On Sunday I went swimming with family at a local lake. I hadn’t been swimming at that particular spot before, and found that the milfoil was horrible. The kids covered themselves in it and I took pictures of them rising from the shallow water like lake monsters.
When we got home, we smelled so bad that we all had to rinse off and hose down my dog. Bits of those invasive aquatic plants stuck to us and our flip-flops like glue. I had to turn the hand shower to the high pressure setting to clean one pair of sandals, and even then it took five minutes.
While sitting at work Monday, I had an epiphany. I’d been feeling horrible since I’d shared personal information with someone. Every time I talk to that person, I feel violated. Something about these conversations clings to me like freshwater milfoil, and I try to scrub it off, to escape the stink, to feel clean again.
Milfoil—that is a perfect analogy for this topic. Milfoil is a single-stemmed, feathery plant that does not belong in local waters, but it has thrived with a vengeance to the detriment of native species. It sticks to us, it makes the water murky, and it can even pull us under. It gets tangled around boat propellers and won’t let go of anything without being forcibly removed.
In the conversation I mentioned, I disclosed personal information that was not initially treated with mercy. It was automatically twisted to delve inside personal details of my life and make wrong assumptions. This was mixed with some advice, some criticism, some demands, some scripture, and one analogy that I found quite valuable.
I repeatedly put down my foot on some boundaries, but several times, I was exposed to mind-bending attempts to make me feel guilty and cause me to question things that I have solid beliefs on. The conversation was eventually steered in a way designed to have me thinking about them, instead of my problem, and this had nothing to do with them. It was ended in a way that left me hanging and expected to focus on something entirely unrelated.
After similar conversations I have questioned why I don’t just walk away. I almost always wind up saying more than I want to and the questions that cross boundaries are carefully designed to provoke me into an answer. These people try to make me defensive to prove they’re more “stable”, and to make me feel less than confident in my beliefs. While I rarely talk to them, I consistently feel disrespected after I do, even if that’s not their intention.
What is that? What is this milfoil that covers me and pins me in place while I’m being psychologically probed? I don’t normally let people do this to me. I’m trained not to let this happen to me professionally and I spot it quickly in most contexts. Yet in my personal life, when that serious, low tone of voice starts, signaling the beginning of something intended to sound like caring, I can just feel the tendrils of control curling around my ankles. I feel trapped.
“Think,” I told myself. “Think.” What was I just reading that made the word “trance” pop into my mind? What power does this person have to leave me feeling so weak? Given my faith, this doesn’t sit well with me. I feel something weird and heavy when this happens, and not just because of the history in these relationships. Theoretically these interactions should be loving and encouraging, but somehow they always shift back to control. Always.
Just now (after completing a rough draft) I clicked through some newsletters from Sandra Brown’s Institute for Relational Harm Reduction. I see that back in May she’d written a several part series called “Am I Under His Spell?”
In this series she discussed the mind control that some pathological people seem to have; that’s where I got the word “trance” from. While I would argue that there is also a spiritual aspect to the power of hypnotic suggestion, she is right in saying that people with histories of certain behavioral problems have a knack for getting inside our heads.
People with antisocial, narcissistic, and borderline personality disorder, and sociopaths and psychopaths, are among those who seem especially skilled at the manipulation of other people’s minds. Please do not interpret that to mean that all people with personality disorders are like this. It is the sociopaths and psychopaths who are most consumed by their need to use and control others.
Once I saw this mental milfoil for what it was—sociopathic or narcissistic mind control fueled by evil—the rest of the dots connected. I could not believe that I of all people didn’t label this sooner. I know these behaviors all too well. People in the criminal justice and psychology fields can be so used to addressing these concepts in the context of crime and other people’s lives that we may minimize them in our own.
When I began to emerge from the confusion and doubt that this experience left me with, it was as if a light went on. I know what this is. And I know that I should have minimal contact with people who do it to keep it from happening again. Unfortunately, the people who claim to care about us but practice subtle head games are often those we can’t completely purge from our lives, such as coworkers and family members.
