Table of Contents
- What Is Emotional Manipulation?
- Types of Emotional and Mental Manipulation
- Who Is Most Susceptible to Being Manipulated?
- Signs You’re Being Emotionally Manipulated + Examples
- Why Does Someone Become an Emotional Manipulator?
- How Being Manipulated Affects Someone’s Mental Health
- How to Deal With a Manipulator in 6 Steps
- Know When It’s Time to Walk Away From Toxic People
If you’ve worked or engaged with someone who used tactics such as passive aggression, blame-shifting, and the silent treatment to gain control in situations, then you know what it’s like to deal with an emotional manipulator.
Emotional manipulation can be carried out by power-hungry people and directed toward their friends, family members, romantic partners, colleagues, or authority figures. Manipulators have different motives—such as seeking validation, gaining control, avoiding responsibility, or achieving personal goals—but unfortunately, they’re all at the expense of others.
In this article, learn about different emotional manipulation tactics (such as guilt-tripping, gaslighting, exaggerating emotions, or using emotional blackmail), how to spot a manipulator, and what you can do to defend against “toxic” people who don’t have your best interest in mind.
- Emotional manipulation is the act of using deceptive or underhanded tactics to influence other people, such as persuasion, coercion, lying, and scheming.
- The reason behind manipulation is the desire to gain power, control, attention, or validation.
- Manipulation is common among people with Machiavellian traits, narcissists, and those with borderline personality disorder.
- Implications of being emotionally manipulated can include low self-esteem, self-doubt, limiting beliefs, and distrust.
- Setting clear boundaries, practicing assertiveness, and seeking support from trusted people can help you deal with emotional manipulators and regain your mental health.
What Is Emotional Manipulation?
Emotional manipulation is a form of psychological manipulation in which people use tactics to control or exploit others. It’s one form of emotional abuse, defined as a pattern of behaviors used to control or maintain power. Emotional manipulators seek to control the emotions and behaviors of other people for their own benefit. They often do this by undermining the self-esteem and self-confidence of people in their lives, especially those who are close to them, because it makes others more vulnerable to the manipulator’s influence.
Manipulative tactics are often subtle, indirect, and deceptive, making them difficult to spot. They can include passive-aggressive behaviors such as the silent treatment and confusing tactics such as emotional ups and downs or gaslighting (when someone seeks to make another person doubt their perceptions and reality).
Types of Emotional and Mental Manipulation
“Healthy social influence occurs between most people, and is part of the give and take of constructive relationships. But in psychological manipulation, one person is used for the benefit of another. The manipulator deliberately creates an imbalance of power and exploits the victim to serve his or her agenda.”Preston Ni, Psychology Today
Emotional manipulation involves using the vulnerabilities, insecurities, and emotions of a targeted person to manipulate them into acting in a way that benefits the manipulator. Manipulation can take various forms and can occur in both personal relationships and professional settings. For example, “dark empaths” are people who use empathy to get others to open up, only to take advantage of them. Dark empathy is characterized by emotional distance disguised as charm and understanding.
Some common forms of emotional manipulation can include:
- Deception and Denial: This occurs when a manipulator lies, presents exaggerated or false information, or twists the truth to create a desired emotional response from someone else. In the case of denial, the person denies their actions or words, even if there is clear evidence to the contrary, making the victim question their own memory or perception.
- Playing the Victim: Manipulators sometimes pretend to be victims to gain sympathy or avoid responsibility for their actions. They project their own negative traits or actions onto others, making the victim believe they are the problem.
- Exploitation: Some emotional manipulators take advantage of their targets’ empathy and caring nature to make them feel responsible for the manipulator’s emotions or problems.
- Gaslighting: This occurs when a manipulator makes someone doubt their own judgment. A gaslighter might say one thing and then later deny it, causing the victim to question their recollection of events and second guess their response.
- Minimization or Exaggeration: Toxic people sometimes downplay others’ feelings or experiences, making them feel that their emotions are invalid or excessive. They might also do the opposite and exaggerate their victim’s actions or reactions to make them appear irrational or unreasonable.
