This article is part two of an interview with clinical Psychologist Dr. George Simon the internationally-recognized expert on manipulation and character disturbance, and the bestselling author of In Sheep’s Clothing, Character Disturbance, and The Judas Syndrome
You can read part one of this interview here: The Psychology of Manipulation – Part 1
In this article:
- Frame Control
- Impression Management
- Feigning innocence
- Playing the victim, vilifying the victim
- Selective inattention
- How to deal with manipulative behavior
- Are the victims of manipulation somewhat responsible?
- Are there any positive lessons we can learn from manipulators?
Michael Frank: Let’s go through some of these manipulative tactics, and let’s start with gaslighting. How does gaslighting work? What is it?
Dr. George Simon: Gaslighting is a crazy making behavior. I’ll share a story that somebody lets me share because they want people to know how far somebody could go. I know an abuse victim who went to great lengths to finally get free of her abuser. She claimed a new life and a new location, changed identity, changed phone numbers, changed all of her identifying information, just so she could get a fresh new start in life. One day she couldn’t find her cell phone. She looked everywhere for it for days. Eventually she found it when she opened her freezer door. Her cell phone was in the ice bin. Now who would misplace their cell phone in an ice bin? This was her abuser sending her a message: “There’s no place to hide. You can’t escape”. And she felt crazy for awhile. She thought she was losing her mind.
But these kinds of tactics are rare. What usually happens in gaslighting is that whatever tactics the manipulator is using, whether they’re casting themselves as a victim, whether they’re guilting or shaming you, whether they’re trying to get you to buy into some crazy rationalization for why whatever they did was justifiable when there’s really no legitimate excuse for it, these behaviors create doubt in you. They make you question your judgment. They may even make you question your sanity. So gaslighting is really the effect of any manipulative tactic, and skilled manipulators can really enhance that effect when they use their tactics with apparent passion and conviction.
So for example, when they’ve been the one that’s been cheating, and their partner has understandably lost a sense of trust in them, the cheater might come after the victim with something like: “Who can’t let this go? What kind of a person brings us up day after day?” All in an attempt to make the person who has been the victim of the breach of trust feel like the heavy, and to make them question their sanity and the legitimacy of their feelings. And the more intensity and passion that the manipulator attaches to the tactics, the more enhanced the gaslighting effect.
Michael Frank: Is gaslighting generally one to one, or do some smart gaslighter’s try to involve more than one person to try and make the target feel crazy?
Dr. George Simon: Most commonly it’s one to one, but skilled gaslighters will solicit a little army of support, and that’s a more effective tactic.
Michael Frank: Another thing I’ve heard about, but know nothing about, is triangulation. What is triangulation?
Dr. George Simon: Triangulation is when you involve others into a drama, and you pit one person against the other. You see it in dysfunctional families all the time, where the person who has risen to the position of power and control, is probably the person who doesn’t need to be in that position. And what they’ve done is formed unholy alliances with others, and therefore triangulated the family. I witnessed that firsthand just the other day, in a family where the marriage had been fracturing for many years. The marital alliance was just not there. The kids had therefore kind of taken over. And how the triangulation occurred was that one of the parents had elicited support for his position with the children, and thereby gaslighted the wife even further.
Michael Frank: I think one of the smartest manipulative tactics I know of is frame control. Can you speak about that a little bit?
Dr. George Simon: Yeah. This is what politicians call spinning. How I frame the issue, how I frame the debate, goes a long way to selling my point of view and manipulating or managing the impressions of others. For example: If I talk about such things as marriage equality, as soon as I use the term “equality”, I’ve basically framed the debate as if you have an opposing position to mine, you don’t believe in equality. That’s a very powerful manipulation tool. Politicians have been using it for years and it’s now reached a near art form. How we frame the debate really matters. And there’s an inherent dishonesty in that sometimes. We have to quit spinning the truth, distorting the truth. We have to be subordinate to the truth. It has to be a bigger than us.
In our narcissistic age, the narcissist says to the world: “The truth is what I say it is”. Today some folks with narcissistic tendencies call that “alternative facts”. Objective reality has lost its place as something to be revered. It’s all relative. Everything is whatever I say it is, and how I frame things can sell my point. That’s the essence of spin and frame control. That’s the essence of manipulating people’s impressions. Some folks are really good at it too, and it’s really just a form of lying and lying is nothing new to the human race. All of us are capable of lying, and you know we lie basically for two reasons: We lie sometimes to avoid something we don’t want to have happen, but more often we lie to get something we want that we don’t think we can secure legitimately and fairly.
Michael Frank: What about minimization? What is minimization?
