Gaining Control over Your Life

I’m all in favor of kindness and service to others, but not when it means allowing others to manipulate us. Refusing to allow others to walk all over us is not about being selfish or self-centered, but of being self-aware. It’s about understanding that we are responsible for our own lives. If we GIVE IN to others, we GIVE UP on ourselves.

This article is about people manipulating others. Let’s start with a definition. Manipulation is about being used, abused, intimidated, coerced, pressured, bullied, or ‘brainwashed’ into doing something we don’t want to do. When we do something that is not in our best interest simply because we were pressured into it, we surrender our personal power and turn control over our lives to others. Unlike cats, we have only one life; so, don’t turn yours over to someone else.

We are here to help others, but we cannot help them until we can help ourselves. How can we make others strong if we ourselves are weak? How can we teach others to defend their rights when we do not defend our own? There is enough unhappiness is the world, it needs more people spreading joy. Yet, when we do what we don’t want to do, we add to the unhappiness in the world.

We help one another by engaging in a series of transactions. We make exchanges of value. For example, I agree to work for my boss and he agrees to pay me a salary. As long as he pays me, he is living up to his part of the bargain and I am obligated to work for him. But manipulation involves no exchange of value. For instance, a coworker comes up to me and says, “I’m moving into a new apartment Sunday and need a lot of help. If you don’t help me move in, I’ll be very disappointed.” The coworker is trying to manipulate me. He wants free labor and in exchange promises not to feel “disappointed.” He is acting like a child threatening to throw a temper tantrum unless it gets its way.

I’m not responsible for my coworkers’ feelings. I would hope he chooses to be happy and joyful, but if he chooses to be unhappy and disappointed; well, that’s up to him. Because of the absence of an exchange of any value, I am not obligated to help him. Nor do I owe him any explanation or apology. So, the conversation may go something like this:

“Sorry, Bob, but I have something else planned for Sunday.”
“How long will you be busy on Sunday?””
“All day.”
“What are you doing that’s so important?”
“Leading my life by doing what I want to do. It’s something I recommend to everyone.”
“I’m disappointed in you, Chuck; I thought I could count on you.”
“If you want someone to count on, call the moving company.”

I’ll stop here, but manipulators can be persistent. They hope you will break under the pressure. If Bob were to persist, I would just break off the conversation with something like, “Sorry, Bob, but I already gave you my answer. I wish you luck. Now I’ve got to get back to work. See you later.” Also, when standing up for our rights, there is no need to reply in a hostile tone. We can remain polite, but firm.

Bob, my coworker, is just an acquaintance, but Jim is a friend. Compare Jim’s conversation with Bob’s.

“Chuck, I’m getting ready to move again. I know you’re working on your basement. If you give me a hand moving, I’ll help you out in your basement.”

There’s a big difference in conversations, isn’t there? That’s because Jim is not a manipulator. Cooperation is the opposite of manipulation. He offered to exchange something of value. I was happy to help because we both got each other’s job done in half the time and had fun doing so.

To avoid being a victim, remain on the alert. If someone asks you to do them a favor and you can’t say NO without fear or YES without resentment, you are a victim. If you are, it’s time to regain your power. No one stole it from you; you handed it over to them. Now take it back. After all, you can’t live for others without squandering your own life. When you are in control, doing what you want to do, you will be happy and in the position to spread happiness to others. But when you reluctantly follow the wishes of others, you will be resentful and spread misery. You owe it to yourself and others to remain in control of your life.

Although you should be on the alert, there is no need to fear the attempts of others to manipulate you. For their attempts will give you the opportunity to declare, decide, and develop into the person you want to be. Further, once you understand why they are trying to manipulate you, your fear will be replaced with compassion. And because of your compassion, your assertiveness will never change to aggression.

Why do some people try to manipulate others? Because they’re weak. Weak people are not to be feared, but to be pitied. Their weakness comes in many forms and includes feelings of inadequacy and incompetence. They try to get others to do what they believe they cannot do. They try to compensate for their feelings of powerlessness by gaining power over others. People like this don’t care which way the car is going as long as they remain in the driver’s seat.

