Manipulate Like a Boss

We are all travelers in the wilderness of this world, and the best we can find in our travels is an honest friend.
— Robert Louis Stevenson

All humans are manipulative. And if you're like me, you're already wincing and recoiling at this statement. Hang in there with me for a moment though. After clarifying and discussing with Dr. Steve Harris (my mentor's mentor), I want to offer what he so graciously took the time to share with me. So let's get our foundation set:

  • Fact #1: All humans are manipulative.
  • Fact #2: How the manipulation comes out determines the health of the person.

Still uneasy? Ok...maybe a clarification on the definition. Dr. Harris recognizes, "Manipulation as a word definitely gets a bad rap. But manipulation extends itself into many spheres as this definition shows:

Manipulation is the skillful handling, controlling or using of something or someone. Whether it's the sculpture you made in art class or how you convinced your friend to do your homework — both are considered manipulation."

Based on this, we can see that manipulation can have either an incredible result displayed throughout museums the world over or a painful, hurtful consequence laced with heartache and tears.

What does it look like in relationships? There are four forms of manipulation:

  • Seductive
  • Deceptive
  • Intimidating
  • Negotiating
Negotiation is the highest and most desirable form since it is more relational and mutually respectful.
— Dr. Steve Harris

The first three are focused only on my needs. Negotiation is the only healthy form of manipulation as it invites the needs of others (note: "invites" is radically different from "take responsibility for").  Dr. Harris expounds on this idea, "Negotiation is the highest and most desirable form since it is more relational and mutually respectful. The others, tend to be either less direct, one-sided, or misrepresentational."

He continues, "Although when manipulations are exposed, they more often than not, reveal something less than desirable. But with negotiation, it stops being one person's act upon another, but both people trying to benefit." (Think: Separate/Equal/Open)

We seduce, deceive and/or intimidate to protect ourselves, preventing another from seeing us. It's incredibly vulnerable to recognize our own neediness and it's another thing to share that with someone. We would rather get our needs met without taking ownership of them because it's less threatening to our sense of self. Yet we become bitter and resentful when the other does not meet our needs because we refused to offer them. We are so focused on what is and is not being met that we have little to no capacity to see or give to the other person. 

Dr. Harris points out no relationship is satisfying when both parties are "doing things to each other that may not be direct. We don't like hidden agendas. I think another thing that [we] don't like about manipulation is that something is less exposed, less direct, perhaps even less honest."

Another thing we don’t like about manipulation is that something is less exposed, less direct, perhaps even less honest.
— Dr. Steve Harris

We long for what is true and authentic; it provides safety, stability, and security. Trust is inherent and required for any thriving relationship. It's why betrayal and deception can shatter what seemed like a sturdy foundation. In order to create and establish trustworthy relationships, we will need to be open and honest about who we are, who we are not, our longings, hopes, fears, dreams, failures, triumphs, sorrows, joys. "Perhaps the healthier manipulation becomes, the less it is manipulation and more mutual respect or mutual cooperation--the manipulation is transformed," Dr. Harris.

Will we choose to be people of clarity and truth, honoring our needs by sharing them with another and inviting their needs to be known? 

We need to be open and honest about who we are, who we are not, our longings, hopes, fears, dreams, failures, triumphs, sorrows, joys.

The Loneliest Number

The man who fears to be alone will never be anything but lonely.
— Thomas Merton

We can all agree that being separate individuals in relationship with other separate individuals is agreeable and even desirable. In theory. The practice part is a whole different story. If we allow ourselves to be honest, the idea of being separate (100% complete and whole on my own, responsible for myself and only myself) can seem threatening. Honesty would have us consider that fusion (1+1=1) is what we're really seeking and perhaps pursuing. Otherwise, we'd all be in healthy, functional, thriving and growing relationships. And honesty tells us that isn't the case. 

