Signs of Manipulative Behavior

Emotional Manipulation and Tactics

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Manipulation refers to strategies and behaviors a person uses to gain power or influence over another. These tactics often include attempts to damage another person's emotional and mental well-being.

Emotional manipulation affects the dynamics of a relationship. A manipulative person often engages in harmful behaviors over time, creating an imbalance of power. The impact can be devastating, leaving a person feeling confused, isolated, or even depressed.

Read on to learn more about emotional manipulation, as well as signs, causes, and how to cope.

Couple sitting on a couch fighting

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What Is Manipulative Behavior?

Manipulative behavior includes actions a person uses to gain influence or control over someone else. These behaviors may include:

  • Lying
  • Denying
  • Passive-aggressive behavior
  • Gaslighting
  • Silence
  • Criticizing
  • Withholding
  • Blaming
  • Getting a person outside of their comfort zone to give themselves an advantage

People who manipulate others may have difficulty identifying and expressing their wants and needs appropriately and healthily.

Manipulative behavior can also serve other purposes. For instance, control and manipulation can help the manipulator by:

  • Causing doubt and confusion 
  • Helping them avoid conflict
  • Concealing their true intentions
  • Allowing them to avoid responsibility for their behavior
  • Not having to change their behavior 

Emotional Manipulation

Emotional manipulation can feel like a person is playing mind games, because it can cause:

  • A person to question what is happening in their relationship and environment
  • Fear and doubt
  • Degrading trust in self and others

This helps the manipulator gain power over another individual and undermine their ability to think rationally.

How Common Is Manipulation?

Sadly, manipulation occurs more often than people think. While emotional manipulation and related tactics can be used in any type of relationship, data on intimate relationships provides some insight. One study revealed that 40% of women and 32% of men report expressive aggression in relationships, while 41% of women and 43% of men experience coercive control.

Tactics

Some tactics of emotional manipulation include comparing, lying, exaggerating, withholding important information or valuable items, and silence. Each of these behaviors can be detrimental to mental and emotional safety. Understanding tactics and signs, like the ones listed below, can help people spot them.

Gaslighting

Gaslighting is a tactic that causes a person to question their reality. This may involve a manipulator lying, denying things they've said, twisting facts, and using a person's words against them. Over time, this creates uncertainty and doubt, and can cause a person to second-guess their experiences. 

Passive-Aggression

A person may use passive-aggressive statements or behaviors, which can lead to feelings of distress when the other person's behavior doesn't match their words.

An example of passive-aggressive behavior is when a person behaves as if they are upset or disappointed without directly communicating it.

Criticizing or Judging

These manipulation tactics help someone gain power by making others feel inadequate and inferior. A manipulator may make harmful and damaging statements about a person's appearance, personality, insecurities, circumstances, and more.

Blaming

Blaming is a way of avoiding responsibility for one's words and actions. A manipulator may assign fault to the other party to keep the focus off of themselves. This can lead to feelings of guilt and misplaced responsibility. 

Location Advantage

To give themselves the upper hand, a manipulator may find ways to get someone out of their comfort zone or environment they are familiar with, which puts the other individual at a disadvantage. It can be disorienting to be in a strange environment and have someone exert control. This can lead to feelings of fear and powerlessness.

Help Is Available

If you or a loved one are a victim of domestic violence, contact the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-7233 for confidential assistance from trained advocates.

For more mental health resources, see our National Helpline Database.

Signs

It may seem easy to recognize emotional manipulation when it is happening to others, but challenging to see when you are in the midst of it yourself.

The following are some signs of controlling or manipulative behavior:

  • Unclear expression of wants and needs
  • Making excuses, minimizing, or rationalizing
  • Lying, denying, and deception
  • Crying outbursts or fits of rage
  • Using language that is difficult to understand
  • Coercive behaviors
  • Withholding affection or communication
  • Judging, ridiculing, or criticizing
  • Guilt trips and ultimatums
  • Giving someone the "silent treatment"
  • "Just kidding" or joking when saying hurtful things

Feeling like you're walking on eggshells or being afraid to speak up or address boundaries may be other signs a person is in an unhealthy situation.

Every person is responsible for themselves and how they communicate with and treat others. It's important to remember that emotional manipulation is never the fault of the person on the receiving end of the behavior.  

Manipulative Language

Here are some examples of statements a manipulator might make:

  • "I don't know what you're talking about. You must have imagined it."
  • "If you truly cared about me and trusted me, we wouldn't even be having this conversation."
  • "There's no need for you to be this upset right now. You're overreacting."
  • "You're so selfish. The reason we keep fighting is because of you." 
  • "If you don't attend this business dinner, it shows how little you care about advancing in your career."

Causes

Some possible causes of manipulative behavior include:

  • Dysfunctional relationships: Dysfunctional relationships during childhood may contribute to unhealthy communication patterns and behavior models.
  • Personality disorder: Some research shows personality disorders, such as borderline personality disorder or people with narcissistic traits, may be more likely to engage in manipulative behaviors.
  • History of abuse: A history of certain types of abuse may lead someone to not feel safe communicating their needs directly and can make a person vulnerable to developing manipulative behaviors.

