Depression is a very difficult beast to understand. If you have never experienced or even if you have, it is sometimes hard to see depression in others, particularly our friends and family members. You may wonder if the person is faking or putting this on in order to gain attention or even manipulate others. The person with depression may be hard to be around. When you try to help, you may be countered with angry rebukes or even blame.
You may begin to perceive your loved one as helpless and full of self-pity. As much as you want to remain compassionate and understanding, your own anger and resentment may build as it seems your depressed love one seemingly refuses to get better. This negative spiral of emotions is emotionally draining and frustrating for everyone involved.
Clinical symptoms or manipulation?
It is easy to see how some of the observable symptoms of depression could be considered manipulative by caregivers, friends, and relatives. The truth is that depression is a clinically diagnosable mood disorder oftentimes precipitated by biological and physiological triggers. It is not something imagined or all in one's head. It is not a character defect, nor can the depression sufferer just snap out of it. Depression is very real and is not a tool of manipulation used to control others.
However, the person with depression may employ manipulative behaviors. Depression doesn't develop in a vacuum. The person who has depression may also have a manipulative personality. And this combination of depression and manipulative behaviors can be especially difficult for anyone who is trying to help, whether it is the person's therapist, family members, spouse, or friends.
What are manipulative behaviors?
Manipulation is about control. When someone is said to be manipulative, they are usually being accused of altering situations so that they have the upper hand and do not take any responsibility for their actions. The manipulative individual works very hard to get what they want through the use of threats, emotional coercion, or inducing guilt.
Here is one example. We have a relative who would invite us to dinner but would not except no for an answer. If we would decline to come to dinner, then a tearful threat of suicide would be made over the phone. When we would acquiesce and show up for dinner, the tears would be gone and the suicide threat was not spoken of again. Until the next time she wanted her way.
Another example comes from my childhood. My mother has schizophrenia and she also has bouts of depression. This particular combo of mental illnesses can be debilitating. Yet there were days when she had more energy than others. She would find time to walk to the store to buy smokes, but would refuse to do simple chores around the house. When I asked her to do a chore she would act hurt and say, "But I am sick. You wouldn't ask me to clean if I were in a wheel chair would you?" To which I responded, "Yes I would."
I think we can all pull out examples from our lives of manipulative behavior either from our loved ones or even our own ways of manipulating. We are all human, and I think everyone is capable of such behaviors at one point or another to some degree. My view of manipulative behavior is that the person has not learned how to get what they want in a socially appropriate way. They may feel powerless to get their needs met so they use manipulation because it works for them. But of course, in the end, such behaviors only serve to alienate the individual and create anger and resentment for any of their victims.
Examples of manipulative behaviors
- Using guilt trips to make people feel bad for them
- Blaming others for all their problems
- Not assuming any responsibility for their actions
- Taking no action to get well despite asking for help
- Passive aggressiveness (i.e. the silent treatment)
- Sucking up to others or saying insincere things
Always having to be the focus of attention despite others having needs
Using anger and aggression
Lying and manipulating facts
Outsmarting (intellectual bullying)
Using your own weaknesses against you
When you get down to it, manipulation is when the person is indirect about what they really want and need. It can be very hard to know what to do in such a situation when you are the person being manipulated. One strategy is to call the person out for their behaviors and basically let them know that you aren't falling for it. But you really have to be careful that it is manipulation you are dealing with.
I did this with one friend who would repeatedly ask for help for her problems but then never took any action to resolve any of them. Finally, after the umpteenth time of sharing ideas of what she could do, I said, "I am no longer going to give any suggestions because you never act on any of them." It woke her up to the fact that she was caught in this cycle of talking about problems but never taking action. My assertiveness was probably the best thing I had done for her, above and beyond all my reactive advice.