Manipulation is also known as Adult Bullying

I debated whether or not to post about a small incident with “eternal acquaintances” (borrowed from Kara).  I changed my mind when Judy reflected on this topic and the other thoughts that followed – thank you for the great insight.  I realized that adult bullying had a bit more to do with this ‘incident’ than I had originally thought.

As mentioned in the comments, we generally don’t use bullying to describe adult behavior.  It is reserved for children in elementary school and when they get older we call it “peer pressure”.  When we become adults the word changes to manipulation.  I often think that the change in word usage drives a disconnect between childhood bullying and adult bullying.  Both the same, the only difference being chronological age – not emotional maturity.

My father was adult bulled many times.  He lent people money, people who didn’t pay him back.  It was significant amounts of money that by the time I was heading to university, there were no savings left for my tuition.  His boundaries and our family’s were crossed.  We struggled financially throughout my childhood and his generosity extended beyond his means or more accurately, his savings account.  I share similar approaches to adult bullying as my father.  I have lent friends money to find that I wasn’t paid back.  The only positive is that it wasn’t significant amounts and I recognized early enough to learn my boundaries and stop.  I don’t blame my father for how I handled money in early adulthood.  Only, that I can see how we share similar vulnerabilities and how we both didn’t understand them well enough to recognize when our boundaries were crossed.

I believe that we learn how to approach different types of manipulation by watching others (as involved bystanders) and in an environment that is supportive.  Watching how someone who is emotionally intelligent approach a manipulative situation has taught me how to set limits and boundaries with someone who is trying to cross them.  Unfortunately, we are not born with this skill set, it is a ‘learn as you go’ kind of skill.  Then, we become adults and those that have found manipulation to get what they need and want (chronically) have now fine tuned their skills so the manipulation no longer looks like playground ‘bullying’, it looks like ‘normal’ everyday conversation.  Those without the skill set to handle chronic manipulators face the same challenge as children in school – how to effectively deal with bullying?

And with this recent incident, DH and I found ourselves in a predicament in what seemed to be a simple coordination task of getting six “eternal acquaintances” together for one evening and ended up being a lesson in adult bullying.

Background: We used to see Mari and her husband a bit more when we lived five minutes by car from them.  The other couple we saw occasionally and always with Mari and her husband.  After we moved further away and life happens, it was now three years since we had seen each other.

Mari sent out an e-mail to all five of us suggesting a weekend away on the coast in February.

Boundary #1: After three years of not seeing each other, a weekend away was too ‘forced’ for me.  I didn’t feel comfortable spending a weekend with people I didn’t feel a strong connection with and since DH travels during the week, the weekends are our time to regroup, run his errands, etc.

I responded with a suggestion of a dinner in any of the cities that were convenient for all three couples on a Saturday evening (as each of us live about 45 minutes to one hour by car from each other).

Boundary #2: Mari responded with an invite to her house and stated in her e-mail (written so): Option #1: we are to either bring dishes to share with everyone and a bottle of wine OR Option #2, we are to pay Mari for the ingredients and we are all to cook together in her kitchen.

It was clear to me that these were her boundaries, so DH and I responded with our preference for Option #1 – to bring dishes to share and wine.

Boundary #3: I did not hear back from the others and wondered if we were going to even have the dinner as the date was approaching.  After some time, she responds with one sentence “Dinner menu is lobster, the other couple likes this idea.”

Lobsters are cannibalistic when food is scarce

I was taken aback at first.  LobsterI realized that the four had spoken (off the shared e-mail) and set the menu (after asking a clarifying question to her on a separate e-mail).  After speaking with DH some things were clear to me about DH and our vulnerabilities (shame).  We didn’t want to appear difficult and going against the ‘popular’ vote felt like peer pressure.  The ONLY problem is that DH and I hate lobster.  Yup, we have tried it many times prepared in different ways and we both don’t like it.  And here we were actually discussing the idea of going along with it even when we were PAYING and COOKING to have a meal we didn’t like.

Boundary #4: I e-mailed her and said that DH and I will bring a dish to share with everyone and dessert and wine.  And I asked if we could use her oven to re-heat the dish.  She replied that using her oven was no problem.

Something I had thought about – what if Mari is simply asserting her wants as I had asserted mine?  Intellectually, I thought maybe Mari was simply more self-assured and she had a natural ease of asserting herself while I found it a challenge to type each e-mail asserting my preferences.

Then, the part of me that in the last three years I have become conscious of is my emotional part of my brain, where making decisions with it is equally important as my cognitive skills.  I felt ignored. Not because I didn’t get what I wanted BUT because I wasn’t involved in a decision that involved my boundaries.  I felt that my boundaries were disregarded.  If we are to pay and cook a meal, we should have been part of the discussion and all of us should have come to an agreement.  Like ADULTS, not like peer pressured teenagers.

