Red Flags: Are You Being Emotionally Manipulated?

Two women arguing on the streetEmotional manipulation can undermine close relationships and leave the manipulation victim feeling powerless, confused, and frustrated. Yet all people manipulate others from time to time—often without intending to. And some definitions of emotional manipulation are so broad that they can apply to any behavior, even something as innocuous as a baby crying for food.

So when is an attempt to get one’s needs met or to achieve one’s goals actually a form of manipulation? And when does manipulation cross the line into emotional abuse? Here are some red flags that may signal a serious relationship problem.

What is Manipulation?

Manipulation is any attempt to sway a person’s emotions to get them to act in a specific way or feel a certain thing. While it’s common in interpersonal relationships, it also frequently happens on a broader scale. Advertisers routinely attempt to manipulate people’s emotions to get them to buy a product. Political candidates manipulate voters to win votes, convince voters of untrue claims, or change a voter’s opinions about a given issue.

“We’re all manipulators,” says Melissa Stringer, LPC, NCC, B-TMH, a Texas therapist who works with many clients to handle a wide range of individual and interpersonal concerns. “Socially acceptable manipulation, such as smiling and making eye contact, are considered healthy ways to increase the chances of human connection. But when manipulation is used to avoid vulnerability and establish power over others, it becomes unhealthy.”

People who are deliberately manipulative often do so in an attempt to avoid healthier strategies, such as direct communication of their needs or mutual intimacy and vulnerability.

Twelve Common Manipulation Tactics

People can manipulate others using hundreds of tactics. Some of the most common include:

  1. Using intense emotional connection to control another person’s behavior. For example, an abusive person may try to manipulate a person by moving very quickly in a romantic relationship. They may overwhelm their victim with loving gestures to lower their guard or make them feel indebted.
  2. Playing on a person’s insecurities. This is a popular tactic among advertisers, such as when a cosmetic company makes a person feel unattractive or “old.” It also works well in interpersonal relationships. For instance, someone may make their romantic partner think no one else could ever possibly love them.
  3. Lying and denial. Manipulators may bombard their victims with lies. When they’re caught, they may deny the lie or cover it up with another falsehood.
  4. Hyperbole and generalization. It’s difficult to respond to an allegation of “never” being loving or “never” working hard. Specific details can be debated, while vague accusations are often harder to dispute.
  5. Changing the subject. In an argument about one person’s behavior, the individual may deflect attention from themselves by attacking their critic. The deflection often takes the form of, “Well what about [X]?” For example, when one spouse expresses concern about their partner’s drug use, the partner may attack their spouse’s parenting skills.
  6. Moving the goalposts. This happens when a manipulative person constantly shifts the criteria one must meet in order to satisfy them. For example, a bully may use their coworker’s clothes as an excuse to harass them. If the individual changes outfits, the bully may claim the person won’t “deserve” professional respect until they change their hairstyle, their accent, or another miscellaneous trait.
  7. Using fear to control another person. For instance, a person may use threats of violence or physically intimidating body language.
  8. Using social inequities to control another person. For example, a neurotypical person might attempt to use a cognitive disability to demean another person or dismiss their experiences.
  9. Passive-aggression. This is a broad category of behavior that includes many strategies such as guilt-tripping, giving backhanded compliments, and more. Passive-aggression is a way of voicing displeasure or anger without directly expressing the emotion.
  10. Giving a person the silent treatment. It’s fine to ask for time to reflect on an argument or to tell someone who deeply hurt you that you no longer wish to speak to them. But ignoring a person to punish them or make them fearful is a manipulative tactic.
  11. Gaslighting. Gaslighting involves causing the manipulation victim to doubt their own understanding of reality. For example, an abusive person might deny that the abuse happened, telling the victim there’s something wrong with their memory.
  12. Recruiting others to help with manipulation. For example, an abusive parent might ask family members to remind a child how much the parent has sacrificed for the child. The social pressure may convince the child to stop complaining about abusive behavior.

A manipulative person may combine these tactics or alternate between them depending on the context.

Why Do People Manipulate Others?

Not all manipulation has malicious intent, even when it causes immense harm. Some common reasons people engage in manipulation include:

  • Poor communication skills. Some people may be uncomfortable with direct communication. Others may have grown up in houses where manipulative communication was the norm.
  • A desire to avoid connection. Some people treat others as means to an end and use manipulation to control them. This is sometimes a symptom of a personality disorder such as narcissistic personality.
  • Fear. People may engage in manipulation out of fear, especially fear of abandonment. This often happens during breakups or relationship fights.
  • Defensiveness. Manipulation can be a way of avoiding blame. While some people avoid blame as a way to control or abuse another person, others do so because they fear judgment, have low self-esteem, or struggle to face their own shortcomings.
  • Social norms. Some forms of manipulation are normal, and perhaps even beneficial. For example, most people learn that it is important to be friendly and cheerful around work colleagues in order to professionally advance.
  • Marketing, advertising, and other financial or political incentives. Entire industries are dedicated to manipulating people’s emotions to change their minds, convince them to buy products, or urge them to vote a certain way.

“In many cases, manipulative individuals were not taught effective communication skills. Or worse, they were punished by an influential figure for expressing needs or wants. As a result, the original means for connecting gets overridden and replaced by strategies centered around avoiding any sense of fault. This is adequately achieved in two primary ways: indirect communication and a refusal to be accountable for actions,” Stringer emphasizes.

Protecting Yourself from Emotional Manipulation

If you have fallen for manipulative tactics in the past, know that you are not at fault. Nearly everyone is manipulated at some point. There’s no way to prevent all manipulation.

However, a number of strategies can reduce the impact of emotional manipulation and help you set clear boundaries. These include:

  • Communicating in direct, clear, and specific ways. Direct communication models the behavior you hope for in your relationships and can make it easier to identify manipulation.
  • Understanding when manipulation is normal and when it’s not. Most people occasionally make passive-aggressive or manipulative comments. Manipulation is more problematic, and may even be abusive, when it is part of a systemic attempt to control or harm another person.
  • Setting clear boundaries around manipulation. When a person attempts to manipulate you, tell them how you want them to treat you and then follow your own guideline. For example, “Mom, I understand that you sacrificed a lot for me, but that doesn’t mean you get to belittle me. I can’t talk to you about this until you’re willing to stop changing the subject.”
  • Asking for insight from trusted third parties. This can be risky, since manipulative people sometimes recruit outsiders. But if you have a spouse, friend, or family member whom you can trust to be objective, they may offer helpful insights.

Victims of chronic manipulation and emotional abuse may find relief in therapy. A therapist can work with you to identify manipulation, break free from an abusive relationship, and reduce the risk of being trapped in a relationship such again. In therapy, you’ll develop healthy boundaries and work through any reluctance you have to enforce those boundaries.

Families and couples who struggle with manipulation can also find help in therapy. A therapist may work with all parties to understand why direct communication is a challenge for them, cultivate healthier communication patterns, and find better ways to get their needs met.

Begin your search for a therapist here. 

References:

  1. Burton, N. (2015, April 14). Don’t fool yourself: seven signs you’re being passive-aggressive. Washington Post. Retrieved from https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/inspired-life/wp/2015/04/14/dont-fool-yourself-seven-signs-that-youre-being-passive-aggressive/
  2. Collins, R. F. (n. d.). 10 ways to manipulate at work or at home [PDF]. Retrieved from https://www.ndsu.edu/pubweb/~rcollins/manipulationposter9-16.pdf
  3. What is gaslighting? (n. d.). Retrieved from https://www.thehotline.org/what-is-gaslighting

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  • 21 comments
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  • Trupti

    September 20th, 2019 at 11:00 PM

    Hello,

    Great Article, I really like to read this kind of helpful article,
    Looking forward to more such articles in the near future.
    Thank you for sharing.

  • Kejxy38

    September 5th, 2020 at 12:19 AM

    I am an emotional manipulator, I read some of this and it hits me, I am afraid of being jugde, I don’t like confrontations. I try to avoid them. I am alone, even though I am married. I play victim or indirect to get attention or affection and I am indirect. I want to know how do I change and stop being emotional manipulator. I act without thinking and I want to change and read more about how to identify my behavior and change. I don’t want my kids to grow up like me.

  • Oluwatobi

    December 21st, 2020 at 2:24 AM

    I can relate to a lot of what was stated here. I think I’m an emotional manipulator. I’ve been checking online for how to stop being emotionally manipulative put I can’t seem to find anything solid. Please I will love to drop these bad and abusive behaviors and become a better person. Can you help me please?