Also, people who live miserable lives like to make others miserable too. When they are successful in doing so, they find some relief by diverting their attention from their own pain to the pain of others. Also, they may be afraid that if they ask for what they want, you may refuse, so they try to manipulate you instead. Some manipulators have distorted thinking. They either believe they are superior and entitled to their demands or they feel they are treated as inferiors and therefore are entitled to special privileges.

Whatever the cause, it’s based on weakness. So, whenever they try to get their way by making you feel guilty, refuse to give in to them, but do so in a gentle, caring way; after all, they’re weak, and you’re not. When facing manipulation, don’t give in to fear. Don’t be afraid of losing a friend, hurting their feelings, or disappointing them. You are responsible for your life, not theirs. Remain vigilant and ignite in your heart the flame of courage, for as Helena Petrova Blavatsky wrote, “The more thou dost advance, the more thy feet pitfalls will meet. The Path that leadeth on is lighted by one fire — the light of daring burning in the heart. The more one dares, the more he shall obtain. The more he fears, the more that light shall pale.”

A Case Study

Let’s look at a real life example. A reader wrote, “I wonder if you have any suggestions for someone in my position. You see, besides raising my daughter, my husband and I adopted her three-year-old special-needs child and raised her as our own. Both girls are now adults. Yet, my daughter continues to depend on us for help. She acts as a victim, complaining she cannot live on the salary of her 25-hour-a-week part-time job. She expects me to drive her to and from work every day and help her pay her bills. She can be very manipulating and I’m getting fed up with the situation. How do I get out of the mess I find myself in?”

Answer: I believe you already know what needs to be done and are seeking validation rather than advice. That is, you want to hear from another that it is okay to stop caving in to your daughter’s demands and force her to fend for herself. The reason you hesitate to end the manipulation is because of guilt. The one thing manipulators are good at is weaving a web of guilt to ensnare their victims and suck them dry. Once you understand all their tricks, you won’t feel guilty about standing up for your rights. To learn all about the tricks used by manipulators and to empower yourself, buy or borrow a copy of IN SHEEP’S CLOTHING: Understanding and Dealing with Manipulative People.

You first need to stop giving in to your daughter’s emotional blackmail. When she says, “If you don’t help me pay my bills, I’ll end up living in the street,” then you say, “Not if you get another job.” If she says, “If you don’t help me, you’re a terrible mother, and I never want to see you again,” then you say, “I’m sorry you feel that way, If you later change your mind, I’m always here to give you emotional support, but I will no longer act as a bank and taxi service.” When she says, “I can’t believe you’re so selfish. Don’t you care about what happens to me?” then you say, “Of course I do. I love you. That’s why I refuse to allow you to grow into a weak person, dependent on others. The more I cave in to your demands, the more I stunt your growth and encourage you to become a helpless victim. It’s time for you to learn how to take care of yourself, and it’s time for me to take care of your dad and I.”

Of course, I’m not implying that your daughter is a bad person. After all, we all cope with life in the best way we can at the time. She’s just looking for the easiest way to meet her needs. She thought of asking you for help and it worked, so she will continue doing so until you stop helping. Once you force her to fend for herself, both of you will be surprised by the progress she makes.

To strengthen your resolve to do the right thing, consider the negative consequences of not acting and the positive consequences of acting. First, let’s look at some of the negative effects of continuing to give in to your daughter’s unreasonable demands.

1. As long as your daughter leeches off you, she is failing to take responsibility for her life and as long as you cave in to her demands, you are failing to take responsibility for your life. This is not a dress rehearsal. We have only one chance at life. The time to do the right thing is now.

2. As long as you give in to her demands, you are enabling her. That is, you are encouraging her to remain a victim, rather than become a victor.

3. As long as the situation remains unchanged you will not be able to respect and admire your daughter.

4. She doesn’t respect and admire herself.

5. She is growing increasingly helpless.

6. The situation is stressful and has a negative impact on your family’s mental and physical health.

7. The situation is ruining your relationship with your daughter.

8. If the situation is left unabated, negative emotions such as resentment, frustration, anger, and hostility can lead to a serious rift.

