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Are You Being Manipulated? Keys to Hidden Aggression

Man with puppet strings

We all engage in manipulation from time to time. When your boss asks you what you thought of his or her terrible presentation and you render lavish praise, you’re concealing your real feelings in an attempt to elicit the reaction you want from someone in power. But in close interpersonal relationships, manipulation can take on a much darker hue, leaving its targets never quite knowing where they stand.

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The very nature of manipulation makes it challenging to know when you’re being manipulated. Manipulators attempt to conceal their motives and feelings, and their targets—who often struggle to sustain an honest, open, and manipulation-free relationship—may have to do some detective work to determine whether they’re being played.

What Is Manipulation?
Manipulation is the process of trying to change another person’s feelings, beliefs, or behaviors through indirect tactics. Rather than asking for what they want, manipulative people tend to use deception, coercion, even threats to get their needs met.

Manipulation is associated with a number of mental health conditions, including borderline personality disorder, passive-aggressive personality disorder, addiction, antisocial personality disorder, and narcissism. Not all manipulative people have mental health issues, but when manipulation becomes a primary style of interaction, it can indicate an underlying psychological issue.

Tactics Manipulators Use
If you’re concerned that you’re being manipulated, examine the tactics the other person is using. If you find yourself caught up in a web of deception and unclear motives, it could be manipulation.

Some common tactics manipulators use include lying, withholding information, denying feelings, playing the victim, blaming the victim, minimizing others’ feelings, pretending to be confused or ignorant, guilt, shame, and pretending that his or her tactics are intended to serve a higher calling such as God or a political cause. Manipulators also frequently use gaslighting—the process of provoking someone into an extreme or angry reaction, then blaming the other person for his or her reaction.

While anyone can be manipulated, expert manipulators tend to target people with and take advantage of certain personality traits. These traits include:

  • The desire to be liked or to please; these people are more likely to take extraordinary measures to gain favor
  • Low self-esteem
  • Dependency; people who tend to be dependent upon others will be more easily swayed by threats to withdraw love or support
  • Naiveté or ignorance
  • Loneliness
  • Impulsivity, greed, and materialism
  • Low assertiveness
  • Fear of anger, sadness, and other negative emotions—either in oneself or from the manipulator

Why People Manipulate
For some people, manipulation may be an inadvertent strategy for dealing with a cutthroat world in which discussing feelings is often taboo. Manipulation is part of the normal range of behavioral tactics, and most people engage in manipulative strategies from time to time. People whose primary style of interaction is manipulation, however, tend to share some traits in common. These include:

  • A need for control or power over others
  • A need to raise their own self-esteem
  • Fear of abandonment
  • Feelings of worthlessness, helplessness, or hopelessness
  • A willingness to prioritize their own feelings and desires over the needs and well-being of others

How to Handle a Manipulator
Many of us are highly aware when we’re being manipulated, but are still left unsure of what to do. Because manipulators often play the victim, some victims of manipulation might excuse their behavior or insist that the manipulator doesn’t really know what he or she is doing. Manipulators thrive on hiding their motives, so it can be challenging to get them to admit their true intentions, and many people will refuse to do so even under pressure. Instead, try the following tactics:

  • Avoid allowing yourself to be shamed or guilted into doing something.
  • When a manipulator makes a covert threat, ask him or her about the threat.
  • Ask the manipulative person if he or she can tell you directly what he or she wants.
  • Avoid sharing how the manipulation makes you feel, as these feelings can later be used as a tactic by the manipulator.
  • Be direct, clear, and honest, and refuse to participate in the escalating game of manipulation.


  1. Psychological harassment and psychological manipulation. (n.d.). Psychological Harassment Information Association. Retrieved from http://www.psychologicalharassment.com/psychological_manipulation.htm
  2. Simon, G. K. (n.d.). Dealing with manipulative people. RickRoss.com. Retrieved from http://www.rickross.com/reference/brainwashing/brainwashing11.html
  3. Spotting emotional manipulation. (n.d.). Cassiopaea. Retrieved from http://www.cassiopaea.com/cassiopaea/emotional_manipulation.htm

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  • yvonne March 22nd, 2013 at 10:34 AM #1

    What if I am married to the master manipulator? What then? He needs serious help but I am almost afraid to tell him that because he makes me feel like I am the one who is crazy when I know that isn’t true! He always gives me these guilt trips, and yes, I let it happen, but he will do anything that he needs to to get his way. And it’s not just with me- it’s that way with everyone and we all feed into it. How do I get him to loosen some of that control and power? I know that it is a change that I have to eprsonally make but I am not sure how.