  • Hello

    January 26th, 2021 at 7:50 AM

    Reflect upon your thoughts and try to make decisions based on sound logic, being aware of yourself is a start and don’t act in impulse. Try to understand and interpret rather than judge. Learn and see videos on how to have a proper argument/talk with no fallacies and use them in you day to day conversations.

  • Matthew

    February 25th, 2021 at 7:47 AM

    “Not all manipulation has malicious intent, even when it causes immense harm.” Making excuses. Don’t due that. People know what they’re doing.

  • melanie

    April 8th, 2021 at 6:27 PM

    At least you are aware of this behavior. That is the first step to actively changing and improving. When you notice yourself demonstrating these actions in the moment, try to pause and consider an objective. point of view.

  • Nicola

    April 9th, 2021 at 6:54 AM

    Acknowledging that you may display manipulative behaviors is the first step to overcoming them. Being honest and open with yourself will be the first step in changing your behavior. As we become aware of our self-defeating behavior is it important to practice self-reflection and mindfulness(This is a learnt skill and not something you are born with)
    This allows you to take a step back from your behavior and see the cause for it, only when you can identify what is triggering the behavior can it be changed and corrected. Be honest with yourself as to why you react or deal with situations by using manipulation. Developing insight to understand why we do the things we do is important when breaking self-destructive habits and behaviors. Remember to show compassion for yourself whilst making these changes as this helps you from becoming demotivated. Showing compassion for yourself helps build an affirming relationship with yourself instead of a confrontational one.

  • needshelp

    May 8th, 2021 at 6:33 PM

    I have been married for 20yrs to a kind caring man with combat related PTSD and PTSD caused from severe childhood abuse. For years I thought we had been being given all the information they had on PTSD through the VA health care system just to find out about 7years ago that I was severely wrong. Off and on thru out our relationship I find him being aggressively manipulative and it feels like no matter what I do or say it makes it worse. He has always stopped himself before, but the last six mths he has slowly gotten worse than I have ever seen him. He has been saying and doing things that I know he believes is wrong. He lies, cheats, blames,denies, accuses and has been trying to control everything around him or expexcts me to. He has never been this bad before or done it for this long. I would like to help him but don’t know what to do. He has trust issues with the doctors at the VA for good reason and he won’t say it but I think he’s scared to go anywhere else because of how some treat our veterans. Without realizing it at first, I have found myself trying to say or do anything to stop or avoid confrontation with him. I know that’s not right. We have always been able to talk or help each other through the hard times, but this time is more than I have even been able to wrap my head around is there anything I can do, pls.

  • Ernie

    August 12th, 2021 at 7:50 PM

    I’m having to hear how your being manipulated with some voice and keeps telling you that this is? Well you never investgated. It’s a crime if your a human to torture a human with a satelite using direct energy with communication. It’s a huge no permission y ernest. You should be held in supreme court. It’s able to. As they are lies about any need to spy when the goal is to hide the truth. It’s been electronic torture with 11 years and they act like ictims. You turn that off now. It’s removable. It takes one second. No. I did the suffering for a holy resurrection. You should tell the truth. I could. Tell everyone who was s having to be using the brain to have a focal point. So they lie about some stupid call nspiracy when he knows who is responsible for the bad. It’s not what you think. It’s really easy. You are trying to hide a li. So why f you have a a month to have an investigation.. it’s how the justice department is able to see if you’re able to be lying. Take it to court. It’s my way to be sure I’m a innocent victim of a satelite direct energy with voice to skull. No sound effect is able to lie about the brain or having to be 11 years tortured. You need to take a lawyer and send him to see if my mouth moves as those speak.its how the s sound is with them doing the tall my and I’m just normal.. lol.. they use targeted individual type communication signal with low frequency system to have you hear them not me. John the baptist. He has no powers. You lied. No conspiracy here. You conduct the judgement through other forms. No lie. Leave my area and quit torturing ernest. Stop talki g. You are manipulating still. It’s a lie of any bad. It’s only a communication tactic. Not lie. They wouldn’t not give him a pen y as he spent $5000,000.00you see your mean to us. Refund. You heard the father say give him back his money. You payed the government but me I had to drive around and use my money. What I worked for with my own two hands. Quit using profanity as it’s not permitted here. Go away. It’s cyber bully using profanity only and blames the in ocent. You know they use the spirits to be in movies. That stuff s not my control. You see. You don’t ask. You simply just get a talk to force those to do the dirty work as you keep calm my.. no any against. Just trying to be ok. You are very my to torture m. I did the perfect time to already. So go away..

