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Manipulation & Manipulators (P2)

The following list explains ten common, maybe the most common, forms of interpersonal manipulation. Two things to keep in mind as you read: (1) a person may do these things knowingly or unknowingly, and (2) our role is not to ultimately convince or change anybody. We model emotional wholeness and spiritual maturity, and confront them respectfully with truth at the right time. Just maybe it will inspire them to a personal transformation through the Lord Jesus Christ.

Fluctuating Labels


This scheme is aimed at weakening or dissolving altogether a person's self-concept and self-confidence. Some manipulators will "fluctuate" their labels of you, depending on how well you are satisfying their wants, or depending on their last experience with you. Those labels can flipflop every few weeks, days, hours, or even minutes. If all is well and good (in their mind), you will be idealized as a superhero and "the best ever" and "so perfect" and so on. If you are disappointing them or blocking their goals, you will be vilified as evil, liar, horrible, "you don't love me" and other blacklist nicknames and narratives. See Judges 14:16,17. See how Saul's narrative of David kept flipflopping from 1Samuel 16 through 26.

Why Do They Do This?
    Manipulators do this because they themselves are filled with contradictory images of themselves. They see in themselves both a superhero and a villain, an angel and a devil, a got-it-together person and a barely-hangin-on person. Instead of doing an honest personal assessment towards real transformation, they project their own identity contradictions on someone else nearby.  
    Years ago one of my closest friends wanted to be an adult film star and a Catholic nun, both with equal sincerity. The wildly contradictory self-concepts baffled me until the Lord illuminated these truths through my studies with Him. I then understood why she bitterly criticized people as sleazy crooks and monsters when they disappointed her, but idealized them as dreamy angels when they satisfied her values and goals. She was projecting or casting her own identity contradictions on others.

    In prayer and in your mind, disconnect yourself completely from their fluctuating labels. Most people are neither extreme, but a ratio of good traits versus bad traits versus a-work-in-progress traits. Maintain this rational and ratio view of yourself at all times. When the time is right, confront them respectfully about the self-concepts they love and loathe, and how all of us are under construction to reconcile these contradictions in Christ. Two scriptures to talk deeply with God about:
    Psalm 86:11 (ESV): ...unite my heart to fear your name.
    Ephesians 1:10 (ESV): unite all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth

Verbal Assaults


This scheme is also aimed at dismantling self-concept and self-confidence. A steady stream of put-downs, directly and passive-aggressively, gnaw away at a person's sense of worth if tolerated too long, eventually reducing the person to a validation-thirsty codependent. The manipulator can then have his/her way.

Why Do They Do This?
    Manipulators understand, in varying degrees, that an individual's sense of personal dignity or self-respect is what makes them say Maybe or No. When self-respect goes, so do all the Maybes and Nos.

    First and most urgently, realize verbal abuse is the predicate of physical abuse, if it is tolerated long enough and deterrences are not obvious. If verbal abuse incarnates into physical abuse, use survival common sense: call the police, go to a safe place, notify family and friends. Make a big deal of it. In one church I pastored, a battered woman avoided being ground up in farming equipment by fleeing to a motel and calling her parents.
    Not all verbal abuse incarnates into violence, however, for a variety of reasons. Some verbal abuse scenarios plateau at a certain level; they do not get worse, but they do not get better either. If you are in a plateaued verbal abuse scenario, and you do not have an urging to distance from or terminate the relationship, it is important to do three things.
    One, disconnect your soul completely from their words and sickness. This is done by reinforcing who you are in Christ through targeted prayers and Spirit-present Bible study. This is also done by accepting the fact that this manipulator is sick spiritually and sick psychologically. Many people who suffer verbal abuse do not want to accept this about their loved ones. If a person in your life is consistently verbally abusive, they are sick. It does not matter how otherwise charming or helpful or successful or attractive they might be. They are sick and they need professional godly help. Accept it, disconnect from it, grow out of it.
    Two, obey 1Peter 3:9 (NIV): Do not repay evil with evil or insult with insult. On the contrary, repay evil with blessing, because to this you were called so that you may inherit a blessing.
    In the heat of the moment, while you are under verbal fire, validate and affirm the manipulator's basic personhood. Tell them you will not return fire because you love them too much. Tell them you will never hate them and never be angry at them. I have done this many times over the years, in a variety of situations, and the power of this kind of walking-on-water response is absolutely extraordinary. I have seen raging beasts melt before me. I have seen God fight my battle and afflict my attackers with punitive consequences. Ignore how you feel and do it. Read and pray through and get good at Romans 12:14-21.
    Three, at the right time, confront them respectfully and assertively about what is driving their abuse deep inside (which is almost always unhealed traumas and disappointments). Read and pray through the following scriptures about speaking the truth in love: Leviticus 19:17, Proverbs 19:25, Ephesians 4:15, 5:11, Titus 2:15. Keep in mind, though, this type of manipulator (the highly verbal type) will not let you talk very long. When they see the conversation is a threat to their sickness and defenses they will interrupt you, talk over you, talk down to you, tell you why you are the problem, insult you, diminish you, etc. This is why your confronting words to them need to be concise, precise, and memorable--two or three lines. Simply repeat those lines a few times, and when they turn abusive, end the conversation and go your way. The Holy Spirit does not need your long-winded, meandering explanations. Speak the truth in love concisely,
 precisely, and memorably, and ask Him to anoint your words with powerful reverberations in their soul. Maybe, just maybe, they will say Yes to the Spirit and humble themselves to change.

