Our award-winning coach, Kim Morgan, mentors a woman who wants to please her friend and her husband, avoids conflict and finds it difficult to assert herself. Discover her top tips on dealing with conflict healthily and how to assert yourself with confidence…
Learning to spot manipulative behaviour
I first saw Caz* prior to the pandemic. I had a diary mix-up and arrived an hour late which I was mortified about and apologised profusely. Caz was not only understanding, but began taking the blame for my mistake. I wondered if this was a pattern in her life.
Caz’s husband had urged her to have coaching because he believed she was being manipulated by a friend. ‘What do you think?’ I asked. She said she didn’t really know but I pressed her: ‘Why do you think your husband thinks you are being manipulated?’
‘He says I am easily influenced and my friend is pushy and powerful. He thinks she has persuaded me to do things I wouldn’t usually do. She just got divorced and wants to have a good time. I want to support her, so I have been going to parties and drinking with her. We’re going to Ibiza this year.’ ‘Did you want to do all those things?’ I asked. I expected Caz’s reply: ‘I don’t mind – she’s my friend. ’
It was clear Caz did not have a strong sense of her rights or needs. I remarked that her husband seemed to feel strongly about the situation. Caz suddenly became animated: ‘I don’t know which one of them is pushing me around. I feel torn. I try to keep everyone happy but they both want me to be a certain way. Maybe they are both pushing me around?’
The session came to an end at this point. In coaching, we sometimes call this the ‘door handle moment’ – when something significant is said in the last minute. I gave Caz some material to read about spotting the signs of manipulative behaviour before our next session.
Recognising a lack of assertiveness and difficulty dealing with conflict
Caz was visibly shaken. ‘I read the list you gave me and I recognised every sign of manipulative behaviour: being hurried and hassled; not having my boundaries respected; not considering my needs – only theirs; taking advantage of my good nature, my time, my money and my possessions; preying on my inability to say no; rewarding me if I do what they want and making me suffer if I don’t,’ she said woefully.
‘Who are you talking about?’ I asked gently. ‘Both of them – my friend and my husband. And there is a long list of others. I think I must walk around with a sign on my head reading “push me around – I won’t complain”.’ We talked about Caz’s lack of assertiveness and low self-confidence and how she always put her needs below the needs of others. It became clear that she hoped that if she kept being nice, people would eventually reciprocate.
She diffused herself with other people – she became what they wanted her to be and had no clear boundaries or sense of self. ‘Manipulative and controlling people spot me as an easy target. I am really unhappy, actually,’ said Caz. It was another ‘door handle moment’ and a sign of progress. For the first time, Caz expressed how she felt.
Learning how to assert yourself and deal with conflict
We had many sessions because Caz had to unlearn a lifetime of people pleasing, fear of conflict and putting other people’s happiness before her own. She started to see that it was not only OK to get angry, but that anger serves a purpose – it signals to us that we are not being treated fairly and enables us to respond accordingly.
Caz had never been allowed to express negative emotions in childhood, which resulted in her having extreme anxiety about confrontation of any kind. In the safety of our sessions, we rehearsed showing anger and dealing with conflict.
I asked Caz what she had really wanted to say to me in our first session when I was late. It took a while but, eventually, Caz let me have it: ‘I couldn’t believe it! You kept me waiting for an hour. I was disappointed and you made me feel unimportant.’ We both laughed in celebration of this breakthrough. Caz was starting to take control of her choices and her life, dealing with conflict and learning that it’s okay to assert yourself.
How to assert yourself: 2 simple exercises
Get in touch with your authentic self
If you are easily influenced, pushed around or manipulated by others, consider this question: ‘When am I most true to myself?’ Take a pen and paper and think about the question in the following ways:
- Which people in my life allow me to just be me and do not pressurise me to change?
- When I am being true to myself, how do I choose to spend my time?
- What do I like to eat and drink? How do I like to dress?
- What causes or issues really matter to me?
- What are my opinions about films, books and politics?
- How would I choose to spend my time if I was a castaway on a desert island?
Consider how many of these things you currently do, and what you agree to do that you don’t want to do. What or who is stopping you from asserting your own needs, wants and rights? It’s time to learn how to assert yourself with confidence and be your true, authentic self.
Write your own fairy story
People who are easily manipulated tend to take the blame for being manipulated. They wonder how they can change to make things better and struggle to feel angry about how someone is treating them. By stepping outside your situation and acting as an observer, you may be able to see more clearly the parts that everyone is playing in your story. You may also be able find your anger and sense of injustice about how someone is manipulating you.
Here is a simple exercise to help you learn how to assert yourself and deal with conflict…
- If someone is ever treating you badly, try turning your situation into a fairy story. Include villains, victims, heroes, a happy ending and just deserts for the characters.
- Take time to write about what you are going through as if you were writing a classic tale with all the usual elements: villains and victims, knights on chargers, fairy godmothers, castles, dragons, battles and, of course, a conclusion with good triumphing over evil.
- Don’t stop to edit your story. Keep writing whatever pops into your head. Don’t feel bad about killing off villains – it’s only a story! After you have reread your story a couple of times, ask yourself:
- How close is my story to the truth?
- What did I learn from my character in the story?
- How similar are the characters to the real people?
- What have I learned from this story?
- What do I need to do now?