I’ve been reading the book by Harriet Braiker Who’s Pulling Your Strings?. It has been very helpful to me in understanding why I was vulnerable to being spiritually abused. If you or someone you love has been in a manipulative/abusive relationship, I strongly encourage you to read this book.
No one likes to admit that they’ve fallen prey to manipulation. Most of us would like to believe that we are smarter than that, at least I wanted to believe that. But the truth is, I’m not smarter, and the reality is, most of us aren’t.
Braiker says that most people are susceptible to manipulation. Most of us want others to be happy with us. Most of us dislike conflict. God has placed a desire in our hearts for love, acceptance and peace. When we are lacking in these things our hearts become desperate and vulnerable.
I believe that manipulators are desperate for the same love, acceptance and peace that their victims are, but they go about it in a very destructive way. Many of them fail to see they have a problem, while others are aware of the fact that they are manipulators and look for opportunities to take advantage of others. Some manipulators are oblivious to the fact that they are harming others.
It’s not my job to judge my abuser’s heart, but God has called me to examine my own. And I recognize if I want to prevent myself from being abused again that I need to be aware of those traits in myself that make me susceptible.
The first step toward the safe zone—away from manipulative relationships—depends on your ability to identify, recognize, and understand these buttons or areas of vulnerability in yourself.
No. 1: You Have the Disease to Please—People-Pleasing Habits and Mind-Sets
As far back as I can remember I’ve had a strong desire to keep others happy with me and have monitored their behavior to see what they needed from me. Growing up in a home with an alcoholic, I realized if I wanted to stay safe I needed to make sure I didn’t do anything to rock the boat. My adopted father was a live grenade just waiting for something to happen that would cause him to explode. As a resourceful and intelligent child I learned quickly what I needed to do to stay safe. These behaviors that kept me safe as a child developed into a people pleasing disease as an adult.
My spiritually abusive pastor saw how quickly I desired to please him and he was quick to let me know that I did. I became putty in his hands the very first time he told me “that I was the sunshine of his life.”
People-pleasing habits and mind-sets are an obvious tell or a dead give-away. If you have the “disease to please,” manipulators can spot you coming a mile away.
Button No. 2: You Are Addicted to Earning the Approval and Acceptance of Others
The habits I developed as a child to keep me safe carried over into my adult life. Knowing that others were pleased with me became something that felt necessary in order for me to survive. Rather than just being the unique person God created me to be, I believed that I needed to be the person who kept others happy with me and who was seen as a nice person. Whenever I thought someone didn’t approve of me I avoided them. When someone was kind to me and poured on the compliments, then I was their committed friend.
When I began the relationship with my abusive pastor, he started early on voicing lavish approval of me. He told me how smart, pretty, kind and inspiring I was, but the best compliment he could pay me was how happy I made him. This went on day after day for years. But one day I realized there would never be enough compliments from him to give me what I truly desired – a sense of purpose that could only come from being the person God created me to be. Instead, I was just giving this pastor what he wanted, and as I did I felt more and more empty.
There is no storage or banking of approval in your psychological economy. However much approval and liking you may gain today, it simply will not last; you will feel the craving for approval again tomorrow. And however much approval you have been given today, you will face your dreaded fear of losing that approval and acceptance tomorrow. It is a vicious cycle—and one that manipulators play adroitly.
I was an approval addict, and my relationship with him was sucking me dry. Even as I began to realize what it was doing to me I didn’t think I could make it without him. I was scared to death of losing him.
Paradoxically, the more you identify with being nice and pleasing others to guarantee and ensure their approval and acceptance of you, the more insecure you will become. The more you identify with being nice, instead of being real, the more you will find yourself plagued by nagging doubts and insecurities and lingering fears. If your approval addiction is deeply entrenched, the button that will show most clearly to manipulators is your willingness to do nearly anything to avoid disapproval, rejection, and worst of all, abandonment. In love relationships or romantic entanglements that become manipulative, fear of abandonment is the ultimate lever of control.
Button No. 3: You Have “Emotophobia”—Fear of Negative Emotions
As long as I was doing what he wanted, things remained calm, but whenever I contradicted him a flood of negative emotions threatened to drown me. I needed his approval like the air that I breathed. Disapproval felt like suffocation.
I’ll never forget one of our final conversations a little over a year ago. I’d told him that I needed time apart from him. I’d asked him to talk to my counselor, but he wouldn’t. He insisted his only problem was loving me too much, so I made the decision to back away from the relationship.
The following Sunday I was sitting in a class that he was teaching. My husband had no idea at the time about the relationship I’d had with him. I sat in the class incredibly uncomfortable, and what made matters worse was the fact that he as the teacher made it a point to not look at me even once. All the while, he was kind and accommodating to everyone else. His disapproval was clear and a flood of negative emotions consumed me. They were so unbearable that I sent him a text after the class telling him I hoped he had a good afternoon, and that I was sorry for upsetting him. When he sent a text back that it was ok, I immediately felt better. But later I realized how manipulative he’d been and cut off communication for the final time. I haven’t talked to him since, because I realized that I to overcome the negative emotions disapproval from him produced in order to become psychologically healthy again.
The really dangerous aspect about fearing negative emotions is that the longer you avoid dealing with them, the more threatening and uncontrollable they feel. And the more you avoid dealing with negative emotions, the less able you become to deal with them effectively and appropriately.
