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20 Signs of Emotional Manipulation

Any sign of emotional manipulation warrants having a frank conversation.

Key points

  • Believing someone is well-intentioned may allow us to overlook what a manipulator is doing.
  • With manipulative people, it's all about control, maintaining the upper hand and power over you.
Photo by cottonbro studio from Pexels
Source: Photo by cottonbro studio from Pexels

No matter how perceptive, cautious, or street-smart you may be, you could end up being a victim of emotional manipulation. That's because manipulators won't typically say, "I am going to manipulate you in T-minus 5,4,3,2...". Instead, they'll work in the shadows, taking advantage of your trust, openness, genuine interest in connection, and kindness.

Since your heart may want to believe that they are well-intentioned, you may overlook their manipulation attempts. Your intuition, though, may tell you something's not quite right. Maybe you're feeling awkward around them, apologizing way too much, or engaging in arguments and wondering, What just happened there? or Why the heck did we fight about that?

But with manipulative people, it's all about control, maintaining the upper hand and power over you. There is no we in their relationships, except maybe they feel that you are a "we" bit easy to control. They may have cognitive empathy through which they know intellectually how you feel but lack the emotional and compassionate empathy that makes them feel or care about how you feel.

Otherwise, they could feel little bad about deploying any of the following 20 commonly-used tactics to manipulate you:

  1. Get too close to you too soon: Are they asking deeply personal questions very early on such as, "Would you like the ham or chicken? Speaking of chicken, what are some of your deepest fears from childhood?" This can make you feel close to them so you let your guard down.
  2. Collect info on you and use your insecurities against you: They can essentially act like a social media company: collecting data on you that they can use down the line.
  3. Mirror and match you: Do you feel like you've finally met your long-lost soul mate, someone just like you? Be careful, they may be simply imitating or mimicking what you do and say.
  4. Love-bomb you: Telling and treating you like you are the bestest can further gain your trust.
  5. Get kind of sexual: Surprise, surprise, they may use a little sex appeal to peel you like a banana. But this can be more like a trailer for a Hollywood movie, a preview of things to come that never do.
  6. Talk big, followed by little action: Speaking of trailers, they can present a fabulous future for you with little concrete follow-through, such as promising to help you in a time of need but then flaking like a giant coconut.
  7. Play the martyr: When they do something for you, do they act like Joan of Arc, as if no one else would ever make such a sacrifice for you?
  8. Play the victim and guilt-trip you: Oh, woe is them as everyone has treated them so, so badly so that you feel compelled to help them as you would a lost puppy. Except, whoa, this puppy has fangs.
  9. Criticize you: After the love-bombing phase has reeled you in is the you're-not-worthy phase, in which they criticize you to the point that you're supposed to feel oh-so-lucky to have them around.
  10. Exaggerate, generalize, and make vague statements: Do something minor and then suddenly it's like Mount St. Helens erupts over a disastrous habit or a major character flaw, a sign that you don't really care about them or the beginning of the end of the relationship.
  11. Use threats: Oh, yes, once again they are making the "I'm going to leave if you don't do as I say" threat, just like they did, oh, last week.
  12. Lie, twist facts, and omit key details: Yeah, why let something as trivial as reality get in the way of what they say and want?
  13. Pass off or minimize your concerns: Try telling them how badly they made you feel and you may get "I was just joking" or "Why are you so sensitive," because why should your feelings matter?
  14. Pressure you to make decisions: By the way, before you go through major surgery or attend that funeral, could you commit to such-and-such because why wouldn't you be in the right state of mind to make a major decision?
  15. Project unto you: They may accuse you of doing what they are doing because how could they be doing it since you are doing it, except that you really aren't doing it?
  16. Give you the silent treatment: This can include the I'm-throwing-daggers-at-you-with-my-eyeballs glare when they see you.
  17. Try to isolate you: Friends? What friends do you have? Your friends are all so terrible and don't care for you nearly as much as the emotional manipulators do, right?
  18. Shift goalposts and change expectations: OK, last week all you had to do is such-and-such to keep them happy, but now it is such-and-such plus this-and-that multiplied by who-knows-what.
  19. Gaslight you: Finding yourself questioning reality? Being blamed for something that they did to you? Then they may have gaslit right into you.
  20. Maintain emotional distance: All the while, they remain cooly separate from you because why let something like genuine feelings for you get in the way of their ability to manipulate you?

If you sense or see any of the above signs, consider having a frank, direct conversation with the potential emotional manipulators as soon as possible. If they are genuinely surprised, concerned about how their actions may affect you, and interested in changing and making concrete amends, then maybe everything was inadvertent.

However, if instead they try to deny what they are doing, blame you, dismiss your concerns, pose themselves as the victim, bend reality, or basically find some other way to twist things, then ding, ding ding you've got emotional manipulators on your hands.

At the very least, act like a sovereign nation and draw clear boundaries that they're forbidden to cross. Make the consequences of violating the boundaries significant, like possibly end-the-relationship significant.

Alternatively, you may simply want to cut such people completely out of your life now. After all, you did give them your trust, and they trashed it. Plus, once they've tried to manipulate you, can you ever feel assured that they won't do it again? And again?

Facebook image: DimaBerlin/Shutterstock

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