How to Stop Being Manipulative

Every person is in charge of their behavior and decisions. It is possible for people who use manipulative tactics to change their behavior.

Some strategies to stop emotional manipulation may include: 

  • Recognizing and identifying harmful behaviors
  • Accepting responsibility for actions and contributions
  • Learning healthier and more effective ways to communicate wants and needs

Seeking professional support can help manipulators choose different paths. Therapy can be a safe space to explore thoughts, feelings, and behavior, learn to spot issues and develop communication, problem-solving, and relational skills.

How to Cope With a Manipulative Person

It may be hard to identify controlling and manipulative behaviors. While you can't prevent the behaviors—because you aren't responsible for them—you can take care of yourself to reduce the impact.

While you may feel empathy for the other person, it's important to know that responses like arguing, criticizing, threatening, blaming yourself, and placating the manipulator may only empower them and perpetuate their behavior. In addition, these behaviors may provoke anger and intensify situations.

Before addressing a concern with a manipulator, it's essential to make sure a person feels safe and able to do so. Consulting a trusted individual or professional can help assess the situation.

Protect Yourself

When a person seeking power and control begins to lose it, their behavior can escalate or become erratic. During this time, it’s vital to take care of yourself, ensure your own safety, and make decisions about what feels healthiest for you regarding the relationship.

The following are some ways to cope with manipulative people.

Partner

To manage a manipulative partner, it's helpful to:

  • Acknowledge that manipulation tactics are being used in the relationship.
  • Talk about the impact of those tactics, and be direct in expressing your needs and how both parties can communicate more effectively.
  • Accept contribution to problems and frame your concerns in a way that shares your perspective without assigning and emphasizing blame.
  • Set and enforce boundaries. Couples or marriage counseling can be a great way to get an added layer of support.

Taking care of yourself individually through counseling, support from loved ones, or self-care and stress management strategies can help with healing.

Parent

Coping with an emotionally manipulative parent can be tough. Address your concerns calmly and concisely by sharing your perspective on what's happening and how it impacts the dynamic. Be upfront about what you need and how the relationship can be improved.

If needed, find a trusted individual who can help facilitate the conversation. Family therapy may be a resource to help families identify problems and improve relationships.

Friend

To help manage manipulative behavior in a friendship, be clear about what you need in the relationship and provide helpful solutions to improve the situation. You get to decide what your boundaries are and have the freedom to say "no" if something doesn't feel right.

Remember, you can always choose to end a friendship or any other kind of relationship if it doesn't feel healthy for you.

Colleague or Boss

Addressing manipulative behavior in the workplace can be particularly challenging, especially if you fear you are risking losing your job and your livelihood. But it's important to have an honest conversation about the impact of the behavior and how it impacts you in the workplace.

If you are unable to resolve the issue amongst yourselves, it may be time to inform a supervisor or manager.

Involve Human Resources

If possible, you can contact your Human Resources (HR) representative to get guidance on how to approach or navigate the situation. This may be a good place to start if the concern is with your boss or a professional relationship in which there is a power difference.

Summary

Manipulation is when a person uses controlling and harmful behaviors to avoid responsibility, conceal their true intentions, or cause doubt and confusion. Manipulation tactics, such as gaslighting, lying, blaming, criticizing, and shaming, can be incredibly damaging to a person's psychological well-being. These behaviors are common and can occur in different relationships, including platonic, romantic, familial, and professional. Resources and support are available for people who want to change their behavior or are healing from their relationship with a manipulator. 

A Word From Verywell

It can be hard to spot emotional manipulation. Healing from a relationship in which controlling or manipulative tactics were used can also be difficult. Recognizing the signs of manipulation can help you begin to identify if a situation feels unhealthy or unsafe for you. Establishing boundaries, developing effective communication skills, and seeking support from loved ones or a trusted professional are helpful ways to take care of yourself. If you use these tactics and want to change your behavior, you can start by seeking out a mental health professional.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • What is the difference between persuasion and manipulation?

    Persuasion differs from manipulation in that it appeals to an individual's understanding to convince or move them in a particular direction. Alternately, manipulation often undermines a person's sense of reality and emotional safety to influence them.

  • How does manipulation work?

    A manipulator may use tactics unintentionally or intentionally. The behaviors may start gradually and can escalate over time. Manipulation involves repeated strategies that diminish another person's well-being to assert power over them. Emotional manipulation is harmful. The person on the receiving end may feel disoriented, question their reality, or doubt their ability to trust themselves or others.

  • What does manipulation look like?

    Manipulation can be subtle or overt. People of all ages, genders, races, and orientations can be on the receiving end of manipulation. Manipulative behaviors include gaslighting, denial, lying, blaming, criticizing, exaggerating, withholding, and more. 

  • What is another word for manipulator?

    Other words used to describe manipulators often refer to their behavior. For example, sometimes manipulators are referred to as "emotional manipulators," "exploiters," or "controllers."

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3 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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