WARNING: This post contains some description of childhood physical abuse.
Because to take away a man’s freedom of choice, even his freedom to make the wrong choice, is to manipulate him as though he were a puppet and not a person.
~ Madeline L’Engle
Psychological manipulation is a type of social influence that aims to change the behaviour or perception of others through indirect, deceptive, or underhanded tactics.
My mother could play people like Strauss played the violin. Well, she could play some people. Looking back, i can see there were some giving her a wide berth. I’m gonna guess she had a toxic stink on her for those self-aware enough. Once we moved out of the city and began living a throwaway life in various small towns, things steadily changed. Her sick was beginning to show. It started when she picked up a stray boy to do her bidding. He was 14, and she was 32. It’s hard to maintain your mini-guru status when you’re sexually assaulting someone on the regular. Even if we mightn’t have called it what it was back then (and that’s what it was), it made others intensely uncomfortable and outright disgusted. Isolated and mostly alone in a trailer park at the edge of town, she gained weight and lost all her friends.
Once she had the boy firmly under her thumb (he moved in with us when he was 15), she began squirting out babies every couple of years. She put on pregnancy weight and it never came off. She stopped cleaning her house. She stopped cleaning herself. I’d like to think it was guilt over the past, but i think it far more likely that her monstrousness had become too much for her to handle. She was consuming herself from the inside. Eating her own poison caused her to become bloated and bilious on the outside. She looked wrong, she smelled wrong – on a psychic level. From then on the only card she had to play was pity. She still caught a number of unfortunates in her web, but it was far fewer, and they never stuck around for long. Her mask slipped quite regularly. She’d mostly cut off contact with me before she died, but at her funeral i saw she’d been enjoying quite the resurgence of her sick and sticky influence. She was in a 12-step program and had joined a church – perfect places for a 600lb tumour of a human to bang her pity drum and have a parade behind her. They wept into their tissues as they told me how much she meant to them.
They’ll never know how fortunate they are that she died. She would have taken whatever they’d give her, and then cut them to ribbons on her way out.
I’d watched her manipulate people my whole life, although i didn’t see it for what it was, back then. That was just how we did things at my house. We hid our true selves from the outside world. Other people wouldn’t, couldn’t understand our ways – we were too intelligent, too evolved, psychically, spiritually, intellectually. We were on a higher level. As soon as someone’s back was turned or was out of earshot, my mother had nothing nice to say about them. I watched her smile and charm her way through single motherhood in the big city. I watched her hold her own with large groups of professors and grad students. And then parts of me watched her behaviour when we were alone at home. Her emotional meltdowns, her beating and starving me, her renting me out for money, gifts, favours, and the attention of 1 particular man.
I watched her deftly handle teachers in interviews, blaming me for every issue that was brought up. I watched her charm my friends at sleepovers or car rides or at school functions. She could ease them past their fear and disgust over her size in mere minutes. Connecting with fellow students years later they’d ask after her, Hey, how’s your mom? She was always so cool. When i’d tell them she died young, they were so sad for me.
I watched her in therapy sessions. With me as a kid and her riding shotgun, with both of us through churches and government run agencies. She’d seek help for me, and it’d always end up being about her. She’d been abused as a child and now she had this troubled daughter who couldn’t sleep and wasn’t getting high enough marks at school and was struggling socially. How she was doing everything in her power and availing herself of every opportunity, and i was still such a problem. I was stubborn, i was a compulsive liar, i never did my homework… How was she supposed to cope with all of that AND make a living? She had them nodding sympathetically and eating out of her hand in 20mins or less. She knew all the buzzwords and dog whistles and they lapped it up. Meanwhile, if my performance hadn’t been spot on, when we got home she’d beat the crap out of me. Sometimes she’d be so mad she couldn’t wait until we got home and would beat me in the car. She bounced my head off the dashboard so hard once, that it cracked. She’d point out the crack occasionally, just by way of reminder to behave or else.
I watched and i learned and i behaved.
