In this article I interview 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
In this article we talk all things manipulation:
- What is Manipulative behavior?
- Manipulative personality types
- Who is more Manipulative: Men or Women?
- Manipulative children
- Why doesn’t the Manipulators conscience bother them?
- Why shouldn’t I Manipulate others?
- Do Manipulative people ever grow out of it?
- Are most Manipulators narcissists?
- Manipulation is conscious – not unconscious or accidental
How did you come to study manipulative people?
Michael Frank: How did you get onto this path of studying manipulative people?
Dr. George Simon: I was dealing with an awful lot of folks in my practice as a clinical psychologist, who were coming to me with what we now know to be the gaslighting syndrome. But we didn’t have a name for it then. And these folks were depressed for the most part. They were perplexed. They were showing signs of having survived some kind of trauma. They felt crazy. But they couldn’t pinpoint why. However there was always someone in their life who they just knew at some gut level there was something wrong with, but that person in their life had them thinking that they were the crazy ones for even suspecting that. And that made them confused, angry, depressed and feeling pretty crazy.
And as I got to know these folks and their stories, it became quite clear that they were dealing with some archetypal manipulators. The folks who are the proverbial wolves in sheep’s clothing. These are the folks who are out to win, to dominate and control, and who also know how to look good doing it, and how to veil their aggression using subtle tactics to make you feel like the bad guy for having an issue with them. And so after dealing with so many of these individuals, and hearing so many stories, and doing years and years of clinical case research, I decided to write the book In Sheep’s Clothing about it, and I’m proud to say that very few books twenty-two years later are still bestsellers. That’s an indication of not only how widespread the problem is, but also how well the book seems to nail it.
What is “manipulative behavior”?
Michael Frank: Let’s start with defining what manipulation is. How do you define “manipulation” and how do you define “manipulative behavior”?
Dr. George Simon: The most common type of manipulation is covert aggression. Notice I didn’t say passive aggression, that’s a term that’s bandied about these days very loosely and erroneously, even by clinicians and mental health professionals. There’s nothing passive at all about covert or veiled aggression. It takes many forms, but it’s basically when a person is out to dominate and control you, and have their way with you, to make sure that you submit yourself to their will, and they do so in a way that’s hard to see. In other words if they were overt about it, if they were to just say: “It’s my way or the highway!” then maybe you would give some resistance. But some folks are sneaky. They’re clever. They’re calculating. They can even be charming. They know how to use your emotions and especially your conscientiousness to get you to come to their way of thinking. And that subtle approach, that way of fighting with you in a way that’s hard to see, can be very effective. And that’s the heart and soul of manipulative behavior. It’s playing on your emotions, your sympathies, and especially on your conscientiousness to have their way with you. It’s a covertly aggressive strategy and it works for the most part in relationships, but it’s very destructive.
Covert vs overt aggression
Michael Frank: So if someone is not covertly aggressive, but overtly aggressive, for example, if they were to just physically threaten someone, we would generally not put that in the category of manipulation? That wouldn’t fit a category of physical manipulation?
Dr. George Simon: You know you can be manipulative in that way. In other words, you can control people through terror. It’s not the most common form of manipulation, but there are many ways to control people. You can control them through fear. We have a lot of studies on this. And the famous one of course is the Stockholm Syndrome (“feelings of trust or affection felt in many cases of kidnapping or hostage-taking by a victim towards a captor” – Oxford Dictionary) where after an experience of extreme terror, the victim begins to identify with their abuser. So there are many ways to control people, you can do it overtly, but the most common way, the slickest way, the most effective way, is to keep your aggression somewhat undercover and to basically beat people up with the weapons of guilting, shaming, playing the victim, and making the other person out to be the victimizer. These are all clever little tactics to get the other person to come around to your way of thinking and to do your bidding, and good manipulators know how to use those tactics very well.
But aren’t we all manipulative to some degree?
Michael Frank: I know someone is going to say something to the effect of:
“But aren’t we all manipulative to some degree?”
What are your thoughts on that?
Dr. George Simon: Absolutely. We are all manipulative to some degree. You know we are inherently, unfortunately, kind of aggressive creatures. This is a not so friendly world we are living in where we have to do our best to survive and prosper, and we’re in competition with each other, and we’re all trying to get our own way, and we’re not always very nice to each other. But it’s about how we go about the fight. I always like to say in workshops that all the major theories in our traditional psychologies are all about people’s insecurities and fears and the things they run and hide from. But we barely have a psychology that addresses the number one thing that people do in their lives: FIGHT. We fight more than we do anything else. It’s in our politics. It’s in our business affairs. It’s in our social affairs. It’s in almost everything we do. But how we conduct that fight is what defines our character.
When we fight fairly for something just, when it’s not really about us but about some valid principle, when we fight with consideration for the feelings and the welfare of the other person, and when we respect certain rights and boundaries, then that by definition is assertive behavior, and we all need to be assertive because there are some things in this life we’re fighting for.
But when it’s all about us, when we’ll take no prisoners, when we’ll do everything we have to do to get our way, when we make no bones about hurting people in the process, and there’s very little stake except getting what we want, then we’re being aggressive instead of assertive, and when we do so covertly and slickly, it’s manipulative and it’s always destructive in a relationship.
Manipulative personality types
Michael Frank: Are their certain personality types that are more likely to be manipulative than others? And are there certain personality types that are more likely to be manipulated than others?
Dr. George Simon: Yes, absolutely. You’ve got to have a pretty big fat conscience and a sense of guilt and shame to have these tactics work on you. Let’s take guilting for example. Just try for example, with someone who’s grandiosely narcissistic and has very little conscience, just try guilting them into doing something. You’ll find out in very short order that it doesn’t work because they don’t have the capacity for guilt. They don’t have the conscientiousness necessary. So yes there are certain personalities and they’re on what we call the character disturbed or character disordered spectrum.
These are the folks with tremendous narcissistic and aggressive features in their personality, that don’t mind basically beating people up and doing harm to them in various ways. These are the folks that don’t care about anyone or anything other than their own self serving needs and they’re willing to do whatever it takes to have their way. These are the most manipulative personalities and their victims are genuinely the conscientious types who want to do right, who want to be seen as good, and who are vulnerable to these tactics that these other folks use to manipulate and control them.
Who is more manipulative men or women?
Michael Frank: Let me ask you a non-PC question. Generally speaking, who have you found in all of your years of clinical practice to be more manipulative? Men or women?
Dr. George Simon: You know when I first started doing clinical research, based on my life experiences as a clinician, I really thought that I was going to find more men of the more overtly aggressive type, and more women of the covertly aggressive type. But what I ended up finding is there doesn’t seem to be much gender difference. Maybe the manifestation is just a little bit different whether you’re male or female, but I haven’t found any differences along gender lines. And that was a surprise to me because I did expect to find some differences.
How men and women manipulate differently
Michael Frank: In terms of the way those manipulations manifest themselves, what are some of the key differences in the way that men and women manipulate?
Dr. George Simon: I think that many times, men will play on emotions, whereas women will use emotion. In other words, women will sometimes use displays of woundedness to try and gain some kind of control over their environment and to try to control the behavior of their relationship partner to some degree.
Whereas men play on and prey on emotions to get their way. So they’ll see that sensitivity to shame that the woman has, that sensitivity that she has to being seen as not a nice person, or maybe to not being a faithful partner, and they’ll use that as a weapon of control. Whereas the woman might use her hurt, and displays of that hurt, to try and soften up or a sway her relationship partner. So I would say that the big difference in the expression is that men seem to be more willing to play on and prey on a woman’s emotions, and women seem more prone to use emotions to manipulate. That’s the only difference that I can see.
Playing the victim
Michael Frank: I’d say one thing that sticks out to me though, is that I think women are a lot more likely to play the victim as a manipulative tactic, whereas guys are more likely to try to physically bully or dominate. Has that been your experience?
