When someone uses your emotions to get what they want, steer your behavior, or influence your ideals, that’s known as emotional manipulation.
Manipulation is the act of trying to control something or someone. For example, when you manipulate something with your hands, you’re positioning it to your intent, such as an artist turning a lump of clay into a piece of pottery.
Humans, as creatures with their own thought processes, aren’t so easy to control. You have your own set of wants, needs, and interests that guide you through life.
When someone else wants to control your journey and can’t do so physically, they might turn to tactics of emotional manipulation.
“Emotional manipulation is a form of psychological manipulation in which a person seeks to control another person’s emotions,” explains Dr. Harold Hong, a psychiatrist from Raleigh, North Carolina. “It is often done through persuasion, coercion, or even emotional blackmail.”
As malicious as it sounds, emotional manipulation isn’t always the product of conscious thought.
According to Kara Nassour, a licensed professional counselor from Austin, Texas, emotional manipulation can be ingrained, habitual, or second nature as the result of trauma or adverse experiences during childhood.
“Some people who experience abuse develop manipulative behaviors because their abusers punished them for trying to express their needs in healthy, direct ways,” she points out. “Other people act manipulative because they grew up in households where that was routine behavior, and they didn’t get the chance to learn other ways to communicate.”
Emotional manipulation can wear many faces. For example, it can come in waves of anger, expressed disappointment, ridicule, or guilt.
Hong indicates gaslighting and love bombing are two common forms of emotional manipulation.
Gaslighting can occur when someone tries to make you doubt your perceptions or memories. “It didn’t happen that way, you were just over-tired” is an example of a gaslighting comment.
Love bombing is when someone showers you with affection and praise to draw you in at the start of a relationship.
“This can be used to manipulate you into thinking that they are the perfect partner for you,” he says. “But once they have you hooked, they may start withdrawing this attention and making you feel needy and dependent on them.”
Here are other common emotional manipulation tactics and what they may sound like.
- Guilt: “If you loved me, you wouldn’t do that.”
- Criticism: “You never do anything right.”
- Isolation: “You’re picking your friends and family over me.”
- Humiliation: “I’ll take you out to dinner when you lose some weight.”
- Threatening: “If you ever do that again, you’ll be sorry.”
- Blaming: “Look what you made me do.”
- Accusing: “I know you’re being unfaithful.”
- Infidelity: “I could do better than you anytime I want.”
Emotional vulnerability vs. emotional manipulation
Expressing your emotions isn’t emotional manipulation. You’re allowed to cry, stomp your feet, or indicate how you’re feeling at a given moment.
Crying to express vulnerability, for example, doesn’t mean you’re necessarily trying to sway someone to your cause or gain their support.
Sometimes you just need to cry.
Ileana Arganda-Stevens, a marriage and family therapist from Sacramento, explains, “It’s important that we be aware of the ways in which our society devalues vulnerability and how that affects our perceptions.”
Emotional manipulation can have a major impact on your relationships. It can damage trust, cause resentment, and affect your mental health and well-being.
Overall, Arganda-Stevens indicates it can create a lack of emotional safety.
“Emotional manipulation in relationships can create stress, resentment, and fear around being manipulated,” she says.
Nassour notes that emotional manipulation can create an environment of competition, where partners try to out-maneuver one another rather than finding compromises or solutions to relationship challenges.
Emotional manipulation can even lead to chronic conditions associated with abuse, such as:
Yes, emotional manipulation can be a form of emotional abuse.
Abuse is defined as a pattern of behaviors used to control or maintain power in a relationship.
A guilt trip once in a while might not meet abuse criteria, but consistent guilting or guilting paired regularly with other forms of emotional manipulation could.
Anytime emotions are involved, it can be challenging to know what to do in the moment. Here are some strategies you can try.
If you feel as though someone is manipulating your emotions, it’s OK to step away from the situation to re-gather your thoughts.
“Calmly notify your partner that you’re going to step out for 20 minutes to gather your thoughts and that when you return, you’ll try again to discuss the issue at hand,” suggests Arganda-Stevens.
Developing your communication skills
“Practice stating your own needs, desires, and boundaries clearly and without apology,” Nassour recommends. “The more comfortable you are with direct communication, the easier it is to spot manipulation from others.”
Exiting the relationship
It’s OK to have to leave an emotionally manipulative relationship behind. In fact, Hong suggests the sooner you leave, the better.
“As early as possible, try to remove yourself from the situation and reach out for help from a trusted friend, family member, therapist, or hotline,” he says. “Don’t wait for the emotional abuse to escalate before seeking help.”
Sometimes knowing what you “should do” includes knowing what might not be effective when someone is using emotional manipulation. Here are some things you can try to avoid.
Don’t feel responsible
Guilt can be a powerful tool of emotional manipulation. Hong asserts that no one is responsible for someone else’s feelings.
“This is what they want you to believe, but it’s simply not true,” he says. “You are not responsible for their happiness or well-being, only your own. They can easily manipulate you if you believe you are responsible for their feelings.”
Don’t give out information
Not all emotional abuse comes through intimate relationships. To help prevent emotional abuse, Hong suggests limiting the information you give out about yourself, such as fears, insecurities, or vulnerabilities.
Don’t try to reason
“You’ll never win an argument because they will only twist your words and use them against you,” Hong says. “The more you try to reason, the more they will gaslight you and make you doubt yourself.”
Along these same lines, bringing up the other person’s shortcomings may not prove any points, either. They may turn the blame on you before they take on any responsibility.
Don’t give into demands
Hong recommends not giving in to the demands of someone using emotional manipulation, no matter how small.
He indicates doing so only reinforces their behaviors and makes them think they’re effective.
What if someone threatens to hurt themselves?
“Some people who use manipulation will threaten to hurt themselves or others to force you to respond, but in these situations, it’s better to leave the conversation, then call mental health emergency services or have the police do a wellness check,” says Nassour.
When emotional manipulation starts to negatively impact your daily life, consider seeking support and guidance from a mental health professional.
Couples therapy may help partners who find communication challenging or who are experiencing emotional manipulation as an ingrained coping mechanism from past experiences.
Routine emotional manipulation that pushes you past your boundaries, makes you feel threatened, or is negatively impacting your mental health may be a form of abuse. Couples therapy is not often effective for abusive relationships.
If you need to remove yourself from an abusive relationship, help is available. You can call the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 800-799-7233 or by texting “START” to 88788.
If you need immediate assistance or feel unsafe, emergency services are available by dialing 911.
Emotional manipulation is the misuse of your feelings to push you toward behaviors or thoughts you wouldn’t otherwise align with.
While emotional manipulation can occur naturally throughout life, patterns of gaslighting, love-bombing, guilting, or humiliating can be a part of emotional abuse.