Anger, Rage


This scheme intends to induce fear and compliance. Anger unleashed can be intimidating, so instead of dealing with it, many people just feed the beast or avoid it altogether.

Why Do They Do This?
    Anger is easier to feel than fear, abandonment, or some other hurting emotion, which the lifestyle manipulator has plenty of. Wrath can be a rush. Think of a time you got really angry and vented it fully? At the very least it felt cathartic.
    Scripture, however, condemns the full venting of anger (Pr 29:11). We are commanded to be even-tempered and of a "cool spirit" (17:27 NASB). When we are angry, we are commanded to express it constructively and without sinning (Eph 4:26).
    Manipulators care little or nothing about the healthy, constructive, creative potential of anger. Anger, especially rage, gives them momentary relief from hurting emotions and self-hatred deep within. But it serves a relational and social purpose too: inducing fear and compliance. Ultimately, manipulators who weaponize anger are anger addicts; they simply cannot process and regulate the overwhelming emotions constantly oppressing them. They need professional godly help to drain their inner septic tank and heal and learn.

    Gentle and optimistic people are soothing lozenges for anger addicts (Pr 15:1), which is why the angry and bitter often link up with soft landing individuals. We need to be a soft pillow that just might earn their ear and their trust, however, this is only Step 1 at best.
    Anger addicts equally and also need someone strong enough to stand up to them and confront them respectfully (but not angrily) with the truth. They need to hear an anointed voice telling them they will forever live in crippling pain unless they address the true foundations of their anger (be very specific if you know details). Yes, the volcano will probably erupt at your audacity. Yes, they will probably act like they do not hear or do not care. Brace yourself for heavy fire and a slammed door, so make your point
 concise, precise, and memorable. 
Simply repeat your prepared lines a few times, and when they turn abusive, end the conversation and go your way. Pray for the Holy Spirit to anoint your words with powerful reverberations in their soul. Maybe, just maybe, they will say Yes to the Spirit and humble themselves to change.
    Regardless of their childish tantrum, they are listening. Especially if you have built rapport or trust by being a soft landing place, if you occupy an important place in their life, and/or if you supply insightful facts and details in the confrontation moment. Whatever you do, do not show fear and do not submit to anything they say or do that is unhealthy or sinful or agrees with their tantrum.

Accusations, Guilt-Tripping


This scheme intends to make us keep proving ourselves over and over and over to the manipulator. Every round of false, exaggerated, or outdated accusation--and its twin sibling, guilt-tripping--dumps a new workload on us. If we accept it blindly, we work hard to disprove the accusations. If we accept it blindly long enough, we become enslaved to proving and validating ourselves to our master.
    Just to be clear, these accusations and guilt trips are things we have not done, or are greatly exaggerated, or are truly outdated. They are not 100% true, 100% factual, time-accurate, genuine accusations of wrongdoing. Rather, the accusations are things the manipulator perceives we might do in the future, or might be doing secretly in the present, or things we have done in other contexts or other time periods, but not to them and not in the here and now. Do you see the terrible fuzzy atmosphere this creates? Once again, be clear on this important truth: these accusations and guilt trips are things you have not done, or are greatly exaggerated, or are truly outdated. They are feeling-driven and tactical to get something. They are manipulating to get something. But what?

