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How the Most Manipulative People Shape Their Reality

Influence can be benign. Manipulation never is.

Key points

  • All forms of manipulation are influence but not all forms of influence are manipulation.
  • Influence can be benign and appropriate but manipulation never is.
  • The two forms of manipulation are episodic and global.
  • Global manipulation deprives a person of moral goods such as autonomy, dignity, self-worth, and self-trust.

You’ve met a person who tries to convince you that up is down, right is wrong, and black is white. This person has a deep investment in your coming to see the world as he does. He can employ various strategies and tactics. He may cajole, belittle, or question your intelligence and sanity. He may conjure “facts” or lay claim to knowledge that he alone possesses. In short, he tries whatever he can to bring you into The Manipulatrix, a reality manufactured for his own needs, wants, or ends.

The difference between influence and manipulation

Manipulation is a specific form of influence. All forms of manipulation are influence but not all forms of influence are manipulation. The challenge has always been drawing the line between what is an acceptable or appropriate use of influence and what is manipulation. Appropriate influence may involve trying to persuade a person that she is about to do something not in her best interest. A person who has been in recovery but is contemplating using again may be someone whom we try to influence to reach a different decision. Parents may try to influence their children to make better choices about studying, working diligently, or having fun. These two cases of benign or appropriate influence share a commitment to doing what’s in the best interest of the other.

Manipulation, on the other hand, tends to have the interest of the manipulator front and center, though this may be very effectively disguised. In its localized or episodic form, manipulation erodes a person’s certainty about a particular subject. For example, a longtime employee of a company may regularly dismiss the suggestions offered by a new employee, referring to him as too young or inexperienced. The converse also holds; a newer employee may readily discount the experience of older employees. Where the manipulated has even a kernel of doubt, these comments will quickly attach to it.

With localized or episodic manipulation, the doubt created and perhaps diligently tended begins to undermine a person’s agency and authority. Where before he may have acted with confidence, now he hesitates. He may become less willing to act out of fear of making a mistake and proving others right. He second guesses himself and begins to believe that the other person has a better or more accurate perspective on him.

Creating The Manipulatrix

The more egregious form of manipulation is global in scope. Global manipulation includes all the dynamics of localized manipulation but with an exponentially increased range. Every aspect of a person’s existence is questioned and reshaped for another’s benefit. Global manipulation sows self-doubt about all aspects of a person’s life. The globally manipulated person no longer trusts herself—her experience, knowledge, preferences, etc—but rather trusts the manipulator. Global manipulation creates The Manipulatrix. In it, a person’s reality is manufactured for the needs, wants, and ends of another.

A person who engages in global manipulation weaponizes emotions, especially trust and loyalty. Good and positive emotions are turned on their heads; loyalty becomes obedience and trust becomes exploitation. Negative emotions, such as guilt, embarrassment, regret, and shame serve as levers for manipulation. Global manipulation also hijacks mental states and cognitive abilities. These provide fertile grounds for corruption. A victim’s humility and skepticism may be transformed into pervasive doubt about anything and everything.

The Manipulatrix can be created by one individual over another, as is often the case in childhood abuse and in abusive relationships of adults. A pre-existing power differential may be an on-ramp to The Manipulatrix. Young athletes and coaches, students and teachers, bosses and underlings are all unequal relationships with respect to age, knowledge, experience, and institutional power. Individuals within institutions can also create The Manipulatrix, especially with vulnerable individuals or marginalized and powerless groups. A religion that convinces abuse survivors that they must have misunderstood a perpetrator’s actions or that they themselves are responsible for those actions is a classic case. The Manipulatrix operates at its most cruel and vicious efficiency when the manipulated not only accept this treatment as deserved but take it as a form of love.

Damages within The Manipulatrix

In The Manipulatrix, these dynamics become second nature to both the manipulator and manipulated. The manipulation becomes so frequent, common, and ordinary that is taken as normal, natural, and inevitable rather than manufactured. The manipulators may believe themselves to be entitled and justified in their actions. The manipulated suffer grievous losses. They lose (if they even had the opportunities to develop) the vital moral goods of autonomy (self-rule), respect, self-worth, dignity, and self-trust. Globally manipulated people are not treated as full human beings with their own projects, goals, and aspirations. Rather, they are treated as means to the ends of other people. As philosopher Immanuel Kant explains, using a person in these ways fails to recognize and respect the humanity of a person. Each person deserves this respect; however, The Manipulatrix shreds that respect for the manipulated.

Note: The word “manipulatrix,” is defined as the female equivalent of a manipulator. More colloquially, the term is used to define a woman who uses her considerable feminine charms to get men to do her work. Often the manipulation is in a sexualized form. I will, at present, leave this topic with just a mention of the fact that the stereotype of women as enchantress, vixen, or Jezebel is millennia old.

Facebook image: SpeedKingz/Shutterstock

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