At some point in our lives, we have all been taken advantage of emotionally, physically, psychologically, or perhaps even financially. These events are painful, sometimes devastating, and fortunately, for most of us, these encounters are infrequent. Occasionally there are relationships that unfortunately last far too long for our own well-being, where we are repeatedly taken advantage of and made to feel as if we are merely puppets—controlled and manipulated. It is these toxic relationships that I want to address because usually they involve a very devious, insufferable or calculating type of individual.
There are individuals who leave you bewildered in their unbridled disregard for the rights and dignity of others. Individuals who are so brazen, indifferent, or cruel, or who are simply financially or emotionally exploitive. They make you feel as though you are their personal puppet to play with. You feel this way because there is no winning in these relationships - somehow you always come up with the short end of the stick. No matter your best efforts to be nice or giving, no matter how contrite you are or obliging, you always come up the loser. The manipulative individual somehow always prevails, unfazed by the turmoil he or she causes, even as you suffer. If this is how you have felt or feel, you are dealing with a social puppeteer, a manipulator.
I call them that because that is exactly what they do—they manipulate or toy with others. They seek to override your needs, wants, and desires with theirs. They know what buttons to push and when to push them to satisfy themselves at your expense.
Who are these people? As I have learned over a 30-year law enforcement career, they fall into three categories: the narcissistic/self-centered, the predator/parasite, and the emotionally unstable—they comprise a toxic trio (from Dangerous Personalities).
The self-centered, self-absorbed narcissist needs an adoring audience to fawn over them—ever pliant. There is no shortage of these individuals, including those who will fall for them and whatever it is they are peddling. Whether it is a new way of doing business (think Enron), a new religion (think Jonestown, Guyana), or a superior empire (Third Reich). The self-centered/narcissistic personality needs a willing audience to manipulate, no matter how small, so long as they are blindly obedient and deferential. As such, the narcissist often chooses a profession, guild, organization, occupation, or a job where he or she can manipulate others or the system like a puppeteer. Through their words and actions, intended to impress and seduce, they control lives, thoughts, and perceptions to achieve their objective.
They pull on your strings to make you believe in them, follow them, and act on their behalf. Their grandiosity and sense of entitlement has no bounds which, when coupled with their ability to manipulate others, shocks us. They can be arrested snorting coke but still get reelected (e.g., Marion Barry); in high office, they get charged with corruption yet manage to snag television time (think of Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich; they start wars with the ease of one starting a shower (think Saddam Hussein), or they become captains of industry (e.g., Jeffrey Skilling), at the expense of those who must be servile at all times to them.
In interpersonal relationships, they are always performing perception management so that they come out on top. In a personal setting, at home, spouses pay a heavy price. When they can no longer tolerate their self-centered husband or wife anymore, they realize that all they have to show for their efforts and dedications is exhaustion and the feeling that they were used. They have little to show for their loyalty and unwavering fidelity, which was at times exacted from them, and there is no sense that they were ever truly appreciated.
Likewise, the social predator or parasite is also a puppeteer, but in a different way. Unlike the narcissist, they don’t need an audience, what they need are victims so they can act out as either a predator or a parasite. It doesn’t matter to them if it’s family or a stranger, so long as their needs are met. They are just as content stealing their mother’s life savings or moving from one spouse to another, so long as they can leech off their spouse’s bank account. While the narcissist prefers a servile audience, the predator parasite merely needs a human host that can do something for them.
The social predator, like the self-centered narcissist, do share one thing in common and that is they also seek to become supreme puppeteers; pulling strings, controlling lives, manipulating others, getting their way. The Ted Bundys of the world love to control others—God-like determining who will live and who will die. And whether in the role of predator or parasite, they seek to dominate and control by pulling strings and having others at their mercy. Alternatively, they become gurus or sect leaders where they can have dominion over others, whether it is in Jonestown Guiana or Arizona, U.S.
