Manipulators, regardless of where they are on the spectrum, find people to manipulate who have a real habit of looking outward far too much. Someone who is manipulated has all their attention and energy focused on what is the manipulator going to do next? How are they going to react if I say, or do this? They train themselves to look outside where they have no power or control. You have to learn how to build security within & invest in yourself instead to stop being manipulated.

manipulators, manipulation, manipulated, manipulative, relationship

Manipulators & Being Manipulated In Relationships

When you’ve been in a relationship with a disturbed manipulative person, regardless of where they are on the spectrum, you get into a real habit of looking outward far too much. All of your attention and energy is focused on what are they going to do next?

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Interview with Dr. Simon, who is a psychologist and internationally recognized expert on manipulators and other problem personality disorders and the author of three bestselling books, including in sheep’s clothing, understanding and dealing with manipulative people, which has over 1000 reviews on Amazon for five stars. Dr. Simon also recently retired as a supervising psychologist for the Arkansas department of corrections. He also writes a blog on his website, Thanks so much for joining me today.

Rhoda: Let’s begin with you defining manipulation for my audience, so we can all be on the same page.

Simon: Yes, well, I say in my book In Sheep’s Clothing that dealing with a manipulator is like getting whiplash. You know, what has happened after the fact, you know, but most part manipulation is accomplished through covert aggression. This was the discovery that I made many years ago, when my first book in sheep’s clothing started to gain traction. 

Now we know the effect of covert aggression as the gas lighting effect, but it’s a crazy making feeling where, you know, something is not right with the way the person in your life is dealing with you. You suspect that they’re up to something, you suspect that they’re trying to get the better of you. You suspect that they’re just fighting to have their way to get you to come over to their way of thinking, et cetera.

That’s what you feel in your gut, but you can’t prove it. You can’t objectively verify it, because the fighting they do is so surreptitious. And they know how to manage your impression of them, by either turning on the charm or looking relatively benign on the surface all the while they’re trying to take advantage of you. 

So this produces what we now know as the gas lighting effect, but how most people get manipulated is they don’t trust their instincts. They don’t trust the fact that their gut is right, and that people fight in all kinds of subtle and hard to detect ways. It’s just the way things are in the world these days. And manipulators use a wide variety of tactics to play on your sensitivities and your good nature, and to basically take advantage of you. And I outline all of those in my books.

Rhoda: Yes. I think that’s exactly right. I’ve had so many women and men tell me that they really thought something wasn’t right, but they don’t listen to themselves. So I agree with you that trusting instincts is something, and it’s certainly something I try to make a focus when I’m working on recovery with people.

Simon: Yeah. Well, for example, when someone… let’s say you confront someone on something horrible they’ve done in your relationship, maybe they’ve been unfaithful again and you confront them on this. And then instead of owning what they did, they began to use the tactic of blaming you or acting like they themselves were the victim, playing the victim role, maybe even turning on the water works and acting as if they are the aggrieved party. 

In your gut, you feel like they’re just trying to get away with things, but you don’t trust that because what you see on the outside is very different behavior, or at least it appears like different behavior and you don’t trust yourself. 

But the revelation that I had years ago is that the psychology that we have long held, the psychology that’s rooted in people’s fears and insecurities is very inappropriate and almost damaging for our time, because the problem with many folks who are… when I call on the character disturbance spectrum, these days is not so much what they were afraid of or what they run from or what they’re insecure about. 

It’s the unhealthy way that manipulators fight for the things that they want in life and the tactics they’re willing to use to manipulate and control others. That’s a much bigger problem. And we’ve only recently developed a psychology for it. And, and frankly as maybe we’ll talk about later, even to this day, many therapists don’t get it. And so when people go looking for help, many times, they can’t find it.

Rhoda: I agree, you know, it’s interesting because back in the old days with insurance companies, if you labeled somebody a personality disorder or a character disorder, as part of their diagnosis, they often would limit the number of sessions. So I think that fed into therapists, not clocking it as much as they needed to. And I think that was a real detriment, and that doesn’t happen now, but it did for a long period of time, when I’m in a bad mood.  I fear that manipulators, of course, being on a continuum, fill 80% of the world. And when I’m in a good mood, I think maybe 65 to 70%, of course, that is a wide continuum and a wide range, because not everyone is a total narcissistic personality disorder, just because you read it on the internet, but what are your thoughts on my made up statistics and why are manipulators so good at manipulating?

Simon: Yeah. You know, it’s unfortunate I think, there’s a lot of misinformation out there. There’s all kinds of statistics. There’s all kinds of experts on narcissism and various other forms of character disturbance, but there’s a lot more misinformation out there. And by the way, some of these experts are people who are self-described recovering narcissists,

Simon: I’m not going to mention any names, but just think about this. Just sit back for a minute and digest this a little bit. One person says I am a person who can’t feel, I have no empathy. My entire purpose is to use and abuse you. Now listen to me, because I can tell you how to deal with people like me. I mean, just on its surface out there is just unbelievably ridiculous. 

So what I tell people most of the time is, even though you desperately want to understand, because you’re suffering the effects of that gas lighting effect. And you’re trying to put the pieces together and you want to understand what happened to you. So you don’t repeat some of the same mistakes. I tell them that all of this information is willing good, but it really won’t help you.

What really will help is to judge behavior on its own merits and quit trying to second guess what their personality makeup is or why manipulators do the things they do, or how likely it is that they will change. The important thing is, judge the behavior, set the limits, set the boundaries. 

You have a right to determine what kinds of behaviors you’ll tolerate. You have a right to determine what kind of actions you’ll take. You have a right to determine just what kinds of behaviors you’ll put up with in a relationship, stick to the behaviors. And don’t worry about the rest. That’s my number one.

Rhoda: I totally agree. Actions speak louder than words. Yes. And what lines up. That’s excellent. I totally agree with that. And I often think about how many times people will come in and say to me that they keep reporting, this action didn’t line up, this didn’t line up. And they still doubt themselves. It’s so hard sometimes to Wade through that information. 

Simon: I was going to say, there’s so much information out there and it does feel good in a way to think that you understand that you have a handle on what happened to you and why it happened and what the true nature of your relationship is that does, you know, reduce some of the cognitive dissonance, we call it and it does reduce some of the anxiety you might have, but there’s absolutely no substitute for judging behavior on its own merits. 

And when I do my professional training workshops, I have another number of vignettes and videos and whatnot that I use to demonstrate the point. And by the time I get through with that, I usually have a few converts in the audience, but therapists are just as guilty as other folks in always wanting to understand, because think that we are under the delusion basically, that if we can understand the underlying motivations of someone and their underlying makeup, and if we could just tend to their wounds, their learning failures or whatever the case may be, that we can make things better.

And the fact is that only the person committing the manipulator behavior can make a change in that behavior. And so it’s our job to set the appropriate boundaries and limits that we want in a relationship and to deal with our own behavior, that may be self-limiting, maybe self-defeating and judge it on its own merits.

Rhoda: I certainly agree with that. I think that many times there needs to be a little more crispness. Somebody wrote a review of me and they said that I was challenging and I appreciated that, because it’s not about just reinforcing and caring. It’s this real art and science of challenge and support. And if the challenge is missing and you’re not looking at yourself and just blaming the other person, and therapy is not going to help as much.

Simon: I appreciate you saying that very much, because in my workshops, I also tell some potential healers that these days, the art of loving is the art of benign confrontation. And that is basically you have to confront the dysfunctional behavior patterns of manipulators.

Rhoda: Yes.

Simon: And abuse victims. You have to confront a dysfunctional behavior patterns in a truly loving, caring, and supportive way. Confrontation has a bad name, fortunately,

Rhoda: And I think you can’t really grow, unless you’re willing to do confrontation. And if I have a really good relationship with my people, I can say very hard things. And I think the saddest thing about our world right now, is that people are not honest and truthful. They will send a text, they will avoid, they will deflect, but that actual kind of wrestling with truth is often short circuited. And it lets people continue their behaviors that keep them stuck in bad relationships.

Simon: Oh, my goodness. You’ve said a mouth full right there. And let me add to that. When, for example, someone who… let’s just take an example of someone who is a sensation seeker and they’re pretty shallow in their relationships. And they go after conquest after conquest, using an abusing and then tossing away their victims. And then they’re somehow dragged into a therapist office and that therapist wants to explore their inner child and their insecurities and the presumed quote, unquote fears of intimacy that must fuel that behavior. 

That person is going to already know that they’ve got a tactical advantage over the therapist. They already know that they have really good manipulation potential, because the therapist is making all these assumptions about the underlying unconscious reasons for their behavior, but they already know why they do, what they do.

And so as soon as they realize that the therapist is not going to confront them and especially is not going to confront them on their behavior and on its own merits. It’s not only that nothing meaningful is going to happen in the way of constructive change, but there’s a whole lot of enabling that goes on there with the relationship partner and I call that therapy, induced trauma. In other words, that person, you know, finally drug this person in hoping to get help. And the situation is not only perpetuated, but made worse.

Rhoda: Yes, it just popped into my memory, someone who was dragged in, and I asked whether or not he had worn protection when he had sex with some other people. And he looked at me so surprised and said, no, and of course, she hadn’t asked that question and was completely shocked, but those asking those hard questions can be really important in terms of creating more truth and safety. 

And I think it’s so important. So one of the questions I had for you was about manipulators, and why they manipulate? And I was thinking it was really that joy of power over other people, but I wondered what you thought about that?