All this to bring it back to what i’m dealing with today. Today i know how to manipulate people to get what i want. To read them, to know their currency and their weaknesses and through that knowledge, get my needs met. In the distant past, i can see where i did work people to get their acceptance, but it was an unconscious thing. I’d been taught to figure out what people wanted and give it to them. I’d been taught to blend into the group, chameleon-like. I wasn’t purposefully disingenuous. And i was never on the grift, like her. I never took anyone’s money. I never paraded myself, my past, or my children for cash, or gifts, or help of any kind. I hid my need from others. I only ever had a couple of friends who knew when i was down and out, and they had to force me to take their help (they were generous and kind to do that, i know).
I don’t socialise much anymore, and almost never in big groups, so i don’t have to worry about my must-fit-in programming so much. I have a few friends i can be myself with – or at least practise being myself. I thought my manipulative days were behind me.
Frank and intensive introspection has recently shown me that that isn’t the case.
The manipulation was subtle, embedded in care-based action. First, it starts with my children. I finally became aware of it with my youngest. He’s grown but is still at home for now. He has some serious issues that he needs safety and space to work out, and we’re glad to provide for him. Some if not all of them, can be traced back to being born to and raised with, a survivor of severe trauma who has multiple mental health diagnoses. As i’m working on my own stuff, i watch him work on his, and i think back to when he was in school. I see his struggles in various areas, and i see me trying to get him the help he needed. I attend meetings, so many meetings. Meetings they called, meetings i called. Taking him for tests and more tests. Trying this, trying that, nothing working, constant fretting, so much emotion, so much stress. And today i see how much of it could have been avoided, if i hadn’t been unconsciously manipulating things to get the outcome >>i<< wanted. I wanted him to do things and be things in his life that he wasn’t necessarily interested in. I hung my own unfulfilled hopes and dreams on him. I compounded his stress and anxiety.
Tough pill to swallow, but it’s mine to take.
This led to some insight into other areas where i’ve been trying to make others do what i want.
I’ve written about my crappy parenting and how i’ve apologised to my boys and they all forgive me and still love me. I’ve gone on about how i’ve offered myself to them for therapy – both to pay for it, and be present at any session they’d want. But what i didn’t see was how i apologise too often – i bring it up too much. And the uncomfortable truth of it is that i want them to make what i did okay for me. I want THEM to fix MY feelings. I want them to go to therapy and be mad at me so that i can feel more at peace. I know i don’t get to tell them how to handle their past, but i was missing the selfishness that was enmeshed in the best of intentions.
Which brings me to my husband. Same thing. I wanted him to get help for his past because i thought it was the right thing to do. Our marriage had serious problems and i decided how we should handle it. I decided that because i was wallowing around in my shit that he should, too. I was reminded of the time i forced him to tell his mother he wasn’t religious. She didn’t need to know and he didn’t want to tell her. I was religious at the time and i just decided that it was the “right” thing to do. Truth is, i think i wanted to punish him for not coming along into my religious beliefs/community. Ugh. What a shitty thing to do. It was manipulative, pure and simple.
Just like trying to force him into therapy. In my defense, i truly believed i was doing the right, good thing. I wanted to help. I wanted everyone to be happy and healthy and for us all to get along. What i didn’t see or understand, was that i was trying to manipulate others into MY vision of what happy/healthy looks like, and force those i love into employing MY ideas for how we get there.
None of them have to deal with their trauma at all, let alone in the way i’m dealing with mine. There are many out there in the world who shut it down and put it away. They don’t talk about it, they don’t get therapy, and they have the life they want. Or they don’t have the life they want. Either way, it’s their choice. Their quality of life or lack thereof, is none of my business, and that includes those closest to me that i love.
It’s humbling, to be sure, but i’ve been mulling this over for a few weeks now, and the sting has gone out of it. It’s just the truth, and i am a truth-seeker. I’d rather know than not know. Even if it hurts. Even if i have to look at ugly parts of myself and take responsibility.
What i know today is that i will show up for my family whenever and however they want me to — IF they want me to.
And that may never happen.
And i’m just gonna have to sit with the uncomfortability that comes from not being able to FIX everything so that >>i<< can feel better.
Man, growing up sucks sometimes.
Still totally worth doing.
I’m gonna keep at it.
Hope y’all are hanging in there as best you can.
I’m still here, so i’ve got that goin’ for me.
Love and Peace,
WARNING: This post contains some description of childhood physical abuse.