Ignoring is a type of manipulation/bullying (Harriet B. Braiker¹ groups this under Silent Treatment while George K. Simon groups it under Selective Listening – thank you to Caliban’s Sisters for the link).  Ignoring is an effective manipulation technique to bully someone into GIVING UP (either to DO something or STOP something).  And why do we give up?  Infants know how to give up before they are taught.  Infants will cry (fight) when in distress and they eventually give up (flight).  Not because they learn to self-soothe (they don’t because they can’t tell time and understanding the concept of time is necessary in self-soothing), but because giving up is a protection against other predators.  A crying baby will eventually stop crying if you IGNORE it as to not attract other predators.  It is a survival tool built into us from birth.

We carry this primal survival instinct into adulthood and it can become a crutch.  I am really good at giving up when I’m ignored.  Knowing that I choose to flee rather than FIGHT as my default setting helped me see that my FLIGHT tendencies were in direct violation of my rights (having a say in food that I was paying for and cooking).

Lobsters don’t scream when boiled

Mari made it clear in the e-mail that she is a woman of compromise.  Her behaviors in the e-mail indicated that a compromise meant our preferences were NOT going to be considered.

CookingAfter all, everyone got what they wanted – LOBSTER for the four and anything but LOBSTER for DH and I.  That is a win-win situation (except for the lobster).

As you can imagine, after all these e-mails, the evening revealed whether this was the case of Mari being assertive with poor communication skills or Mari wanting to control (aggressive) which is the purpose of bullying.  It was clear throughout the evening that Mari found my decisions unacceptable.  She mentioned that we didn’t chose the LOBSTER three times and once brought up the fact that I couldn’t go to the coast for a weekend.  She made underhanded insulting statements and I felt the urge to JADE and explain again why a weekend away wasn’t possible or the fact we didn’t like lobster.  I bit my tongue each time and instead focused on my purpose (as opposed to her purpose) of the evening – to visit and socialize with acquaintances and have fun.

Boundary #5: Her attempts to degrade my decisions were a form of social coercion (as comments were directed to everyone at the dinner) and she lied to the other couple.  I felt guilty for having gone my own way and asserting myself.

Boundary #6:  As we drove back home, DH said it best on our drive back: “I could wait another three years before I see Mari and her husband again.”

Adult Bullying

Chronic bullying or manipulation serves only one purpose: POWER and CONTROL.  Something I hadn’t realized before. Even when each person got what they wanted to eat and the meal preparations went smoothly, Mari kept weaving my decisions into the conversation the whole evening. A chronic bully doesn’t give up easily if they had success with you.  When I reflected on the last time few times I have gotten together with Mari and her husband, they controlled everything.  When, where, with whom, etc.  DH and I were told what we were doing.  And in ACoN years, three years are a lot more meaningful and longer than Gregorian years.  DH and I learned about manipulation and that as adults we have developed our own sophisticated rhetoric to bullying.  It may look and sound different and after you remove the smoke screen, you’ll find that your boundaries are NOT respected.  The very core of manipulation and bullying.

I can relate to the meme Judy shared in her post.  I need to learn skills about how to handle bullying effectively.  Walking away sometimes works and sometimes it doesn’t.  Depending on the situation and circumstances, we can’t remove ourselves from adult bullies all the time.  Children can’t either.  Bullies are schoolmates, friends, siblings, co-workers, managers, parents, teachers, coaches, etc.  Bullies are human and like the meme said – we can’t get rid of bullying behaviors.

To be continued in the next post.  This story has a happy ending. 🙂

Further Reading & Footnotes

Five Myths Around Bullying by Dr. Peter Thomas, Ph.D.

¹Braiker, Harriet B. (2004). “Who’s Pulling Your Strings?: How to Break the Cycle of Manipulation and Regain Control of Your Life”. McGraw Hill. New York.

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Fear vs Anxiety (part 2)

When I encountered the stranger in the post (Fear vs Anxiety part 1) at the bookstore, I broke my Stranger Policy.

My Stranger Policy mostly applies to situations when I’m alone outside.  I treat all strangers as potential threats – any kind of threat – violent, pick pocketing or another scam.  This policy applies to everyone  – men, children, old women, teenagers, groups of women.

Strangers approach me quite often when I’m alone.  When I walk to my language school from the train station (20 minute walk) I am approached at least once, if not more, as I walk through a tourist area of Brussels.  My policy is not to respond.  When approached I say ‘No’ and walk away.

Whenever I break the policy I ask myself: Why did I do that?  I never feel good about breaking it which is totally counter-intuitive to helping others.  All the signs were there that this woman (from part 1) was a potential threat.  Yet, I still continued, for quite a while, to respond to her inquiries.

The positive part of this experience was: had this situation happened to me a few years ago I would not have stopped the conversation short and left; I would have sacrificed my time for her needs.  There was definite progress in my actions and when I walked out of that store, I felt good about ending it before it continued even further.