Dr. George Simon: Actually, no. I was surprised at that. I thought that I would find such differences. But when it comes to the tactics, it just seems like they’re equal opportunity along gender lines. In fact, I can’t tell you the number of times that I’ve had to confront men in joint sessions about that playing the victim role. It’s just incredible. I never thought that I would see it as frequently as I do. But I see it a lot. I would have to say that it’s an equal opportunity tactic playing the victim, and it’s one of the more popular ones by the way. And then when you combine taking the victim role yourself, with casting the other person as the victimizer, that’s kind of a double whammy right there. That’s twice the punch.
Michael Frank: Let’s look at manipulation within children. When do you find that manipulative behavior tends to start? Is it inherent in the personality of human beings? Or is it a learned behavior that starts very early in childhood?
Dr. George Simon: Boy this is something that I talk about in workshops all the time. You know, we don’t have to teach our kids to fight for the things they want. Now we can reinforce it, and we can provide them with a lot of messages in their formative years that really reinforce the notion. But we are kind of natural brutes. The fact is that socialization is a process. None of us is born civilized. We have an animal nature. We can rise above it – yes. But we have an animal nature, we are born brutes, and it is natural for us to fight for the things that we want. If children have strong, resourceful, principled parents at a very early age they will learn very early on that the direct fighting approach is probably not going to get them anywhere.
Children are in a vulnerable position. The adults are stronger than they are in many ways, and I’m not just talking physically, they’re also dependent on them. So the feisty approach is not going to work. So they very early on learn that the way to fight is covertly, by using subtle little tricks to play on mommy or daddy’s conscientiousness to manipulate them. They learn this very early on. And when it works, and God knows it does work from time to time, that sends them the message that this is a good strategy to use. And so they develop a habit of it over time, unless parents are wise enough to intervene and help correct that habit.
How children manipulate
Michael Frank: What are some of the most common ways children try to manipulate their parents?
Dr. George Simon: Oh playing on sympathies for sure. I give an example of a really tyrannical child in my book In Sheep’s Clothing who had a mother that was so conscientious, she never wanted to do the wrong thing. She never wanted to put her daughter in any kind of vulnerable positions that she herself experienced as a young girl. So when her daughter would say things like: “You just hate me, you don’t really care for me, you’re never on my side, you’re always taking other people’s sides” and she played that victim role and vilified the parent, you know, conscientious parents, this touches a button in them. Who wants to be seen as the bad guy? So parents with a conscience who want to be seen as loving and caring can really respond to these tactics in a way that’s not really healthy, because then the child learns that they can have their way with mommy or daddy, and they end up usurping too much power within the family system, and you know kids are not meant to handle a whole lot of power because they haven’t yet had the life experience or the wisdom to know how to use it.
I had an example just the other day that I dealt with that was just incredible. Where the youngest children, two young women in this family system, had usurped all the power and control. Their parents were quite dysfunctional, and these children had learned to use every single tactic in the book to maintain power and control. They knew the parents were dysfunctional. They knew they basically had a leg up. So whenever the parents tried to assert anything, they would easily point to some of the failures and errors of the parents and basically challenge their right to exert any authority, and they would play the victim, and cast their parents as villains. And they would basically state that they didn’t have any reason whatsoever to subordinate themselves to any kind of higher authority in the home. The children had taken over the ship, so to speak.
And that’s always a very dangerous situation because when young people at the ages of eleven or twelve take the reins of power, when they take the wheel of the ship, they don’t yet have the life experience or the wisdom to be able to chart a course and to direct things. They think they do, they may have the arrogance to think they do, but they don’t have the wisdom or the capability to do so. And so it just turns things on end. It’s the archetypal definition of a dysfunctional family where the inmates basically are running the asylum.
Why doesn’t the manipulators conscience bother them?
Michael Frank: You say in your book In Sheep’s Clothing that a lot of manipulators don’t have a conscience, and a lack of conscience, is like a lack of internal brakes. Why is it that some people’s conscience just doesn’t seem to bother them? Do you think that they drown out or ignore their conscience? Or do you think they just don’t seem to have a conscience in the first place?
Dr. George Simon: Oh boy, you ask a great question there Michael, because you know our traditional paradigms have always been that everybody has some degree of conscience, and they just drown it out with one kind of tactic or unconscious defense mechanism or another, either denial or rationalization. That’s been the traditional thinking.
