Everyone's trying to manipulate you, no one is sincere


I've been subjected to years, if not decades, of my grandparents and to some extend a couple other people in authority positions (teacher, sport coach) trying to emotionally/mentally manipulate and gaslight me. Not necessarily consciously on their part, but vehemently nonetheless.

I say trying, because I've kind of always realized what they were trying to do.

The problem I face now is, that over time it resulted in three things:

1) It still worked to some degree and I now often have a hard time distinguishing which of my behaviors, thoughts, ... are a cognitive distortion as a result of this and what is valid behavior/thoughts (i.e. appropriate given the situation). This is particularly critical when it comes to upholding (or not) boundaries, or even when defining boundaries to begin with. I'm constantly questioning myself (goal: achieved)

2) Because I recognized those attempts, it let to me developing major trust issues. I now have the problem of always looking for a catch when someone is at first sight genuinely nice towards me, default to assuming they *might* try to manipulate me as well. Major trust issues bordering on paranoia.

3) I tend to self-reflect a lot, always considering that I *might* be wrong. So I ask for a lot of input and assessments from others to re-evaluate my own thoughts and conclusions. But, as a result I've often received a "you're overthinking/taking this too personal/seeing ghosts" response from outsiders, who obviously didn't have experienced the manipulation/gaslighting themselves so don't have the "inside" experience.... but they also don't have the potential cognitive distortions. So, as an extension of 1) and 2), I really can't distinguish between actual mental abuse and just normal human behavior+me overreacting, anymore. I can't trust my own judgment anymore. While at the same time, every time someone reacts in that way, it feels incredibly invalidating ... (and more often than not I feel like I'm not being heard when trying to reach out/open up)

Not sure what I'm asking from the community, I guess mostly just looking for input.


I’m gonna try to think through point by point, it’s a tricky one.

You probably do have a lot on enmeshed patterns that are more or less efficient to counter what you face and anticipate it before it happens. This is the moment you have false positives in the shape of cognitive distortions. Something that I found really, really useful in DBT/CBT is the challenging thought process.
ex. This person is going to deceive me. / This person has no reason to deceive me. - People are deceptive by nature. / Most people don’t act with the will of being deceptive. -> But I understand that as all the trickiness resides in the fact that most of the abuse and gaslighting exists involuntarily by people who are trying to maintain control in all the wrong ways, with more or less stressing results, plus the fact that it is also used in large scale in entire societies across the world, then it becomes twisted.

I myself struggle quite a lot with setting boundaries. That was (and is) goal number 1 of my therapy. Self-affirmation. That was, identifying what made ME feel uncomfortable and how I could negotiate or bargain discomfort (when appropriate). Like: I am okay with you doing this up to this point, but not past this point because it’s making me feel X and Y. This, after having thought if this is a legitimate thing to ask in context, and so I have to take into account:
- the freedom that person has to do the thing that is upsetting me
- the level of discomfort it brings me.

Example 1
D drinks in front of me. This is a total NO because all the alarms ring off. No matter how much a person has a personal right to do it so, I’m just not okay with that particular person doing this because not only my alarms are off but rationally, I know it’s unsafe. Anything can happen and it’s out of question to go through that state, again. For me or for them. So boundary set to maximal enforcement without nuance. If he wants to drink he can just go do it somewhere else where I’m not.
Freedom of doing: unfortunately total
Level of discomfort: panic attack

Example 2
Friend drinks in front of me and on meds and/or in a low mood. If I’m visiting, I’ll leave if I find they’re starting to get too drunk and I’m loosing connection because I do feel triggered. I’d do it a bit before it gets critical so I can maintain sociability. In this case I can just state I’m not in the mood for drinks and not get in the details.
Freedom of doing: complete
Level of discomfort: elevated arousal and anxiety, feeling of disconnection, discomfort, boredom, void

