how to handle manipulative thoughts
September 19, 2016 4:23 PM   Subscribe

Sometimes I'll realize that an action I'm about to take or planning on taking could have positive benefits for me down the road. Does this then make the action manipulative? Should I not take the action, or set up the situation in a way where it can't have a potential benefit to myself, or just focus on not having the manipulative thought in the first place? How atypical is it to have thoughts like these?

A great example of when this occurred to me is when I call my grandmother. I know she likes to hear from me and so I do it every so often. At some point the thought occurred to me that talking to her more would make me more likely to get a larger inheritance. Now I'm stuck because I don't want to be manipulative but it also seems silly for me to stop calling her and bringing her happiness just because I had a manipulative thought.

So reading through this similar thread it seems the intentions are what marks an action as manipulative. But, I'm having trouble with both trusting the intentions and figuring out how to rephrase the question or action so that it's no longer manipulative. Do I just have to trust myself that my overall intentions are good? How do I know if I'm really doing it because of the benefit in terms of the future inheritance and I'm just rationalizing that she gets happiness from the call for my sanity? I guess one simple test would be whether I would call her if I knew she had no money. In this case the answer is yes so I'm in the clear.

My other ideas were to make a contract with myself that any inheritance I get from her I have to donate to charity. That way I could remove that complicating factor. I don't love this solution because it's mostly unenforceable and since she was likely going to give me at least some inheritance either way I don't want to throw out the baby with the bathwater.

A lot of this problem seems to fall under not trusting myself and my motivations. How do you differentiate passing meaningless thoughts from real motivations? Who would you discuss something like this with, or would you be too embarrassed that your thoughts are seriously messed up (as I am) and post it somewhere online?
posted by aaabbbccc to Human Relations (18 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: A lot of this problem seems to fall under not trusting myself and my motivations.

I think that's pretty much *all* of this problem. Look, if you're a smart person with any sort of head for strategy it's occasionally going to occur to you that doing something you'd do anyway could have a benefit for you down the line. That doesn't mean you just have to sit quietly in a dark room waiting for death to take you...or, what? Only do things that are going to eventually hurt you?

You'd call her if you knew she had no money. That's good enough for me. As many people said in the thread you linked, the fact that you're worrying about this at all means you're probably not terribly manipulative.
posted by the marble index at 4:33 PM on September 19, 2016 [13 favorites]

Those thoughts occur to me as well. Set them aside. In this case, it would be terrible to stop calling your grandma just to prove to yourself that you are not trying to manipulate her into giving you a bigger inheritance. You can downplay it to yourself "Eh, she's not that organized, probably doesn't even have a will" or whatever makes sense in your situation.
posted by bunderful at 4:37 PM on September 19, 2016 [2 favorites]

Thinking about how you can benefit from something isn't a sin. It's not even wrong if that was your entire reason for calling Grandma. What would be wrong is if you hurt Grandma's feelings, and sounding insincere over the phone, constantly asking about her finances and how long she's gonna live, gossiping about it with your cousins and stuff like that probably would hurt her feelings. Your motivation sounds fine to me but it doesn't really matter what I think, what matters is that you learn to trust your gut. You are your best friend.
posted by bleep at 4:47 PM on September 19, 2016 [2 favorites]

I suppose there are levels of this in everyone. And, similarly, almost every human interaction involves benefits to one or the other party (and thus, indirectly, back to yourself whatever happens).

To my mind, the fact that you are asking the question puts you completely in the clear as far as you being unpleasantly manipulative in this regard.
posted by tillsbury at 5:21 PM on September 19, 2016 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Is it possible that you have OCD or OCD tendencies? I ask because I have OCD and I have these thoughts, to the point where, other than the specific example, I could have written this question, down to the part about making a contract with myself to make sure I wouldn't actually benefit from the situation, a few years ago when my OCD was worse. (Your other question, about worrying about a possible crush on a friend, also seems like something I could have written earlier in my life.)

If OCD doesn't sound way off the mark for you, you might want to look for a therapist. I see someone who specifically focuses on OCD and uses cognitive-behavioral therapy, and we're able to talk about and through examples just like this. It's been super helpful to me (as have SSRIs). There are also self-help books for OCD, often following CBT principles, that you could check out first if you'd prefer. Brain Lock is often recommended - I've read it and liked it, but actual therapy has helped me more, including with thoughts/brain loops/recurrent worry patterns like you describe.