Hayley Quinn, the UK’s leading Dating Expert and self described "magnet for chaos" who "liked chaos because when [she] was in chaos [she] didn't have to confront anything that [she] was", explains, "Love is sold as the ultimate solution to ourselves, the thing that makes our past okay, that gives us direction for our future and imbues our everyday reality with meaning" which is an "act of escapism" where relationships are driven by the fear of loneliness, not love. 

Psychotherapist Ross Rosenberg has focused much of his clinical work on the dynamics between people who seek fulfillment in another person (friend, child, parent, significant other). Isn't that what fuels Hollywood, the Top 40 and bestsellers? Something in me is deficient or lacking and the solution is found in you and what you can give me. On some level, we've all subconsciously drunk the Kool-Aid. 

Don't get me wrong. Relationships are necessary and important for human flourishing. But when pressure is placed that they be more than they are intended to be, that's when things get dicey.

Loneliness is experienced as toxic.

According to Rosenberg, the pain of being alone is so intolerable that it creates a distorted definition of self.  Loneliness is experienced as toxic and we search for ways to eliminate this feeling, at whatever cost. Some feel the need to rescue another and some want to be rescued. Others think solely of their own needs and seek people who will meet those needs by denying their own. The goal is to find security in another because we fear what we are as an individual.

No one wants to admit any of this might be true of them. But like my friend Jeremy says, "Reality is our friend and sometimes our friend is ugly". Ugly but a friend, nonetheless, and good friends help us grow. 

Reality is your friend and sometimes your friend is ugly.

Reality check:

  • We pursue relationships out of fear of being alone rather than for the gift that they can be.
  • We're unable/unwilling to process intimacy, pain, and disappointment because we are convinced that others will make us better.
  • We depend on and need others to validate and approve our choices while sacrificing our own voice, thoughts, contributions.
  • Power is outsourced, demanding others be responsible for and manage our internal world. 

The lower the self-awareness, the higher the tendency to give power externally. But what if you accept the invitation to look inside? What will you learn when you take responsibility for yourself and not place that on someone else? What if you consider what your voice would say?

You'll find a richness when you see your own competence and durability to not implode under crisis or grief. You'll find more of your internal strength when no one else can fight the battle for you. You'll see and be aware of your own capability to be your own best ally.

Loneliness loses its toxicity because you're learning to enjoy your own company. Instead of pursuing relationship out of fear, you're "inviting someone to see, value, hold, and appreciate the beauty of your own inscape that no one else can see" (Dr. Leah McDill). That's fertile soil for any relationship worth having. 

Loneliness loses its toxicity because you’re learning to enjoy your own company.

You Do You

The beginning of love is to let those we love be perfectly themselves, and not to twist them to fit our own image.
— Thomas Merton

Relationships are one of the most meaningful things we create and share with another human being. They are simultaneously wonderful and hard, requiring work to maintain. As mentioned in last week's post, thriving relationships lead to personal happiness and well-being. So they are worthy of our effort and attention.

From Dr. Dan Siegel, we know that one must feel seen, safe, and soothed in order to be secure and thrive. If this is our foundation, what are the walls that help create a sturdy home in which to inhabit? 

My colleague, Rachel Gardner, and I were discussing what it looks like for two individuals to healthily relate to one another. She shared three vital components: Separate/Equal/Open. (While this goes for all forms of relationship, (platonic, parent-child, romantic), I'll be using language in reference to romantic partnership. The following material is informed by Roberta Gilbert's, Extraordinary Relationships.)


In relationship, you maintain your individuality while still experiencing intimacy and closeness. You understand that you do not complete another person because you are already 100% whole on your own (sorry, Jerry). And the same goes for your partner; they are not deficient nor are they lacking without you. Your identities remain in tact with or without the relationship.

The letters H vs A provide a helpful illustration. The horizontal line represents the relationship and the vertical/diagonal lines the two individuals in relationship. H shows separateness. Two individuals standing on their own but in relationship. Should the relationship dissolve, though painful, they are still individuals standing on their own. In contrast A shows that even without the relationship, these individuals are still dependent upon one another to exist...they need the other for support. 


