I’m actually surprised by how many peeps have contacted me to ask when I’m writing the follow up to the blog I wrote on Covert Aggressive (CA) personalities and I have 20 minutes right now to get something up on the blog for ya’ll! If you want to learn about this subject, in depth, you can read In Sheep’s Clothing by George Simon, PhD and Who’s Pulling Your Strings by Harriet Braiker, PhD. Both are fantastic books aimed at helping others deal with the chronic manipulators in their lives.
Disclaimer: 20 minutes does not give me enough time to check and correct my grammar or spelling and I’m in a hurry, so you will just have to excuse my poor writing skills this time!
Before I get into how to recognize and deal with them, I need to say a few things first.
- As one of my fellow derby dolls pointed out, nobody fits into just one category when we talk about personalities. I agree with her. However, many people do exhibit a majority of personality traits in a certain area. I, for instance, have a lot of Overt Aggressive traits. I am not shy about going after what I want and I make it known that I am going after whatever it is I desire or feel strongly about. The difference between me and a CA is that I fight for what I want openly, honestly, on the surface and without any underhanded, sneaky, conniving means. Having an aggressive personality isn’t always a good thing, but it’s not necessarily a bad thing, either – especially if the aggressor fights for what they want fairly and in good conscience.
- I believe that some people who are masters at manipulation are not necessarily bad people, even though both of the above books will claim they are. I think that a lot of the time, these people just never learned how to fight fairly for what they want and, instead – from a very young age – they realized it was easier to get whatever they wanted by working around obstacles by lying, cheating, making others feel shame for not giving them what they want, etc. By the time they were adults, they had been using these kinds of tactics for so long that their manipulative methods were ingrained into their personalities and now they really have no idea that their behaviour is less than desirable to the rest of us. Not only do they have no idea, but even if it’s pointed out to them, they won’t recognize it and will immediately deny it. They’ll probably laugh it off and tell their buddies about it, minimizing it and most definitely accusing the person who pointed out the behaviour of being a whack job. This is to be expected and it is not my mission or intention to try to help the Covert Aggressives out there to recognize their behaviours or change them. People obviously won’t try to change a behaviour they don’t realize they exhibit. They especially won’t try to change one that they deny exhibiting.
I just want to use what I’ve learned to help others recognize the CA’s in their lives and deal with them. Essentially, I want your lives to become easier too, by eliminating some of the unnecessary stress from them.
- CA’s often think of themselves as good, upstanding peeps and they can always find a way to justify the things they do and convince themselves (and often convince others) that their actions, words, etc. are completely acceptable – even if Joe Public thinks otherwise. So, don’t be surprised if a CA you deal with does something completely despicable, hurtful, unacceptable, etc. and then tells you that they didn’t do anything wrong. They fight to win every situation (even the simplest ones) and to one-up everyone around them and, in their minds, they are in the right by doing the things that they do.
- Everybody has undesirable aspects of our personalities. Sometimes we lie (for an abundance of reasons), sometimes we manipulate others, sometimes we hurt others, etc. I am not perfect in any way, shape or form. I have lied before. I have used manipulation to get something I have desired. I have laid guilt trips on people. Basically, I have engaged in Covert Aggressive behaviours at one time or another in my life. Many teenagers and young adults use all sorts of covert aggressive tactics to get their way because, well, they are young and immature and haven’t figured out yet how to get things by being straightforward and honest. Most people, if they are fortunate, mature and grow with life experience and, again, if they are fortunate, shed their immature ways of dealing with people and become adept at basic, honest human relations. The difference between a person who sometimes uses manipulation – in any form – and a Covert Aggressive is that a CA uses manipulation on a regular, consistent basis.