But we now know that there are also people who unfortunately never develop a conscience in the first place. And we also used to think, and this is another really important thing, that everyone would develop in a healthy normal fashion if it weren’t for trauma arresting their development. There’s an axiom that they teach people in schools of social work and psychology: “Only hurt people, hurt people”. In other words, only people who have been damaged by trauma revisit that trauma on others because they haven’t healed yet.
There’s a certain amount of truth in that sometimes, but the greater tragedy of our narcissistic age is that there are too many people among us who have not had proper socialization from the get go. They didn’t get what they needed to get in the way of positive guidance, direction, instilling of values etc. in the first place. So they grew up with an ill formed conscience, or maybe no conscience at all.
And by the way, I should say that old axiom of “only hurt people, hurt people” does a great deal of disservice and is so horrendously disrespectful to the hundreds of deeply hurt people that I’ve met in my professional lifetime. People who have endured more hardship, more pain, more unfortunate circumstance than most of us will experience in a lifetime. And who still turned out to be really decent people who would never hurt a fly.
You have to be able to explain that, and you can’t explain that if you buy into this notion that “only hurt people, hurt people”. Socialization is a process, we are born brutes, some people never grow past that, and in our narcissistic culture, in our self-indulgent culture, in our culture of entitlement of taking everything for granted, some folks just never develop a healthy conscience. That’s the real tragedy. It’s just not there.
Why shouldn’t I manipulate others?
Michael Frank: We’re living in an age of ego and narcissism where bad behavior is not only tolerated, but it’s celebrated and rewarded. So let’s go down this path a little bit. If someone was to confront you Dr. Simon and say: “Look, I’ll be honest, I manipulate people but why shouldn’t I? It works! I get what I want, and it makes me very successful!” What would you say to that person?
Dr. George Simon: Well Michael, you know at some point, most of us come to the realization that we’re going to die, that we could gain the entire world, but as a famous person once said, we might end up losing our very soul in the process.
At some point, most folks come to the realization that even though it’s been all about them, it can’t be all about them. Whether we like it or not, whether we appreciate it or not, whether we recognize it or not, we’re all part of something bigger, and everything we do has an impact and affects something or someone else. And when we finally get that, when we finally care enough to make that matter, our lives change for the better and we have a more positive impact on the lives of those we touch. That’s a deeply spiritual matter. It’s not a religious matter. It’s a spiritual matter. And so what’s really ailing us in this age of more rampant character disturbance, is a spiritual disease.
We’re bankrupt spiritually. We have so much, and we take it for granted, and we don’t pay attention to the bigger picture because we’ve been so successful at just paying attention to ourselves and our petty little wants and desires. It’s been the ME ME ME age now for several decades, and it’s taking its toll, even the planet itself is crying out from the abuse that we’ve heaped upon it. And it’s saying, hey, wait a minute. You can’t keep getting away with this. We can’t keep going down the same path. Nature as a funny way of correcting things, in the end we will survive and prosper as a species when we embrace the bigger picture and when we put an end to that narcissistic, self-focused and self-indulgence and realize that whether we like it or not, whether we embrace it or not, we’re part of something bigger and we have a responsibility to manage ourselves in a more responsible way.
Do manipulative people ever grow out of it?
Michael Frank: For those people that are not religious or spiritual and don’t believe in karma, and just seem to have a particularly selfish and manipulative type of personality, has it been your experience that they generally grow out of it at some stage of their lives? Or has it been your experience that from cradle to the grave manipulators just stay manipulators?
Dr. George Simon: Well I only know from the folks that come to me, so my experience is biased. I don’t known of any objective research that’s looked into this. But I can tell you that many folks who I’ve had to close the door to, or who walked out, because they heard what I had to say and they were polite enough about it: “Well you know doc, you’ve got some kind of lofty ideals there to preach, but you know what, I’m not in the mood to hear it. Things are working for me pretty well right now. I think what you got to say sounds pretty good, but it’s not practical. So I’ll see you later. I’m going to continue to run my life just the way I always have”.