You see yourself as equal to your partner. Your partner is seen as equal to you. Neither is more or less than who either of you are as individuals. Because you come to the table as separate individuals, it allows you to stand as equals in the relationship. This means each person has equal capability to take responsibility for themselves and only themselves.


You make yourself available to the other. You don't cut off contact when either of you is upset or distressed but you also don't chase. "Chasing" would be qualified as anything pushy or pulling. You have a posture that is inviting, not manipulative or demanding. You allow the other person to have their process and they are aware that you're there when and if they would like to speak and share. You are, as Rachel says, "calmly present and accounted for" to your partner.

What a Separate/Equal/Open relationships looks like:

  • You are not dependent upon your partner for your happiness or emotional fulfillment because that is your responsibility to give to yourself. You may experience happiness with them but it is because you are choosing to feel happy.
  • You are in charge of your own self: managing and communicating your own emotions and thoughts. That is not your partner's responsibility. Nor is it your responsibility to manage or interpret their emotions and thoughts.
  • You are present with and make yourself available to one another.
  • "Awareness also marks the ideal relationship" according to Gilbert. In order to relate healthily and create a thriving relationship, we must be responsible to know ourselves, what makes us the separate individual we are: the stories and nuances and patterns we bring.

Does this describe your current relationship? Or might you be relying on your partner (or child or friend) to fulfill you? Maybe you feel empty without a relationship? Do you find that you are trying to meet someone's emotional needs or want to control how they respond?

If you struggle to define your relationship as separate and equal and open, begin the work of self-examination. If you don't invest in your own individual awareness, you will unknowingly rely on another to complete these "missing" things that you've yet to discover about yourself. This will inevitably create an unhealthy "A" dynamic. No relationship can thrive under that kind of pressure or demand to support another's emotional weight.

By knowing ourselves, it allows us to offer something to another freely and willingly, without expectation they be something for us. In turn, we are able to accept what our partner freely and willingly offers. And isn't that the type of relationship we long to have?

I do my thing and you do your thing.
I am not in this world to live up to your expectations,
And you are not in this world to live up to mine.
You are you, and I am I,
and if by chance we find each other, it's beautiful.
If not, it can't be helped.

(Fritz Perls, "Gestalt Therapy Verbatim", 1969)

You are you and I am I.

You are you and I am I.

The Gift of Sight

I believe the greatest gift I can conceive of having from anyone is to be seen by them, heard by them, to be understood and touched by them. The greatest gift I can give is to see, hear, understand and to touch another person. When this is done I feel contact has been made.
— Virginia Satir

I'm big on attachment. We were biologically designed to attach to others. We make sense of who we are and the outside world through the lens of how we experience attachment.  Dr. Dan Siegel, clinical professor of psychiatry at the UCLA School of Medicine and Executive Director of the Mindsight Institute, defines attachment in this way:

Attachment is about two things: a safe haven of security and a lauching pad in which you can go and explore the world. It’s not just about connection but about connection and exploration.
— Dr. Dan Siegel

The 4 markers (S's) of healthy attachment according to Dr. Siegel are the following: an individual feels Seen, feels Safe, has the ability to be easily Soothed when in distress and a sense of Security is developed. He explains, "When children feel seen, safe, and soothed, they feel secure and they thrive."

Individuals who are characterized with healthy attachment are able to look at the events of their life and create a coherent narrative which allows them to be fully present and engaged in life, internally and externally. In other words, as Dr. Siegel says, "Presence allows for interpersonal and internal attunement."

4 S’s of attachment: Seen, Safe, Soothed and Secure

When children feel seen, safe, and soothed, they feel secure and they thrive.
— Dr. Dan Siegel

This type of relationship formed through secure attachment is the number one factor for our happiness and well-being. Robert Waldinger, psychiatrist and director of a 75-year-old Harvard study on adult development, summarizes their findings: "Good relationships keep us happier and healthier."