  • Ernie

    August 12th, 2021 at 7:52 PM

    Electronic torture with voice to skull and the government is involv d. They lie to continue the torture to hide the truth. And lie to have them look good.

  • Scorpion.M

    August 16th, 2021 at 4:43 AM

    Good and very helpful article. But what are the ways to come out of smart and dynamic manipulation of all family members by wife for sake of domination.?

  • NFHC

    August 17th, 2021 at 7:54 PM

    Wtf….

  • SappyBooz

    August 29th, 2021 at 5:45 PM

    I live with my Aunty and Uncle and they are very good manipulators. I’m afraid that I will too become one and follow in their foot steps. They are very wise and hold so much power which make me weak and a target to them. I don’t think that what they are doing is healthy but I want to learn from this article and maybe one day stand up to them , to show that I’m not going to be afraid and they cannot hold me back from what I could achieve. I would like to look into the future and remember little things in this article to help me identify who is the vitcim and who is the isn’t. Thank you

  • R@I(KE

    October 4th, 2021 at 7:36 AM

    my my my.

  • JAM

    November 1st, 2021 at 2:17 PM

    What can be done to get the emotional manipulator to realize how they behave and the harm is causes. I am pretty messed up from my ex GF now because of this. Hopefully I will get through it soon.

  • Michael

    December 3rd, 2021 at 9:08 PM

    Anyone that uses these tactics are lowlife trash that deserve to be in prison I’ve been in coercion intervention over 4 years I’ve cooperated and done what is asked of me and still they refuse to stop it’s pure torture on the most intament leave and has caused me to cut my wrist put car battery acid and bleach in my eye and also resulted in court convictions. I truly hate the ones doing it and it gets worse every day I need help but any action I take to get help is blocked . I’m at the point I can’t handle it anymore and think of giving in and killing myself all the time knowing they are actually murdering me my only recourse is before I do it is to send all evedince I’ve collected to athorities media and other phycologists in an effort to have an investigation by qualified individuals that can I force the law and have the ones I considered family to be held responsible for the torture I’ve gone thru all this time . To anyone that sees this the b family are truly toxic people W. b.runs abundant air inc out of Bedford do not trust these people . I will continue to fight as long as I can and if asked or if I see anyone going thru this I’ll do the right thing even though it seems everyone else just wants to destroy and abuse in order to keep people in the dark . Hate is my best weapon against these kind of people and they will be exposed as the con artist toxic people they have been and continue to choose to be.force will always end negativity then add them not allowing any posative results will always end with murder

  • Kayla

    January 18th, 2022 at 7:20 AM

    If you are commenting on this article and are looking for ways to not be a manipulator, I suggest getting a therapist who you commit to seeing regularly and reading the book “Non-Violent Communication” by Marshall Rosenberg. It goes over how to identify and directly communicate your needs to get them met, which is what this article describes as one of the roots of manipulators’ problems (lack of direct communication). Sometimes it’s hard to communicate what you need if you don’t KNOW what you need (from a history of abuse and being told to stuff down your needs), so this book does a great job of guiding you through identifying those needs first as well. Additionally, having someone (who you trust) who keeps you accountable to working on yourself is also helpful, but can be difficult if you avoid directness. That’s okay; it’s a symptom that you’re hurting (though it does not excuse the behavior, you can be kind to yourself.) Try to give you accountability person things you’ve written, like the comment you left here, that describe your issue and how you want help. This can help them understand even if you struggle verbally to tell them what you want. All of this is your choice. It’s hard work, but you will be a better person for it, and a happier person.

    If you are in an abusive situation and you are <25 years old, you need to get out of it IMMEDIATELY, not years from now. Get the support of a therapist or social worker and you can meet over video chat and get out of the same house as the manipulator. The psychological effects could damage you for a lifetime, and you don't have to wait until *you* get the skills to match their manipulation (especially if they’re older– that will not happen for a long time). Get a therapist or social worker to help. You do not deserve to be mistreated, and there are millions of other humans on this planet that you could be living with who won’t treat you poorly. And you are not obligated to stay with an abusive person just because you’re related to them.