Why Do They Do This?
    Accusation/guilt-trip manipulators are nagged by the incessant feeling they are not loved and they are not lovable. Not loved and not lovable. Therefore, by flooding those close to them with highly emotional accusations and guilt trips, they are rewarded with "proofs" they are loved and are lovable. That feeling soon wears off, however, and the cycle starts all over again. That is because the nagging, incessant, unloved feeling is coming from deep historical pain, from a different time period in their life when they were not loved in the ways and to the depths they needed. Usually this means childhood and the relationship with one or both parents, but it can also mean other life experiences beyond childhood as well.

    We cannot get sucked in to this black hole of a cycle. Those who manipulate through accusation and guilt trips need to realize they have a traumatized obsession with reassurance. At the right time, he/she needs to be confronted respectfully with this truth and its deeper reasons. Keep your points concise, precise, and memorable. If the accusations are truly wrong, truly exaggerated, or truly outdated, let them bounce off you and fall to the ground with little or no attention. Stay on message: the nagging, incessant, unloved
feeling is coming from deep historical pain, from a different time period in their life when they were not loved in the ways and to the depths they needed.
    Reaffirm and express your love for them, absolutely, but in ways they are not expecting and in ways they are not scheming for. It is identical to crate-training a puppy. As long as they cry and bark, they do not get out and do not get a treat. When they are calm and content, they are reunited with people and rewarded with a treat. Express love to accusation/guilt-trip manipulators in ways and times outside of their control. This gives them a healthier vision of true love and takes the power out of their crying and barking.

Moving Targets


This scheme also intends to make us keep proving ourselves. Moving targets refers to ever-changing, inconsistent expectations. Once you fulfill one expectation and hit one target, the target then moves and a new expectation is presented. The expectations never or rarely come to a standstill. Those who have been manipulated in this way say the exact same thing, "Nothing ever pleases them…nothing is ever good enough…he/she is never satisfied."

Why Do They Do This?
    Manipulators use moving targets for two main reasons. One, it is a strategy for constant reassurance and proof of love (like #4). If you are willing to keep working to hit their targets, it helps them breathe easier.
    Two, some manipulators honestly believe the fulfillment of their expectations will satisfy them (don't we all sometimes?). When we meet one of those expectations and it does not satisfy forever like they imagined, they shift their hopes to a new target. And the same thing happens again. And again. And again. Thus, the targets keep moving because nothing will quench their thirst except Living Water (Jn 4:13,14) and the healing of their brokenheartedness (Ps 147:3).

At the right time, respectfully confront the moving target manipulators in your life. Explain to them, whether they listen or not, how their relentless thirst is ultimately spiritual, for Jesus, the Desire of all hearts in all nations. Explain to them, whether they listen or not, how their emotional history is driving their moving targets. Remember Leah, rejected wife of Jacob? She thought, "If I just have his baby he will love me" (Gen 29:32). Three children later, she was still saying the same thing (v34). Leah's baby-craze had nothing to do with babies, and everything to do with fixing her rejection-history with Jacob. Explain it to them concisely, precisely, and memorably, whether they listen or not.

Emotional Blackmail


This scheme is aimed at forcing compliance. Emotional blackmail is when a manipulator threatens to cause another person pain (emotionally) if they are not given what they want. These threats can be direct or implied. The examples of this are many: threats to end the relationship, withhold sex, call the police, cause a public scene, harm themselves, harm others, create no-win situations, silent treatments, extreme withdrawing, threatening unfair punishment (manipulators in authority), or anything else with emotional leverage.

Why Do They Do This?
    This one is simple. They believe the only way they can get what they want is through blackmail.