- Isolation: In some cases, manipulators may try to isolate their victims from friends and family to increase their control over them.
- Blame-Shifting: It’s common for toxic people, including manipulators and narcissists, to deflect blame onto others or their targets to avoid responsibility for their actions. They might divert the conversation or focus away from the victim’s concerns and shift blame onto the victim or others. Because they fail to take accountability, toxic people rarely apologize or correct their behavior.
- Love-Bombing: At the beginning of a relationship, someone might excessively shower their partner with affection and attention to manipulate and control their emotions. This can include excessive flattery or flirting to make someone develop a bond and open up.
- Emotional Highs and Lows: The manipulator may create emotional highs and lows to keep the victim off-balance and emotionally dependent.
- Intermittent Reinforcement: The manipulator may give positive reinforcement intermittently to keep their target attached and to seek validation. For example, the manipulator may sometimes act supportive and caring, only to change their attitude quickly out of nowhere.
- Fear and Intimidation: Some manipulators use fear or intimidation tactics to maintain control over the victim. Examples of this can include utilizing threats or intimidation to control their partner’s behavior or “keep them in line.”
Who Is Most Susceptible to Being Manipulated?
“The manipulator targets our psychological sensitivities, where we believe we are not enough, or not good enough: as a parent, partner, professional, sibling, friend, employee, member, or whatever. The manipulator then ‘pokes at’ these inadequacies we perceive in ourselves until they get an emotional reaction.”Australian Institute of Professional Counselors
The core of how manipulation works is that it gradually erodes the self-esteem of its victims. Manipulators undermine the confidence of their targets using the tactics above, making them more dependent on the manipulator for validation. This creates a vicious cycle in which it’s easier for the target to continue being manipulated.
You’re most likely to be manipulated if you already have low self-esteem or if you’re highly empathic and an “echoist,” which is the opposite of a narcissist.
Because echoists forgive easily, struggle to have a voice of their own, and don’t set boundaries often, they tend to fall into relationships with toxic people. As Peaks Recovery Center explains, “Those who tie their self-worth to meeting the needs of others are a common victim type. Manipulators are drawn to this type of person as they are easy to manipulate, blame, and victimize.”
Signs You’re Being Emotionally Manipulated + Examples
“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.”Melissa Stringer, Mental Health Counselor
The challenging thing about dealing with or confronting a manipulator is that it can be very hard to prove they’re manipulating you. Many skilled manipulators are charismatic at first and capable of concealing their behaviors when it benefits them, therefore it’s not always obvious from the outside that this person is actually self-centered and disrespectful.
Below are signs of emotional manipulation to watch out for that can indicate you’re dealing with a toxic person:
- Frequent guilt-tripping: If someone in your life always finds a way to turn situations around and blame them on you, even when it’s apparent that you did nothing wrong, this is an indicator of manipulative behavior.
- Doubting your own perception of reality: A manipulator may tell you that you misunderstand a situation, being “too dramatic,” or that you’re the reason they are behaving badly because you’ve provoked them. If you start feeling very confused and questioning your own judgment and perceptions, there’s a chance you’re being gaslit.
- Feeling like you must comply with someone’s demands: If your actions or social circle are being controlled, and you’re told what to do and not do, someone is likely overstepping your boundaries.
- Feeling drained or emotionally exhausted: Interacting with someone who makes you doubt yourself, blames you frequently, and stirs up conflicts often can zap your energy and generally bring down your mood.
- Experiencing a sense of walking on eggshells: When someone takes advantage of you and undermines your confidence, you’ll start feeling subtly scared of them. This makes you careful not to push them out of fear of starting an argument.
- Dealing with someone who always “plays the victim”: A manipulator might use emotions, such as anger, sadness, or fear, to make someone else feel bad for them, this way they comply with their wishes or demands.
Below are examples of what emotional and mental manipulation can look like in various situations.