9. If you don’t look after yourself, who will? It’s important to learn how to set up boundaries. To learn how to, see the next section.

10. If you allow your adult daughter to depend on you to get by, what will she do when you and your husband are no longer around? How will she survive?

Now, let’s focus on some of the benefits of standing up for yourself.

1. When you start acting assertively, besides cutting stress and ending negative emotions, you will develop courage and gain control over your life.

2. You will develop pride and respect for your daughter as she learns to cope for herself.

3. Your relationship will heal.

When rejecting your daughter’s pleas for handouts, keep in mind three points. First, be empathetic. That is, let her know you understand how she feels. Second, explain the problem clearly. Third, explain what is expected. Here is an example conversation that uses the three steps.

“Mom, I’ll need to borrow another $120 from you at the end of this month.”

“Sorry, honey, I won’t be able to help you out financially anymore.”

“Mom, how can you say that? If I don’t pay the rent, I’ll end up in the street.”

“Sorry, I know you are disappointed. I’ll tell you what, since I did not warn you earlier, I’ll help you one last time; but you’ll have to get by on $60. And if you don’t have enough to pay for the rent and don’t want to end up in the street, I suggest you get another job.”

“Mom! How can you be so cruel!”

“How can asking you to stand on your own two feet be considered cruel? Isn’t that what is expected from everyone? From now on, that’s what I expect from you. I love you and will always be here to provide moral support. I’m sure at first it will be difficult for you to make the needed adjustments to support yourself, but I have confidence in your abilities.”

“I don’t know what to say. I’m in shock. I can still count on you to take me to and from work, right?”

“Yes, for the next two weeks. For the following two weeks, I’ll take you twice a week. After that I’m afraid you’re on your own. You’ll have to do what everyone else who doesn’t have a car does, take public transportation.”

“But why?”

“One reason is taking you to work interferes with my lifestyle. Another reason is to successfully survive in today’s world you have to learn how to be independent. If I continue to chauffeur you around, I would be negligent in my parental duty. I refuse to encourage you to become helpless. I expect you to become strong and independent. It may be hard for you at first, but in the long run it will pay big dividends.”

I’ll end with two more points. First, as I wrote earlier, the chief weapon of a manipulator is GUILT. But if you must feel guilty, feel guilty about encouraging your daughter to become helpless. Refuse to cave in to her demands, not for your own convenience, but for her own good.

Finally, the second favorite tool of the manipulator is persistence. That is, they keep making demands, wearing you down, until you finally give in. So, to successfully break free, you must be equally persistent, never backing down, until they finally get the message. It may take time, so be patient.

How to Set Boundaries

The doors of my house have locks. I not only have the right to lock my doors, but I have the duty to protect my family from thieves and dangerous people. Yet, even with the doors locked, my home is occasionally invaded by telemarketers who interrupt whatever I’m doing with the hope of making a sale. At other times, an acquaintance may call and poison the atmosphere with endless whining about how unfair life is.

Life would be unfair if we were forced to listen to someone whose only purpose in life is to complain. Thankfully, life is not unfair. We have power. We can define what we are willing to put up with. We can establish what is and what is not acceptable to us. We don’t have to listen to every call. We can say, “Sorry, I’m busy now. Thanks for calling. Talk to you later. Good-bye,” and hang up. In a word, we can set boundaries. Boundaries don’t separate us from life; they enrich it. After all, boundaries give us the freedom to become the person we wish to be. Some, however, are afraid to speak up. They are afraid of being rejected and losing their friend. They are willing to give up all that they can be in order to hold on to the little that they now have. It is like a tadpole refusing to become a frog or a caterpillar refusing to become a butterfly. It doesn’t make any sense.

If we wish to be in charge of our destiny, we have to learn how to speak up and tell others what is unacceptable to us. You can start enriching your life today, by setting boundaries. The four-step procedure is outlined below.

I’ll start with a summary of the four steps and then go into the details of each step. First, the summary. 1) Begin by saying, “WHEN YOU …” (state what is unacceptable), 2) “I FEEL …” (describe your feelings), 3) ‘I WANT …” (describe your expectations), 4) “IF YOU ~ I WILL …” (describe the consequences of ignoring your request).

