I read a post the other day that rang true for me. (Unfortunately, I cannot find the source again.) It was about how manipulative people are often seeking out attention that they feel they couldn’t get otherwise. They so desperately need the presence of another individual that they will pull out every trick in the book to make sure someone stays or comes closer.
But why do people need attention so bad that they are willing to manipulate to get it? It’s not just loneliness. I think manipulative behavior is often subconsciously enacted in pursuit of something called co-regulation.
Co-regulation is what caregivers are supposed to do when we are babies and we have big feelings. We’re supposed to be picked up, comforted, validated, mirrored, and soothed. On a chemical level, babies need other people to react to their emotions to understand them with their rapidly growing brains. Eventually, they are supposed to learn how to validate and soothe their own emotions as they grow into adults.
On the other hand, people who are scolded, belittled, or ignored as babies never learn how to self-regulate. Therefore, they continue to have this co-regulating need even as adults, and when they have big emotions they will often do absolutely anything they can to get another person to relieve the pressure. (It’s worth noting that the manipulative methods by which people try to achieve this often knock the other person out of alignment and cause them to never get what they need, making things worse and often starting the cycle over again.)
How do I know this? Because I have done it. I require constant attention and validation because I got none for the first 22 years of my life. I try to go about getting it in a genuine and healthy way (by asking for attention and validation instead of manipulating to get it) but I don’t always succeed in the moment.
This does not mean that we should automatically forgive manipulative adults. People are still responsible for being healthy and assertive in their interactions. But maybe if you feel manipulated in a relationship that you intend on keeping, you can assertively address their behavior and, if they agree to respect you, problem-solve and agree to offer what they need.
For more information about attention and why needing it is not a bad thing, please see this article by Tamar Jacobson.
For more information about co-regulating, check out this article from Howard Bath.