I like this photo, because when I first saw it I saw a broken flower, but when I looked closer I realized it was plastic. The title of this photo is “Fake Sorrow”. How appropriate is that?
Sorrow and the various forms it can take — depression, melancholy, grief, distress — speaks to vulnerability. This usually invokes a protective response from people, unless you’re a predator, and then it’s like blood in the water to a shark. But in most people, their innate kindness will kick in. Covert abusers take advantage of this.
When we interact with other people, one of the things we take into consideration is their emotional state. It affects how we approach them. It may impact the decisions we make concerning them. Covert abusers know this.
The state of sorrow can be used as a means of control.
Feigning the vulnerability of sorrow can compel a target to stay when they want to leave. It can coerce you to take care of the manipulator instead of taking care of yourself. It can make you feel guilty for being happy or successful or healthy, and then tug on this guilt like the strings on a puppet.
Covert abusers don’t care who the puppet is. What matters is that they get what they want. Age offers no protection. Children are often manipulated in this way, guilted into taking care of parents who should be taking care of them or having their love manipulated to assume a greater role than appropriate. Spouses, intimate partners can find themselves staying in intolerable situations, when it would be in their best interest to leave.
It’s not that the covert abuser may not actually be sad. They may be or they may not be. It’s that they use their awareness of the impact of their sadness on other people to manipulate them.
Feigning sorrow can, also, protect one from accountability. Who wants to “kick someone when they’re down”? Most decent folks would not. Covert abusers count on that. They know feigning sorrow can protect them from being scrutinized or interrogated, at least too much. People will hesitate to ask the hard questions, perhaps stop questioning at all, because they don’t want to upset the person who is “down” even more.
Even if you approach from a place of gentleness and compassion, the covert abuser can act as if you just knocked them down when they were already on shaky ground, making you look and feel bad.
Oh, the power of a quivering lip, the seduction of a falling tear. There are some people who truly can cry at the drop of a hat, and they do!
How many times have you apologized for hurting someone’s feelings, when the feelings you hurt were only in relation to being held accountable for a transgression they committed against you? How many times have you backed down, not asking the questions that needed to be asked, not discovering the truth that needed to be told, because the faking of sorrow, in any of its forms, intimidated or guilted you into backing off?
Feigning sorrow is, also, a great recruiter. The perceived vulnerability of sorrow not only engenders kindness toward the covert abuser, but anger toward the perceived source of that sorrow. It is a catalyst, a springboard for relational aggression, a covert abuse group effort.
Perceived sorrow can influence people to harbor ill will and inflict harm on the perceived cause of that sorrow. This is how collaborators are conscripted into the covert abuser’s army against you. It’s how good people can find themselves acting in unkind ways toward another, and feel justified. They are not abusers. They are champions in the cause of justice.
Emotional manipulation works.
It may not always be easy to spot it. We are generally inclined to give people the benefit of the doubt. Covert abusers take advantage of that. But once you begin to understand how manipulation works, you can become more aware of its presence when it’s around.
Of course, we’re not mind readers. You can drive yourself crazy trying to figure out the intentions of another. Far better to look at the impact or outcome of their behavior. And even better to take a good look at your intentions and measure your actions against what you believe in.
Beware the pitfalls of “exceptions” or “just in this particular case”. It’s a very deep fall.
In dealing with possible manipulation of you, ask yourself:
- Am I truly being out of line for attempting to communicate with this individual?
- Am I communicating with accusatory or threatening language? If not, then what’s really going on here?
- Am I being mindful of timing or am I finding that the right time never exists?
- Am I being asked to sacrifice for this individual whether it be the right to express my thoughts and feelings, to ask questions or to make life decisions? Is it right to ask me to do this? Would it be right to ask this of anyone else?
In dealing with possible manipulation of you regarding your relationship with another, whether friend, acquaintance or stranger, ask yourself if any of the actions you are contemplating measure up to your standards, your principles.
As long as your behavior is one of integrity, and the actions you are taking are principled regardless of your personal feelings, then you are free from unethical behavior that would later come back to haunt you, whether “justified” or not.
If you are right, you have the knowledge that in addressing a wrong you did not do wrong yourself. And if you had been mistaken, then you can be glad you were not party to causing more harm.
In this way you honor both parties and yourself.
Is this a lot of work? Yes. Dealing with covertly abusive people is a lot of work. Dealing with toxic people is going to take a lot of energy out of you. Better to invest that energy into discerning your situation and making empowered choices than to just let the covert abuser drain it out of you.
Your sanity, your peace of mind, your self-respect and well-being are worth it.
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