    The manipulator needs to be respectfully confronted about this unfair deal. They usually do not care about so-called "unfair", because they feel life and people have been brutally unfair to them. It is still important, though, to be a faithful witness and speak to their conscience, whether they listen or not. Instead of using the words "unfair" or "not right"--which are overused and watered-down--use words with depth and shock value to make them think, words like "cruel" and "blackmail" and "mercy" and "influence" and "powerless" and so on. But this is only Step 1, at best.
    Emotional blackmailers need to hear that there are legitimate, healthy ways of influencing people. Concisely tell them about alternatives. They may resist and mock you, but they are listening deep down. And your words will reverberate long after the conversation has ended; if you are a person of qualitative prayer the Spirit will ride your words.
    For example, I once counseled a couple in which the woman was leveraging sex to influence her husband. She was combative and vocal, so I knew I had to make it short and memorable. I gave her this one phrase and repeated it whenever she actually shut up: You get into a man's head through sex, you get into his heart through honor.
    That one statement stunned her and starting working on her. Keep your statements short and memorable. 
    In extreme cases, where threats of harm to self, others, or property are threatened or implied, contact the authorities. They might be manipulating only, but there is always the possibility they might go one step further, and those risks are simply too serious to ignore. The consequences could be unthinkable. Never assume for one second that your sweet little Boo would never do such a thing. Never assume they just want attention. Yes, they do want attention, but there is a more sinister concern here--harm to self, others, or property. Be rational and realistic and contact the authorities. Maybe, just maybe, it will scare the bowels out of them and shock them into getting help and changing.

Public Drama


Some manipulators use public drama as a way of stealing all the oxygen and getting what they want. This is most easily seen in celebrities who act out to stay at the forefront of the news and pop culture discourse. It can also be seen in Christian leaders who minister with excesses and sensational antics.
    In personal relationships, these types of manipulators have little or no inhibitions about causing public drama. In public they will yell at you, jump up and storm out, talk loud, cry exaggeratingly, test social limits, get in trouble, vandalize, etc. to get their way. These types of manipulators are the champions of the childish.

Why Do They Do This?
    Public manipulators are usually driving for a specific person's attention. That person is whoever they wish to be noticed by the most--dad who ignored them, mom who was too busy, or the slowly fading romantic partner they are trying to reel back in. There are usually one or two key persons at the root of all attention cravings that express as public drama.

    When the manipulator's public drama becomes constant or extreme, it is best to stop going out in public with them. You could find yourself in trouble with the law, at worst, bruising your reputation and credibility, at best. This would be a good opportunity to confront the manipulator and explain your reasons for withdrawing. Be short and to the point.
   Even for those whose public antics are not yet severe, you should still consider spending time with them in less public settings. This would afford you the opportunity to voice your concerns. Whether they listen or fail to listen, be a faithful witness and speak the truth in love to them.
   Regardless of the severity of their public behavior, Scripture commands us to act wisely towards the public and to nurture a good reputation with them as much as possible (Pr 22:1, Ecc 7:1, Col 4:5, 1Th 4:12, 1Ti 3:7, Ro 12:18).



This scheme is aimed at (1) preventing abandonment and (2) attaining control. Dependence-creation is when a manipulator creates a dependency in their target of interest. For example, providing money to someone who consistently needs it creates a dependency upon the provider. Or, a manipulator might scheme his/her target through an irresistible living arrangement, like low cost or nice conditions. In an even more sinister scenario, some men supply free drugs to drug-using women they are interested in dating or bedding. On the other side of the coin, some women use sex to keep a man or to get what she wants from him.
    To make him attached to her, Leah's strategy was having Jacob's babies. She explicitly said this in Genesis 29:32,34 (NASB, underline mine): Leah conceived and gave birth to a son, and named him Reuben, for she said, "Because the L
ORD has seen my affliction; surely now my husband will love me."...she conceived again and gave birth to a son, and said, "Now this time my husband will become attached to me, because I have borne him three sons."...
    Whatever the scheme might be, this type of manipulator tunes in to the needs, values, or addictions of a person, satisfies them quickly or abundantly or at a seemingly low cost or risk, and in doing so, creates a strategic dependency in the person. To cultivate human assets during the Cold War, the Soviet Union trained their KGB agents to do exactly this.

Why Do They Do This?
    Manipulators who use this scheme often feel they do not have the personal caliber to keep others around or influence them legitimately. They feel not good enough or not interesting enough or not pretty enough or not rich enough or not whatever enough.