This study showed that having someone you can safely rely upon helps with nervous system relaxation and reduces emotional pain. The correlation then is that those who feel lonely will most likely see a decline in physical health and die younger. 

Good relationships keep us happier and healthier.
— Robert Waldinger

Waldinger emphasizes depth over breadth of relationship and it is not limited to romantic either. He says that the "quality of your close relationships" matters. Is there depth and honesty? Are you able to fully relax and be vulnerable, letting yourself to be seen for who you are?

If this is the foundation of our happiness and well-being, it is crucial to pay attention to our what our relationships demonstrate about our attachment styles. You may feel disconnected from your own emotional life or the emotional life of others. Or you're anxious and uncertain in your relationships, experiencing inner emotional turmoil. Maybe you find that most of your relationships are not trustworthy, seem shallow to you and you withhold much of yourself.

If this is the case for you, you are not alone. We may have learned that it is not safe to be in relationships. To be seen meant there would be harm. Or we were shamed for wanting closeness and thus could not be soothed. There is nothing inherently wrong with you because you struggle to make and have meaningful relationships of depth and trust. But if it's true that securely attached relationships provide us with happiness and well-being, then please do yourself the honor of learning what it could be like to feel seen, safe, soothed and secure. For many, they begin to discover and taste this type of relationship in the presence of a counselor and find that this experienced security then translates to other relationships. Being seen is available to you and it makes all the difference. 


I recently partook in a trauma and addictions training. The presenter, Dr. Margaret Nagib, PsyD, Clinical Director at Timberline Knolls, presented various therapeutic interventions she uses with her patients. While all can be powerfully healing, one, in particular, struck me.

We were separated into groups of 4 with a blank piece of paper in front of each participant. Provided with colored markers, we were instructed to write our name and "my life" at the top of the page. Music would play in the background while we filled our blank paper (however we chose) until the music stopped. When the music stopped, we left our papers and rotated to the person on our left's paper. The music resumed and we were to draw. This continued until the rotation brought us back to our original paper. 

At the end of the exercise, we processed what had just occurred. How did we feel drawing on someone else's "life" and how did we feel about someone drawing on ours? The answers were varied. Some felt very protective of their page, some felt it was invasive to draw on another's and others viewed it as fun and exciting. What were the things we chose to add? Did we add color, plants, try and decipher what the author intended and complete what might have been unfinished (I'm looking at you naked stick figure.)? The last question was whether or not anyone was upset by what was added. In our particular setting (a room full of mental health providers) everyone reported feeling pleased with the end product. My picture was actually filled with more detail and life at the end (my dog was given a collar and tongue, the airplane given movement and a passenger and stick figures received faces!).

Why am I telling you this? You're most likely not going to re-enact this group activity. The take away was that our life is ours but we daily interact with others who add to our life. Some may have had others contribute pain, trauma, disappointment, abuse, and neglect to their life. We cannot always control what people have added. BUT what is within our jurisdiction is HOW we respond. That's ours and ours alone. We get to decide what we do with the unwanted things that have happened to us. Will we let them define the entire page? Will we let others speak into the harm and help us heal?  

We also get to decide if we'll make room for safe people to leave their mark, making life more detailed and rich. And we also have the choice of how we want to imprint the lives of others as well. Will we choose to leave color, beauty, and brightness?

Masters of Illusion

“Hush, Dorothy,” whispered the Tiger, “you’ll ruin my reputation if you are not more discreet. It isn’t what we are, but what folks think we are, that counts in this world.”
— Frank Baum, The Road to Oz

Early on, we unconsciously learned to present certain things to the world (like a powerful man in sunglasses) so the world will accept us. Oscar-winning director Barry Jenkins sums this up brilliantly about the transformation of his character Chiron in his film Moonlight, "Over time some people become less and less themselves and instead turn into this thing that they feel like they need to be in order to survive."