The swindler, who uses friendships, connections, or family, delights in being able to mingle with the very same people he dupes as if they were marionettes in his hands. The Bernard Madoffs of this world are the supreme puppeteers, toying with or bamboozling others, even within their own family - all without remorse and usually with a smile. Sometimes, by the time we find out, it is too late—as happened to the Madoff family. And the only thing we can be sure of with these individuals is that there is always suffering in the end, and it is you who usually pays the price.
And while the anti-social predator seeks to control your mind, body, space, time, finances or anything else that you value, the self-centered narcissist seeks mostly to control your perceptions of him or her with the expected anticipation that you will abide and do their bidding. The style of the narcissist is emotionally seductive on the surface; but there is also a toxic side, a deceptive side. The predator, on the other hand, seeks to undermine through antisocial behavior or by insidiously manipulating those strings so that he can parasitically live off a human host. Each needs people, but for different reasons, but in the end, they are both pulling human strings to their own ends.
The emotionally unstable puppeteers habitually tug at your emotional strings leaving you drained or exhausted, as you must always be filling their cup while yours runs empty. These are the ones whom you never know how they will wake up, nor what mood they will be in. They snap at you and revile you with rage over small slights, then want to make love to you an hour later. They scold you verbally, but then expect you to go pliantly shopping with them as if nothing happened. You must be forever attentive to them and so must your children if any, lest they also feel the wrath. They are an emotional rollercoaster and you are at the receiving end of that ride as your emotions are tugged at and pulled with impunity.
The emotionally unstable have a need to be at the center of your attention and their needs always come first. Having a bad day? Too bad. They need you to stop what you are doing and attend to them. Want to argue logic to emotion with them? Don’t. You won’t win with them - emotions and arguing trump rationality and logic. Want to explain what really happened? Don’t bother. They are not vested in your feelings, the truth, or your side of the argument. This is why if you have ever been in a relationship where you are constantly either on guard or performing therapy, you’ll understand about the emotionally unstable or the overly dramatic puppeteer. And if you think there aren’t many of these, just ask anyone who was dating or married to Elizabeth Taylor, Anna Nicole Smith, or Marilyn Monroe.
These individuals are susceptible to whims and can turn on you at the drop of a dime. You are either for them or against them—there is no in-between. They can be exciting, but always demanding and that is where they wear you out. They dread being abandoned and will do anything to keep you around; but are blind to their own toxic actions that often drive those that care for them away. So they manipulate those close to them with threats of suicide to keep them around or they drink in front of you to elicit empathetic responses of caring. Meanwhile, they engage in emotional outbursts in public that leave you flabbergasted and drained, as well as embarrassed.
In a relationship like this, you end up feeling like a worn-out puppet—tethered toxically to a person who controls you through their emotions. You always feel you have to be careful what you do and say even though they have the freedom to do and say as they wish. You have to tiptoe, acquiesce, sacrifice, be mindful, and always obsequiously attentive. When you associate with them, you feel as though your free will has been taken from you. Why? Because they are pulling the strings that emotionally torment. If you have been in a relationship like that, it is a relief to get away and when you look back, manipulation doesn’t even begin to cover what you have experienced.
It is often said that personality disorders can sometimes be discerned by how these individuals make us feel. I would agree with that, having interviewed many individuals that fall within the criteria of personality disordered. More importantly, it is their behavior that so often violates, victimizes, humiliates, or compromises us that attests to who they are. You will know them by their actions and in a sense they convict themselves. And yet, we have a responsibility to our loved ones and ourselves to steer clear of these individuals; to stop addling them to stop enabling them, and to stop providing them with what they need most—a human host to control and manipulate.
In the end, it doesn’t matter how you got into that relationship, it is the realization that it is one-sided, exploitive, and toxic. The questions that need to be asked are very simple. No matter how hard you try, “Are they using their charms or behavior to control you or others for their own benefit? Are they manipulating you? Are they doing things that hurt you or put you at risk? Do you feel like this relationship is one-sided? Are you hurting in this relationship?” If the answer to these questions is yes, it is time to untangle yourself from the toxic strings that control you so you can get your life back. Take heed: "You have no social obligation to be victimized—ever."