As children we have been taught to apologize. We were told it was a sign of good manners and it is likely that on more than one occasion, during our childhood, we apologized without being fully aware of what we had done wrong. As a result, the seed of guilt began to grow within us.
But if you find that you often apologize without knowing why, simply because you know that somehow your words, attitudes or actions have annoyed someone, it is likely that this person is manipulating you emotionally, relying on your sense of guilt.
If you often ask yourself: what will I have done wrong? How would I have offended him? Or you always excuse yourself with the same person using phrases like: “Sorry if something I said or did offended you”, you’re probably a victim of manipulation.
And it is also likely that behind this situation there is a very sensitive person, who takes offense for everything but tries to blame others. This person usually does not know how to handle the difference in opinions or the constructive criticism, so he will react by defending himself and trying to undermine your security.
The subtle signs of emotional manipulation based on guilt
– Sensitive points. There are people who get angry every time we touch certain topics, sensitive points that, regardless of how we face them, will always generate an intense emotional response. Of course, there are times when the wisest thing to do is not to touch these keys, but if the consequences affect us directly, then we will have no choice but to face the problem or we will run the risk of becoming an “elephant in a room” ending to generate a situation of tension that affects everyone. In these cases, we must be aware that we were not the ones who provoked anger, the other person is angry because he cannot deal with certain situations.
– Make you feel bad. The strategies to make you feel bad can be very different. There are those who can stop talking to you as punishment, avoiding your presence and/or answering with monosyllables. Others can attack you directly, claiming that you made them feel bad with your words or actions. There is no doubt that everyone is free to express their opinions and feelings. In fact, there’s nothing wrong with receiving a feedback, provided that their goal is not to manipulate you to make you excuse making you feel like a bad person.
– Refuse to address the problem. Some people, when they feel hurt, refuse to face the problem. In some cases it is convenient to leave them the space they need to process the incident, but other times it is simply a strategy to make you feel guilty. In practice, refusing to talk about the problem they become your victim. When they close the paths of dialogue and solution, they condemn themselves to the role of martyr, making you assume the role of the executioner so that you feel perpetually guilty. These people demand a “total surrender”, at their terms, they will not stop until you take full responsibility for what happened, even if they do not belong to you.
– Mining the confidence in yourself. Sometimes, when a person feels overwhelmed, he reacts by putting himself on the defensive and attacking. It is a normal reaction. But if you are often in this situation and someone attacks you to make you feel guilty or inferior, in the background that person is trying to manipulate you to get control by making you feel bad, undermining your confidence and your self-esteem.
To offend someone there must be two persons
We assume that when someone feels offended, it is our fault. We offended him with our words, attitudes and/or behavior. In reality, it is only partially true. Every offense implies the existence of “hot spots” in the other. Therefore, what can be an offense for some people, it’s not for others.
This does not excuse us. We must not become kamikaze of the truth, saying the first thing that comes to mind thinking that the other should process it in the best way. In every conflict there are always two parts, so it is not right to attribute the responsibility only to one of them to make him feel guilty.
We are responsible for our words, but not for what others intend. We must strive to transmit our message in the best possible way, but we are not responsible for the “sensitive points” of the others and, above all, we are not obliged to keep quiet when something directly concerns us just because the other person is very susceptible. After all, “who swallows too much at the end chokes”.
Of course, the problem is when the manipulator is someone close to you, someone important that you trust. It is difficult to fall into the web of manipulation of a stranger, but when feelings are involved, it is easier to surrender. If you see that your words may have hurt someone you love, it is likely that your first impulse is to apologize, even if you do not know why.
However, in this way you lose a precious opportunity for your relationship to grow and, instead, contribute to manipulation and childlike behaviors that end up wearing out any kind of relationship.
The apology must be a conscious act of assuming our responsibility, neither more nor less
There will be times when we will surely have mistaken and hurt someone, and we will have to apologize and take our share of responsibility. But there will also be situations in which we must not take responsibility for the susceptibility of the others, if we are sure that we have been faithful to our essence and have expressed ourselves in the most assertive way possible.
Khalil Gibran said: “A man must be big enough to admit his mistakes, intelligent enough to take advantage of them and strong enough to correct them”. This means that the apology must always be a conscious act, the expression of a reflexive process on the incident, not an automatic act by which we give power to the other to manipulate us emotionally.
In fact, we have seen that the excuses are not as effective as we think and often do not serve to repair a damaged relationship. Ohio State University psychologists have isolated the three essential ingredients to make excuses effective:
1. Recognition of responsibility. It is a matter of recognizing that we have made a mistake, for which we must first of all be aware of what we have done wrong, the generic excuses are not valid.
2. Offer to repair the damage. This means recognizing that we are willing to do something to correct our mistake. In a sense, it is a declaration of goodwill but, once again, it must be based on the belief that we have made a mistake.
3. Express repentance. It is about expressing a sincere repentance that allows the other person to see that we are deeply sorry for the incident.
How to deal with these attempts of manipulation?
1. Do not think about it too much. Ruminating what has happened is one of the worst things you can do. Not only will it affect your mood, making you feel more irritable, frustrated and/or angry, but it is also more likely you end up taking a fault that does not belong to you or develop a negative attitude towards the other. Therefore, avoid thinking too much about what happened.
2. Ask for clarifications. It is useful to ask for clarification on what happened. You can tell the other person, “I see you’re angry, can you explain me why you feel like that?” You can also apologize like this: “I’m sorry that my words have provoked your reaction, but I’d like to know why.”
3. Defend your right to express yourself. It is convenient that you take your share of responsibility. For example, it could be that the way to express that truth was not the most appropriate, or that you have generalized too much by expressing an idea. But to stop any attempt of manipulation at birth it is important that to the other person is clear that you have the right to express yourself to defend your needs and/or points of view.
Lewicki, R. J. et. Al. (2016) An Exploration of the Structure of Effective Apologies. Negotiation and Conflict Management Research; 9(2): 177-196.