Simon: I think it’s more practical than that. We fight for the things we want. And by the way, human beings do much more infinitely, more fighting in life than they do running. As a matter of fact, most of life is all about that. And if we’re principled in the way we go about it, if we fight for the things we want in some fairly disciplined ways, with some care and concern for how our behavior might impact others. 

And we have some concept of a bigger picture and we observed some kind of moral code, then our behavior is best termed assertive behavior, and that’s the best kind of behavior that we can exhibit. But when we fight for the things we want, without care for who we hurt, without care for certain limits and boundaries, when there’s no guiding principle governing how we fight, then we’re just playing aggressive.

And if we keep it undercover, like good manipulators do, we can fight more effectively many times. And if we’re also good impression managers at the same time, we’re even more effective manipulators and covert aggressors. So we do it because we want things, we want our way, we want to have things. It does give some people a sense of power, but that’s not the principle aim of most people. 

Most people just want what they want, and by the way, if their character immature, they want it now and they wanted the quick and easy way. And they’ve learned these tactics to have their way basically.

Rhoda: And the more often win and succeed. It totally reinforces continuing to go about it that way. What are some of the specific ways manipulators manipulate other people? One, I read about in your book was so in confusion. So others back down, could you share more about this and other power tactics?

Simon: Yeah, well, you know, in my book In Sheep’s Clothing, I outline, the more popular power tactics. I call them offensive power tactics, many times, we have considered these power tactics defense mechanisms, believe it or not, for example, excuse making or what we used to call rationalization. 

We used to consider this as an unconscious way to defend oneself against feelings of horrible guilt that would just destroy a person if they acknowledged them. So they basically were thought to have come up unconsciously with a way to excuse behavior, their conscience wouldn’t let them get away with it. 

But when manipulators are excuse making or set up confusion or are diverting attention to something else or blaming you or any of the other tactics I outlined, all they’re trying to do is win in their engagement with you to get you, to get off their back, see things their way, so they can continue to have things their way without interference and without contesting from you, it gives them a position of advantage.

It puts you in a position of tending to their desires and not satisfying your own. And that’s just the way they’d like it. So this is a well-equipped arsenal that most folks bring into a relationship, who have character disturbances, whether they be narcissist or one of the aggressive personalities that I outline of the book, their basic agenda is to have their way and to look good while doing it, or at least look relatively benign while doing it. And these tactics are the way to get you to caveat.

Rhoda: I really like what you say about impression management, because I say to my clients, nice is not the same as good. The big, bad Wolf was really nice. A little ride riding hood before he swallowed up her grandmother. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve used that one line?

Simon: Yeah. I used a similar line, looking good as easy, being good is hard work.

Rhoda: That’s right. How do those who are manipulated expose themselves and make themselves vulnerable to manipulators? I often have clients that give me a history of five or six abusive relationships in a row. These are smart people. How do they return over and over? And why is it so hard for them to leave dreadful relationships?

Simon: Well, I wish there was one single answer to that. I too have had that same experience. However, there is one common variable to folks who have a history of being abused. And that is that these are generally conscientious, good natured people, who want to see the best in others, who take most things, who most of the time, excuse me, give folks the benefit of the doubt, are hesitant to harshly judge, they’re agreeable sorts. 

Rhoda: Yes.

Simon: Some books have been written about the two primary traits and the personalities of folks, who come to be abused often enough in relationships. And the one factor has been termed agreeableness. In other words, they accommodate too easy. They say yes, when they really want to say no, but they feel bad about saying no.

So they say yes, instead. And the other trait that I mentioned in my book and that the research has now backing up is an excessive tendency to differ and to be to differential. In other words, they throw in the towel, basically in a little contest and exceed to the other person’s point of view or kind of give in and do what they want to do instead of what you really want to do. 

Those two traits seem to go together in folks that get into these relationships over and over again, and I believe many folks who are prone to abuse and manipulation of all types, have radar for these kinds of folks. 

They really love agreeable, good natured people, people with a high degree of conscientiousness, people who want to please, people who want to do the right thing, people who hate to harshly judge and people who are willing to go along as opposed to put up a fight, they like these qualities.

So when they spot somebody has these qualities, they turn on the charm. And what I say, in my other three books, and I make a point of it, in many of my blog writings, at the outset of a relationship, I find that the victims of abusive relationship make one confusing mistake. And that is that they confuse interest for regard. 

They get so bowled over by the fact that somebody is interested in them enough to not only turn on the charm, but maybe do things for them, treat them well on the front end, they have all this interest in them. And that interest alone makes them feel good. 

Rhoda: That’s true. 

Simon: They are kind of bowled over by the fact that someone could be this interested in them, but interest does not equal regard, just because I see something in you that I like, or that I want. Does it mean that I see you as a person who deserves my respect, who I want to positively regard, who I want to help grow just as much as I want others to help me grow. 

