Is There a Manipulator in Your Life?

6 signs of covert aggression.

Posted Apr 08, 2019

European hazard symbol, in the public domain on Wikimedia Commons
Source: European hazard symbol, in the public domain on Wikimedia Commons

Paul was charming, outgoing, and his mother’s favorite, while Sarah was the responsible big sister. “You need to take care of your little brother,” her mother would say. So Sarah became his rescuer, lending him money, which he never repaid, and covering up for his teenaged escapades. In their twenties, she began a successful career as a journalist, while he drifted into alcohol and drugs. With his urgent phone calls and desperate demands, he’d come to her with one crisis after another. She’d drop what she was doing to deal with his needs, then work through the night to meet her press deadlines. Exhausted and resentful, she felt she had no choice. She had to help him, he was “family,” and yet. . . .

With no respect for boundaries or others’ needs, people like Paul are covert aggressors, using powerful tactics to manipulate and control us. At first, this seems ridiculous: these people are so charming, sweet, needy, or helpless, how could they possibly be aggressors? But they are.

Does someone in your life leave you feeling frustrated when you give in to their demands? Do you say “yes” when you want to say “no”? When relating to this person, do you feel guilty? obligated? exploited or confused? Then you have a covert aggressor in your life.

According to psychologist George Simon, covert aggressors appeal to our emotions, using sneaky tactics to get what they want (Simon, 2010). These people come in many varieties from drama queens (or kings) to con artists, narcissists, perpetual victims, and people who vent their frustrations on us, using us as their emotional trash can  (Dreher, 2012, 2015).

Simon (2010) has identified 6 common covert aggressive tactics. Do any of these sound familiar?

  1. Seduction: Using charm, flattery, and expressions of support to reduce our defenses and gain our trust, they play on our desire for approval, for being valued and needed.
  2. Guilt Tripping: One of the aggressor’s favorite weapons, manipulating us by appealing to our empathy and attacking our conscience, which puts us in a self-doubting, anxious, submissive position.
  3. Denial: Refusing to admit they’ve done something harmful or hurtful when they clearly have—this can make us feel guilty and doubt ourselves.
  4. Playing the Victim: Claiming to be the victim of circumstance or someone else’s behavior to gain our sympathy and get what they want.
  5. Lying: Deliberately denying or obscuring the truth with outright lies, subtle omissions, distortions, or being deliberately vague, which leaves us feeling confused and disoriented.
  6. Shaming: Using subtle sarcasms and put-downs to increase our fear and self-doubt, making us feel inadequate, unworthy, and likely to defer to them.

Appealing to our empathy, altruism, and desire to be helpful, covert aggressors catch us off guard. They prey on our insecurities, making us emotionally reactive, confused, and defensive.

How can we avoid falling into this trap? Simon (2010) says the first step is becoming aware of common covert aggressive tactics. His book offers a wide array of these tactics, showing how to recognize them. He recommends developing greater self-awareness, empowering us to change the way we respond to these people. If the covert aggressor has been preying on our insecurities, we might seek out a therapist to guide us through this process.

You can begin building your self-awareness by becoming more mindful. The next time you feel emotionally ambushed, ask yourself, “How am I feeling?” Then label your feelings, for example: “guilty,” “angry,” “anxious,” “resentful,” or “confused.” Research has shown that labeling our feelings changes the way our brains process our experience, taking us out of an automatic limbic reaction by activating the prefrontal cortex, making us more centered, focused, and able to deal with complex challenges (Hölzel, Lazar, Gard, Schuman-Olivier, Vago, & Ott, 2011; Vago & Silbersweig, 2012).

Finally, realize you have a choice. Ask yourself, “What do I choose to do?” Consider the options. If the other person is seriously depressed or suicidal, help them get the help they need—call a suicide prevention hotline or even 911 in some cases.

Otherwise, honor your own feelings and needs. Don’t believe the covert aggressor’s words if, beneath all the lies, excuses, and other manipulative tactics, you feel this person is trying to control you. Respect your needs, maintain your boundaries, and take back control of your life.

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This post is for informational purposes and should not substitute for psychotherapy with a qualified professional.

References

Hölzel, B. K., Lazar, S. W., Gard, T., Schuman-Olivier, Z., Vago., D. R., & Ott, U. (2011). How does mindfulness work? Proposing mechanisms of action from a conceptual and neural perspective. Perspectives on Psychological Science, 6, 537-559.

Simon, G. (2010) In sheep’s clothing: Understanding and dealing with manipulative people. Marion, MN: Parkhurst Brothers, Inc. For more information about dealing with covert aggressors, visit his website at https://www.drgeorgesimon.com/

Vago, D. R. & Silbersweig, D. A. (2012). Self-awareness, self-regulation, and self-transcendence (S-ART): A framework for understanding the neurobiological mechanisms of mindfulness. Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, 6. doi: 10.3389/fnhuum.2012.00296. https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fnhum.2012.00296/full

European hazard symbol. Public domain on Wikimedia Commons. https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Hazard_Xi.svg