Thursday, September 20, 2007

Mini review. In sheep's clothing

This is my fourth mini review in the 301.7—terrorism @ home series. In this post I review a practical booklet that can help you if you or somebody for whom you care feels terrorized by somebody in their ecosystem.

In my first three mini reviews in this series I got you acquainted with books intending to build awareness: The sociopath next door, Without conscience, and Snakes in suits. These books started by informing you that 1% of the population is a psychopath and 4% are sociopaths, hence each day you come across a psychopath and four sociopaths. After stating that they are gaining more and more acceptance in society — for example in business, where the transitioning companies have become psychopath friendly — they present composite case studies to illustrate the havoc they wreak.

However, they mostly build awareness, they are not practical guides (except for hiring, in Snakes in suits). In fact, they show how difficult these people are to diagnose and tell you to never ever label anyone a sociopath or psychopath. Their only advice is to steer clear from them.

In Sheep's Clothing: Understanding and Dealing with Manipulative PeopleThis is where Dr. George K. Simon's little booklet In Sheep's Clothing: Understanding and dealing with manipulative people comes in. In short, it teaches how to recognize manipulators, label them, and deal with them by being assertive.

Again, it is important to understand the concepts of personality, which derives from the Greek word persona for mask, and character, which refers to those aspects of an individual's personality that reflect the extent to which he or she has developed and maintained personal integrity and a commitment to responsible social conduct.

Dr. Simon explains how the society of the Victorian era was repressive and caused many people to become neurotic, in response to which Freud et al. developed psychology as a technique to help people overcome neurosis. In the meantime — among others through the influence of such thought leaders as Ayn Rand and her 1957 Atlas shrugged — society has become more and more permissive, but the field of psychology is still hanging on to the premises of the Victorian era. The mission of his book is to help correct this situation.

The book explains how personality traits form a multidimensional space, one dimension in it being the axis of neurosis. When this axis is extended in the opposite direction, it reaches the psychopath syndrome. Dr. Simon teaches that when you consider just this portion of the axis, you do not have to use the term "psychopath", just the general trait, and therefore you can label people on this portion of the axis. This also frees you from having to make a formal diagnosis, you just recognize a general trait.

Dr. Simon uses terms like manipulators, covert-agressive personalities, and disordered character, which are all terms you can use informally to label people. Aggression refers to the forceful energy we all spend in our daily bids to survive, advance ourselves, secure the things we believe will bring us some kind of pleasure, and remove obstacles to those ends [p.5]. When we do not fight aggressively, we are assertive, and when we do not fight, we are neurotic. This is the axis, and Dr. Simon wants to help us staying in the healthy neutral assertive location. In short, if a person is making himself miserable, he is probably neurotic, and if he makes everyone else miserable, he is probably character-disordered

neurotic personality axis

The tactics of manipulation are explained by exposing the powerful deception techniques manipulators use. Dr. Simon shows how hard it is to think clearly when someone has you emotionally on the run, and therefore even harder to recognize the tactics for what they really are. He writes: Severely disturbed covert aggressives are capable of masking a considerable degree of ruthlessness and power-thirstyness under a deceptively civil and even alluring social façade […], but even though a covert aggressive personality can be a lot more than just a manipulator, habitual manipulators are most always covert-aggressive personalities. The primary characteristic of covert-aggressive personalities is that they value winning over everything.

While the book's first part is about understanding manipulative personalities, the second part is about dealing effectively with manipulative people. Dr. Simon teaches you that to guard against victimization, you must:

  • be free of potentially harmful misconceptions about human nature and behavior
  • know how to correctly assess the character of others
  • have high self-awareness, especially regarding those aspects of your own character that might increase your vulnerability to manipulation
  • recognize and correctly label the tactics of manipulation and respond to them appropriately
  • avoid fighting losing battles

If you are dealing with a person who rarely gives you a straight answer to a straight question, is always making excuses for doing hurtful things, tries to make you feel guilty, or uses any of the other tactics to throw you on the defensive and get their way, you can assume you are dealing with a person who — no matter what else he may be — is covertly aggressive.

Dr. Simon concludes [p. 142]: In many arenas of life today — political, legal, corporate, athletic, personal relationships, etc. — we have become a nation of unscrupulous, undisciplined fighters, and we are greatly damaging ourselves and our society in the process. More than ever, we need to recover a guiding set of principles about how we must conduct the daily battle to survive, prosper, and succeed.

This mini review is somewhat out of line with this blog on research. I will make up for it in the next and final post in this series on 301.7—terrorism @ home with a review of current research on psychopaths.