It’s Usually Covert
To be manipulative is to exert control or influence over a person or situation cleverly, unfairly, or unscrupulously. Covert aggression is the most common tool of the manipulator.
- When a person is obvious in their manner of fighting — arguing, seeking punitive actions and so on — they are being “overtly aggressive.”
- More common, however, is the “covertly aggressive” person: out to dominate, control or get their way but “subtle, underhanded, or deceptive enough to hide their true intentions.”
Dr. George Simon Jr. wrote a book entitled, In Sheep’s Clothing: Understanding and Dealing with Manipulative People. He explains:
Concealing overt displays of aggression while simultaneously intimidating others into backing-off, backing down or giving-in is a very powerful manipulative maneuver. That’s why covert-aggression is most often the vehicle for interpersonal manipulation… For a long time, I wondered why manipulation victims have a hard time seeing what really goes on in manipulative interactions. At first, I was tempted to fault them. But I’ve learned that they get hoodwinked for some very good reasons.– Dr. George Simon Jr.
Recognizing Manipulative Behavior
While you may see individuals and organizations displaying an obvious abuse of power, for example, it’s more common for skilled manipulators and sociopaths to employ covert strategies to get what they want. As a result, as a target you’re likely to feel confused or uneasy without known cause. You’ll likely question yourself.
Neither victim in the preceding scenarios trusted their “gut” feelings. Unconsciously, they felt on the defensive, but consciously they had trouble seeing their manipulator as… a person on the offensive. On one hand, they felt like the other person was trying to get the better of them. On the other, they found no objective evidence at the time to back-up their gut-level hunch. They ended up feeling crazy…When [manipulative people] are trying to take advantage or gain the upper hand, you don’t even know you’re in a fight until you’re well on your way to losing… Covert-aggression is at the heart of most manipulation.–Dr. George Simon Jr.
Signs that a manipulator could be targeting you include such behaviors as:
- Overwhelming you with information
- Getting information from you
- Belittling or subtly undermining you, perhaps in jest or wrapped in confusing language
- Using your words against you
- Intimidation or aggressive behavior such as raising their voice or using strong body language
- Discrediting your problems
- Making you feel guilty
- Alienating you – in personal relationships to create dominance and dependence; in social situations, to gain the upper hand and put you on the defensive
- Making themselves into the victim
Many people have the idea that they would easily be able to spot an abusive, controlling person. They believe that they would never get caught in an abusive situation or in a cult and if they ever found themselves with an abuser they would just leave. These beliefs are very dangerous and actually make people more vulnerable to the manipulators. The controlling people we are dealing with here know how to manage all aspects of a relationship. They start from the word go by manipulating your impressions of them. They lead you to think that they are wonderful people, that they are bright and worldly, they have something that is of value to you, either friendship, business knowledge, love… a skill that you want and a myriad of other things. And not only do they have it, they are willing to give it to you because they like you, they think you are special, unique, they like you for who you are. And because what they are offering is exactly what you need in that moment, it is all too easy to be entranced and fall under their spell, and so the relationship begins. Initially they shower you with attention, affection and adoration. You believe that you have met someone fantastic, you wonder where they have been all your life and you plan for a future with them. And then little by little, sometimes almost unnoticed at first, they get more fussy, somewhat demanding. They have rules that they expect you to stick to and these rules were not present at the start of the relationship. And so the control begins. But by this stage it’s too late to get out (even if you thought of leaving) because you are well and truly committed to the relationship.– David McDermott, Dealing with Controlling People: A Comprehensive Guide
More Detail: The Aggression Scale
From a clinical perspective, you can imagine a personality scale. On the healthy end is the “assertive” and on the other end is the “aggressive.”
- Assertive — Actively taking care of oneself without being truly aggressive about it, “the healthiest of all personalities.”
- Aggressive — Pursuing their agenda with ruthlessness, showing a disregard for the rights and needs of others; shares most of the characteristics of narcissists.
Simon explains that among the aggressive personality types, there is a further level of classification:
- The Unbridled-Aggressive
- The Channeled-Aggressive
- Predatory (Psychopathic)
- Covert-Aggressive Personalities
- Sociopaths and Psychopaths
- Who Can You Trust? Developing Discernment
- Evaluating Individual Testimony
- Evaluating Numbers and Statistics
Sources & Resources
- AllOurQuestions.com — What is Manipulation? Manipulation Techniques — 6 min video
- McDermott, David, Decision Making Confidence — Dealing with Controlling People: A Comprehensive Guide
- Simon Jr, Dr. George — In Sheep’s Clothing: Understanding and Dealing with Manipulative People — 2010 book