What is a manipulative personality? Why and how do people manipulate others? What can Christians do to avoid manipulating others and being manipulated?
The manipulative personality is, essentially, an aggressive personality. Now there are people who are overtly aggressive. Those are the people that we are afraid of or intimidated by, and it is very clear that they are aggressive. Then there is the covert personality that is aggressive in a covert way. Most manipulative people are the covert type. They are not overtly aggressive. They just kind of sneak it up on us.
Those with a manipulative personality type is self-centered and narcissistic. They are self-involved and lack empathy for others. So it is all about what they want and what they can get other people to do for them, instead of what they can do for others. They tend to use other people, and they do that in a number of ways. One is to just outright lie. They are dishonest. Or, they are deceptive about it. They tell half-truths or they don’t tell the whole truth. They do this to achieve a personal agenda. They try to get people to do something for them without them realizing that they are being used. If it is bad enough – this personality, or behavior, fits a lot of different kinds of mental illness – it is part of what is called the dark triad.
The dark triad is a group of three personality traits: narcissism, Machiavellianism and psychopathy. Use of the term “dark” implies that these traits have malevolent qualities:
• Narcissism is characterized by grandiosity, pride, egotism, and a lack of empathy.
• Machiavellianism is characterized by manipulation and exploitation of others; a cynical disregard for morality, and a focus on self-interest and deception.
• Psychopathy is characterized by enduring antisocial behavior, impulsivity, selfishness, callousness, and remorselessness.
All three traits have been associated with a callous-manipulative interpersonal style. A factor analysis carried out at the Glasgow Caledonian University found that among the big five personality traits, the trait of agreeableness is strongly absent in regards to the dark triad, while other traits such as neuroticism and a lack of conscientiousness were associated with some.
In the end, the manipulative personality is self-destructive. Such people always seem to get what they want, but in the end, it is at the expense of relationships. Nobody can stand to be around them after they figure them out. They can’t seem to stay married for long. That is a pattern that runs deep with manipulation. Many of these people don’t care about relationships. They just care about getting what they want out of people. So they end up alone.
Most psychopaths are ardent students of human behavior and they just kind of gently test the inner strengths and needs that the victim has, and they gradually build a personal relationship with them. The persona of the psychopath – the personality that the victim is bonding with – does not really exist. It is all just what they think the other person wants. It is a sham. It is built on lies and carefully woven together to entrap the victim. Healthy relationships – real relationships – are built on mutual respect and trust. And they are based on sharing honest thoughts and feelings. There is none of that going on here, at least going one direction.
The psychopath abandons his victims when he determines they are no longer useful, and moves on to somebody else. There are usually no apologies, or at least, no sincere apologies, for the hurt and pain that the psychopath causes, because psychopaths do not appreciate those kind of emotions.
Now let’s talk about some manipulative strategies so that we can recognise them when we are being manipulated. We should also refrain from using them on our brothers and sisters in Christ or we will be no different from the Pharisees who used them on Jesus and the Jewish people.
Guilt-tripping. One of the things that a covert-aggressive person knows well is that other types of people have very different consciences than they do. So all a manipulator has to do is to suggest to the conscientious person that they don’t care enough, or kind of imply that they are being selfish, and that person immediately is going to start feeling bad. So that is an “in” that they can use to push people around and get them to do what they want. Turn that around and a conscientious person might try, until they are blue in the face, to get a manipulator, or any other aggressive type personality, to feel badly about a hurtful behavior, to acknowledge responsibility, or admit wrongdoing, and it is absolutely to no avail, because these people do not think that way. It is all about them. It is not about others. They do not have empathy. Doesn’t this remind us of what Jesus said of the Pharisees in Matthew 23:4: “They tie up heavy, cumbersome loads and put them on other people’s shoulders, but they themselves are not willing to lift a finger to move them.”
Shaming is another one – sometimes the use of subtle sarcasm and put-downs, as a means of increasing fear and self-doubt in others. Covert-aggressive people use this tactic to make other people feel inadequate, or unworthy, and therefore, to defer to them. So they kind of go one up. The Pharisees tried to shame Jesus in many occasions; for not performing the hand-washing ceremony before a meal (Luke 11:38); for eating and drinking and befriending tax-collectors and sinners (Matthew 11:19); claiming that “no prophet ever came out of Galilee” (John 7:52).
Vilifying the victim. This tactic is frequently used in conjunction with the attacker playing the victim role. The aggressor uses the tactic to make it look like he’s only responding, or defending himself, against aggression on the part of the victim. So it enables the aggressor to better put the victim on the defence. The Pharisees tried to vilify Jesus in Matthew 12:24 when they said: “It is only by Beelzebul, the prince of demons, that this fellow drives out demons.”
Seduction. Covert-aggressive personalities are often adept at charming, praising, flattering, or overly supporting others in order to get them to lower their defenses and surrender their trust and loyalty. Adam and Eve were seduced by the serpent into eating the forbidden fruit in Genesis 3:1-24.
What causes people to become manipulative? Where does it come from? Mostly it comes from anxiety. People anticipate catastrophic losses in some cases. So, in an effort to control their own environment, and stay safe, and meet their own needs, they try to get other people to give them what they think they can’t get for themselves.
Most psychologists think that anxiety comes from weak attachment. When a baby is not taken care of physically and/or emotionally, it begins to believe that nothing is going to work out, so it doesn’t trust other people to meet its needs. As they get older, they start taking things into their own hands to get what they need. Children are fairly powerless. To get what they want or stay out of trouble, they, sometimes, use deception or manipulation to do that. If they don’t feel like they are going to get taken care of, they start trying to take care of themselves. So it becomes a style of operating in the world – a way of living and being in the world.
There are many people who have had terrible experiences as children who do not resort to manipulation as adults, who stop doing that, or realize that that isn’t the right way to go about things. Hence, anxiety is not an excuse for manipulative behavior. It is just an explanation as to why it occurs.
Many times, anxiety or concern is a result of sin, and the cure is to deal with the sin. Psalm 32:1-5 says that the person whose sin is forgiven is blessed, and the heavy weight of guilt is taken away when sins are confessed. Is a broken relationship creating anxiety? Try to make peace (2 Corinthians 13:11). Is fear of the unknown leading to anxiety? Turn the situation over to the God who knows everything and is in control of it all (Psalm 68:20). Are overwhelming circumstances causing anxiety? Have faith in God. When the disciples became distressed in a storm, Jesus first rebuked their lack of faith, then rebuked the wind and the waves (Matthew 8:23-27). As long as we are with Jesus, there is nothing to fear.
We can count on the Lord to provide for our needs, protect us from evil, guide us, and keep our souls secure for eternity. We may not be able to prevent anxious thoughts from entering our minds, but we can practice the right response. Philippians 4:6, 7 instructs us to “not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known unto God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.”
Let us sing of the peace that only God can give with the song “My Peace”: