Manipulation is the practice of using indirect tactics to control behavior, emotions, and relationships.
What Is Manipulation?
Most people engage in periodic manipulation. For example, telling an acquaintance you feel “fine” when you are actually depressed is, technically, a form of manipulation because it controls your acquaintance’s perceptions of and reactions to you.
Manipulation can also have more insidious consequences, however, and it is often associated with emotional abuse, particularly in intimate relationships. Most people view manipulation negatively, especially when it harms the physical, emotional, or mental health of the person being manipulated.
While people who manipulate others often do so because they feel the need to control their environment and surroundings, an urge that often stems from deep-seated fear or anxiety, it is not a healthy behavior. Engaging in manipulation may prevent the manipulator from connecting with their authentic self, and being manipulated can cause an individual to experience a wide range of ill effects.
Mental Health Effects of Manipulation
If unaddressed, manipulation can lead to poor mental health outcomes for those who are manipulated. Chronic manipulation in close relationships may also be a sign emotional abuse is taking place, which in some cases, can have a similar effect to trauma—particularly when the victim of manipulation is made to feel guilty or ashamed.
Victims of chronic manipulation may:
- Feel depressed
- Develop anxiety
- Develop unhealthy coping patterns
- Constantly try to please the manipulative person
- Lie about their feelings
- Put another person’s needs before their own
- Find it difficult to trust others
In some cases, manipulation can be so pervasive that it causes a victim to question their perception of reality. The classic movie Gaslight illustrated one such story, in which a woman’s husband subtly manipulated her until she no longer trusted her own perceptions. For example, the husband covertly turned down the gaslights and convinced his wife the dimming light was all in her head.
Manipulation and Mental Health
While most people engage in manipulation from time to time, a chronic pattern of manipulation can indicate an underlying mental health concern.
Manipulation is particularly common with personality disorder diagnoses such as borderline personality (BPD) and narcissistic personality (NPD). For many with BPD, manipulation may be a means of meeting their emotional needs or obtaining validation, and it often occurs when the person with BPD feels insecure or abandoned. As many people with BPD have witnessed or experienced abuse, manipulation may have developed as a coping mechanism to get needs met indirectly.
Individuals with narcissistic personality (NPD) may have different reasons for engaging in manipulative behavior. As those with NPD may have difficulty forming close relationships, they may resort to manipulation in order to “keep” their partner in the relationship. Characteristics of narcissistic manipulation may include shaming, blaming, playing the “victim,” control issues, and gaslighting.
Munchausen syndrome by proxy, during which a caregiver makes another person ill to gain attention or affection, is another condition that is characterized by manipulative behaviors.
Manipulation in Relationships
Long-term manipulation can have serious effects in close relationships, including those between friends, family members, and romantic partners. Manipulation can deteriorate the health of a relationship and lead to poor mental health of those in the relationship or even the dissolution of the relationship.
In a marriage or partnership, manipulation can cause one partner to feel bullied, isolated, or worthless. Even in healthy relationships, one partner may inadvertently manipulate the other in order to avoid confrontation or even in an attempt to keep their partner from feeling burdened. Many people may even know they are being manipulated in their relationship and choose to overlook or downplay it. Manipulation in intimate relationships can take many forms, including exaggeration, guilt, gift-giving or selectively showing affection, secret-keeping, and passive aggression.
Parents who manipulate their children may set their children up for guilt, depression, anxiety, eating issues, and other mental health conditions. One study also revealed that parents who regularly use manipulation tactics on their children may increase the likelihood their children will also use manipulative behavior. Signs of manipulation in the parent-child relationship may include making the child feel guilty, lack of accountability from a parent, downplaying a child’s achievements, and a need to be involved with many aspects of the child’s life.
People may also feel manipulated if they are part of a friendship that has become toxic. In manipulative friendships, one person may be using the other to meet their own needs at the expense of their friend’s. A manipulative friend might use guilt or coercion to extract favors, such as loaning money, or they may only reach out to that friend when they need their own emotional needs met and may find excuses when their friend has needs in the relationship.
Examples of Manipulative Behavior
Sometimes, people may manipulate others unconsciously, without being fully aware of what they’re doing, while others may actively work on strengthening their manipulation tactics. Some signs of manipulation include:
- Passive-aggressive behavior
- Implicit threats
- Withholding information
- Isolating a person from loved ones
- Verbal abuse
- Use of sex to achieve goals
As the motives behind manipulation can vary from unconscious to malicious, it’s important to identify the circumstances of the manipulation that is taking place. While breaking things off may be critical in situations of abuse, a therapist may help others learn to deal with or confront manipulative behavior from others.
How to Deal with Manipulative People
When manipulation becomes toxic, dealing with the behavior from others can be exhausting. Manipulation in the workplace has been shown to reduce performance, and manipulative behavior from loved ones can make reality seem questionable. If you feel you are being manipulated in any kind of a relationship, it may be helpful to:
- Disengage. If someone is trying to get a particular emotional response from you, choose not to give it to them. For example, if a manipulative friend is known to flatter you before asking for an overreaching favor, don’t play along—rather, reply politely and move the conversation along.
- Be confident. Sometimes, manipulation may include one person’s attempts to cause another person to doubt their abilities, intuition, or even reality. If this happens, it may help to stick to your story; however, if this happens often in a close relationship, it could be time to leave.
- Address the situation. Call out the manipulative behavior as it’s happening. Keeping the focus on how the other person’s actions are affecting you rather than starting with an accusatory statement may also help you reach a resolution while emphasizing that their manipulative tactics won’t work on you.
- Stay on-topic. When you point out a behavior that makes you feel manipulated, the other person may try to minimize the situation or muddle the situation by bringing up other issues as a distraction. Remember your main point and stick to that.
Addressing Manipulation in Therapy
Treatment and therapy for manipulative behavior may depend largely on what underlying issues are causing the behavior. If, for instance, the manipulation is being caused by an underlying mental health issue, individual therapy may help that person understand why their behavior is unhealthy for themselves and those around them. A counselor may also be able to help the manipulative person learn skills for interacting with others while respecting their boundaries and address underlying insecurities that may be contributing to the behavior.
Certain mental health issues such as borderline personality may cause people to feel anxiety in relationships, causing them to act manipulatively in order to feel secure. In these instances, a therapist may help the person address their mental health issue, which in turn can reduce their anxiety and help them feel secure in their relationships.
- Bub, K., & Lommen, M. J. J. (2017). The role of guilt in posttraumatic stress disorder. European Journal of Psychotraumatology, 8(1). doi: 10.1080/20008198.2017.1407202
- Butkovic, A., & Bratko, D. (2007). Family study of manipulation tactics. Personality and Individual Differences, 43(4), 791-801. Retrieved from https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0191886907000499
- Eight ways to spot emotional manipulation. (n.d.). Cassiopaea.com. Retrieved from http://www.cassiopaea.com/cassiopaea/emotional_manipulation.htm
- Gass, G. Z., & Nichols, W. C. (1988). Gaslighting: A marital syndrome. Contemporary Family Therapy, 10(1), 3-16. doi: 10.1007/BF00922429
- Kacel, E. L., Ennis, N., & Pereira, D. (2017). Narcissistic personality disorder in clinical health psychology practice: Case studies of comorbid psychological distress and life-limiting illness. Journal of Behavioral Medicine, 43(3), 156-164. doi: 10.1080/08964289.2017.1301875
- Schwantes, M. (2018, May 16). 5 brilliant ways to deal with toxic people at work. Retrieved from https://www.inc.com/marcel-schwantes/5-brilliant-ways-to-deal-with-this-1-type-of-person-every-toxic-workplace-has.html
- Virzi, J. (2018, March 15). 5 things people with borderline personality disorder do that get mistaken for ‘manipulation.’ Retrieved from https://themighty.com/2018/03/borderline-personality-disorder-manipulative
Last Updated: 03-26-2019
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Lori D.October 21st, 2017 at 4:19 PM
Yes. When my daughter double asked her father and I we both fell for it. Of course each of us want to be the better parent to be liked. Rather then saying if the other says no. Then it means no.
CarolynAugust 1st, 2018 at 8:19 AM
Frank PSeptember 14th, 2019 at 4:57 PM
I never could get away from my dominating mother now I get to live it and iam 61yrs old
SophieJanuary 15th, 2020 at 4:15 AM
I only want my life to be about my husband and my child.
Some pet say I manipulate and control my husband but I just want what’s best for him.
W.June 1st, 2020 at 12:50 PM
I have been told I have narcissistic tendencies and are manipulative to my children to the extent of possible abuse. I need help. Can I get informative newsletters or specific content websites sent to my email?
GladysAugust 21st, 2020 at 1:41 PM
Don’t worry about the ambiguous future, just work hard for the sake of clarity
Dr. JoeSeptember 20th, 2020 at 3:48 AM
Almost all people, as a result of normal human behavior and interactions , can be accused of being a manipulator. Please take these so called professional articles about manipulative behavior with a grain of salt. Manipulative behavior is a symptom not a diagnosis. And it is difficult to define along with being difficult to assign a pathology to. What I mean by that is that we all show signs of manipulative behaviour but it’s a normal part of human behavior and not a bad thing. The definition of a manipulative person is not only terribly difficult to define but there are no clear cut criteria in order to do so.
IOctober 6th, 2020 at 8:58 PM
All society victimised of this problem it’s tomuch need of moral education in society
KalyaniNovember 7th, 2020 at 8:57 PM
So, I was in 2 years long relationship with my crush. I was manupulating my emotions , trying hard to live the best version of myself.I ended up failing my board exams.That’s when I realized that this was not what I was meant to be like. In reality I was lieing to my self unnecessarily just to feel secure. I was insecure, running away from reality , that’s what made me be manupulating and miserable.Thjs is extremely serious problem that no young girl should go through because at times I felt to suicide and finish everything at once.Demanding validation was the extreme opposite of my emotional wants,but I lived demanding that.Finally my fear and my judicial conduct and my brother got me out of this terrible mental trauma.Thankful I am to my beloved God.
MadisonJanuary 19th, 2021 at 12:42 PM
I’ve had multiple conversations with my mom trying to get her to recognize that my dad is manipulative. I don’t want to stir the pot as he would say, but I want her to recognize it. I guess I’m hoping in some way or another that if he can get and do better after getting help, so can I. I’ve noticed I’ve been adopting some of his “methods” and I hate myself and every part of myself that is reflecting him. I don’t want to make other people I meet or people I love feel the way he makes me feel. I just wish I could leave, but I can’t so I’m trying to do the 2nd best option I can think of, it isn’t going to be easy, but it’s worth a shot. Sorry I just feel comfortable sharing this for once, so I am.
AnonymousMarch 15th, 2021 at 8:34 PM
I tend to enjoy manipulating people a lot especially friends I make them feel pity for me I make them sad on my behalf and I lie to them I know I need help
LaurenGTMarch 16th, 2021 at 9:05 AM
You totally can get the help you’re looking for! If you would like to consult with a mental health professional, please feel free to return to our homepage, http://www.goodtherapy.org/ , and enter your postal/zip code into the search field to find therapists in your area. If you’re looking for a counselor that practices a specific type of therapy, or who deals with specific concerns, you can make an advanced search by clicking here: http://www.goodtherapy.org/advanced-search.html
Once you enter your information, you’ll be directed to a list of therapists and counselors who meet your criteria. From this list, you can click to view our members’ full profiles and contact the therapists themselves for more information.
unknownApril 9th, 2021 at 12:42 PM
I am accused as a manipulator and I use some tactics and I do not try to manipulate but I do. if you can relate tell everyone and it might help.
FrankApril 10th, 2021 at 2:21 AM
What are the words used to manipulate a person.