  • Susan Beggan Paganie March 22nd, 2013 at 10:24 PM #2

    When someone is a master of manipulation, we are often caught up in their web before we realize what is happening. They can be adept at turning the tables and placing all the blame on you. They can be so good at it that you start thinking you are the one at fault, or just plain crazy for thinking they would “ever do such a thing.” As hard as it is, you can’t fall into the trap of acceptance. This just reinforces the behavior and helps it to get stronger. I think the best methods are working with a professional to rebuild your self esteem that this person has likely diminished. Learn the tips for shaping the behavior, it’s going to be hard but it’s doable. Learn to be assertive rather than aggressive. The most important thing is to take your safety into account. Don’t do anything that might cause you to be put into danger. While all manipulator are not dangerous, you must be able to accurately assess your situation. For people that manipulate, it has likely been a successful way they have learned to negotiate life. Who knows where the roots are bound, but it is a learned behavior that can be charged.

  • Sloane March 23rd, 2013 at 6:47 AM #3

    The problem is not the one who manipulates, but the one who allows themselves to be amnipulated time and again.

  • lisa March 24th, 2013 at 12:11 PM #4

    Hi Yvonne, Manipulation comes in many forms, from subtle undermining comments to outright attacks. This dynamic is described quite well in a book I’m reading called The Verbally Abusive Relationship by Patricia Evans. There are many suggestions on how to set limits based on what type of attack you’re under.While it’s tough to break old patterns, it is possible!Support from family and friends are important as you try out new ways of setting limits.A therapist can be helpful too.Hope you find the strength to listen to your inner voice.Best wishes in your work on this.

  • tiara March 25th, 2013 at 9:55 AM #5

    “target” seems to have been written all over my face. because just so many people try to manipulate me now I am afraid to even make friends. it is a pity that people have to stoop to manipulating others just to get what they want, I wish better sense prevailed :(

  • monica March 25th, 2013 at 11:20 AM #6

    Me being a manipulater and a good one Yvonne hunny you have to think like a wolf to run w the pack or they Eat the weak so what Im saying is be a wolf watch his movements tobe of voice certain facial features that r reapetative when he is doing this think and act like a wolf to run with the pack u r not crazy they say that we supervise things and don’t tell Wat we r really after (alterior motives) well Im the kind that would and make u believe it was ur idea and get wat I told u I wanted and more Im the great white lol

  • Donna April 28th, 2013 at 1:49 AM #7

    I had been in a manipulative marriage of 28yrs. I don’t think I will ever recover.

  • Louise May 21st, 2013 at 4:34 AM #8

    Sloane, to an extent I agree. But we all allow some form of manipulation from time to time. As we all manipulate from time to time. Choosing to be manipulated is as unlikely as choosing to be a victom of crime. I think the problem is more where your non-negotiable limits are. And if you dont know, you leave yourself open to be a victim

  • g June 11th, 2013 at 9:42 AM #9

    Sloane – No one is EVER resposible for someone else’s bad behavior, PERIOD.

    No one asks to be treated badly, regardless of the insistance from others that the target of immature,reckless,hurtful, inappropriate actions is at fault. It’s that prevalent shifting the blame to the target that allows other the continue the damaging behavior all around.

  • EL July 22nd, 2013 at 3:26 PM #10

    I hear you tiara. Sucks.
    Stay strong.

