Getting into your head: 9 mind games played by a master manipulator

by Isabel Cabrera | March 21, 2024, 10:32 pm

Ever feel like someone’s messing with your head? Like they’re pulling strings and you’re just dancing along? 

You’re not imagining it—you might be dealing with a master manipulator.

These people are good at messing with your thoughts and making you question yourself. They might seem awesome at first, but then things start to feel weird. 

In this article, we’re going to break down the tricks they use so you can spot them and take back control. Let’s get into it!

1) Love bombing

I’ll start with how being with a manipulator feels at first. And I’m not going to lie – it’s going to feel breathtaking. 

Because manipulators use love bombing to catch your attention and affections, and they use it so well. 

This tactic is like a fireworks display for your ego. The aim is to overwhelm you, then conquer you. 

At first, it’s all grand gestures and over-the-top affection. You feel like you’ve struck gold, finally meeting someone who sees how amazing you are. 

But don’t be fooled; this is all part of the game.

I’ve been there. I once met someone, and instantly, he was all over me – texting morning and night, showering me with compliments, and making big future plans. 

It felt like a dream. Finally, I’d met someone who knew how to get it right! 

But suddenly, the messages slowed down and the compliments stopped. And those future plans? They disappeared in the ether. 

The catch here is that by giving you so much attention and affection upfront, they hook you emotionally. 

Once they know you’re invested, the generosity dries up, leaving you craving that initial high and more likely to tolerate less-than-stellar treatment later on.

The message is clear: be cautious when something feels too good to be true because it probably is.

2) Flattery and criticism

As the relationship goes on, you might notice a pattern – one minute they tell you you’re amazing, and then flip the script and point out your flaws. 

Master manipulators are pros at making you feel sky-high one moment and rock-bottom the next. It’s like an emotional yo-yo, keeping you off balance. 

Why do they do this? To keep you guessing. To keep you hooked. 

If you’re constantly seeking their approval, then you’re less likely to notice the strings being pulled behind the scenes. 

Don’t let the highs blind you to the lows; a relationship should offer stable ground, not an emotional roller coaster.

3) Excessive generosity

Similar to love bombing, excessive generosity is something to be cautious of. 

Being generous with your partner is indeed a sign of love, but not if it’s excessively so and comes with strings attached.

Because then, it becomes a control tactic. 

When someone overwhelms you with gifts or favors, it creates a sort of debt in your mind. You start to feel obligated to return the gesture, often in ways that go beyond what’s reasonable. 

That’s the hidden cost of their “generosity.” They’re not just giving you something; they’re buying something from you, be it your time, your loyalty, or even your freedom to make choices.

It’s counterintuitive to think of kindness as a form of manipulation, but in the hands of a master manipulator, even love can be weaponized.

If every gift feels like a shackle, maybe it’s time to reassess the balance of give and take in your relationship.

4) Gaslighting

Ah, here’s something that absolutely gets my goat. Gaslighting, a trick that makes you doubt your reality. 

Have you ever had a moment where someone flat-out denied something you know happened? When you confront them with something they said, they’ll say something like 

  • “You’re too sensitive/just confused/overreacting.”
  • “That never happened.”
  • “You’re imagining things.”
  • “I never said that.”
  • “You’re taking it the wrong way.”
  • “Everyone agrees with me; you’re the one who’s wrong.”
  • “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

…And then you start to think, “Am I going crazy? Was it all in my head?” 

Gaslighting is one of the oldest tricks in the manipulator’s book. They’ll say or do something, and later deny it ever happened. 

The problem with gaslighting is that it’s exceptionally sneaky. If you’re not careful, you can find yourself questioning your own sanity, doubting your memories, and second-guessing your perceptions. 

Before you know it, the gaslighter has gained an unsettling level of emotional and psychological control over you. 

The manipulation is so subtle that you might not even realize it’s happening until you’re deep in the web of deceit, struggling to assert your own reality.

5) The silent treatment

Who hasn’t been hit with the silent treatment before? One minute you’re having a heated discussion, and the next, they’ve turned into a brick wall.

