Wednesday, November 18, 2009

In Sheep’s Clothing

George Simon’s In Sheep's Clothing: Understanding and Dealing with Manipulative People is a clearly written analysis of covert-aggressive people and how to deal with them.

Like Albert Bernstein, author of Emotional Vampires: Dealing With People Who Drain You Dry, Simon is a therapist and uses cases as illustrative examples, setting them up in the first part of the book and then using them to illustrate various points later in the book. Simon adds a useful extra dimension to what Bernstein has to say, not least because he shows the same unsentimental practicality, he carefully discusses the role of covert-aggression with other personality disorders (such as passive-aggressive, obsessive-compulsive, narcissist, anti-social [pp 30ff]) and he agrees with Bernstein that mild personality disorders have become more common, noting that therapists are increasingly using cognitive-behavioural therapies to diagnose and treat such (p.xii).

More specifically, Simon argues that neurotic disorders aren’t anywhere near as common as they used to be. Now, aggression is much more of a problem. Which can be a major problem if outmoded or misplaced assumptions lead to misdiagnoses (pp 12-13).

Simon makes a fairly standard distinction (p.6) between assertion (standing up for yourself) and aggression (fighting unnecessarily or with little concern with how others are affected). But it is not aggression per se which is his concern. Open aggression is pretty obvious. It is covert-aggression, people who obscure their aggression: an inherently manipulative thing to do.

Simon distinguishes between covert-aggression – which is active – from passive-aggression (p.7). Key features of manipulation (what he calls the process of victimisation) are (1) the manipulator’s aggression is not obvious, (2) the manipulators frequently use tactics which are powerful deception techniques hard to recognise as clever ploys, (3) all of us have weaknesses and insecurities that can be exploited, (4) we rationalise away what our intuition tells us about the person (pp 8-10).

Simon distinguishes between neurotic individuals (those too bothered by their own thoughts and actions) and character-disturbed personalities (those not bothered enough about their own actions). The latter are a bigger problem because they make other folk unhappy and are much more socially disruptive (pp 18-19).
Simon summarises the problems in the thinking of character-disordered people (like Bernstein, he regards as fundamental that character-disordered people do not think as most folk do) as such being
self-focused, possessive, extreme (all or nothing), egomaniacal, shameless, quick and easy, guiltless (pp 22-23).
Simon lists the main types of aggressive personalities as unbridled, channelled, sadistic, predatory (pp 25-26). He argues that covert-aggressives are a distinct sub-type of aggressive personalities. Their major attributes are that:
they always want to “win”; seek power and dominance; can be deceptively civil, charming and seductive; can also be unscrupulous, underhanded and vindictive fighters; have uniquely impaired consciences; are abusive and exploitative in their interpersonal relations (pp 28-29).
They may have various symptoms of other character disturbances but the core feature is being covert-aggressive (p.32).

Simon also identifies various learning failures by covert-aggressives:
they never learned when fighting is necessary and just; they never allowed themselves to learn that “winning” in the long-run is often characterised by a willingness to give ground, concede or submit in the short-run; they never learned how to fight constructively or fairly; because they detest submission, they never allowed themselves to learn the potentially constructive benefits of admitting defeat; they never learned to get beyond their childish selfishness and self-centredness; they never learned genuine respect or empathy for the vulnerabilities of others (pp 34-35).
Having set up the descriptive and analytical framework in Chapter 1, Simon then goes through various characteristics of covert-aggressive people, using case studies. These cover The Determination to Win (Chapter 2), The Unbridled Quest for Power (Chapter 3), The Penchant for Deception and Seduction (Chapter 4), Fighting Dirty (Chapter 5), The Impaired Conscience (Chapter 6), Abusive, Manipulative Relationships (Chapter 7), The Manipulative Child (Chapter 8).

Simon argues that it is important not to diagnose, for example, predatory aggression as being driven by fear but to see it clearly as being driven by desire (p.62). Similarly, with manipulative children, once you start looking for “underlying causes” (such as fear) you are diverted from considering the way that it is not the frustrations of life that are the problem, it is the personality and the patterns of behaviour which has become the problem (p.83).

Which leads Simon to distinguish between self-esteem (of which it is easy to have too much as well as too little [p.84]), which derives from what we know we have and self-respect which derives from what we’ve done with what we’ve been given (p.85).

Part II is entitled Dealing Effectively With Manipulative People. Starting with how to recognise the tactics of manipulation and control. Simon distinguishes between the psychological defence mechanism of being in denial in order to avoid unbearable emotional pain and acts which people do because they lack the guilt or shame to consider anything but their own wishes (pp 92-94).

Simon lists some of the more common forms of manipulative behaviour as:
minimization, lying, denial, selective inattention (or selective attention), rationalizaton, diversion, evasion, covert intimidation, guilt-tripping, shaming, playing the victim role, vilifying the victim, playing the servant role, seduction, projecting the blame (blaming others), feigning innocence, feigning confusion, brandishing anger (pp 96ff)
using the case studies he had already set out in Part I to provide illustrative examples. He makes the key point that repeated use of such techniques indicate that the person will continue to engage in the problematic behaviours (p.113).

The last Chapter (Redefining the Terms of Engagement) sets out various principles to follow:
letting go of harmful misconceptions, becoming a better judge of character, knowing yourself better, knowing what to expect and what to do, avoiding fighting losing battles, put your energy where the power is (pp 116ff).
Under knowing yourself better, Simon lists the main dangers as:
naivete, over-conscientiousness, low self-confidence, over-intellectualization, emotional dependency (pp 117-119)
Simon also sets out various tools of personal empowerment (p.122):
accept no excuses; judge actions not intentions; set personal limits; make direct requests; accept only direct responses; stay focused and in the here and now; when confronting aggressive behaviour, keep the weight of responsibility on the aggressor; when you confront, avoid sarcasm, hostility and put-downs; avoid making threats; take action quickly; speak for yourself; make reasonable agreements; be prepared for consequences; be honest with yourself (pp 122ff).
The point is not to have a life without fights – they are part of life – but to fight fairly (pp 136-137).

There is also an Epilogue: Undiscipline Aggression in a Permissive Society, where Simon argues that unprincipled aggression in an increasing social problem and that learned responsibility and improved moral character need to be adopted and instilled.

George K Simon Jr’s book is short, clear and easy to read. I found it informative and useful and much in it that resonated with my own experiences.

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