Button No. 4: Lack of Assertiveness and an Inability to Say No
I’ve been amazed as I’ve read this book that all of the buttons have been a part of my life. I am able to say no if it is something I really don’t want to do, but not without a tremendous amount of guilt and shame. After all, when life is all about keeping others happy you will definitely need to say yes to them. I said yes to my abusive pastor even when I knew deep down what I was doing was wrong, because making him happy had become my chief purpose in life, but I see the long term detrimental effects now my lack of assertiveness and inability to say no produced.
Just the idea or possibility of saying no may be enough to make you feel uncomfortably tense and anxious. And each time you give into your fears and say yes, the short-term anxiety reduction merely strengthens your yes-saying habits. However, the longer-term consequences of your knee-jerk compliance are costly for you and highly advantageous to the manipulators in your life.
Button No. 5: The Vanishing Self
People with “vanishing selves” have only a blurry sense of their own identity, where they begin and end, whose needs they feel and fill, and what values are central to their core.
This button is both a cause and a consequence of being the victim of ongoing manipulation. The longer you allow yourself to be the pawn in other people’s games, the less clear your own identity will seem to you and to others who perceive you. You will know if this button applies to you if you can agree with the statement that you do not know who you really are and what you really stand for outside of the things you do for other people. Braiker
What’s so frightening about my own manipulation is how blindly I believed my abusive pastor was someone who brought out the good in me. I believed wholeheartedly when I was with him that I was being my true self. But over time I began to feel like I was only a shallow shell of a person. The only thing that mattered to me was keeping him happy, and when I couldn’t see him I felt more empty and alone than I ever knew was possible. This emptiness and loss of self just grew the longer I stayed in the relationship with him.
Button No. 6: Low Self-Reliance
Low self-reliance means that you distrust your own judgment and reactions, resulting in an impairment of your self-direction. This button is closely related to button 5. Braiker
I went to my pastor for every decision I needed to make. This low self reliance and ambivalence is what started me down my self destructive path with him. He seemed so smart and strong, and he had the answers to all of my questions, and if he didn’t know he told me I just didn’t need to figure it all out, that I was over thinking it. I went to him initially out of confusion and stayed with him because I thought only he was capable of giving me clarity. My rationale was that he was my pastor after all and it was wise to seek “godly counsel.”
If your sense of self is blurry and unclear, your ability to rely on your own judgment will be impaired. If you cannot depend on yourself and your own judgment and values to guide you in your decision making—especially when it pertains to relationships in which others seek to manipulate you—you will necessarily be more prone to rely on the judgments and direction of others.
Button No. 7: External Locus of Control
Locus of control (LOC) is a psychological phrase that refers to how and where you attribute the cause of the things that happen, or fail to happen, to you. People that have an external LOC have the general view that the things that happen to them in life are more under the control of others and of factors outside of themselves than under their own control. In contrast, people who have an internal LOC believe that the primary source of control over what happens to them in life lies within themselves. LOC reflects your experiences in life and the ways you have been taught to understand and look at the world. Braiker
The final button is yet another I’ve had pressed one too many times to count. It’s been pressed by others and not by me. I believed my life has been a series of events out of my control and based on circumstances and decisions that other people made.
It began when I was a little girl powerless to change my circumstances and stop my adopted father’s abuse. It continued into adulthood as I falsely believed the lie that I had no control over my life.
It stands to reason that if you believe that other people have more influence and control over the outcomes in your life than you do yourself, you will be more vulnerable to their influence and to their attempts at manipulation. Moreover, to the extent that you collude with or become victim to their manipulation, your sense of being controlled by forces outside yourself will be reinforced and perpetuated.
The day I made the decision to walk away from the abusive relationship with my pastor, was the day I realized that I could make decisions for myself, and that life just wasn’t a series of events out of my control. God had opened my eyes to the destructiveness of the relationship and given me the responsibility to make the choice to walk away. He promised me freedom when I did. He also promised He’d love me even if I didn’t. Once I finally embraced the truth that God had given me all the acceptance I could ever need or desire when I believed in Christ, I was able to finally break free. I didn’t need my manipulative pastor’s approval anymore, because I trusted that I had God’s.
The all powerful, all knowing, ever present God could have made His children puppets on a string. He could have made us robots that moved with His every command, but instead He gave us freewill and the choice to love Him.
God is not a manipulator. He does not play mind games. He wants willing participants driven by love and not fear. Children who fully embrace who they are and discover they were made for Him and Him alone.
In Him, I am discovering who I really am, and as I am learning to submit myself to His will for my life ambivalence is dying and decisions are becoming easier to make. It’s all a process, but I know I can trust that what He starts He will complete, and the finished product will be “very good.”
You don’t have to live your life under the control of a manipulator or by manipulating. You don’t have to lose yourself in keeping others happy. God already loves you just the way you are. He’s provided a sacrifice for all of our imperfections. He’s given us the Lamb of Jesus Christ who’s taken away all of our sins. We have all the unconditional acceptance, love and peace we need through our relationship with Him.
Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places, even as he chose us in him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and blameless before him. In love he predestined us for adoption as sons through Jesus Christ, according to the purpose of his will, to the praise of his glorious grace, with which he has blessed us in the Beloved. In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of his grace, which he lavished upon us, in all wisdom and insight making known to us the mystery of his will, according to his purpose, which he set forth in Christ as a plan for the fullness of time, to unite all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth.