16 signs you’re dealing with an emotional manipulator

by Brendan Brown | January 18, 2024, 10:06 pm

Control isn’t always so obvious.

Plenty of people apply subtle emotional manipulation in order to get the upper hand.

They attempt to wrap you around their little finger by using your feelings against you.

Here are some clear warning signs to watch out for.

1) They use flattery to get you on side

Some compliments are sincere, but others can simply be weapons of charm.

The idea is to disarm you. To create a favorable impression.

We all like to feel admired. Manipulators know this and will use it to their advantage.

After buttering you up, they’re in a better position to take advantage.

So how can we spot a phony?

It may take some detective work.

Be on the lookout for:

  • Generic or vague compliments, rather than specific
  • Compliments that seem a bit over the top
  • Non stop praise

These are all hallmarks that someone may have an ulterior motive.

2) They come on too strong too soon

As we’ve already seen, emotional manipulation often uses seductiveness, especially in the beginning.

It’s a way of luring you into a false sense of security.

That’s why the ultimate manipulators — narcissists — often employ love bombing in the early days.

That’s when they throw heightened emotions at you to try to intensify a bond.

They may tell you that they’ve never felt this way before, or use the L-word after a really short period of time.

But it can also apply to friendships as well as relationships.

The point is that they present an ideal version of themselves. Perhaps showering you with gifts, affection, and attention.

But sadly, we need to heed the old saying:

‘If something sounds too good to be true it probably is’.

3) When they don’t get their own way, they can turn nasty

They are nice as pie, just as long as everything is going exactly how they want.

But as soon as you say or do something they don’t agree with — all hell breaks loose.

Then their seemingly sweet nature can turn pretty ugly.

They may be cruel, rude, sarcastic, or moody with you.

It’s an attempt to highlight their displeasure and make it clear that going against them is ill-advised.

4) They always make out like everything is your fault

The only point in dishing out blame is to make the other person feel bad.

You may say that accountability is important in relationships, and you’re right.

But assigning blame isn’t the same as asking for someone to take responsibility for themselves.

Plus, that goes both ways.

If somebody habitually paints a picture where all mistakes, problems, or misunderstandings are exclusively down to you, it’s manipulation.

5) You find yourself constantly apologizing for things, even when you’re not sure you’ve done anything wrong

If everything is always made out to be your fault, you may notice that you’re always saying “sorry”.

Half the time, apologizing feels like your instinctive go-to response.

Because you know it’s the best way to drop the drama and move on.

But that also means you end up shouldering the blame for the sake of keeping the peace.

Even when you have nothing to be sorry about.

6) They play the victim until you feel sorry for them

Pity can be an incredibly powerful motivator.

Most of us don’t want to hurt someone’s feelings or make them feel bad.

So it’s really uncomfortable when we think our words or actions have done that.

But manipulators can tap into this kindness and use it to their advantage.

They purposefully make out like they are helpless and wounded.

That way you are more likely to give in to their wishes in an attempt to soothe them.

7) They make their own problems your problems too

Okay, let me start by saying:

We all need support. And it’s important that we can lean on one another in any relationship.

But manipulators can take that too far.

They end up burdening you with their problems. It can feel really heavy, but you also feel too bad to say anything about it.

So you allow them to pile more and more on top of you, and take more and more of your emotional energy and time trying to fix their life for them.

Often this happens because boundaries have been eroded.

8) They chip away at your boundaries

When someone crosses the line, it’s not always so clear-cut. It can be pushed ever so slightly that you don’t notice it happen at the time.

For example, you say no, but end up giving in after some “gentle persuasion” on their part.

Or they’re going through a crisis and so they rely on you a bit too much.  

Emotional manipulators have clever ways of getting around our boundaries. So it’s important to ask whether yours are being fully respected and adhered to.

If not, they need to be bolstered.

9) It’s one rule for them, and another for you

Manipulation is underpinned by a sense of unequal balance.

The odds are firmly stacked in their favor. They hold more of the cards.

So as a consequence, they get away with things you don’t. They can be hypocritical in their behavior.

For example, your partner may hate it when you go out without them, yet they frequently hang out solo with their friends.

They chastise or frown upon things when you do them, but give themself liberties that don’t afford to others.

10) They sulk in order to punish you

Passive-aggressive techniques like the silent treatment are one of the most classic forms of manipulation.

Deep down, they’re annoyed at you. But rather than say so, they look for ways to quietly get back at you.

Sometimes they do this because you haven’t actually done anything wrong. And by giving you the cold shoulder they still have deniability.

That way, if they’re called out on their unreasonable behavior they can say you’re being overly sensitive or they don’t know what you’re talking about.

11) They gaslight you

In fact, denial in general is another helpful tool that manipulators use.  

They can twist what you say, or the facts to hold it against you.

They can deny reality, and make you question your perception or recollection of things.

If you ever bring up issues, they will seek to turn it around back onto you.

It’s a way to undermine you and stay in control.

12) It’s all about them

All relationships should be about give and take.

Of course, it’s not always completely even, that’s impossible. But it should be fair.

What I mean is that sometimes the focus will be more on one of you than the other, depending on what’s going on at the time.

But if the attention is always on them, something isn’t right.

Your entire friendship or relationship is built around their needs or resolving their dramas.

There is a one-sided dynamic.

13) They try to make you responsible for their feelings or behavior

We cannot make someone do or say something. That’s always on them.

Yet so often people try to shift the blame of their own actions onto others.

“You made me do it”.

We excuse certain words said in anger as being in response to something the other person said or did.

But this is sheer manipulation.

The reality is that all of us have full accountability for ourselves, regardless of what anyone else does to us.

14) They attempt to guilt-trip you

Guilt and shame are incredible human motivators.

Their power often lies in the fact that we keep them hidden. They make us feel so bad, we don’t want to bring them out into the light.

But anything hidden is more easily manipulated.

Guilt trips are an attempt to make you feel bad, even when you’ve done nothing wrong.

You may have said no to a request (as is your right) or you may have simply done something they don’t like.

Because there is no way to raise a legitimate objection, they’ll turn to guilt-tripping you about it instead.

15) They are prone to exaggeration

When the facts don’t suit them, they’ll distort them.

For example, they’ll exaggerate their feelings or the impact that something has had on them.

If something happens once, they may throw around statements like:

“You ALWAYS do this to me” or “You NEVER think about my feelings.”

16) They try to keep you all to themselves

Rather than being evil puppeteers, manipulators are often downright insecure.

That low self-esteem is what drives them. They manipulate because they fear losing their grasp of control over others.

And that insecurity will play out in many ways. One of which is trying to isolate you from others.

They don’t want to share because they fear that will weaken their significance and influence in your life.

So they may try to monopolize your time. They could be jealous of you spending time with other friends or family.

They try to create a special or exclusive bond between you two, that shuts out other people.

Don’t let them make you feel bad

I know it can feel easier said than done.

But the grasp emotional manipulators hold over you often comes down to triggering your sympathy.

That’s why we have to get better at creating healthy boundaries that allow us to be more assertive whenever we notice manipulation taking place.

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