So we hide in plain sight. We keep our true selves tucked away beneath layers and layers of the false images we portray. Carlin Flora's Psychology Today article, "Unlocking the Vault", dives into our propensity to hide. She interviews Barry Farber, Professor of psychology and education at Columbia University, who explains, "A struggle plays out constantly between a wish to be known and helped on one hand and the avoidance of feeling the shame of acknowledging pieces of ourselves we're not pleased with." Like the Tiger, we want to present ourselves in the best possible way that causes others to think highly of us because that is what "counts in this world". And somehow, being human with faults, fears and wounded histories doesn't fit into that equation so we bury those parts of us into the recesses of our soul.

To quiet the noise of incongruence between the mask and the man, it’s easier to assume the mask is the man.

To hide our humanness, we put a lot of energy to maintaining these facades. So much energy is given to employing these covers and keeping them in tact that we can't hear what is happening inside us.

To quiet the noise of incongruence between the mask and the man, it's easier to assume the mask is the man.  We lose track of who we are and unknowingly allow the self-protective ways of relating to take over. You wear this mask long enough and become known this way so it seems foolish to take it off. If you took it off, who would you be? Would you even recognize yourself? And would you be accepted without it? 

Yet, you're tired. You're tired of being different things to different people. It's exhausting wondering if you'll be exposed. Ultimately, it's lonely being a stranger in your own skin. Something inside longs to breathe, to connect, to love, to belong, to be known. That part wants to be real, wants to be authentic, wants to be true. Being true means accepting yourself as human and loving and seeing those parts you deemed unworthy. 

We can only test the climate of authentic revelation in a safe environment of compassion, kindness, patience and understanding. Without this, the masks and the belief of their necessity will be reinforced. As you shed those false layers, you'll come face to face with the painful reasons that caused those layers to originate. This uncovering is uncomfortable and can feel disruptive but it is necessary. You're knocking down what you've falsely built your world around in order to rebuild something true. This is wildly vulnerable.

But if you are willing to give yourself the gift of your own humanity you will learn like the Skin Horse, that "real" is a "thing that happens to you". When you are really loved, then you become real. Becoming real takes time "but once you are real you can't become unreal again. It lasts for always."

That sounds like a comforting invitation to me. Will you accept what being real can offer you?

Once you are real you can’t become unreal again. It lasts for always.
— The Velveteen Rabbit

Big D

In order to open ourselves to the rich possibilities relationships can bring into our lives, there needs to be an acceptance that those same relationships can also bring hurt, sadness, and ache.

"Your best defense is a good offense." This might be true on the field or court but this strategy stays confined within those narrow parameters. For our lives, the best defense is a strong, impenetrable barrier between us and anyone who comes near. We saw that Cass used a pair of sunglasses to prevent others from coming too close and knowing him. He was safe from the pain that often comes from being in relationships but his precautions simultaneously denied him access to the comfort and intimacy that relationship provides. (All of this, of course, is happening unconsciously. Most of us don't wake up declaring we are going to push people away.)

In order to open ourselves to the rich possibilities relationships can bring into our lives, there needs to be an acceptance that those same relationships can also bring hurt, sadness, and ache. But we have been emotionally destroyed and devastated in relationship so feeling pain is not an option. We were made and desire to be known so being in isolation is also not an option.  So we creatively attempt to circumvent the natural consequences of authentic connection so we can still experience closeness while avoiding pain. We want a guarantee that we can experience intimacy and come out unscathed; it is a non-negotiable. Enter: self-protective defenses. 

We want a guarantee that we can experience intimacy and come out unscathed.

Enter: self-protective defenses.

The thing is, self-protection doesn't yield what we seek. We find that we don't have everything we want: perfect relationships and constant elation and euphoria, for all our effort, eludes us. Conflict, misunderstandings, and disappointment creep in. How dare they! To keep them at bay, we return time and time again to our perceived 100% guaranteed protective way. We WILL have pain-free interactions with people. To secure this, people must be pushed further and further away. This emotional distance reinforces people are dangerous. As a result, you feel the painful consequences of loneliness and despair. Our desire for healthy, real relationship is thwarted time and time again. We don't know HOW to change because we are unaware of what TO change. 