- I believe that one of the largest aspects of a CA personality is their penchant for projecting their own undesirable behaviours onto others – all the time. They will do anything they can to take the spotlight off their own shitty behaviour and put it onto someone else and make that other person look like a total douchebag. They are very, very good at this
- Manipulators are excellent at reading other people and so they are attracted to people who have good, solid consciences and are upstanding kind of people. They will befriend these types of people more than any other because they are the easiest type of people to manipulate. It’s the people who question their actions the most and weigh whether they are acting properly – within acceptable societal standards – that are the easiest type of people for CA’s to take advantage of. So, if you suspect you are in some sort of relationship with a CA, ask yourself what kind of person you are. Do you feel guilty easily? Do you feel shame easily? Do you give everyone you know the benefit of the doubt? Do you look for the good in everyone? Do you believe everyone, no matter who they are or what they do, has some good in them? Etc. If you do, then you are a target. That is not necessarily a bad thing, just something to be aware of.
Okay, here are some of the red flags that you can watch out for with Covert Aggressives (all of this info comes from Ph.D George Simon’s book In Sheep’s Clothing and Who’s Pulling Your Strings by Harriet Braiker, Ph.D available from Amazon):
- Minimization: Whatever they’ve done, no matter how undesirable, is no big deal.
- Lying: They usually lie by leaving out key aspects of a situation or story, by telling half truths.
- Denial: Who…me? They make it seem as though they couldn’t possibly be guilty of what they’re being accused of.
- Selective Inattention or Selective Attention: They ignore you if you accuse them of something by only acknowledging everything else except what you’re accusing them of.
- Rationalization: They can rationalize any undesirable behaviour but making their explanation seem just true enough that you begin to doubt your convictions and lose your footing.
- Guilt trips and Shame Tactics: CA’s are masters at making other people feel guilt or shame to get what they want. They will play to your sense of duty, your sense of obligation, etc. The more conscience you have and the more you try to be a good person and an upstanding citizen, the easier it will be for them to lay on the guilt or shame.
- Diversion, evasion and deliberate vagueness: When asked a direct question about an undesirable behaviour – such as making decisions for other people that are not theirs to make- they will immediately change the subject, direct the blame at something else or onto someone else or they will be deliberately vague with their answer. They are very good at distracting you from the question at hand to avoid any consequence for their undesirable behaviour and to, once again, deny their behaviour.
- Intimidation: If you call them on an undesirable behaviour and tell them you are going to let everyone know about it, they are very good at using subtle threat tactics to make you fear for your own reputation or job or whatever. For example, if you work with someone who is lying or cheating the company and you threaten to disclose them, they will find one instance where you seemed less than the ideal employee and bring it up, making you feel that it was a major transgression and that they’ll tell the boss about it if you tell the boss about them. This makes you feel less sure of your conviction and nien times out of ten, will make you back off.
- Playing The Victim: This involves acting like the victim of circumstance to gain sympathy, compassion, etc. to get something from someone else. Since CA’s are attracted to well-balanced people, they understand our inability to handle it if a person seems to be suffering and they play on it.
- Playing The Servant. CA’s often “cloak their self-serving agendas in the guise of service to a noble cause” as George Simon says. They pretend that they are working hard for that cause to conceal their own ambitious desires for power and dominance over others.
- Seduction: CA’s are skilled at using flattery, praise and all sorts of other positive reinforcement to get people to lower their natural defences so the CA can win their trust and loyalty.
- A combo of all of the above: Often, a CA will combine a few of the above tactics to ensure that they throw so much emotional turmoil and uncertainty at the people around them that those people will be overwhelmed and back off, all the while wondering if they are imagining things.
And now for how to deal with all of the behaviours mentioned above. Dr. Simon says that the best way to get a CA to change a behaviour (for the moment you need it changed, not long term which is pretty much impossible) is to bring attention to the behaviour at the moment it happens and insist it be changed right then and there. He says that CA’s will only change their usual tactics if someone is willing to stop them in mid-manipulation (whether that be making excuses, projecting blame, guilt-tripping, avoiding responsibility, etc).
1) First and foremost, stop thinking that people who engage in undesirable behaviours do so because of mitigating circumstances – ie. They use the behaviours they use because they have been hurt in the past, have been fucked over, are intimidated by you, are jealous of you, etc. They use the behaviours they use because that is the easiest way for them to get what they want. Period.
