Today we want to talk about people who are maybe not so good for you in your grief or, oh say, life in general. These people come in all shapes and sizes, but mostly we’d like to concentrate on the emotionally manipulative kind because they are the most clever and sneaky. While this is not a grief specific topic per se, emotional manipulation comes up all the time in our workshops, our comments section, and through questions we receive via email.
Actually, this topic is especially relevant to grief because (1) people are vulnerable after they experience the death of someone they love and (2) research has shown that having a healthy support system has not only been linked with reduced rates of PTSD, but also may contribute to the likelihood a person will feel they’ve experienced posttraumatic growth as a result of their experiences.
Ideally weeding toxic people out of your support system would be easy, but in reality it can be hard to objectively look at people you have relationships with. Even when something feels definitively off, it can be difficult to tell if the problem lies with you or with them. They’ve been there for you (at times), they’ve done nice things for you in the past (you think), and they’re your friend – aren’t they? Sometimes the answer is “yes”, sometimes the answer is “yes, but…” and sometimes the answer is “no!”.
When to say…
“You are my friend, but your not the right support person for this particular problem.”
What kind of friend are you? The advice-giver friend? The lets-watch-funny-movies-together friend? The I’ve-known-you-my-whole-life friend? The get-your-butt-off-the-couch friend? The I’ll-help-you-move friend? The I’ll-watch-football-with-you-but-never-soccer friend? You are a lot of things to a lot of people and you are different things to different people, but you aren’t everything to everyone, nor should you be. The same goes for your friends and family. Some of them might be great thinkers but horrible doers, others might be great advice givers but horrible listeners. Just like you, they each have a unique take on life, love, children, family, work, problems, and relationships.
When seeking support, it’s important to make sure your looking to the right person for what you need. If you go to someone for support they don’t know how to give, you set them up for failure and yourself up for disappointment. This is the type of misunderstanding that can lead a person to believe someone isn’t there for them at all, when in reality that someone just didn’t know how to support the person in the way they needed. For further elaboration on this topic see our post on support system superlatives.
When to say…
“I love you, but I can’t be around you right now.”
Sometimes you have to move on from people who you love, care about, and value because being close to them hurts you or holds you back. Even though this person isn’t bad, staying close to them threatens your well-being for whatever reason. Perhaps they were a part of a lifestyle you need to leave in the past; perhaps they tempt you into doing things that you want to stop doing; perhaps you need to change and that makes them uncomfortable; or perhaps, despite your underlying love for one another, the relationship is just too damaged to repair. Sadly, sometimes you just have to say “I care about you, but for the sake of my emotional well-being I can’t be around you.” You might even want to add a “right now”, because maybe in the future when you’re feeling stronger you’ll be able to reconnect in a healthy and positive way.
When to say…
“Lose my number.”
Many relationships deserve a chance to survive, but some do not. You would often be best served to jettison relationships that involve emotional manipulation, yet sometimes these are the most difficult relationships to disentangle yourself from. Psychology Today defines psychological manipulation in the following way…
“Psychological manipulation can be defined as the exercise of undue influence through mental distortion and emotional exploitation, with the intention to seize power, control, benefits, and privileges at the victim’s expense.”
First of all, I know some of you are saying “I wouldn’t let anyone do that to me” and I hope you are right. But keep in mind, no one wants to be the victim of emotional manipulation. People who use emotional manipulation are often clever and charming. If they’re really good, they make you feel as though you are important, loved, and needed by them and so, at times, it seems as though there’s a pay off to pleasing them. In the resulting dynamic, you either don’t realize you’re being taken advantage of or you actually feel as though you want to give up your time and energy to make the person happy.
As the label implies, emotional manipulators exploit emotion to get what they want, so be wary if you are currently feeling emotionally vulnerable (or if you’re just a generally caring person). Obviously there is more to it and I recommend this article if you want elaboration, but in a nutshell here’s what emotional manipulators do:
(1) They identify your weaknesses and use them against you to get what they want. Sadly, because they’re exploiting your weaknesses, you often end up blaming yourself or feeling inadequate for unhappiness and/or problems in the relationships.
(2) They make you feel as though they desperately need your time, attention, and energy because without it they will suffer some sort of emotional or physical harm or your relationship will suffer or there will be even broader implications. Of course you comply because…
- You’re a good person
- You don’t want to hurt them
- Their unhappiness means you’ve failed
- You want them to be pleased with you
(3) If you try and draw boundaries or say no to them, they make you feel guilty by shifting the focus away from the consequences you experience as a result of giving in and towards the ways that your resistance hurts them.
(4) They convince you that their actions, which you feel in your gut are wrong or malicious, are actually good, helpful, or altruistic.
Add all this up – the guilt, blame, and distorting of reality – and it’s easy to see how a person might not realize they are being taken advantage of. It’s often only after repeated manipulation that a person recognizes they are involved in a dynamic that harms them while serving another.
Even in the light of day it can be hard to put a stop to manipulation, especially if you are prone to feeling guilt and self blame or if you worry you will be alone and isolated without the love of the toxic person. The articles I linked above both have recommendations on how to handle emotional manipulators if these are people you want to keep in your life. If you are grieving, though, I might recommend a more extreme course of action. You need all the energy you can muster, you need to take care of yourself, and you need to lean on people who have your best interests at heart. At this time, cutting the emotional manipulator out of your life completely might be an act of self preservation and, as hard as it may be to believe, you are strong enough to take control of your life in this way.