having health relationships, disengaging from manipulators

During the current coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) pandemic, many people have been forced to engage with people in their lives who are not good for them in ways that are much more meaningful. If you live with a manipulator, the already stressful shelter-in-place and social distancing orders may seem unbearable. If you’re dealing with a manipulative boss, you may find yourself taking unnecessary health risks to get your work done. It can be hard to learn to disengage from the manipulators in our lives at the best of times, so it’s no surprise that during the COVID-19 pandemic, people are really struggling to stick to the boundaries they set and avoid those who engage in manipulative behaviors. In this blog, I talk about why disengaging completely from manipulators may be the best option.

What do I Mean by Manipulator?

One of the most challenging things for many of my reasonable clients to understand is that not everyone can be reasoned with. Some unhealthy people play by their own sets of rules, and no matter how much reason they are confronted with, they manage to disregard the very real effects that the rules they play by have on others. Their genuine confusion about what it’s like to be on the receiving end of their behaviors can make it very hard to see their level of manipulation for what it is (intentional or not). So, it’s important to remember two things about these individuals. Manipulators can be just about anyone in your life, and many of them are obstinately unaware that they are manipulative.

How can You Deal with Manipulators?

Really, complete disengagement is the only effective way to deal with many manipulators. It can be rather difficult for a kind and understanding person to learn the skill of complete disengagement that is often necessary when it comes to dealing with people who are so narcissistic and manipulative that they treat another person’s needs, boundaries, or criticisms as completely irrelevant while presenting a total naiveté about the fact that they are doing so. Although it can be hard to disengage completely when such people act as if you haven’t set a boundary or acknowledged a need in the first place, this is likely the only viable option when it comes to saving your own sanity. Disengaging is especially difficult if you’re the type of person who is sensitive to abandonment or disconnection in a relationship. You may believe that somehow you should be able to manage your own needs in the relationship and keep the other person happy at the same time or at least have understand get where you’re coming from. It can be hard when the other person’s psychology does not allow them to admit the truth of your separateness or accept the boundary that you are trying to set!

So, Why is Setting Boundaries Difficult with Manipulators?

Healthy, reasonable people who are able to see another person’s point of view sometimes find it hard to imagine that people are not always so uncomplicated. While some difficult people become angry when others try to set a boundary with them, criticize something they are doing, or let them know the effect they are having on others, others cope with this using denial. They simply dismiss the feedback in their own minds and go on as if nothing has happened. For people who are not wired this way, it can be very easy to get manipulated because the other person can seem so innocent on the surface…and the fact that they are completely dismissing the other person’s separateness and their effect on the other is completely out of their awareness. In a sense, the incongruence between their behaviors and their superficial presentation is ego syntonic and non-conflictual for them. They manage to live in a world in which they can mess over the other person and feel a sense of personal integrity at the same time, totally ignoring the contradiction inherent in this.

Case in Point

One of my clients, we’ll call her Sarah, is a case in point. Sarah’s boss manipulated her for many months, always acting friendly on the surface and smooth-talking her with his superficial charm. Sarah was completely blindsided when she was let go abruptly from the company and later found out that her boss had been planning this behind her back for a number of months without letting on at all that this was in the works. In his mind (unconsciously), he could be “best friends” with Sarah while planning to get rid of her at the same time. He simply used denial to manage the contradiction or incongruence in his actions. Even after Sarah was fired from her job, he acted as if he hadn’t done anything wrong and continued to treat Sarah as if everything between them was just fine….even as she found herself feeling enraged and betrayed.

Sarah withdrew abruptly from the relationship, but her boss continued to contact her as if they were on completely good terms, especially when he needed Sarah to help him clean up messes he had made through his poor mismanagement of the company. At first, Sarah complained about how hurt and caught off guard she felt at being let go. Her boss acted completely understanding with his words but seemed completely oblivious to the actual effect he had on Sarah’s life and was totally mystified when she didn’t want to help him out with problems at the office. Sarah eventually had to stop answering his phone calls completely to get the message across that their relationship had been changed by his behavior and the event of her being let go from her position, and even then, her old boss just didn’t seem to “get it.” It took Sarah a long time to get over feeling “guilty” or “mean” for ignoring his messages and emails.

Why Confrontation Won’t Necessarily Help

It can be extremely confusing and maddening when someone hurts us or violates our boundaries only to act as if they have done nothing wrong. Trying to explain one’s position to this kind of person usually elicits a lot of “yessing” behavior and superficial remorse. In yessing behavior, the other acts as if they understand the impact they have or what they “did wrong,” but in fact, they go on as if nothing has happened at all. Such people live in “pretend mode” as if relationships are like a game in which the rules can be made up at will and the other person is expected to simply play by the rules of the game never introducing reality.

When these people say, “But I never meant to hurt you” it doesn’t mean very much when they repeatedly betray their partner whether it’s by cheating and acting as if nothing has happened, not paying the bills that were supposed to be paid and then acting as if the other shouldn’t be upset at all, or simply continuing with old, offending behaviors while simultaneously apologizing for those very behaviors. Sometimes, actions do speak louder than words, but when the other person’s words are incongruent with behaviors that are very dismissive, it can be hard to sort out which end the disconnect is coming from.

So, What Else Can You Do?

Do you second guess yourself in such situations? It’s hard not to! But maybe the problem really isn’t you, and sometimes, letting go and completely disengaging from these people is the only way to go – that doesn’t mean it’s easy. Disengaging may mean deleting a person’s emails, not picking up their calls or reading text messages, or simply ignoring their overtures when a long history with them has led you to know that engaging is just not the way to go if you’re looking for a healthy outcome. The good news is – you don’t have to do it alone not even during shelter-in-place orders thanks to online telehealth therapy sessions.

Consider Telehealth Counseling

While you may be struggling with difficult people in tight quarters right now more than ever, you don’t have to just accept their behaviors. In fact, maybe now is the time to start setting boundaries and disengaging from the manipulators in your life. You learned some of the basics in this blog, and if you’re interested in scheduling telehealth counseling sessions with me, Mirel Goldstein, a licensed professional counselor offering therapy in New Jersey, get started by completing the Goldstein Therapy contact form, email, or call today.