My mom wanted me to make plans for us to go see a play that afternoon. It was last minute, but it was a Saturday, and she was in a good mood. We’re going to have a good day, I thought.
She sat on her bed, Bible in her lap, her beer next to her, and she told me to look up the phone number to the venue. I did what she asked and called, but I wasn’t asking the right questions by the look of irritation on her face. I was fourteen, and for whatever reason, I flustered easily.
“Ask about parking,” mom whispered exasperatedly.
I asked the woman about it, but I didn’t think to ask how much parking was, and I hung up the phone. Mom rolled her eyes at me, and I told her I’d call the venue back.
“Mom, I’m sorry.”
“Just forget about it.”
I wasn’t sure what to do, so I just stood there next to her bed, feeling like an idiot for messing it up. I’m such a screw-up.
Manipulation wasn’t a word I knew or understood until college.
I had no idea I had spent years in a manipulative relationship with my mom. I never understood why I had always felt guilty, as if every problem between me and my mom was my fault. For years a fire grew in me and rage lived just under the skin; I could never put it out. I felt crazy and out-of-control until I learned how to untangle myself from it, how to find my identity in Christ instead of my own perceptions.
Years of therapy, wisdom from mentors, and God’s gentle leading helped to put the fire out; it no longer burns me up. But I’m very attuned to the flames because they lived with me for so long, and now that I’m a mom, it’s important to me to teach my children how to identify and deal with manipulative behaviors — in themselves and in others.
Recently when my youngest daughter found herself in a manipulative situation with a friend, there was an opportunity to learn and grow.
I was sitting in my living one afternoon when I heard the friend say to her, “If you don’t do this, I’m going to tell your mom,” and “If you don’t ______, I’m going to leave.”
The little girl was trying to manipulate my daughter, so once she left, I pulled my daughter aside and asked her about her friend’s threats. She shared what they were about, and we talked about how they made her feel and how to deal with them. I said to her, “The next time your friend comes to play, and she threatens to leave or tell on you, I want you to say, ‘I’m sorry you feel that way, but if you have to go or tell, you can do that.’”
My daughter is only nine, so I figured it would be a while before she felt confident enough to use this strategy — my goodness, I still struggle to use it in situations like that.
A week later, her friend came over to play again, and after she went home, my daughter came to me and said, “Mom! I did what you said, and it worked! She told me she was going to leave if I didn’t ______, and I said I was sorry she felt that way but that she could go if she really wanted to. She left, but a few minutes later, she came back and didn’t make any more threats!”
I was stunned that my nine-year-old handled the situation with such grace and fortitude. What a gift to have learned such a lifelong lesson at such a young age!
People can’t manipulate you if you don’t let them. It isn’t that we always set a boundary where we have to confront the other person (this can be difficult in a parent/child relationship, for example) but that we set a boundary in our mind.
Often in manipulative relationships, the person being manipulated feels guilty or confused. They feel at fault even when it doesn’t make sense. It’s easy to feel dumb, insecure, never knowing how to trust your instincts because you’ve learned to silence them for so long. In the midst of confusing emotions, we look to the truth and ask, “Lord, what do You say? Who do You say I am? What is the truth here?”
When you ground yourself in your identity in Christ, you begin to see clearly, to believe truth, to set boundaries without fear of response. You can know that even in your humanness, your mistakes, and your weakness, you are loved, seen, known, and secure.
God never manipulates. He offers us freedom and the freedom to love others, even when it hurts, even with boundaries.
Today, if you’re struggling in a manipulative relationship, I call you to the truth, to believe that you are not crazy or stupid or a failure. I know the voice in your head is loud and the discouragement can cover like a heavy blanket, but the truth is strong and real and gentle. Ask God to help you attune your mind and your heart to the truth. Ask Him for the courage to set boundaries and the wisdom to do it in love.
You can be free.
You will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.
John 8:32 (ESV)