It doesn’t mean any of that stuff, just means I have an interest in you. And so mistaken interest from regard, I think at the front end of the relationship is almost always the hook that gets people coming back for more, unfortunately.

Rhoda: What a lovely distinction, regard versus interest. Yes, I would totally agree with you. And a lot of that can be about insecurity, wanting someone else to validate you and not feeling good enough about who you are. So I think that would be another contributing factor.

Simon: Well, there’s another thing that’s a little bit more insidious, and that is this. When you’ve been in a relationship with a disturbed character of any nature, regardless of where they are on the spectrum, you get into a real habit of looking outward far too much. All of your attention and energy is focused on what are they going to do next? 

How are they going to react if I say, or do this? What kind of mood are they going to be in? What am I going to have to do to pick up the pieces when they do this next, you are so externally focused. You don’t only lose yourself. You forget yourself. 

Rhoda: That’s right. 

Simon: And you basically train yourself to focus externally. And there’s two really big dangers there, that’s the breeding ground for emotional dependency. And it’s also the breeding ground for depression, because people, places and things and their actions and their events are not things that we have the power to control.

So if all of our energy and our attention is focused on people, places and things that we can’t possibly control, but we entertain the delusion that we can control. We’re going to get frustrated, angry, and eventually depressed. It follows a progressive step by step process. There was a researcher many years ago who came up with the word, helplessness model of depression. And this is this behavioral formula for human beings. 

When we are invested, when all of our energy is being directed where we don’t really have the power to control, we eventually become depressed. And that external kind of thinking is what we get into the habit of whenever we’ve been into a relationship with someone like this, which is why we tend to repeat the pattern. So the only antidote to that is the behavioral formula for joy, which is focusing all your attention and all your energy, where you do have power, namely your behavior.

And once folks get used to the idea that they’re the principle person that has to love them first and they have to do those loving things for themselves first and learn what it is to take proper care of themselves. 

Once they start investing in themselves instead of the manipulator, time and energy wise and attention wise, and paying attention to their own behavior patterns and how they’re conducting themselves in their pursuit of their own happiness. Once they do that, everything begins to change, everything. And they’re not so depressed anymore, because over your own behavior, you have absolute power.

Rhoda: Yeah, that’s absolutely true. And I was thinking about this show with Connie Britton, Dirty John, which is on Netflix. And it’s based on a true story of a man who manipulated a very powerful, successful business woman. And what you’re describing is exactly what happens. 

It’s a different way to look at that show that she focused everything on figuring him out, and trying to understand him with very little examination within herself. So I think that’s such an important point. I’m so glad that you talked about that.

Simon: Yeah. Well, the most skilled creditors among us, believe me are kind of taking you apart. They’re basically filing away mentally everything about how you tend to operate so that they know how to exploit and take advantage of you.

Rhoda: Yes, that’s true. And you’re right. The only thing you really have control of is yourself and bringing yourself. I kind of think of it as bringing yourself back home, you know, kind of getting rooted and centered, like one of those dolls that babies play with it, always tip back up. You know, that you’ve got some ballast. So are there any other tools that’ll help those who feel manipulated that you want to mention so that they move past that feeling that it’s really all their fault, because they believe the accusations of the expert manipulator?

Simon: One of the things that I say in my book In Sheep’s Clothing, as I outline all of that, what I call the 12 tools with personal empowerment, as I make the point that all the tools of empowerment have one thing in common. And that is that you not let somebody else’s overtures or attempts to sway you be the determining factor. Your heart has to be the determining factor. 

You have to know whether in your own heart, whether your intentions are right, loving or whatever the case is, and be willing to stand up for those. As soon as you allow yourself to take into consideration, somebody else’s urging for you to come and see things their way, or do things their way or tend to their needs, you’re automatically un-empowered. 

So your personal power is always going to come from knowing your own heart, what it is you need to properly love and grow yourself. And to take that action and not let your actions be governed by the tactics and the admonitions or the behavior of another. It doesn’t matter, I don’t say act in utter disregard of, but act not in deference to somebody else’s pleadings or urgings or what not, follow your own heart. That’s where the power is.

Rhoda: Well, I think that’s a perfect note to end on. I really appreciate this. And actually, the first time I’ve interviewed somebody and thought, boy, I’d really like to have you back. I only do one a month. So I’m really very careful about that, but you’ve made so many terrific distinctions and helping people think about manipulation in a non-internet gossip kind of way. I really appreciate it. Thanks so much for joining me today.

Simon: You’re certainly welcome. I’d love to do it again sometime.

Rhoda: All right. So you can buy his book, In Sheep’s Clothing. Find out more from dr. Simon on his website, and he has an active blog at

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