control over you. It will be a painful awakening but an essential step to reclaiming your self-confidence and dignity.
STEP 2 is finding out how and why a relationship is damaging you. Warning signs indicate when enough is enough and that a situation has gone too far:
- Malignant manipulators are charming and funny when in the company of friends and family but behind their backs, they will appraise you critically, make snide remarks and lack the affection that they would otherwise show in front of others (unless they need something from you).
- When they look at you, they look at what they want to see and if what you are wearing, saying or doing does not please them, they will tell you so, gradually increasing the control until they dominate every aspect of your life.
- A chat with a friend or a simple telephone conversation that clearly shows that you are pleased to speak with the person on the other line will set off their extreme levels of jealousy and suspicion. Become aware of whether you are being criticized for who you talk to and if you are feeling more and more isolated.
- They call you ten times a day to check you are indeed at your work station or that you are doing what you said you would when you left the house. Any digression will cause arguments where you end up feeling that you’re always to blame.
- They belittle you in front of people and laugh when they see your distress, noting that ‘it was just a joke’. Nothing is ever good enough so you don’t know whether you are coming or going most of the time. Worse, you instinctively start to defend the person because you have become scared, wish to avoid unnecessary humiliation or disputes.
STEP 3: After you have managed to see the signs and recognize that you are a victim of malignant manipulation, seek help, be it via a psychologist, a close relative who has in the past expressed doubt or a 24/7 helpline. It is important that you find your voice again. Talking about your fears and feelings of helplessness, explaining why you are anxious in the presence of a particular person is the first major step to freeing yourself and establishing how you can deal with your current situation and move forward. Reaching out will make you realize that you are not alone and, most of all, that the manipulator’s behaviour is unacceptable.
STEP 4: Stop feeling guilty or embarrassed. The situation you are in is not your fault. The official figures about abuse and bullying are chilling. Day in and day out, people are losing confidence in leading a fulfilled life, suffering bouts of debilitating doubt and anxiety until they are literally so weakened that they do not see a way out because they have decided that the most peaceful way to carry on is to take all the blame and become oblivious of their own self-worth – often for decades.
STEP 5: Don’t expect remorse. Leave as soon as is feasible and never look back. Little do we know about the ease toxic manipulators slip their poisonous behaviour into people’s minds. Little do we know that a friend, sibling, parent or neighbour is the victim of verbal or physical abuse that has stripped them from seeing the bigger picture. The abuser will have captured their prey through a gradual breakdown. It is as if the personal identity of someone we used to laugh and spend time with has been replaced with someone who will defend an arrogant dominant partner with teeth and claws or has become a mere shadow of their former self. Therefore, when you do realize what is going on, re-claim your life by planning your way out and be prepared having to accept that the abuser will not change, feel sorry or acknowledge their wrong-doing.
Ultimately, when the way you look at someone changes, the person you look at also changes. It is a freeing experience and step by step allows you to find yourself again, understand the spiral of toxic manipulation you’d been sucked into and avoid it in the future. Malignant manipulation can be found anywhere, at any age and in many guises. It is therefore useful for anyone to recognize warning signs, speak up before it is too late, so a loved one, colleague or friend knows that when the time is right, they can turn to you for support.