Now for the details. 1. Define the unacceptable behavior by stating WHEN YOU… For example, whenever Mary says something her husband disagrees with, he rolls his eyes and sighs, dismissing her opinion. Mary decides to set a boundary and begins with Step 1 by saying, “Whenever you disagree with me, you roll your eyes and sigh, as if you are exasperated by something stupid I’ve just said…”

When explaining your grievance, it is important to be specific. The person you are dealing with is not a mind reader and cannot be sure of what is troubling you unless you spell it out. Note that Mary did not say, “When you belittle me…” (that is too vague), but said, “When you roll your eyes and sigh…” By being specific, you not only make sure the person you’re speaking to understands you, but you are helping them to become aware of their behavior, which may be automatic and done without any thinking on their part.

Mary continues setting her boundary by taking Step 2 and saying, “WHEN YOU do that, I FEEL hurt. When you dismiss my opinions like that, I FEEL as if I have nothing of value to say to you.” Steps 1 and 2 are not about blaming. They are merely factual statements. Mary is not accusing her husband of being coldhearted. She is just expressing her feelings, and in Step 3, she will go on to express her needs.

Mary is ready to go on to Step 3, so she continues, “I want to be in a loving, caring, supportive relationship. I expect to be appreciated and admired. When you treat me with disrespect, I feel like we are being driven apart. So, from now on, when I express an opinion, I WANT you to stop rolling your eyes and sighing as if I were a jerk. I WANT you to listen to what I have to say, consider it, and respect my right to express an opinion without being laughed at. I don’t always agree with what you have to say, but I respect your right to have another opinion. At the very least, you can grant me the same courtesy.”

Note that in Step 3, too, it is important to be specific in stating what we want. Granted, it is helpful to know that Mary wishes to be in a loving, caring, and supportive relationship, and wants to be appreciated and admired. But those wishes are still too vague to be clearly understood. Fortunately, she later spelled out exactly what she wants when she added, “I WANT you to stop rolling your eyes and sighing as if I were a jerk. I WANT you to listen to what I have to say, consider it, and respect my right to express an opinion without being laughed at.”

A new boundary cannot be established unless it is enforced. The role of Step 4 is to announce the consequences of refusing to comply with the request being made. It isn’t always necessary to announce the consequences to the person you’re dealing with. However, it is essential that you choose the consequences in your own mind and commit to carrying them out if necessary. In the case of Mary, her purpose isn’t to antagonize or threaten her husband. She merely wishes to correct his unacceptable behavior. So, in place of Step 4, she may simply say, “Do you understand what I am saying, Honey?”

But what if Mary’s husband continues to ridicule her? A boundary without enforcement is not a boundary, so Mary will now announce the consequences. The actions she will take are not punishment she is meting out, but the consequences her husband brought on himself by his own actions. Although there is much Mary can do and say, here is just one example, “I asked you to stop rolling your eyes and sighing whenever I express an opinion that differs from yours and you have refused to stop. So, I have decided to spend less time at home and start taking night school classes where I can improve myself and make new friends. If I cannot find the respect I need and deserve at home, I will find it outside the home. I hope you understand…”

Everyone resists change, so if you try to set a boundary with a friend that ridicules you, they will probably try to brush it aside by saying something like, “I was just joking. You’re too sensitive.” But don’t accept that explanation. Immediately reply, “You may have been joking, BUT I AM NOT. If you continue to ridicule me, I will find another friend.”

You are not less important than others, so stand up for yourself. The other side of the coin is, others are not less important than you, so respect and honor their boundaries. Rewording the point I wish to make, you are not here to live up to the expectations of others, but neither are they here to live up to yours. Seek balance or the middle path. That is, don’t be passive, allowing others to step all over you. Also, don’t be aggressive, bullying your way through life. Rather, be assertive, defending your rights and the rights of others. The purpose of setting boundaries is not to be separated from others, but to gain the freedom and strength to better serve them. For it is only after we learn how to protect. honor, and love ourselves that we will be able to do the same for others.