Examples of Manipulation in Relationships:
- They guilt-trip you: Someone uses pressure and blame to make you feel guilty or responsible for their emotions or actions. For example, a friend might say, “You made me push you because you kept criticizing me and it made me angry.”
- They gaslight you: The manipulator makes you question your perception of your reality, making you doubt your memory, behaviors, interpretations, and even your sanity.
- They love bomb you: A new love interest “love bombs” you by giving you excessive attention, affection, or gifts to gain your trust and dependence, only to exploit them later on.
- They ignore you: Your family member argues with you, then ignores you or withdraws their affection or communication as a way to control or punish you instead of talking things out.
- They isolate you: Your partner isolates you from friends, family, or support systems to make you more reliant on them for support.
- They financially control you: A spouse or parent can manipulate you by controlling your finances, making you feel trapped in the relationship.
Examples of Manipulation at Work:
- They deceptively praise you: A coworker gives you insincere compliments or praise to manipulate you into liking them and doing their work for them.
- They withhold information: A manager intentionally withholds crucial information from you and other subordinates to maintain control or to make others feel dependent on them.
- They sabotage your efforts: A colleague undermines your work or reputation to make themselves look better or to gain a competitive advantage.
- They gossip and spread rumors: A coworker spreads false rumors about you and other coworkers to tarnish their reputation or create discord within the team.
- They use triangulation: One person on your team involves a third party to create tension or conflict between others, diverting attention away from their own actions.
- They blackmail you: A supervisor might use emotional manipulation to guilt-trip you into doing something that they don’t want to do themselves.
Why Does Someone Become an Emotional Manipulator?
“Emotional manipulation isn’t always the product of conscious thought . . . manipulation can be ingrained, habitual, or second nature as the result of trauma or adverse experiences during childhood.”Lori Lawrenz, PsyD
There can be various reasons why someone may become an emotional manipulator, but most often, it’s related to the desire for power and influence. That said, even though it might seem like manipulators tend to come out on top, they’re often struggling on the inside. According to therapist Linda Buchanan, “The problem with trying to get your needs met indirectly through manipulating or controlling behaviors is that you never learn that you have a right to ask directly. Therefore, even if you get what you want in the moment, it only meets the need temporarily and is not truly satisfying.”
Some of the main reasons behind manipulation include:
- Insecurity: Manipulators may feel insecure or lack self-esteem, leading them to use manipulation to feel powerful and in control.
- Learned behaviors: Some people may have grown up in environments where manipulation was prevalent, and they learned such behaviors to cope or survive. Without seeing examples of healthy communication, children can learn that persuasion and lying is the only way to get what they want. According to Good Therapy, “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.”
- Desire for control: Manipulators have a strong need for control and dominance over others. While not every manipulator purposefully wants to hurt people, ultimately, their needs outweigh their desire to act in a kind way.
- Lack of empathy: Some dysfunctional people lack empathy, making it easier for them to exploit and manipulate others without remorse or guilt.
How Being Manipulated Affects Someone’s Mental Health
“This form of abuse causes a great deal of distress and harm for the victim. It can cause insecurities, self-doubt, isolation from others outside the relationship, and make it more likely the abuser will progress into more severe forms of abuse and control.”Dr. Amelia Kelley, social worker
Manipulation can have severe consequences on someone’s mental health and well-being. A 2013 study published in the journal Violence and Victims found that emotional abuse can be just as harmful to someone’s overall health as physical abuse since both contribute to low self-esteem and issues such as depression.
Manipulation can lead to feelings of confusion, self-doubt, and anxiety, as those who are manipulated find it hard to trust their own judgments and may become increasingly dependent on the manipulator’s version of reality.
Below are potential ways in which being emotionally manipulated can negatively impact someone’s mental well-being:
- Loss of self-worth: If someone isn’t self-assured enough to walk away from a manipulative person, they can wind up losing respect for themselves and start experiencing the effects of poor self-esteem. They might begin to believe they deserve to be treated badly and blame themselves for their dysfunctional relationships or unhappy circumstances. Emotional manipulation can also lead to dependence on the manipulator for validation and decision-making, making it especially difficult to cut ties and walk away.
- Anxiety and distress: Targets of emotional manipulation often experience anxiety, depression, stress, and other emotional difficulties because they live in an unsettled state of uncertainty. They might feel like they never know what to expect from the manipulator in their lives because they can’t count on them to be consistent or supportive long-term.
- Isolation from support: Manipulators isolate people from others who might try to change their perspective or “talk sense” into them, such as friends and family. This leaves their targets feeling alone and helpless.
- Trust issues: Being manipulated can cause people to become wary of trusting others in the future. This can make it challenging to start new relationships, take risks (such as beginning a new job), and embrace change and new opportunities with an open mind.
How to Deal With a Manipulator in 6 Steps
“You can’t manipulate people who know how to think for themselves.”Trish Mercer
Dealing with a manipulator can be challenging, but there are specific steps you can take to protect yourself and handle the situation effectively. If you suspect you are being emotionally manipulated, consider taking the following steps:
1. Recognize and Learn About Manipulative Behavior
The first step in bouncing back from a manipulative relationship is to acknowledge that you are in fact dealing with a manipulator who isn’t afraid to hurt you. Awareness and accepting reality are crucial in handling the situation effectively.
To work on recognizing manipulative behavior:
- Observe: Be observant of the manipulator’s actions, tactics, and how you feel around them. Pay attention to how they operate in different situations, such as by naming the tactics they employ to control you (such as gaslighting or blame-shifting). Psychologist Ahona Guha points out, “To accurately challenge any behavior, it is important to first understand specifically what the behavior of concern is because you cannot ask someone to change something that neither of you understands.”
- Write down your thoughts: Because manipulative relationships can be confusing, it can help to journal about events and your feelings about them. This allows you to make sense of what’s happening and to examine it more closely.
- Document incidents to help clarify them: Keep a record of manipulative incidents, including dates, times, and details of what occurred. Having documentation can be useful if you need to escalate the situation to authorities or higher-ups.
- Ask others to validate your feelings: If it helps you feel more assured, ask others you trust to weigh in on the manipulator’s behaviors. How do they feel about the manipulator and how they treat you? Do they agree with you that your relationship dynamic or situation isn’t healthy?
2. Set Boundaries
Setting boundaries involves actively taking steps to protect your mental health and guard against disrespect or abuse. In regards to knowing when to walk away from a manipulator, Stephanie Capecchi, LCSW, says, “Trust your gut. It may be easier said than done, but if your intuition is telling you that the relationship is not fair or safe, listen.”
Here are tips for setting boundaries:
- Communicate your standards: Establish clear boundaries for yourself and communicate them assertively to the manipulator. Let them know what behavior is unacceptable and that you won’t tolerate manipulation.
- Be consistent: Stick to your boundaries consistently so there’s no confusion or room for them to change your mind.
- Maintain distance and limit contact: Manipulators try to provoke emotional responses to control you, which is easiest to do when they have access to you often, such as by staying in frequent communication. Decreasing the time you spend with them, or cutting off all contact, helps you to gain clarity about their actions from a distance. If possible, minimize the time you spend talking with or seeing the manipulator to give them less power.
3. Don’t Take Their Actions Personally
If you’ve been involved with an emotional manipulator that has caused you a lot of stress or pain, it’s essential to remember that manipulation is not your fault, even if you’ve been made to believe that it is. On your journey to recovering from manipulation, focus on rebuilding your self-worth and managing stress, which will be a unique process for each person. Author Wayne Dyer said, “When you acquire enough inner peace and feel really positive about yourself, it’s almost impossible for you to be controlled and manipulated by anybody else.”
To prioritize your mental well-being and self-esteem:
- Emphasize self-care: Engage in activities that promote your well-being, such as exercise, time spent in nature, and socializing with supportive people. Take care of your physical, mental, and emotional health by eating a balanced diet and getting enough sleep.
- Invest in personal growth: Use this experience as a chance to grow and learn more about yourself. This can be through hobbies, learning new skills, or even reading more about psychology and manipulation to cope with stress and increase your self-esteem.
- Practice mindfulness: Mindfulness helps you stay present and aware of your thoughts and feelings. This awareness can help you recognize when you’re being manipulated before it escalates or when you’re engaging in negative self-talk.
4. Work on Your Emotional Intelligence to Respond Calmly
It’s easy to be provoked by toxic people that can bring out the worst in us. However, reacting with anger or hostility is only likely to backfire. On the other hand, practicing emotional intelligence, meaning slowing down and understanding your own emotions before you respond, helps you handle difficult people.
To build emotional intelligence:
- First acknowledge the situation: Recognize that you have been manipulated and accept it as the first step toward overcoming it. Understanding this is not your fault is crucial in managing your feelings and assisting your recovery journey.
- Stay emotionally detached: Try not to react impulsively to manipulative tactics. Remain composed during interactions as much as possible. Take time to breathe and think things through before responding.
- Don’t try to overexplain yourself: If someone is truly manipulative or narcissistic, experts recommend avoiding getting into lengthy conversations about your feelings since this may cause the person to become defensive and enraged. Your best bet is to stand your ground on your boundaries and limit contact.
5. Practice Assertiveness
Assertiveness is about expressing your thoughts and feelings in a respectful way. It’s a vital skill that can help you advocate for yourself without feeling guilty or gaslit.
Try these strategies to be more assertive:
- Stand up for yourself: Be straightforward when expressing your needs and desires. Avoid being swayed by emotional pressure, such as guilt or empathy.
- Learn to say “no”: Manipulators often try to make others feel obligated to comply with their requests. Practice saying “no” firmly and without guilt when you feel uncomfortable with something they ask.
- Be cautious with information: Be mindful of what personal information you share with the manipulator, as they may use it against you later. Instead, get to the point when talking to the manipulator, and keep things professional but vague so they can’t use anything you say to blackmail you.
6. Seek Support
Manipulators often try to isolate their victims, but if you stay connected with a supportive network of people, you can help counteract this tactic. Pay close attention to attempts at keeping you away from supportive people, as this is unhealthy in relationships and signifies insecurity in the person trying to control you.
To build your support network:
- Maintain relationships you had before the manipulator: Continue seeing your friends and enjoying “alone time” without feeling guilty about it.
- Be open with people you trust: Talk to friends, family members, or colleagues you trust about the manipulator’s behavior. Getting an outside perspective can help validate your feelings and provide support in dealing with the situation.
- Report serious incidents: If the manipulation involves harassment, threats, or other forms of abuse, report it to appropriate authorities, whether at work or in personal relationships.
- Seek professional help: If the manipulative behavior is severely affecting your mental health and well-being, consider seeking support from a therapist or counselor who can provide guidance and coping strategies.
Know When It’s Time to Walk Away From Toxic People
While it’s not your fault if you’ve been manipulated or hurt by someone deceitful, it is your responsibility to stand up to them or remove them from your life if necessary. Over time, being lied to, misled, blackmailed, and generally disrespected can significantly damage your confidence and ability to trust yourself. Therefore, make a point to stay away from damaging people that can sabotage your success by using these strategies:
- Consider what’s most important to you: You might be benefitting in certain ways from an unhealthy relationship or work situation, but ask yourself if it’s worth it. If you value your mental well-being more than validation or money, leave the situation and find a better one.
- Don’t assume you can change other people: Empathy can sometimes get the best of us if it leads to being taken advantage of. After you’ve given someone several chances to treat you well and do the right thing, but they still display selfish behavior, it’s time to give up instead of trying to change them.
- Seek professional help if needed: If a manipulator has warped your reality, it’s smart to seek help from someone who can offer a new perspective. Therapists, counselors, and support networks provide crucial assistance for those having difficulty handling a challenging relationship.
Want to learn more about navigating life as an empath? Check out this article:
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