Dr. George Simon: Minimization is when you make a molehill out of a mountain. It’s when I try to make something I did into a triviality instead of the big thing that it really is. By doing so it makes me look a little better as a person, and it doesn’t make me look so defective in my conscience or so toxic in my behavior. So I try to insinuate that what I did was not that bad: “I just touched you.. I didn’t hurt you that bad… I don’t do it all the time… I hardly ever do it…”
It obscures the fact that whatever I did was totally inappropriate.
Minimization vs rationalization
Michael Frank: Is minimization the same as rationalization? Or are they slightly different?
Dr. George Simon: Minimization is a specific type of rationalization. It’s a way to trivialize. There are other forms of rationalization too. And by the way we used to think of rationalization and minimization as unconscious defense mechanisms. As if we were unaware and didn’t know that we were doing them. As if they were something our unconscious minds did on their own. We used to think that we unconsciously did these things to assuage guilt.
What we now realize is that these behaviors are generally tactics to get people to buy into our way of thinking about things and doing things, and to justify our bad behavior. And besides which, if I didn’t know that a certain behavior was wrong, or that most people would think it was wrong, why would I need to make an excuse for it?
The person who is making excuses and rationalizations and trying to trivialize their behavior and make it seem not so bad, knows that most people would regard their behavior as wrong. That’s why they’re doing it. I see this all the time in abuse cases where the issue is simply: “Did you hit this person?” Well the very first thing that comes out of their mouth is not a “yes” or a “no”, but the excuse or the justification for it, and maybe even throwing in a little bit of playing the victim: “She pushed me to where what else was I to do? She’s always on my case. She never has a good thing to say. She irritates me. She nags. She says or does things that she knows will get under my skin and she keeps doing it and doing it” blah, blah, blah, blah, blah
It’s just a way to try to justify and excuse and preserve some kind of a decent social face or image when the person clearly knows it’s wrong, otherwise they wouldn’t be offering the excuse for it.
Michael Frank: Is this all about impression management?
Dr. George Simon: Yeah, most people want to be seen as decent folks, and manipulators are very careful about this. They don’t want to be seen for who they really are. Besides if you knew who they really were, and how they really operate, and what they really want from you, you might give some resistance. So they want to maintain a favorable image. That’s what we call the art of impression management.
Michael Frank: What are some of the most common impression management tactics?
Dr. George Simon: Well they keep their aggressive intentions and their agendas undercover with the subtle tactics of playing the victim, casting the other person as a villain, and using guilt as a weapon. These things are subtle. They don’t obviously expose the manipulator as someone fighting for what they want and willing to use whatever means necessary to get their way. So they actually end up looking fairly good, while making the other person, the true victim, look bad. So all of these tactics are impression management tools.
When somebody is making a plausible sounding excuse, when they’re trivializing what they did, when they’re casting themselves as the victim and you as the villain, whenever they’re engaging in any of those behaviors, they’re doing three things at once:
- They’re throwing you on the defensive
- They’re making an aggressive bid to gain their way
- They’re looking good – or as good as they can – doing it
So this is engaging in impression management, and they’re having their way with you through the use of these tactics. At the same time that’s what makes these tactics effective. Conscientious people don’t want to see the character disturbed for the brutes they really are. But we live in a culture that has unfortunately spawned too many brutes, too many folks that are without sufficient conscience, who will do whatever they think they need to do to get their way, and who feel perfectly entitled to their way. People who lack empathy, care, positive regard for anybody but themselves. All they care about is looking good as they fight unscrupulously for the things they want. That’s the heart of impression management.
Michael Frank: Another thing they might do is feign innocence…
Dr. George Simon: Yeah. Some folks will go to great lengths to conceal malevolent intent. They’ll even go so far as to acknowledge that they did something wrong, and admit that they made a mistake, but the thing they really want you to believe is that they didn’t mean harm. They’ll admit to what they did. But they’ll say it was an accident, no harm was intended, and they didn’t really mean it. And you know when somebody broadcasts really loudly and repeatedly that they didn’t mean it, my general rule is that what you should probably suspect more than anything else, is that they actually did mean it, which is why they’re going to such great lengths to say that they didn’t.
You know we all make mistakes, and we all inadvertently hurt people from time to time with no ill intent whatsoever. But we’re quick to own it, and when we do own it, we apologize for it, and we make amends for it. We feel compelled to because we truly feel badly about what we did. We didn’t mean harm, and once we realized that we did harm, we felt some obligation to repair the damage. It’s just not the case with manipulators, they want to be seen as innocent, when they know they’re not.
Playing the victim, vilifying the victim
Michael Frank: Another thing they might do along those lines is play the victim, or vilify the victim. I’ve observed a lot of people that have played the victim, but I don’t know a lot about how vilifying the victim works. Can you speak about that?