People who have this trance effect on others are frequently sociopaths. An estimated one in 25 to one in 100 Americans is a sociopath. These are people with no real conscience who callously use and abuse other people for their own purposes. Their emotions may be shallow, they don’t show real remorse, and they are usually impulsive, deceitful, and irresponsible. They are masters of convincing people that they have it together when they are simply going through the motions.
Regardless of whether the people perpetrating this mental violation can be diagnosed as sociopaths or something else, I’ve noticed common attributes among them. Most people I can think of who do these things might well be sociopaths, with a couple exceptions.
Here are some of the things that I’ve observed “manipulators in concerned people’s clothing” do:
-They make you feel bad about maintaining your boundaries, as if you are too hard on them.
-They don’t respect your boundaries and are always pushing at them.
-They try to make you feel like things are your responsibility when they’re not.
-They know that if they can consistently keep you off balance, then they have you under their control. They keep you guessing.
-They seem to use a good Harry Truman quote as an evil weapon: “If you can’t convince them, confuse them.”
-Instead of taking responsibility for their own actions, they can convince you that someone else caused any problems.
-They will always find ways to make themselves the victim and the victim the enemy.
-They are so convincing that you may feel you have no choice but to give in to be treated “well” or avoid future conflict.
-They are masters at twisting issues that have nothing to do with them into reasons why you should be close to them.
– You get a heavy sense of false guilt when you talk to them.
-They belittle psychology, counseling, church, and other means of bettering yourself because that can expose them for what they are. Their control is threatened by truth and knowledge.
-You sometimes have to lie to protect them.
-“Benevolence” and “helpfulness” always come at a cost.
-You “owe” them (not really, but they want you to believe that).
-They delve into details that are none of their business, even intimate personal details.
-Your sexuality is one of their favorite subjects.
-They dictate what you should think and how you should feel.
-They don’t respect you as an adult.
-You feel violated, but you might go back for more, thinking it will be better next time.
-You feel like you have to use a strainer to separate out anything of value and get rid of the muck.
-You know that person is not good for you, but like an addict, you continually fall back under their spell.
– These people know—from years of experience—that if they push and push you might give in yet again. They know your weak spots.
-Their power is so strong that you may misinterpret their presence or words as fate, destiny, or God’s will.
-They reward you for giving in to them and may surround you with others lauding your decision to “get right” with them.
-They make you feel like you’ve been rude to or hurting their whole family by keeping boundaries with them.
-They use sex and seduction to manipulate as easily as they use a debit card to pay for their groceries.
-They will use anyone and anything to gain or regain power in your life, including their own children.
-They use a particular tone of voice when they claim to love or care about you, but in a far corner of your mind you sense that there’s a sinister underlying current.
-They will convince you that you are meant to be, or that no one else is more deserving of your attention than they are.
-They will use your personal beliefs and quote scripture to prove to you why their way is the right way.
-They use the Bible as a weapon.
-Loyalty to them means betraying others.
-Being close to them means tearing down healthy boundaries that took years to build.
-You have to lie to give them what they want.
-Their “caring” and “encouragement” is mixed with put-downs and minimizing your beliefs and feelings.
-They try to seduce other people regardless of others’ marital or relationship status.
-They use their relationship to you, their authority, or their former status to influence you. They also use those things to lull you into believing that they have a right to you and should come before others.
-They claim to have a “right” to hold a prominent position in your life.
-They have a long history of deceiving, abusing, and/or using others, but claim that God or counseling has changed their life while exhibiting behaviors that are grossly inconsistent with major change.
-They may quickly “change for the better” to get what they want.
-They claim to have special knowledge.
-They are mean, critical, and backstabbing towards others, but present themselves as sweet and lovable to you.
-They have a history of drug or alcohol abuse.
-Their character and behavior varies from good to hurtful depending on who they’re with.
-Their actions do not reflect the priorities they claim to have.
-They repeatedly get into situations that you have to rescue them from.
-They have a voyeuristic appetite for knowing what’s going on in your life, but will attack you if you delve too deeply into theirs.
-They believe that domestic violence and even rape can be biblically justified.