Example 3 (I’m sorry everything is for now implying alcohol).
I’m at the house of a friend and spending the night there. I let them know I have a problem with this because I’m on medication and it’s possible that at a moment I will not be okay with them drinking anymore because I HAVE a problem with it, not them, and that also I don’t like to feel disconnected because of the drunkenness. They have the choice as to go with me and stop when I tell them I’m not feeling super okay with it, or continue but upset me even if technically they aren’t doing anything wrong, but they knew it could result in me being upset and carried on. Fortunately, this didn’t happened but loads of people have some reluctance with this because they feel like it’s blocking their freedom. In this case you have to be very open about your reasons to have this specific boundary and why it’s important for you, and let them know you really feel distressed by that. If you can’t realize how distressed you are, it is difficult to set a limit or see it coming, so it demands quite a lot of self-scanning to assess where you situate yourself in your scale. This is why I prefer speak of seeing limits rather than setting boundaries, because it doesn’t work in a 0 or 1 world unless the situations are extreme. This particular example is perhaps the most interesting because it’s completely setting the limit according to your inner world and not theirs. It is important in this case to stress YOU have this particular problem, and that something gentle they can, but aren’t obliged to, is not to cross this limit. Then, it depends of how much upsetting it was. Was the person just was a bit too drunk because they were jolly but kept agreeable, were they starting to get annoying because drunk or did they drink themselves to death? there is a scale in crossing the limits, and there is a manner too.
Freedom: total as well
Level of discomfort: milld to high, depending on the scale of the boundary crossing

The last case is the most interesting because it is a situation where you can’t really just go away or make the person go away. You let them know you have a problem that is regarding yourself, and they can engage themselves in respecting your wish or not. It’s a negotiation. And as with any negotiation, if it’s not respected you can put the relationship in question because it breached your trust.

Another thing is someone taking advantage of the fact you have a certain buffer in your limits (e.g. you’re okay to hear a depressed friend, partner or family up to the point they’re really upset, but not to ending up having to call an ambulance every week, even if that can happen once or twice, you do you). This also can be completely involuntary. Nevertheless it’s toxic and if you let it continue to happen a pattern sets and you will have your limits constantly stamped on and have a growing discomfort, anxiety or complete panic towards these situations. In this case, it calls for a more radical enforcement that is anywhere from temporary non-contact to complete termination of the relationship.

You can also preemptively decide that for X time, you don’t want to deal with anything of the sort that unsettles you massively. Period. Are you overreacting? Probably most of the time. Is that wrong regarding of your reasons? No. Can it be improved? Yes.

So to answer more broadly
what is valid behavior/thoughts (i.e. appropriate given the situation)
- Feelings are always valid. They’re your indicators.
- Intensity might not match the level of threat. Assess the level of threat.
- When possible to negotiate to lower the trigger, it is valid and appropriate to do it and accept it if it’s no. Accepting doesn’t mean go through and be distressed, but accept this as a limitation of your relationship with a person, and that it can be a deal breaker. It can be drinks, porn, chocolate or dancing hippos, the content actually doesn’t matter.
- When you make your assessment and you see that your trigger really is innocuous AND you feel capable of gradually confront it, then you can start exposure.

Moments this can be tricky (from the most okay to the least okay)
- when the person doesn’t understand what you’re talking about
- when the person invokes superior authorities to justify the behaviour that is upsetting you (gaslighting form 1: indirect invalidation) (i.e. "Everyone does it", "God said it was the way it has to be", "This is not normal")
- when the person strikes back at you and starts (gaslighting form 2: directly invalidating your feelings or thoughts) (i.e. "You are lying/a liar", "You can’t feel this way with something so small", "you’re making this up", "what you are saying doesn’t make any sense", "you should not feel this way")

And trickier
- when the person reverts the situation and makes it about themselves and/or are projecting bad intentions: "you are hurting me by asking me this, therefore you have no right to ask", "you are wanting to hurt me because you are saying this". This generally is a very bad sign, this is what I call "strong" gaslighting as opposed to the previous forms of "soft" gaslighting because they imply an instrumentalization of what you are bringing up. And where it gets even trickier? Obviously in abusive situations this is something we would think or say ourselves about the person. In that case we have to assess the reality of the situation. If someone asks you uncomfortable questions about your sexual past and you say "you have no right to ask this, this is hurting me that you do", it’s legitimate because the question is invasive. If the question was "what do you think we should have for dinner?" and the answer "You always ask questions, questions… get a grip you stupid cow", then it’s different. I’m contrasting a lot but every shade of grey exists.