JosephMay 6th, 2021 at 3:22 AM
looking forward to learning more and exercising more
CarolJune 14th, 2021 at 4:07 AM
MariaAugust 19th, 2021 at 6:51 AM
I disagree with Dr. Joe. It might be the case that all humans might be manipulative at some point in their life. But to constantly displaying same behaviour- fake manners, fake kind words, fake interest in someone to gain their trust and once you got them hooked the mask comes off, that is a manipulative person and you can’t tell me that I am like that cause its the norm, its being a human being.. NOO, its a huge difference between accidentally manipulative and constantly on a hunt to control people..!
LauraJanuary 25th, 2022 at 3:43 AM
My 31 yo son just moved back home after breaking up with woman hes been on and off with for over 5 years. She was very controlling and is why he broke off with her. He is showing all the signs of manipulative abuse, self-doubt, hypervigilence, isolation. He refuses to acknowledge that is behavoir has changed or that he was being manipulated. He’s hateful, suspicious of everyone and sits alone in his room all day, if I try to spek with him he becomes verbally abusive and sometimes physically threatning. I can’t live in fear and I can’t just leave and abandon him, he will surely wind up dead or in jail. Authorities here take you to jail and don’t consider a persons mental health. How can I convince him to talk to someone. Money is an issue
AndrewApril 24th, 2022 at 1:42 AM
I’m so sorry that your son and now you have both been victimized by one person who is likely also a victim in need of help, but chooses to spread her pain to others rather than heal herself. I can relate to almost everything you are saying except the physical threats. That sounds horrible and I am not an expert in any way so please keep in mind I am just sharing my own experience and knowledge gained, not recommending anything. I also just recently moved back home at 32 years old. Leaving behind my home, an 11 year relationship with my ex fiancé and her 12 year old son who I still and always will have a relationship with as his father. It was the hardest thing I’ve ever gone through and can relate to how your son feels. Please do not call the cops unless you genuinely believe that he is going to physically harm someone. He is already paranoid after years of likely being lied to by the woman he loves and that will reinforce his current belief that everyone who loves him will betray him. This is going to be very hard because I’m sure it breaks your heart to know how much pain he must be in, but you have to give him space to start healing on his own. The best thing my parents said to me was, “no questions asked.” They did not pry and that allowed me to start working on myself. There’s a chance his ex has tried fo convince him negative opinions of you or anyone else he loves to isolate and make him feel alone to trick him into believing he cannot leave the only person that cares about him because she had some extreme fear of abandonment. It is a common manipulative tactic and the change in personality you describe could indicate it. One other thing that you must not bring up to him, but keep in the back of your mind to understand why he may be reacting so aggressively when you try to talk to him. Something extreme must have happened to motivate him to leave her after five years of being manipulated to stay. There’s a chance she was cheating on him and he could not hurt the other man for any number of reasons (he’s a cop, etc.) or discovered multiple other men and cannot fight them all. That would undoubtedly make him feel like less of a man, unimaginably humiliated, broken and pathetic, just horrible all around. Another possibility is he did hurt the other man and cannot talk about it due to some potential legal repercussions. This may or may not have happened, but if any of those possibilities are true then he needs time and space to get over initial pain that his ex caused, especially if some of her manipulative tactics were to hide infidelity and she never told the truth about it to validate what he knows to be true. That could make him feel like he has lost his grasp of reality, question who what when where why is real or just in his head. That’s such a confusing and difficult position to understand, caused by gaslighting and the lack of any resolution in the end to know he wasn’t imagining everything. That would kill his ability to trust as he comes to terms with the fact that his ex was either maliciously driving him crazy or cared so little that she was willing to let him go down that nightmare of a road. If he hasn’t already, he will probably come to the realization that he always knew how harmful the relationship was from day one and start to hate/blame himself for continuing to subject himself to the abuse. It will be the peak of the depression, but once he pulls through I hear it’s better in the other side. Good luck and I wish the best for both of you.
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