-Past positive change has been short-lived.
-They don’t admit to or show regret for past offenses.
-They believe that you should do all the changing and come back to them.
-They don’t care about your whole being, just the aspects that they get something out of.
This list could go on and on. But the bottom line is that these words and behaviors are not about love, THEY ARE ABOUT CONTROL AND WINNING. You are a conquest, a victory that they will stop at almost nothing to achieve. To dominate your life is their way of “proving” that they are more desirable or important than others.
Ultimately, all of these shell games are about getting what they want at your expense. They are most important in their minds, not you. They are talented at pretending otherwise, but sooner or later, the truth comes out. They have usually caused massive damage by that point, even though you might not discover it all until later.
These people frequently get to you when you’re tired, stressed, or worn down from other problems. The head games start when you’re already overwhelmed by something else. That’s exactly what happened to me recently and many times in the past. They take advantage of every weakness. Their tactics have been in play since childhood and they are well-rehearsed, even effortless.
Sociopathic and manipulative types are frequently someone you’ve had an unhealthy long-term relationship with, like a parent or a current or former partner. They may have been violating your trust and your love for years. They alternate between seeming to love you and then ripping you apart. As we say in my family, for every time they hug you, they kick you twice.
Because there appears to be love at all, and you have a history, you may trust them and give them another chance. While forgiveness is central to the Christian faith, forgiving them does not necessarily mean forgetting, letting your guard down, or letting a vampire back into your life.
You shouldn’t trust someone who’s never shown any real evidence of healthy long-term change. Also note that this type of person may show no evidence of any change or lasting change until they start getting what they want, including regaining control.
Giving in to people who manipulate this way, and use their hypnotic milfoil to get what they want, is the equivalent of a sheep walking back to a wolf and saying, “I guess it’s more important for you to have what you want than what I need.” They will eventually have you for dinner and move on to their next meal.
What’s really frightening about many of these people is that they keep a close eye on what matters and appeals to you, and then use that to convince you how alike you are. I’ve had this happen to me too. I’ve been reading Martha Stout’s The Sociopath Next Door, which affirms much of what I already know, and she discusses how these people will mirror your values and interests to get close to you.
Manipulative people may also imitate other people’s behavior and even their appearance to get to you. They may observe what attracts you to others and emulate it. They can be gifted actors and become even “better” at being someone you like than they are. This is another behavior I’ve seen up close several times, and it really is similar to the movie “Single White Female.”
These people are so good at what they do—even if they are transparent—that people ignorant of the depths of pathology and abuse may accuse you of being unforgiving and unrepentant towards them. They might tell you things like, “we’re praying that you and he can resolve your bitterness and heal your relationship”, or “clearly you have unfinished business.”
Even when these people are well-meaning and trying to help, they may not consider that most or even all of the blame for the situation may lie with one party, not both. They think that any peril or pitfall that happens mean that both you and the sociopath/narcissist have to take equal blame. Victims of abuse are frequently treated this way: “If you’d just ____, then ____ wouldn’t do that” (insert action and abuser’s name).
It can be scary to stand up to this hypnotic milfoil. You may be used to it, easily affected by it, or find yourself fighting to make a valid argument against it. You may feel like you’re depriving the other person of something they really need by standing up to them, like they can’t survive or do as well without you. You may not know who else you have to replace such a relationship.
But consider this: God wants us to live in freedom. Author Henry Cloud said that binding someone’s choice by guilt or manipulation is not love; it is slavery. Giving in to control, mind games, guilt trips, and other ungodly methods of attracting and retaining your attention contradicts God’s character. He is open, honest, loving, sacrificial, and just.
How long can a relationship with deception, conquest, and control at its core survive, or continue without destroying you?
If Jesus had tried to make everyone happy, we would all be lost. If self-centered people are angry at you, it means you are learning to say no to evil. If mean people are displeased with you, it means that you are standing up to abuse. If pharisaical Christians judge you, it means that you are becoming like your Savior. If your parents don’t like the decisions that you as an adult feel God has led you to make, it means that you are growing up. –Henry Cloud
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