After the incident, I read the Gift of Fear by Gavin de Becker where he focuses on listening to true fear and its signals and I was challenged:

  1. My first conscious weird irratation happened when the stranger did not respond to my apology immediately.  She had a delayed response.
  2. My second conscious sensation was when she asked what I was reading.  This signal was a bit louder in my head and yet, I ignored it and answered.
  3. When I was listening to her, my mind started to look for and analyse the potential threats – she is trying to sell something, she is trying to scam me?  My mind was running through a list of all potential threats.

During her attempts to engage me in some sort of conversation, my mind was racing.  I was, for the majority of the interaction, focused on what she could do to me.

If I had experienced true fear, would not have the flight-fight response kicked in?  Yet, everything inside me felt like fear (heart racing, etc.)  And still, I didn’t respond after 2 signals, I stood there and continued to answer her questions.

My initial reaction was habitual: ignore the irritations and my own uncomfortableness and meet the needs of the other person.  My thoughts began dispersing every direction – Is she trying to sell me something? is she trying to con me? is she trying to rob me? what if she has a weapon?, etc.  This worrying went on for the duration of the conversation.

Daniel Goleman (from the book Emotional Intelligence) writes:

“And so the worrying mind spins on in an endless loop of low-grade melodrama, one set of concerns leading on to the next and back again.”

giftfearGoleman does clarify that worry can work – when it leads to a solution (what he calls constructive reflection).  The problem arises when we are never nearer to a positive solution (chronic worry, anxiety disorders).

Gavin de Becker, in the last chapter of the Gift of Fear, illustrates the same distinction with clearer lines:

“Worry, wariness, anxiety, and concern all have a purpose, but they are not fear.  It may well be something worth trying to understand and manage, but worry will not bring solutions.  It will more likely distract you from finding solutions.”

And no doubt, I didn’t find a solution immediately.  In my old ways (before recovery), I would never have found a solution until I was forced – the bookstore kicking me out at closing time or DH coming to look for me.  De Becker draws the line further:

“People use the word fear loosely, but to put it in its proper relation to panic, worry, and anxiety, … … … , real fear is not paralysing – it is energising.”

I often find myself in endless loops of worries and low-grad anxiety in a lot of situations.  But after reading this book, I started to question whether my anxiety, at times, is not masking a true fear signal.  De Becker references listening to our instincts and signals of true fear but this ‘listening’ is rather difficult for me because I never learned how.

Somehow the signals I felt with the stranger went unchecked – not listened to – after 2, actually 3 fear signals.  The first signal (that I didn’t realise until after) was she invaded my physical boundary – this was actually the first signal my body had noticed, if not my mind.  When she came walking down the aisle, I was sitting on the floor and her purse swung and almost hit me in the face until I quickly moved away (DH wondered if she had done this on purpose).

At times, real fear can be paralysing too – if we haven’t learned how to listen to our inner voice.  I think abused children learn repetitively to dampen the signals that come from the amygdala (emotional centre of the brain).  And albeit, some dampening is necessary in keeping certain signals in check (learning to delay gratification, self-control), it can go to extremes in abusive households.  Signals that are essential to survival (emotional survival as well) can be manipulated in abusive environments.

Even with the constant manipulation, the body doesn’t stop responding to stimuli that is dangerous / inappropriate* (as the amygdala is fully developed at birth).  In such environments, we are taught to reprogram that signal into something else (as our intellect is developing after birth).

The comment thread of the post on amygdala hijack (Through the Looking Glass) sums it up nicely:

If you are taught that you aren’t worthy of protection, then you will fly into a panic whenever you feel yourself in such a situation. The panic comes not from “overreacting,” but from the inner conflict between the natural survival instinct and the conditioning that we are somehow not worthy of protection/survival. -Kitty (Brave New Kitty)

In cases where anxiety is developed from real, authentic fear signals* (life and non-life threatening), the confusion (inner conflict) between the two creates an advantage for those who abuse.  Teaching a child to ignore / suppress fear signals can cause disproportionate reactions (appearing as overreacting, frozen or shut down) thus, providing them the necessary upper hand to manipulate the situation further to create the desired effect.   I often gave into their demands just to ease my own anxiety – a decision, an action has been taken – providing temporary relief from the anxiety.

Children who are abused are taught to re-wire emotional signals that lead to many complex problems in adulthood.  This manipulation (reprogramming) can manifest itself within the body in different ways.  Often developing from the repeated lesson: teach her to disregard reality and herself.

Hugs, TR

*In the book, The Gift of Fear, Gavin de Becker refers to several examples where psychological boundaries were crossed before the act of violence (physical harm) –  stipulating that crossing of psychological boundaries is a true signal of fear.

Further reading:

Weathering the Storm: Living and Coping with Anxiety

Through the Looking Glass: Name That Feeling: the Amygdala Hijack

Caliban’s Sisters: Pattern Recognition vs. the Parental Present

Brave New Kitty: Embrace Your Anxiety

In Bad Company: Fear vs Anxiety (part 1)