2) Learn to recognize who you’re dealing with on a regular basis. If you deal with someone who constantly needs to have their way or always seems to need to win in any given situation, someone who always tries to get the upper hand and who has a very hard time taking no for an answer, you are definitely dealing with someone who has an aggressive personality. If you regularly deal with someone who does all those things and also constantly makes excuses for hurting you (physically or mentally), lays guilt trips on you, shames you into acquiescing, rarely gives you a straight answer to a question and blows up if you challenge them, you are dealing with someone who definitely has Covert Aggressive traits.
3) Do an internal check. A master manipulator is only as good as the person they are manipulating. Chances are if you are the kind of person who tries to be kind all the time, trusts easily, gives people the benefit of the doubt, and looks for excuses in other people’s poor behaviour, you are a prime target for manipulative people. If you know that you’re a genuinely good person who does regular conscience checks and applies the brakes before you cross the lines acceptable by society, then you should also know that you will be easy for a CA personality to play like a piano. Basically, if you’re naïve, over conscientious, have low self-esteem, think too much, are naturally submissive, etc., you’re a good target for CA’s.
4) Expect CA’s to try to manipulate you. Once again, EXPECT TO BE MANIPULATED. And, instead of being sucked in by them, listen for what they are not saying rather than to what they are saying. Stay alert for all of the above tactics and, the moment you recognize them, label them – out loud if you have to – and respond to them, focusing on what you want or need.
Don’t go on the defensive when you figure out that they are trying to manipulate you, just state your needs and stick to your guns.
For example: Your coworker makes a completely arbitrary decision about a project you are working on with several people– one that affects everyone at your workplace – without consulting anyone about it . She proceeds to tell you how the project is going to be run, without your input or anyone else’s. You recognize the coworker’s CA tendencies and understand that she is trying to take over the project and dictate to all of the other members of the project because of her inherent need to be in a power position and be in control. Rather than get pissed off, you decide to call her on her behaviour with the other members present. She immediately back pedals and pretends she was just starting a discussion on the topic, not trying to take control of everything. You recognize the back pedalling, but are cool with the outcome, as long as she is aware that you aren’t as easy to manipulate as she believes and as long as she realizes that she will not get away with that kind of behaviour.
Another Example: Your child doesn’t want to do something – perhaps his homework – so he throws a huge temper tantrum when you insist he get it done. He tells you that he’s stupid and that the kids at school make fun of him and he just hates school and wishes he lived in another town. He accuses you of making him go to that school to torture him and make him suffer at the hands of bullies. If you weren’t aware of your ability to be manipulated – based on your desire to be a good parent – you would probably be diverted by his evasive tactic as he takes the focus off doing his homework and puts it on your terrible parenting practices. He’s used three tactics to divert you from the matter at hand – guilt about making him go to a school he hates, shame at not noticing how unhappy he is there and evasion as he diverts your attention to the matter at hand. If you know yourself, you will recognize how easy it is for a child to pluck away at their parents guilt and shame strings and how easily it is for him to evade the issue. Stick to your guns and tell him that despite how he may feel, his homework still needs to be finished.
Morale of the story is, if you know yourself, you know your weaknesses and you can recognize manipulative behaviours more easily. When you do recognize the behaviour, do something about it immediately – even if it’s as simple as saying, “I see what you are doing and I am not going to allow you to get away with it.”
5) Don’t fight a losing battle. Don’t try to get the manipulator to change the way they interact with others, change the way you interact with the manipulator:
- Don’t accept excuses or rationalizations for undesirable behaviour. The moment they start making excuses or trying to rationalize their behaviour, they are trying to get you to agree with their point of view. And, because they are trying to rationalize their way out of it, it is a dead giveaway that they’ll do it again. So, let the CA know that you respect their right to try really hard to convince you that their actions were appropriate, but you still don’t accept or be influenced by their excuses or rationalizations any more.
- Judge the behaviour itself. Don’t get caught up in what motivated the CA to engage in the behaviour in the first place. The intentions that lead up to an undesirable behaviour are irrelevant because it is the action itself that shows you a person’s true character. In the case of a CA, it is their consistently undesirable actions that show their true character. This goes back to avoiding getting caught up in trying to find a reason for a CA’s poor behaviour based on past hurts, abuses, etc.