Defenses, in and of themselves, are neither good nor bad; protecting ourselves is wise and healthy. The question is whether they are being used in a way to benefit and help you or if they are stunting growth and development. Becoming more aware of these protective ways of relating to people allows you the ability to determine what TO change and you can then see HOW to grow through self-exploration. These stories must be honored and given a place to safely be shared. Remember, the best defense is a good offense. 

Coat of Armor

My shield is down.
— Cass

There's a reason children (and adults alike) anticipate Halloween. Outside the bounty of sugar they will soon possess, it's an evening dedicated to being someone or something you're not. For a magical evening, you get to transform into whatever your heart desires and have it be accepted and sometimes even praised. 

If we take a closer look, there's something powerful in what the external can provide. Superheroes have their capes which can instantly transform an average news reporter into the Man of Steel. For us mere mortals, we have power suits, haircuts and access to blogs and online tutorials demonstrating how to dress for success. I find nothing wrong with physically transforming ourselves or wanting to look our best. The problem lies when a dependence is formed on physical measures to give us a sense of who we are.

The problem lies when a dependence is formed on physical measures to give us a sense of who we are.

The podcast, Invisibilia, is one of my new favorites. In the episode "The Secret Emotional Life of Clothes" the creators explore what clothes provide for their guests. 

One such guest, Cass, is "convinced the right article of clothing could transform him". As an adolescent, after daily encounters with bullies, he set out to find a way to make the bullying cease through what he wore. After multiple clothing experiments, he landed on a pair of sunglasses and to his delight, the bullying ended.

Cass found that these sunglasses provided him with protection. He was transformed into someone different, someone who was no longer made fun of, someone who was not the source of abuse and life was better for it. In fact, they worked so well that Cass has literally taken this defensive measure into adulthood. To this day, he still wears his sunglasses, day and night, indoors and out, with his closest friends and strangers alike.

He genuinely believes they hold a "magical power" and have the "ability to protect bullied kids". He explains that "shielding the eyes can provide cover to people who need it...special advantages for those who choose not to wear a mask over their face". But at what cost comes this cover?

Those who know him describe him as "Look[ing] at the world through a telescope". He stands at a distance with a physical and emotional barrier. This "shielding of the eyes" prevents him from intimate knowledge of people closest to him. Cass does not even know the color of his ex-wife's eyes. This measure of protection, his defense of choice, changes how he sees the world. It keeps him locked in a world of being the bullied adolescent that is unsure if he is safe or not without his sunglasses.

The interviewer asked him to take his sunglasses off and reported that he looked "naked" and "vulnerable". To her, he changed and seemed different. He explained that he feels flustered without his glasses ("My shield is down"). These glasses have been given power to embolden him to engage the world.

The objects offer security to the degree the child allows it.

These physical barriers of protection, what I call defenses, mirrors what happens on an emotional level. It isn't the sunglasses themselves that actually kept bullies at bay but rather what it gave Cass, a sense of power. It's the same with security objects children have. The objects offer security to the degree the child allows it. 

I'm not disparaging that Cass needed to find a way to protect himself. I'm glad he found a way to survive the cruelty of others. He resourced himself with what was available at the time. But he's an adult now and what was once used to help him is now harming him. He is unable to engage others without them. Because his shield is always up, he misses out on deeper, more intimate relationships and in turn others miss out on truly experiencing him. 

Because his shield is always up, he misses out on deeper, more intimate relationships...others miss out on truly knowing and experiencing him.

We are all walking around with our own version of sunglasses, our own shield. And like Cass, we needed them at the time but what was once helpful is now harmful. The cost of a shield is an honesty that is missing, a prevention of intimacy. Do we want to live life with little access to people and ourselves?

What might it mean to let others see you? What might it mean for you to see yourself? 

We'll explore the answers to some of these questions later this week.