Manipulation

Closeup of a person's hand holding marionette strings

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
  • Dishonesty
  • Withholding information
  • Isolating a person from loved ones
  • Gaslighting
  • 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.

References:

  1. 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
  2. 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
  3. Eight ways to spot emotional manipulation. (n.d.). Cassiopaea.com. Retrieved from http://www.cassiopaea.com/cassiopaea/emotional_manipulation.htm
  4. Gass, G. Z., & Nichols, W. C. (1988). Gaslighting: A marital syndrome. Contemporary Family Therapy, 10(1), 3-16. doi: 10.1007/BF00922429
  5. 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
  6. 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
  7. 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

  • 3 comments
  • Leave a Comment
  • Lori D.

    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.

  • Carolyn

    Carolyn

    August 1st, 2018 at 8:19 AM

    Brilliant article.

  • Frank P

    Frank P

    September 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

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