  • Steve February 3rd, 2014 at 7:54 AM #11

    We need to remember that we can often engage in manipulation with the manipulator. Those being manipulated are not just victims, as their unwillingness to leave the manipulator forces them to engage in the manipulation. In this regard, the victim becomes the victimizer and back and forth it goes. If we have a desire to regain our self-worth with the manipulator, we can quickly engage in their game, as we desperately try to regain our footing. However, they are way better at the game, as they have no real attachment to you or anyone!!! They are absolutely willing to appear as though they let go of you to prove to you that you do not matter! The only way to save yourself is to get out and never look back. NEVER!!! They do not love you! In fact, after a bit of time, it is likely that you do not love them either! If you are in the “web,” you are trying to locate your self-worth, which is exactly what they do not want you to find. If you find it, you leave them! Remember: Why would someone good like yourself be so interested in someone that is so damaged? You too are damaged, and not just by them! Get into therapy and begin to mend your broken heart. It goes back a long ways, so take your time. Look into your childhood and forgive those who harmed you. Learn, but learn while moving away and forward. The manipulator has no sense of Self, and as a result, they will begin to make you feel as you don’t, as they project their lack of Self onto you. Do not let them steal your soul! They are trying to make you feel as they feel: lost, lonely, and absolutely worthless. These are narcissists! They do not truly love themselves. They are NOT genuinely confident. They have no secure attachment anywhere in their childhoods. Their parents were severely selfish. They may claim to “love” their parent SO much, but you will quickly see they use their parent as they use all others. Just as their parent uses them!!! They have no positive/genuine relationship with their parent, particularly the opposite sex parent. However, often times both parents are narcissists. They will often claim to “not remember” their childhoods. This is a result of the aloneness they experienced. You will NEVER save them! NEVER!!! Accept that you are good enough, just as you are. Love your mother and father and move on!!! DO IT TODAY!!!

  • Sparrow Lost March 17th, 2014 at 11:40 AM #12

    Read “Snakes in Suits” very insightful.

  • Mena August 14th, 2014 at 7:55 PM #13

    Hi Zawn,

    My sister in-law by marriage (our husbands are brothers) is a manipulator. She regularly demeans me and heavily influences others peoples opinions of me. I have for years now engaged in the manipulations to defend myself, but she is so good at it that I am misunderstood by family members and always made to look like the perpetrator. This week I had enough and after a few of her text messages, I told her to “F!@k Off!” and have blocked her from being able to contact me.
    I just didn’t know what else to say. Have I done the right thing?

  • Wolf August 18th, 2014 at 11:23 AM #14

    Okay, what you said here really touched home with me. I am very confused because I can feel someone manipulating my mind, trying to change how I think… Almost brainwash me in a sense. I have no certain proof it’s my mother, though on one occasion I caught her trying to “motivate me” to do something by telling me there was no way I could do it and that I had never given her a reason to believe I could. She admitted to it. I also know she took psychology in college, but she never mentioned it more than twice, and only indirectly… So I don’t know how much or how advanced psychology she knows. I’ve been distraught, and angry, and feeling like I’ve got a blindfold over my thoughts because I cannot figure out who or how… Or maybe I’m not letting myself believe it’s her because I love her too much? I’m not sure, as I’ve said.

    I think of myself as somewhat well-learned in psychological understanding and thinking, because I can watch how people glance or flinch and watch their eyes, to figure out almost exactly how something affects them inwardly. I’ve had people test me on it and I’m not just fibbing. Which is why I can’t understand why I can’t figure this out on my own. I can’t read my mom or my dad the way I can everyone else I know, no matter how hard I pay attention.

    And one last thing, I can be so convicted and form my thoughts for days before I come and argue them to my mom… I’ve tried baiting traps, so to speak, to test her… But every time I confront her, I suddenly cannot think. My mental barriers crumble against her and no matter how I felt before, I end up broken. If anyone can make sense of this… I’d be extremely appreciative.

    P.S. Talking about the parent’s back-story, her dad left them when she was 3 and basically disowned her, her mother married abusive men and finally ended up single to this day, and their relationship is rocky. My dad is kind of a lifeless brick unless he’s angry or in a rare good humor. That might clarify something…

  • Lucy August 18th, 2014 at 3:43 PM #15

    Hi Wolf, I think your best bet is consulting a therapist who can help you work through those confusing feelings and give you some direction. That said, I am reading a book right now about narcissistic personality disorder that is really helpful and interesting called The Wizard of Oz and Other Narcissists. Though you didn’t say much about your mother’s behavior, your reaction to it and your feelings of confusion about it sound like what the author describes as the difficulties of being the child of an NPD person. I am one myself and it has been really difficult to start defining what I want and getting out from under that boulder even though I haven’t spoken to my NPD father in 5 years. It has been a long road of therapy and I will continue on it and would recommend therapy to anyone who thinks they might have an NPD parent. I would say check out NPD online a little bit and if it sounds like it could apply to your mom, check out the book and look into therapy. And I think therapy is a good idea in any case if you feel in a fog and confused or manipulated! Good luck.

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