OCD is kind of all about doubting yourself and your motivations. It also is no fun. Feel free to MeMail me if you have more questions, or if you just want to commiserate. Good luck!
posted by bananacabana at 5:34 PM on September 19, 2016 [17 favorites]

There can be, and usually are, multiple reasons to do any given thing. I think you need to get better at living with complexity and stop trying to boil it down to a single right answer.

I think you need to err on the side of doing the right thing whether it benefits you or not. I think it is neurotic to plan on giving away the inheritance. It isn't like there is some kind of bad act involved here. You aren't harming someone else to curry favor with your grandmother.

There is actually zero guarantee that this will lead to money for you. I think you need to stop worrying about that.

Try to do the right thing and let the chips fall where they may. If it benefits you, cool! But, very often, doing the right thing costs and is thankless or even comes back to bite you. So, I really don't think you should sweat that stuff too much. If doing right doesn't burn you, be happy about it. There's a reason we have sayings like "No good deed goes unpunished."
posted by Michele in California at 5:36 PM on September 19, 2016 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Almost no motivations in life are pure. If it makes your grandmother happy when you call her, then call her. In addition to that, set aside the ego of your own influence. She's a grown-ass woman, you know?
posted by DarlingBri at 6:00 PM on September 19, 2016 [4 favorites]

Best answer: It sounds like you may just have an overactive guilt gland.
posted by heatherlogan at 6:03 PM on September 19, 2016 [8 favorites]

You should get evaulated for an anxiety disorder. This might be pure-O OCD.
posted by Rock 'em Sock 'em at 6:08 PM on September 19, 2016 [3 favorites]

Doing things that are good for you is a healthy and normal behavior. Worrying about that, is not.
posted by so fucking future at 6:09 PM on September 19, 2016 [2 favorites]

Best answer: Sticking my head back in to say I've missed out on some good things because I was so worried about my motivations and whether or not I was doing things for the "right" reason. Like, did I want to take Italian in part because the Italian prof was hot? Then I had to steer clear! And now .. I don't know any Italian. At this point I wish I'd just studied things I was interested in and accepted any form of motivation I could get.
posted by bunderful at 6:31 PM on September 19, 2016 [2 favorites]

Best answer: To use bunderful's example: It is totes okay to take Italian in part because you think the professor is hot. It is a problem if you try to sleep your way into an A. But it is completely fine if you study your ass off because getting verbal pats on the head by a hot professor is the best part of your day.

If, after you graduate, you date said hot professor, you are still in the clear. (Dating the professor while in the class is a big no no.)

Long term benefits are not inherently evil or against the rules. Details matter, but as long as you are not actually up to something nefarious, your motives are a private matter.

If the thought about the inheritance as a motive bothers you, work on banishing it. You were calling her anyway, long before the inheritance crossed your mind.

There are situations where there can be real value in thinking long and hard about the details of why you are doing something and exactly what you hope to accomplish. This is probably not one of them.

You should worry about such details if every class you take is chosen based on the attractiveness of the professor AND you keep sleeping with the professor, lives and marriages have been ruined and so on. At that point, it becomes worthwhile to err on the side of refusing to sign up for a class with a hot professor. But, barring such an obvious track record of slippery sloping yourself into drama, you probably do not need to worry too much about it.
posted by Michele in California at 6:51 PM on September 19, 2016 [2 favorites]

Already said upthread, but this definitely seems like a manifestation of anxiety or OCD. For me, sometimes just realizing that a thought pattern is part of my anxiety helps me put it to rest. (I have been known to say out loud "thank you anxiety, that is enough!")
posted by radioamy at 7:53 PM on September 19, 2016

Response by poster: Wasn't expecting these answers but definitely some useful things to think about. I took the Yale Brown test and scored a 3 so that didn't indicate anything. Definitely "Pure-O" seems to fit me more and the wikipedia page for it is very interesting! I thought this quote was great:
"Clinical "success" is reached when the sufferer becomes indifferent to the need to answer the question.......In another example, the spike would be, "Maybe I said something offensive to my boss yesterday." A recommended response would be, "Maybe I did. I'll live with the possibility and take the risk he'll fire me tomorrow." Using this procedure, it is imperative that the distinction be made between the therapeutic response and rumination. The therapeutic response does not seek to answer the question but to accept the uncertainty of the unsolved dilemma."