Dr. George Simon: Yeah. I gave a workshop in San Francisco a couple of years ago, and I gave this case about this 14-year-old boy who was starting to get physically abusive with his mother. Single Mom, Dad had been out of the picture for quite some time, and he had become really unruly, and when cornered on his abusive behavior, he started making the case that he was the real victim and she was the real victimizer: “She never has anything good to say about me. She’s always on my case. It’s always this, it’s always that, she’s always pushing me. She never lets up”.
And by the way, we only have his word for this, and we already know from his behavior that his character is not very well formed, and that he does not abide by the principles of common decency. So you know, you have to take what that kind of person says with a grain of salt, but that’s how he was making her out to be, this relentless negative person who constantly pushed, pushed, pushed him to the brink. And then somebody in the back of the room raised their hand and said: “I can see that Dr. Simon. I can see that. And I don’t blame the kid at all. Some parents can do that”. And I’m thinking to myself: “Okay, this person who is a health professional just said that there’s an excuse for aggressive behavior, that she can see it, that she could even understand it, that there’s a legitimate excuse for striking your mother”. Wow. Talk about the effectiveness of a tactic.
And by the way, we have absolutely no way to know if that was true. I mean the audience certainly didn’t have any way to know. And I knew from the case that the young man was lying egregiously, but casting his mother that way in an attempt to justify his behavior.
Michael Frank: What can you tell me about selective inattention?
Dr. George Simon: Yeah I talk about selective inattention a lot in my workshops. It’s a mental filter, and it’s often interpreted as ADD by clinicians. Character impaired people, manipulators in particular, hear what they want to hear, pay attention to what they want to pay attention to, and they immediately start tuning out what they don’t want to pay attention to. Especially to what might prompt them to reconsider their behavior. They tune it out. Society has been sending them all kinds of messages about what it takes to function responsibly in society, and they just don’t want to hear it. So they pay attention to what they want to pay attention to, and they don’t pay attention to anything else.
In my clinical practice, I developed a powerful tool very early on to deal with selective inattention. I call it selective speak. When I’m dealing with a character impaired individual, somebody who I know has an underdeveloped conscience and character, and who needs to acquire and internalize some values, if they’re not engaging with me in an open, honest, receptive way, if they’re tuning me out, I don’t talk. I don’t give them anything. I just wait for them to come around and show some willingness.
By the way that willingness is what the founder of AA (Alcoholics Anonymous) Bill Wilson called the absolute cornerstone of recovery. And that is the willingness to open oneself up and consider something different. The willingness to receive some guidance and direction and to consider a different path.
How to deal with manipulative behavior
Michael Frank: Now that we know some of the tactics of Manipulative people: How do we then deal with manipulative behavior? Is it simply a matter of calling it out and that’s enough because no one likes being called out on their crap? Or are there some other things that we should do to deal with manipulative behavior?
Dr. George Simon: We don’t need to call it out because we don’t need to assume that they don’t know what they’re doing, or that it’s our job to enlighten them. There’s no point in calling it out. We just don’t have to respond. We don’t have to play the game. It takes two to play the manipulation game.
We have to recognize the tactics for what they are. We have to recognize the people who use them for who they are. The best way to respond is not to call it out, but to simply advocate for our own welfare, and be guided only by our own principles, and by our own legitimate wants and needs. We have to assert our own rights, and we have to set our own limits and our own boundaries, and we have to take care of ourselves, and we have to trust our own gut. The main counter and the most important thing on the receiving end is to just not to respond and not to be swayed. Don’t let the punches land basically is the strategy.
Are the victims somewhat responsible?
Michael Frank: How much responsibility do you place on the shoulders of the victims in abusive or manipulative relationships? For example: If you’ve got a woman who is repeatedly manipulated by her man or attacked physically or abused verbally but she knows that’s the way that it is, that’s the way it’s been today, it’s the way it was yesterday, it’s the way it was last week, it’s the way it’s been for the last five, ten, fifteen plus years. I’m thinking: Just do something already. Reach out. Seek help. Don’t go back to the same guy. Do you place a lot of responsibility on the victims in that scenario?
Dr. George Simon: You know I had to get a real education about that, because in my very early years I entertained such dysfunctional notions. I really couldn’t understand how some victims remained in those situations. But then I came to appreciate something very deeply. The victims know at a very, very, deep level that the most dangerous circumstance they face is saying no. Because folks who are hell bent on dominance and control will not take no for an answer. We know this from the research. We know this without any question. The most dangerous time for an abuse victim is when they have finally had enough.