  • Ineedhelp

    March 13th, 2022 at 6:29 PM

    My only friend is manipulating me through my emotions and theirs, they lie to me and make me feel bad, my grades have been dropping and theirs is getting better, I still don’t know what to do

  • amie

    May 25th, 2022 at 10:28 PM

    So I have been manipulated my whole life by my family and my ex husbands. I fear that I know I am doing the same thing to a person I loved most in my life. And I’m trying to move forward as they say…thanks Ernie I really needed that advice. And Kayla you said it in a way where I want to do the research and look into that book. I really understand you Mathew I enjoyed the copy and paste effect. Like I get it Matt, I’ve been using excuses and avoiding what really needs to happen. I’m always trying to do the right thing in the moment hoping that’s what they need to hear. Well that’s how I was with my family and my recent ex husband. But I reached out to my love and basically bashed him for everything in the past because I thought that’s what I had to do because that’s what was being done to me. Matt just a piss poor excuse and I understand that. Now for Ineedhelp please contact the police. That’s how I got out and I’m 36 years old like I literally ran away from home at 36 and didn’t realize I was being manipulated until I was in Jail where I actually felt safe. Needshelp that’s what I was diagnosed with was PTSD after I got away from family and I’m a veteran too. It’s hard to discuss our problems because “we” as in veterans, well from my point of view, we think why bring up situations that has happened to us to our loved ones. Which in turn you’re absolutely right we lash out and try to control what we can because we are so used to the unknowns. If he isn’t getting adequate care through the VA I was directed to community care if he feels more comfortable to vent away from the VA. Some VA therapist especially on the phone are really helpful at least enough to get pulled out of the dark with a quick call. 1 (800) 273-8255 Is the VA crisis line but please Micheal if you feel like you have no escape please call that number and just say I need help I’m in a dangerous situation. I was too scared to say that when I was in the situation and I completely understand how it’s scary to make that leap of judgment. Please Michael I think that smoking is self destructive. Needshelp it now goes to PTSD where it’s like I have vivid moments of that situation and I feel like any moment I could go right back into because it’s the only way I know. But Ernie I loved what you said how you said cause I swear I use talk therapy for myself to work out my mental issues trying to do the same thing. But be kinder to yourself even though it’s hard for me sometimes I feel the same way. JAM I’ve been through that with both husbands now exs trying to figure out how I don’t become an emotional manipulator myself. It’s so hard it was 8 years of hard marriage and I just want to run into my loves arms and make him tell me it’s safe. When in reality I have to step back and go, it’s okay not the right moment in time. But giving myself hope trying to find the happy in each day and every moment is where I’m at even when it gets dark. Caring is the hardest thing after being tortured for so long with wrong words. Where in turn I plugged and played all sorts of bad thoughts into my future situations because I couldn’t see a way out. And even now same boat where I’m like how do I move forward with someone without being that myself. It’s like is being alone the best option. I was diagnosed with conversion disorder out of the military and I was trying so hard to pin point my trauma when I didn’t realize it was my family and spouses that are the reasons why I act this way. I understand structure I understand people need control in life but to turn into the controller or is so awful to me where I don’t even think I deserve to be in a relationship. I hurt so many people in my life and I never say never because of absolutes but I truly never want to be the person I have become because of my family exs. Where I actually did stuff on purpose pushed the one I cared about the most my JR away from me because I thought that was the right thing to do. Make him hate me in order to protect him from my family and I was ashamed of who I married how my relationship was where telling the truths well it’s all about how I viewed them in the moment and it’s like the voices (Ernie) or thoughts were all wrong. And coming to find out hard to see that most were lies just because I thought that way about someone well that’s what manipulation is all about. I manipulated myself to thinking these bad things happened to me and so bad things must be happening to other people and or just because it happened to someone so it must be the same for me because I was under the same roof. It’s so hard not to look in the mirror Michael Jackson man in the mirror for real and go damn it’s time for a change. Because I hate the way I think about people just because the tactics were played on me my whole life so it must be how it works for everyone I meet. And that’s not the case at all. It’s so hard to go shit I’m not any different than the ones that mistreated me so what I turn and go hey JR here’s all this BS while you’re deployed because this is what is happening to me at home. Like I reached out to my friends in the military hoping I could hide the fact I was under all that control because I missed the structure but I also miss the comrades of brothers and sisters from different families who I felt the safest with.

  • Timmy

    July 21st, 2022 at 11:22 PM

    BAD!!!!!!
    I used the strategy on my parents but it did not work. My mommy slapped me and threw me out of the house. Now I live in their dustbin with one phone and I am very angwy

  • Timmy

    July 22nd, 2022 at 12:05 AM

    best therapy i ever had !!!!!!|

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