Hmm I have always thought that I have general anxiety and maybe hints of aspergers (I believe in anger my mom has called me autistic many many years ago) but I do spend a decent amount of time worrying about similar situations to the grandma question (being attracted to cousins is the first that comes to mind). Similar in that I would expect most of you to think the line of questioning is completely ridiculous. I always interpreted this as anxiety and worrying too much about the future and hypotheticals but it seems to match the Pure-O version of OCD decently well. I have no real sense of the range of anxieties that "normal" people have so it never occurred to me that I could be far outside the spectrum (I kept very detailed journals at the beginning of this year which I think could be revealing if I go through and properly anonymize them). It doesn't interfere with my daily life in any way which is why it's never occurred to me to try and get actual therapy for any of it. Even my anxiety is mild enough that its main manifestation was avoiding small talk with new people at parties, and I've progressed a lot on that in the past year.

I'm currently not working but I'm starting a new job in a month so I have some time to maybe play around with CBT and do some more research into this. I still feel like I'm stuck with the original question of how to distinguish between real anxieties and manifestations of my anxiety. Maybe anytime I'm worrying whether I'm a bad person it's probably just me being anxious and I can trust my good intentions, but worrying over whether there's a better way to accomplish some concrete action could actually be productive? You have given me some very useful responses and a lot to think about. Thank you!

Oh and one last thing that seems relevant. Most of my worries and concerns are one time issues. It's decently unusual for me to re-examine the same anxiety. Not sure if this is pro or against my having OCD but I usually do an exhaustive enough job of analyzing these situations that I'm satisfied with the conclusion I've come to and put it more or less out of my head.
posted by aaabbbccc at 8:49 PM on September 19, 2016

What? Calling your grandmother isn't manipulative, assuming that she likes to hear from you and you enjoy talking to her. Not to mention that you have no way of knowing whether you will get a larger inheritance because of it, and it probably has almost nothing to do with how often you call her. (The size of her estate and how many other living family members she has almost certainly would be the main criteria for that.)

This is one of those pesky thoughts people have sometimes that we sort of feel guilty about because you're not really supposed to think about things like inheritances. If you don't feel guilty about thinking about those types of things and truly do basic social stuff solely for eventual material gain, then, yes, I would potentially worry. But the fact that you feel bad about having this thought means that, no, you're not being manipulative.

To me, manipulativeness requires you to do something you otherwise would have no reason to do (including basic personal enjoyment) and usually is for immediate personal gratification. For example if you join an online dating site just for the free dinners, that's a little manipulative. If you have a wedding because your parents are willing to pay and it means you'll get presents, that's manipulative. Doing something you enjoy and which obviously has a clear benefit to others, for no immediate reward, is not manipulative.
posted by Sara C. at 9:27 PM on September 19, 2016 [1 favorite]

Listen to your internal voice. "I should call my grandmother, she'd be chuffed to hear about my new job / new relationship" is good. "I should call my grandmother, we're planning Dad's 60th birthday party and I want some good stories" is good. "I should call my grandmother, nothing big has happened in my life but it would just be nice to chat to someone who loves me for who I am and doesn't expect anything" is good. "I should call my grandmother, I have nothing to say but I'm worried that she's bored and not happy, and want to make sure she has an opportunity to tell me about what's going on in her life because I want to know" is good. "I should call my grandmother, it's been 3 months since I last called her and I want to make sure I'm still in her will" is bad.
posted by finding.perdita at 11:55 PM on September 19, 2016 [1 favorite]

Enlightened self-interest is still enlightened. Win-win is an outcome to be sought, not avoided.
posted by flabdablet at 2:56 AM on September 20, 2016 [1 favorite]

I usually do an exhaustive enough job of analyzing these situations that I'm satisfied with the conclusion I've come to and put it more or less out of my head.

That sounds absolutely exhausting. I know you said it's not interfering with your daily life, but spending that much time and energy on analyzing everyday interactions or events may likely be outside the range of average, and you might really benefit from talking to a therapist skilled in treating anxiety and/or OCD.
posted by lazuli at 6:52 AM on September 21, 2016

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