- Set limits on the amount of crap you’ll take from the CA. Perhaps you’ll tolerate their attempts at guilt-tripping or shaming, but draw the line at evasion, minimization, etc. Be very aware of how much of their tactics you can handle and stick to it.
- Be direct. Clear, concise, “I” statements work best with CA’s. “I want you to…” “I no longer want you to…”, etc. Be as precise and specific as you possibly can so the CA has no choice but to understand what you expect from them and also gives them no room to pretend they misunderstood you.
- Accept only direct answers. Once you make a direct, specific request, only accept a direct, specific answer. If you don’t get one, ask again. Keep asking until you get the answer you are asking for. You don’t have to be an asshole to do this, but you definitely have to stand up for yourself and let the other person know that you deserve an answer to your question. For Example: If you ask someone, “Did you mail the cheque?” and they launch into an explanation of how their day or week is going, etc., chances are they are trying to avoid answering your question because all it takes is a yes or no response. Ask again.
- Focus on the matter at hand. Don’t let the CA use evasive or diversionary tactics to steer you away from the problem behaviour you are addressing. Focus on the behaviour you are confronting and stick with trying to make the CA aware that you are not happy with it. Leave out the past or the future and focus on the behaviour at that moment only. Example: A CA is talking to you in a derogatory, dismissive or ignorant way. Explain to them that you are not going to accept the way they are speaking to you and insist that they return to a more civil, polite tone or you will remove yourself from the conversation until they are willing to do so. Don’t let them start accusing you of speaking ignorantly in the past and don’t bring up the fact that they have spoken to you this way before. Simply point it out, insist it be changed and, if it’s not changed immediately, refuse to engage in conversation with them until they change the way they are speaking to you.
- Keep the onus of change on the CA. If they are engaging in a completely undesirable behaviour, call them on it, demand it be changed and stick to your guns. Don’t let them use their usual tactics to squirm their way out of owning up to the behaviour. Ask them what they intend to do to change it.
- Stay calm. Don’t be an asshole when confronting a CA about their behaviours. If you are sarcastic, hostile, look down your nose at them, threaten them, etc. It will give them the excuse they are looking for to flip things around and start blaming you for your own undesirable behaviour. Just keep your cool and, ahem, stick to your guns!
- When you recognize a manipulative tactic, take action immediately. As Dr. Simon says, “It’s easiest to stop a runaway train when it first starts rolling down the hill.” If you see it, act on it and get yourself back on an even playing field. Sometimes it’s as simple as saying, “I know what you’re trying to do here and it is not going to work on me.”
- Always try for a win/win situation when dealing with them. There are four scenarios a CA wants: #1 They win, you lose (this is what they want). #2 You win, they lose (this is what they don’t want). #3 You both lose (also what they don’t want, but they’ll take this over you winning any day). #4 You both win. Obviously, they want to win – that is what makes them tick – but they’ll be okay with a win/win over a You win/they lose or a lose/lose scenario. So try to find a way to compromise when dealing with them that lets everyone get a little of what they want.
- Be prepared for consequences and retaliation. If you win and they lose in a situation, you can sure as shit expect that they will do whatever they can to one-up you again. Either be prepared for the onslaught and deal with it as it comes (ie. Keep on living your life) or try to anticipate what they will do (who has the time for that???) and circumvent it.
There you have it. That was a ton of writing, but I managed it in 18 minutes. Thank goodness I can type a bazillion words a minute! The last thing to remember is that you have to be honest with yourself and make sure you don’t have any hidden agenda to be served as a result of manipulating the manipulator. Make sure before you confront anyone or call anyone on their behaviour that you are not engaging in the same behaviours on a consistent, blatant basis.
It’s always much easier to change ourselves than it is to change anyone else.
Good luck with recognizing and dealing with the master manipulators in your lives and with getting to know yourselves better and discovering your own strengths and weaknesses.
And Happy Monday everyone. I wish you all enough…
There ya go, 20 minutes! Booyah!