Gaslighting and invalidation happen in every relationship because basically we have realities that aren’t continuous. But when parts try to reach for each other, it tends to diminish over time and not to grow. When relationships are toxic, there is a form of power struggle between the parties and the winner is the one that has their reality and/or interests affirmed to the detriment of the other part. That detrimental part is what constitutes the abuse.

2) I do manipulate people by being nice. Bold statement. Am I going to betray their trust? No. Am I going to do anything against them? No. I am nice because I’m expecting them to be nice to me. And by opening these paths of niceness and sort of combing things in the right sense, I can gather useful information about them (what they like, what they dislike, what they fear, what they would like to do…) and act accordingly, by being listening or helpful or if I find the whole thing uninteresting, just leave it there and generally it’s reciprocal. It allows me not upset people without noticing and having them having some difficulty towards me just because they don’t feel safe around me. I did produce a lot of unsafe feelings around me before by being too bold in the past, there just was no necessity. But my niceness isn’t fake. If someone really is upsetting or makes me feel unsafe, they’re gonna receive the cold shoulder. But being nice at first is just a way to have our lives easier. It has to be genuine to work for real. If someone is boring the hell out of you you aren’t going to carry on the interaction, but nicely swift to something else.

And when you identify the people you feel good with, it’s cool because if you weren’t nice at first you might not have accessed that good side right away. It can happen, but it’s very possible to miss out the real interest of someone because you have mildly upset them and then they avoid you. That happened to me so many times I feel nauseated. My niceness is broad and not directed at getting things that I want from some people. I don’t keep scores unless I identify a pattern of exploration.

In return, that niceness is also to give a buffer of trust to people. When I meet someone, by being nice I allow them to behave nicely too and to be as decent as they can be. And from there you build relationships. Some evolve in depth, others just remain polite or agreeable, and I try as much as I can to have all the "unimportant" folks in this agreeable window, by acknowledging them and their reality even if it isn’t very deep. When I do f*ck up I have learnt to say it and not keep it under the carpets too.

I think "niceness" and "politeness" are social manners of positive manipulation. It helps people feeling good and not feeling bad. It’s a first facade and no you cannot know for sure if the person behind it is truly safe or not, but being mildly trusting rather than distrusting, as I said in another thread, has generally a better payoff. Like, you ask people around you to help you with something. If you’re in a trusting set, you might have already helped someone or anything. Your chances to get help increase greatly. If you are timid and not willing to share or connect because you are distrusting everyone, the odds are that they might end up being indifferent or even resentful towards you because you ignored their own attempts at being nice. In return, you might sense it and not even ask for help, or ask and get no answers (even if most of the time someone nice will pop in, as everything is compensated). But you reduce your chances. By being liked by an entire group, your life just becomes so much easier.

It’s a lot of work to have that form of trust but it is also your best interest. I was blocked by this because I believed it was being deceptive and manipulative. It is mildly manipulative in the sense my actions do impact the ones of others, but it’s not deceptive, much less explorative. I do believe my interests are linked to the ones of my group, and avoid situations of stark concurrence because I don’t believe they are healthy environments. But even in such environments it’s better to remain agreeable and genuinely interested in people. If your problem is distrust, knowing everyone and know what they’re doing gives you a strong overview in what they think and what they do, and most of the time discover they’re just doing things normally and for you or against you. My first response to distrust was to decide that I didn’t give a f*ck about what people thought about me and I just build myself a mildly hostile environment for nothing. Now I experimented the reverse and it really does work like a clockwork. I don’t have to worry if I can trust them or not, I know who I can trust or not and for what. But you have to get to know the people to find it out!

