4 little-known warning signs that someone is manipulating you

by Isabel Cabrera | May 27, 2024, 9:25 am

If you’ve ever felt isolated or confused about your perception of your life or a certain situation, it might be a sign you’re being manipulated.

Manipulation is a prevalent, subtle, yet destructive force exerted by those seeking to emotionally control others for their benefit.

Whether in our relationships with partners, friends, relatives, or at work, manipulators can be adept at reshaping our reality to suit their desires.

Due to being steeped in ambiguity, systematic, and coercive dishonesty, manipulation can be hard to recognize. However, a 2023 study found that manipulation, a key component of emotional abuse, can be equally detrimental to both mental and physical health as physical and sexual abuse.

Anyone can be manipulated, but vulnerabilities that make you struggle to set boundaries, highly trusting, empathetic, and people-pleasing could make you more susceptible to manipulation.

“Manipulators often know us better than we know ourselves,” says Dr. George Simon, an authority on manipulators. “They know what buttons to push, when to do so, and how hard to press. Our lack of self-awareness can easily set us up to be exploited.”

Don’t waste time trying to understand why a manipulator is motivated to act as they do (empathetic as you are). Instead, the key lies in recognizing and safeguarding yourself from their manipulative tricks.

Here are four subtle but destructive techniques and warning signs that someone is manipulating you.

1) You feel guilty: The self-blame snare

An early indicator of manipulation is the subtle onset of guilt. You find yourself shouldering the blame, even when the blame doesn’t lie with you. 

That’s because manipulators are adept at making you feel responsible for their actions or emotions.

For example, if you decline to attend a social event with your partner, they say everyone else’s partner is going, suggesting you are not as committed to the relationship. This comparison implies you’re inferior to others and responsible for their hurt feelings. You’ll feel pressured to conform to their desires.

You find yourself carrying the burden, even when the burden isn’t rightfully yours.

“Guilt-tripping is a form of emotional blackmail that manipulators use to control your behaviour and get what they want,” says Dr. Harriet B. Braiker, PhD and clinical psychologist.

“They prey on your desire to please them and be a good person, making you feel responsible for their negative emotions if you don’t comply.”

Pay attention to the origins of your guilt and recognize when you’re bearing a weight that doesn’t belong to you. It might be a sign someone is trying to manipulate your emotions.

2) They play the martyr: The self-sacrifice charade

A similarly nuanced tool in the manipulator’s arsenal involves playing the martyr, whereby the manipulator offers help but constantly reminds you of it.

While their acts of service seem like generous acts, it’s often used strategically to gain an upper hand in the relationship.

For example, in a financially imbalanced relationship, a partner will remind you of their monetary contributions. They say you wouldn’t have a holiday overseas or that lovely, new sweater if it wasn’t for them. This creates a power dynamic based on financial dependence and guilt trips you into compliance.

“Martyrdom allows manipulators to maintain a sense of control by keeping others in a state of indebtedness, creating a psychological bond that reinforces their influence,” says Dr. Ross Rosenberg, psychotherapist and narcissistic abuse expert.

If you find someone is bringing up their past deeds, subtly implying that you owe them in return, it can create a dynamic where gratitude is being used against you.

Genuine acts of kindness should be mutual and free from hidden agendas. Recognising when someone is playing the martyr is a key step towards establishing healthy boundaries in your relationships.

3) You’re losing your community: The isolation trap

Recognising what is healthy is essential when facing isolation—a powerful manipulation tactic.

Manipulators often seek to isolate their targets, increasing their vulnerability. The more isolated you become, the more vulnerable you are to their influence.

For example, a manipulator might criticize or create conflict within your social circles, causing distance between you, your friends and family. By creating conflict, the manipulator isolates you from your support system, making you more dependent on them for emotional validation.

“Isolation can be disguised as protectiveness,” says Braiker. “Manipulators might claim to be ‘protecting’ you from harm or judgment from others, further restricting your access to support and keeping you under their control.”

If you find yourself distancing from friends, family, or colleagues, take a moment to reflect on the reasons behind it. Awareness of this subtle withdrawal from your community is a step toward regaining control of your life.

4) They pretend ignorance: The gaslighting mirage

Isolation and disorientation are the manipulator’s allies, especially when paired with deception and lies.

Using these, feigned ignorance is a formidable tool.

By pretending not to understand the impact of their actions or gaslighting you into doubting your reality and feelings, making it easier for them to further tighten their grip on your vulnerability.

For example, after making hurtful comments about your appearance, a manipulator claims they had no idea their words would be hurtful. They say it’s just the truth. They act oblivious to the emotional impact, making it difficult for you to address the underlying issue or express your hurt.

“Gaslighting often relies heavily on fake ignorance,” says Dr. Robin Stern, psychoanalyst and expert on emotional intelligence. “Manipulators twist events, deny reality, and act clueless to gaslight you, making you doubt your perceptions and memories.”

If you notice a pattern of someone conveniently playing dumb when confronted, they are likely manipulating situations to their advantage and using it as a shield to avoid accountability.

Genuine understanding involves active listening and open communication. If someone consistently feigns ignorance or refuses to acknowledge your concerns, you may need to protect yourself from the manipulative dynamics at play and prioritise your emotional well-being.

In a world that often celebrates vulnerability, manipulators exploit this very trait. It is inherently unfair and devious.

How to liberate yourself from control

The insidious nature of manipulation can make it hard to recognize, leaving you second-guessing your perceptions and feelings. This internal confusion and self-doubt create a fertile ground for guilt to fester, further entangling you in the manipulative web.

“Manipulators count on strong emotions—such as guilt, fear, love, and shame—to prevent us from thinking clearly and seeing what they’re up to. That’s exactly how they get away with it,” says Adelyn Birch, author and expert on emotional manipulation.

If you find yourself tiptoeing around conversations, altering your behaviour to avoid conflict, isolated from support networks, and fearing the consequences of being authentic, it’s time to question the equilibrium of your relationship.

If someone consistently targets your vulnerabilities, turning them into tools for control, it’s time to reclaim your emotional boundaries and foster healthy relationships built on mutual understanding.

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