An ex regularly used this trick on me and I remember thinking, “Is this a joke? Are we in kindergarten?” But the impact is anything but child’s play.

Here’s why the silent treatment is a manipulator’s dream:

  • Control: By refusing to communicate, they seize control of the conversation or situation.
  • Isolation: It can make you feel alone, like you’re the only one invested in resolving the issue.
  • Guilt-trip: The longer the silence drags on, the more you start to blame yourself, even when you shouldn’t.
  • Urgency: The unbearable tension makes you eager to resolve things, often on their terms, just to end the silence.

With my ex, it was infuriating but also deeply unsettling. His goal was to make me desperate enough to bend to his will. 

I admit I caved in a few times at first. But eventually, I got tired of it. I realized that a mature person wouldn’t weaponize silence to resolve an issue. They’ll talk it out like an adult.

6) Playing the victim

Speaking of guilt-tripping brings me to this next trick – playing the victim

Look, we’ve all had rough patches and probably felt like a victim at one point. But a master manipulator takes this to another level. 

One minute, you’re their savior, the only person who “truly understands” them. 

The next minute, any mistake you make is magnified a thousand times because, remember, they’re the “real” victim here.

This tactic is manipulation masquerading as vulnerability. It’s designed to shift the power dynamics in the relationship, making you perpetually guilty, perpetually trying to “make it right.” 

But let’s get something straight: their past traumas or current hardships do not give them a free pass to manipulate you. Period. 

No sob story in the world justifies playing mind games with someone who cares about you.

7) Projection

Multi-ethnic group of three female friends sitting on street steps talking.

While we’re talking about role-playing, let’s get into projection a bit. 

Projection is a psychological defense mechanism where people attribute their own undesirable traits onto someone else. In short, their faults become your flaws.

Now, projection isn’t necessarily a manipulative tactic. Sometimes, we project because we truly lack self-awareness to see our own flaws. Or we do it as a defense mechanism to deal with our hidden pain. 

But when projection is done knowingly, it becomes malicious. It becomes a weapon designed to hurt and control. 

In the context of manipulation, it serves as an effective diversion tactic. Another act of pretension. 

Accuse the other person of what you’re guilty of, and suddenly, they’re on the defensive, trying to prove their innocence instead of scrutinizing your behavior.

For example, a manipulator who’s being secretive might accuse you of hiding things. Now, you’re too busy defending your openness to notice their evasiveness. 

Or they might label you as controlling when you start questioning why they’re so elusive. It’s a smokescreen, an effective way to shift the focus from their actions to your supposed character flaws.

Recognizing projection for what it is can be liberating. It helps you understand that it’s literally not about you; it’s about them and their insecurities. 

Whenever the accusations seem off-base or the criticism doesn’t match your actions, consider that they might be projecting their own issues onto you.

8) Triangulation

Here’s a mind game that’s practically straight out of a political playbook. It involves bringing a third person into the relationship dynamic, either as a confidante, a rival, or even an enemy. 

Think of it as creating a love triangle, but one where the third point is often unaware they’re even part of the equation.

Why do manipulators love this tactic? 

Because it creates jealousy, insecurity, and a sense of urgency. You start comparing yourself to this other person, wondering if you’re good enough, smart enough, or attractive enough. 

Even worse, the manipulator may share things with this third person that they’re not sharing with you, adding a layer of secrecy that undermines trust.

Don’t get caught up in their triangle. If your partner’s constantly throwing another person in your face, recognize it for what it is: a strategy to keep you off-balance. 

9) Emotional exhaustion

Otherwise known as: wearing you down to build themselves up. 

Master manipulators are experts at causing this fatigue. They create dramas, engineer conflicts, and are always at the center of some emotional tornado. 

The goal? To wear you down emotionally so you don’t have the energy to challenge them or pursue your own interests. 

When you’re constantly putting out fires, you don’t have time to realize that they’re the one holding the matches. 

Real talk: relationships shouldn’t drain your emotional reserves, they should replenish them. So if you’re feeling drained, it’s time to ask why.

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