In Praise of Manipulation
Manipulation gets a bad rap. In The Two Truths About Love: The Art & Wisdom of Extraordinary Relationships, as well as in my counseling sessions with clients, I explain how each and every one of us has 99% control of every relationship. Upon occasion, a client will remark, “Oh, but I don’t want to be thought of as controlling.” What a travesty! Such a person has yet to awaken to the limitless rewards that come from being manipulative. My goal, as a therapist, is to help people realize the essential role that skillful manipulation plays in our pursuit of success and happiness.
Every time you get behind the wheel of a car, your objective is to transport yourself (and whoever may be with you) safely from one destination to another. And how do you accomplish this? By skillfully manipulating the controls of your vehicle in a practiced, informed and intentional way. In the case of transportation, manipulation is essential and, quite obviously, a smart idea.
In life, it isn’t particularly different. We are constantly trying to transport ourselves from one moment to the next in the best and easiest way possible. Although the controls that assist us with this are not as obvious as they are in a car, they’re still there. The key is to know how to effectively manipulate these controls to help us get to wherever it is we want to go, in life and in our relationships.
Of primary importance is our ability to manipulate our own emotions, what’s called self-regulation. This is akin to adjusting the A/C in our car to achieve a comfortable temperature. If emotionally we’re feeling too hot or cold–too angry or despondent, let’s say–then this is something that can always (yes, always) be manipulated. This is precisely what I teach my clients, how we each have the ability to transform our own emotional experience, once we understand the true root of suffering. (This is the focus of my philosophy about giving permission.)
In addition to helping us regulate our emotions, manipulation (like the steering wheel of a car) enables us to guide our thoughts, communication and actions. There is never a moment in life in which we lack an objective. Even if all we want to do is unwind after a long day, sitting on the couch to watch some TV, we have an objective–like enjoying some chill time. Every day we face an unfolding procession of shifting objectives, at home, at work, at the grocery store, the gas station, on phone calls, writing emails, texting, you name it. Manipulation is the primary skill on which we rely, in each and every moment, to successfully accomplish these ever-changing goals of ours. Without the ability to manipulate ourselves and our circumstances in a skillful way, our lives would be a total disaster.
Now, this is all well and good when it comes to self-manipulation, but what about being manipulative of others? Surely I’m not suggesting that it is equally beneficial for us to try to control the thoughts and behaviors of another person, right? Isn’t it better to respect the freedom and autonomy of all individuals without being controlling? When it comes to interpersonal relationships, manipulation is a bad thing, correct?
Actually, no! Every time we interact with another person, how we conduct ourselves matters. It matters because what we say and do effects not only the relationship but (in almost every case) also the person with whom we are interacting. Whether we are aware of the phenomenon occurring or not, we are always engaged in the act of manipulating. If we’re only manipulating unconsciously–as if we’re on auto-pilot– we’re more likely to collide into things and get in accidents. If we choose to manipulate consciously instead, with intentionality, compassion and skill, we can exercise better control of matters. By taking responsibility for our own contributions to a relationship or interaction, we best shape the experience and, ultimately, its outcome. For instance, if we know that someone tends to get easily defensive when they feel criticized, we might mindfully choose our communication in a way that helps things run smoothly. In so doing, we’re apt to achieve a more peaceful and productive exchange, which helps ourselves and this other person. How do we get there? Through manipulation!
The act of manipulation is never a problem unto itself; it is the manner in which manipulation occurs where problems arise. Going back to the analogy of the car, if we were to turn the wheel left when we wanted to go right, or hit the accelerator when we wanted to brake, we’d crash. We’d crash not because we were trying to manipulate the car, but because we were going about it completely the wrong way. This is precisely what is happening when we see people who are recognized as being overly controlling, especially in regards to their relationships. Such a “controlling” person is still merely attempting to achieve their objectives, but in a way that is counter-productive and, more often than not, even detrimental. That such a person is being manipulative isn’t the problem; it’s that they do not know how to manipulate situations (and, yes, even other people) in a more enlightened way, a way that fosters happiness for all involved.
To give an example, imagine a typically “controlling” husband. Let’s say he frequently protests that his wife’s interaction with other men is too flirtatious or that the clothing she wears is overly revealing. He often makes a fuss and criticizes her about these things, getting quite upset in the process. This leads to plenty of arguments that strain the relationship and create emotional distance. Even if this man’s attempts to alter his wife’s behavior are successful (which isn’t likely), the cost will be major. She will undoubtedly resent him for judging her, not trusting her, and diminishing her freedom to be who and how she wants to be. As these resentments build (under the weight of similarly clumsy attempts at manipulation), the relationship will be further strained, arguments will flare up with greater frequency, and ultimately the relationship will break from the duress of perpetual discord. Rats.
Is this what the husband is trying to achieve? Not likely. What he probably wants is to improve the relationship (or at least his own experience of it). What prompts his protests? Perhaps he feels insecure about the relationship and fears that, if his wife realizes that other men are interested in her, she’ll leave him. Driven by such fear, the husband tries to prevent this in the only way he knows how. Unfortunately, his oafish methods are totally ineffectual and actually work against him. If he only knew how to more effectively manipulate, he would choose an alternate path, like that of communicating lovingly with his wife about his own insecurities. From this, it’s quite possible that his wife’s behavior would indeed change while protecting and enriching the relationship at the same time. The problem isn’t that the husband is being controlling, per se, but that he doesn’t know how to be controlling in a way that actually works in everyone’s best interests.
So, you see, the goal isn’t to stop being manipulative, but for us to learn how to manipulate in the most authentic and caring way possible. We want to recognize that the power we have over others (and ourselves) is, indeed, enormous, almost limitless, then to commit to using this power with a pure heart and loving intentions. In the end, what it really boils down to is our intentionality and capabilities. How will we use our ability to manipulate ourselves and others? Will we play the part of villain or hero? With skillfulness, both paths are supremely possible, but only one leads to the fulfillment of our truest desires. If you want to be a hero to yourself and everyone you know and love, know that this option is available to you, once you embrace the power that you have to be truly, fully and magnificently manipulative.
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