It seems that you get worked out by invalidation. There is a margin between feeling distrustful towards our own feelings and distrustful towards our judgements. Sometimes judgements can even be correct, but the amount of time and energy spent at making that judgement over something has cost you more than it brought you. This is where people deem it "overthinking". I have this a lot regarding situations that might have been sexist. At the end, yes, it was, but was it worth me stirring myself up an entire day because I’m doubting my judgement? Generally what I found out was that my judgements were correct, and my feelings were correct, but the extension was too broad. Another example is the one of the morbid trust issues of D that had interpreted my sense of uneasiness regarding my past (that existed, but moderately) as the proof that I was hiding something from him (I wasn’t, I was just taking time to unfold and with a strange rhythm because I was uncomfortable with myself). Feeling I wasn’t being trusted anyway, I got more and more irritated at questions. Gradually, he’s made me so uncomfortable by nagging me with questions towards what was already uneasy that it became abusive and I started to actually be avoidant and secretive towards the targeted topics at first, then purely at everything, which in his eyes confirmed it couldn’t trust me because I wasn’t trusting him anymore, and so and on. So by distrusting people and jumping to conclusions too fast, it is very possible to be anywhere from uncomfortable to abusive towards people. The best is to suspend your judgement and assess if overall the interactions you’re having with them are safe, that is you can express your reality without having it constantly invalidated, can do things without being constantly criticized ; in general that you can be you without having the constant sense you have to turn into a balloon animal to fit an expectation. And also, being attentive that people don’t do that with you because they fear you.

I don’t know if it helps, but it helped me also to think through these things and see there is a great level of complexity in this. In DBT handouts, there is an entire chapter entirely devoted to the questions you are asking.

I also found this website rather helpful regarding these questions. Interpersonal Effectiveness Skills - Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT) Tools


I now often have a hard time distinguishing which of my behaviors, thoughts, ... are a cognitive distortion as a result of this and what is valid behavior/thoughts (i.e. appropriate given the situation). This is particularly critical when it comes to upholding (or not) boundaries, or even when defining boundaries to begin with. I'm constantly questioning myself
I'm sorry I don't know how to fit this before the quote above ^^, and it is nothing like @ruborcoraxxx 's really well thought out in-depth reply as my mind can't produce that, but just a simpler thought that might help.

For above, boundaries are what you choose and are comfortable with. You make them for yourself, be they rigid, loose, or flexible (more ideal) between people (or virtually non-existent, if you choose, or think there's no alternative). You can change them also, and communicate them (no one can mind read). Maybe it's just a feeling, but really the choice of boundaries is based on honesty, integrity and self-autonomy, too.
I now have the problem of always looking for a catch when someone is at first sight genuinely nice towards me, default to assuming they *might* try to manipulate me as well. Major trust issues bordering on paranoia.
I don't think you have to look for a catch, but neither do you have to assume it means the person has qualities that are good or trustworthy, or has your best interests at heart. I'd say though, are you usually nice to others? If you haven't done anything wrong, wouldn't you expect them to be nice to you (aka why shouldn't they be?). On the other hand, as much as the saying you get more flies (or bees?) with honey than vinegar applies, I don't think everyone is nice for manipulation. But it takes time and circumstances to tell. The saying of when on a date be wary/ it's a red flag if the person treats the waiter or waitress rudely is very true. That being said, most people want to be well thought of. But it takes time to see if it's for appearances, or gain, or otherwise not really that authentic. Similarly, people can do nice things because they enjoy it, or they need to. They may be feeling it's required, which is about them not you. It takes time and instances of the rubber meeting the road to know how much one can trust, or if there's care, I think.
I've often received a "you're overthinking/taking this too personal/seeing ghosts" response from outsiders, who obviously didn't have experienced the manipulation/gaslighting themselves so don't have the "inside" experience.... but they also don't have the potential cognitive distortions. So, as an extension of 1) and 2), I really can't distinguish between actual mental abuse and just normal human behavior+me overreacting,
I think as humans we're pretty egocentric, there is the truth that not everything is about one's self. In that I mean, most people take things pretty personally. So a person may be saying that because their perspective is just less focused (though they may be familiar with abuse or gas lighting, a different conclusion doesn't necessarily mean they're not, but would probably leave you feeling unheard if you thought they didn't have the experience/ capacity). If something or someone is contributing to feelings of unsafety asking yourself why may be a start. And if you have to wonder if they're being abusive, it's probably not a very good relationship to be within. But if you feel like the majority of people seem to be personally using or manipulating you, it might help to compare what you feel to facts you know for sure, and communicate clearer boundaries (including saying no).

I think most people want to be seen in a good light, and it's hard times and being kind can be hard, too. They might also be perceptive and feel you could use some kindness in your day. Whatever the truth, only to know someone authentically can one have more certainty. However, I think the day is easier with kindnesses in it than the opposite. And you don't owe anyone if it's a true kindness, and that should be evident.

Best wishes to you.
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