The victim wants so desperately to declare some independence, and they make a bid for freedom, and the abuser says: “Oh yeah?!” that’s the most dangerous time, and this is what gets played out many times in murder suicide scenarios. The abuser says: “You know, if I’m going down, you’re going down with me. If I can’t win this power battle, if I can’t maintain the position of control and dominance, if I can’t have my way, then nobody will have their way”. The last thing they’re going to allow is for the victim to finally win and wrest free. It’s the most dangerous time. And abuse victims know that intuitively. They have a deep abiding awareness of that. And it’s that fear, that very practical real fear, that keeps them in that relationship. As soon as I came to appreciate that and came to appreciate their plight, everything changed for me. The literature has backed that up in spades.
Michael Frank: I hear what you’re saying and I don’t want to appear insensitive. There are definitely tens of millions of abuse victims, people that have been abused psychologically and sexually and physically. But there are also certain people that love to embrace the “poor me” victim mentality, where I don’t think it’s useful or functional. So I’m drawing a distinction. Obviously we have people in both categories and I think it was the latter, not the person who is genuinely in danger, but the person embracing the “poor me” victim mentality, and I guess I just want people to have the mentality of: “I’m not a victim, I don’t need to be manipulated by anyone, and I do have choices even if that’s going to the police or seeking help”.
Dr. George Simon: Well there are definitely individuals who struggle with a lot of emotional dependency issues. They haven’t developed the assertive or the independent coping skills to function independently. And they are far too emotionally dependent on those they view as stronger or more capable than themselves. There are those individuals for sure. And those individuals will tolerate incredible amounts of abuse simply because they’re afraid of living on their own and fending for themselves, not just emotionally, but physically, occupationally and financially.
So yes there are individuals in abusive relationships that got into those abusive relationships because they struggled with dependency issues, and these people are like a magnet for abusers and deeply character disturbed people who want to exert power and control and dominate others. They recognize the dependency needs in others, and they recognize the easy opportunity to exercise dominance and control over another individual.
So yes there are those situations, but it’s a dangerous assumption to make that most people in such relationships, come to the relationship with those characteristics, and it is those characteristics that put them at a disadvantage in the relationship.
Are there any positive lessons we can learn from manipulative people?
Michael Frank: Final question, and it’s a bit of a funny one, but are there any positive lessons that we can learn from manipulative people? For example, they’re assertive, they go for what they want, and I’m guessing that by and large they have a higher emotional intelligence than average, which enables them to manipulate people more effectively because they understand how they work. Are there any other positive lessons that we can learn from manipulative people?
Dr. George Simon: Absolutely. The number one lesson is that character matters. It matters. How we conduct ourselves matters. If we conduct ourselves honestly, if we do it respectfully, with care and concern for the impact of our striving on everyone and everything else, that makes a difference, and it matters more to our survival than anything else. It all comes down to that.
What we can recognize from manipulative behavior is that we are inherently fighters who strive for the things we want, and many times we are unscrupulous about how we go about doing things and getting the things that we want, and what we can learn from that is that it matters how we advocate for ourselves, and how we fight for our legitimate wants and needs.
All of our problems, our social problems, our political problems, our economic problems, you can trace them all, every single one of them, there wouldn’t have been a financial worldwide crisis if it hadn’t been for a few really greedy and dishonest folks who almost brought the world to its knees. The great lesson is that character matters. Every single problem we face is traceable to it.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Dr. George Simon is an internationally-recognized expert on manipulators and other problem characters and the author of 3 bestselling books: In Sheep’s Clothing (which has been translated into 12 foreign languages), Character Disturbance, and The Judas Syndrome. He’s made appearances on several major television (Fox News Network, CNN, CBS 48 Hours) and radio programs and is also the host of a weekly internet program on UCY.TV called Character Matters.
Until recently, Dr. Simon maintained an active private practice dedicated to assisting individuals develop character and helping empower victims in relationships with disturbed characters. In addition to providing psychotherapy services, he specialized in anxiety and anger management, comprehensive personality assessments, mental health professional training, and consultation to businesses and organizations on how to deal with problem characters. Dr. Simon also recently retired as a supervising psychologist for the Arkansas Dept. of Correction. For 6 years he provided clinical oversight to the community risk assessment program for registered sex offenders, and more recently provided similar oversight for the newly expanded and re-vamped prison-based sex offender treatment program. He has given numerous workshops on the various sex offender typologies and offender treatment and management strategies. He helped secure a DOJ grant through Center for Sex Offender Management, and is a member of the grant’s standing committee.
Dr. Simon served for several years on the Arkansas Governor’s Commission on Domestic Abuse, Rape and Violence, is a past President of the Arkansas Psychological Association, and is a Board Certified Diplomate in Forensic and Clinical Psychology (ACFEI).