    The golden rule here is to meet your needs legitimately, with the right people at the right time. You can only know this by having deep prayer conversations with the Lord and the Scriptures everyday. Manipulators want to meet your needs out of season. If you are not relating closely with the Lord everyday, you will see only sheep's clothing and not the wolf underneath. Remember the Trojan Horse!
    If God sovereignly and providentially chooses to use a manipulator to meet a need of yours, you must recognize and remember the Higher Source of this provision, and, not allow the manipulator to use his/her temporary role to control your heart, mind, or decisions. God's Word has several great examples of this. Read 1Samuel 18:20-29, Saul's giving of Michal to David. Or how God used Nebuchadnezzar, a godawful person before his salvation, to bless Daniel, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego (Dan 1-4). Consider even how God used Rahab, a prostitute, the most manipulative and dependence-creating of "professions", to protect and help the spies Joshua sent (Jsh 2).

Validation, Flattery


This scheme is aimed at weakening or dissolving our defenses by appealing to our vanity. When people validate us, we want to think they are on our side, do we not? Sadly, this is not always so. Some manipulators use validation simply to gain the upper hand over a person or situation. We are easy targets if we are still craving validation our parents or significant others never gave us, or is not giving us. We are also easy targets if we are narcissists and we just love to hear about ourselves.

Why Do They Do This?
    Manipulators do this because it works. Their philosophy is, Keep your friends close, and your enemies even closer. So instead of declaring a head-on war with those they want something from, they simply pull them in close, become their cheerleader, and have a peaceful picking of any fruit they want.

    Proverbs has two amazing scriptures about this. Proverbs 27:14 (NIV): If anyone loudly blesses their neighbor early in the morning, it will be taken as a curse. Also 27:6 (NIV): Wounds from a friend can be trusted, but an enemy multiplies kisses.
    Translation: a manipulator will tip his hand by blessing you at bizarre times in bizarre ways. They will overdo it. They will go over the top. They will lovebomb you. They will flatter you. Watch for it. They will bless you "loudly first thing in the morning" and "multiply kisses".

The Neverending Victim


This scheme intends to force your hand by appealing to your conscience. The neverending victim always needs help and is always the one wronged...supposedly. Just when a loved one swoops in and rescues them, not much later a new rescue is needed. Perpetual victims are extraordinarily draining emotionally, physically, and financially. Though they really do seem helpless and injustice-ridden, and though they might truly be to some degree or in some situations, they are, nonetheless, manipulating.

Why Do They Do This?
    Perpetual victims come in two categories: true victims and perceived victims. True victims have experienced, or are experiencing, genuine pain or injustice. Their stories are real, they are not exaggerating. However, they have learned to work and leverage those stories to get what they want, or think they deserve, or think they need.
    Perceived victims have experienced, or are experiencing, some pain or injustice--as we all have--but not nearly proportionate to their presentation of it. They want to be perceived as victims. Through exaggerations and moving explanations, they, too, work and leverage their stories to get what they want. The bottom-line is, both types are working their stories disingenuously and strategically to get what they want. This is awfully unfortunate because, instead of getting full healing and becoming a messenger of triumph, they become a sewage-pond messenger of hopelessness and helplessness.

    We all go through pain and injustice. We all have been true victims and perceived victims. This shared, common ground experience is what makes us soft, compassionate, and emotionally informed to carry others in their sorrows (2Co 1:3-7). We cannot let neverending victims, who manipulate with their stories, make us cynical and hard-hearted towards pain and injustice. Therefore, we need to wisely approach those who play the victim.
    First, feel with them, join their emotional space. Do not rush past or belittle their pain, even if they are exaggerating somewhat. Romans 12:15 (ESV): Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep.
    Second, counsel them from Scripture on healing initiatives, like fasting with prayer (Isa 58:6), forgiving offenders (Mt 5:43-48, 18:35), joining a small group for confession and prayer (Jas 5:16), consuming the Word deeply (Ps 107:20), proactively investing in relationships with helpful people (Pr 13:20), and so on.
    Third, when they try to play the victim with you, briefly feel with them, then point them back to Scripture's healing initiatives. If they are serious about overcoming, eventually they will act on your guidance and start experiencing and reporting progressive healing. If they are not serious about overcoming, they will most likely distance from you.
    Fourth, at the right time, confront them respectfully but directly about how they manipulate through the neverending victim. They need to hear a voice of loving truth challenging them to abandon the victim identity forever.
    Finally, by the Holy Spirit and situational common sense, discern when they really are in need of you and your help. When that moment comes, however you are able, supply the help (1Jn 3:16-18).

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