I can’t count the number of folks that twenty, thirty, forty years later, will knock on my door and say: “You know what? Life has taught me a few lessons. I’ve had three failed marriages. I’ve had a couple of broken careers. I’ve left some bodies in the wake. I feel kind of empty inside. I don’t know what the hell I want anymore. Maybe, just maybe, I didn’t have it all figured out after all. And maybe, just maybe, you may have some ideas about a better path”. And then they’re open. I can’t count the number of times that has happened. So I’m biased. I know that that does happen. I can’t tell you objectively what percentage of the time that happens.
Are most manipulators narcissists?
Michael Frank: Are all manipulators, or most manipulators, necessarily narcissistic?
Dr. George Simon: Well you know we have had this notion for a long time that we could nice nicely and neatly categorized people into these little diagnostic categories that we call the various personality disorders. And I don’t know if you know this or not, but the committee that formulates our categories and our distinctions and our diagnoses on these matters, the people that produce the official manual that mental health professionals use, they thought very seriously this last time around in this last revision, of getting rid of the category of narcissistic personality disorder. And it’s not because narcissism doesn’t exist, but it’s because narcissism is a feature and a dimension of many personality disturbances.
And so, yes, narcissism has to be there, but is it the only thing? No. The other thing that we’re going to be revisiting is the very definition of a disorder. We have long thought that a personality style becomes a disorder when it’s so intense in it’s manifestation, so deviant from the norm, so inflexible, that it causes distress for either the person or others, then you could rightfully consider it a disorder.
Well, unfortunately these days, certain personality styles that are pretty horrendous to look at are not that dysfunctional. They work. And they’re not that abnormal. They’re not that deviant from the norm. Narcissism these days is not deviant from the norm. It’s close to becoming the new norm. So the very definition that we’ve had for what constitutes a disorder is changing.
If everyone’s a narcissist, then no one is
Michael Frank: I don’t know if I’m oversimplifying this Dr. Simon, but it seems that if almost everyone is a narcissist, we just stop calling it narcissism…
Dr. George Simon: (Laughs) It’s really interesting what happens when something becomes the new norm. But I’m also a firm believer that we’re on the cusp of a new age. You know the pendulum always swings. We’ve been in this phase of our entitled kind of ME focused existence for a long time. Relationships don’t hold together anymore.
Families don’t hold together. People are spiritually bankrupt. They don’t see themselves as a part of a bigger picture. They don’t really respect a greater power at work in the universe. And when you do that you become expendable. We human beings, we were not always here, and we might not always be here. If we’re going to make it as a species, we will have to get with the program. People are going to have to reclaim the essential values that make us decent folks.
Michael Frank: Well let’s hope so, for everybody’s sake
Manipulation is conscious – not unconscious
Michael Frank: You say in your book In Sheep’s Clothing that manipulators are conscious of their actions. That it’s not an unconscious or an accidental thing. Can you expand upon that a little bit?
Dr. George Simon: Yeah. You know many folks on the receiving end always wonder: “Doesn’t this other person see what they’re doing? Maybe if I can just illuminate them, maybe if I can make them see…” Well the problem is that they already do see. They know exactly what they’re doing. Otherwise they wouldn’t be doing it. That kind of notion comes from old and pretty well worn out psychological paradigms that assume that most people’s behavior is unconscious, and it’s not that that perspective isn’t valid. It is a valid perspective for a lot of folks, especially those folks that I describe in my book as neurotic because they have some degree of conscience, and they’re kind of in conflict with their animal nature.
But there are folks among us increasingly these days, who don’t have a conscience, who don’t care. They’re aware, but they don’t care. They see, but they’re disagreeing. They know what the right principles are, but they’re at odds with those principles. They are spoiled little brats who just want to have their way and will do whatever it takes to get it. They know exactly what they’re doing. And as soon as the person on the other end of that realizes that, the sooner they’ll start standing up for themselves and not taking it anymore.
This is part one of a two part series – Part two will focus on the actual tactics of Manipulation: Gaslighting, Triangulation, Frame Control etc. and how to counter 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.
Dr. George Simon being interviewed by Bill O’Reilly
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).