Manipulation is an attempt to gain control of a situation. A manipulative person may resort to diverse tactics to get what they want. Learning the tell-tale signs can help you protect yourself.
Hearing the word “no” or sensing a loss of control may not be fun. For some people, it’s more difficult to experience than for others. So, at times, an individual may resort to covert or underhanded strategies to achieve their desired outcome — this is known as manipulation tactics.
Manipulation exists on a spectrum, and at times, it can be subtle and difficult to detect, but it may still leave you feeling “off.”
Manipulation is boundary-crossing behavior as a means of trying to gain control or power in interpersonal interaction, says Lauren Masopust, a licensed marriage and family therapist in Roseville, California.
Manipulation can be:
- pro-social or beneficial to relationships
- antisocial or harmful to relationships
To qualify a behavior as manipulation, it’s important to be aware of the person’s developmental stage, explains Masopust.
For example, toddlers don’t yet have the words to describe how they’re feeling, so they may throw a temper tantrum to try to get their needs met. “This is actually not developmentally inappropriate,” says Masopust. “Over time, however, people learn this is not effective and develop more nuanced ways of social problem solving.”
For teenagers, she adds that a pro-social example of manipulation would look like telling a white lie to help their friend save face or keep their position in a social group.
By adulthood, though, many adults grow out of manipulative tendencies and develop more subtle ways of achieving their goals, like being assertive and setting healthy boundaries, explains Masopust.
She adds that some people who have experienced broken relationships or traumatic incidents may learn to resort to behaviors like manipulation, aggression, or deceit to get their needs met.
“These behaviors are usually the individual’s attempt at maintaining power or control in a relationship, though they may not be aware of the damage they are causing to others,” says Masopust.
Is there a manipulative personality type?
No. There’s no personality type that may be called “manipulative.”
Manipulation is considered a behavior that occurs on a spectrum, with some strategies being more severe or harmful than others.
In some cases, manipulation tactics can be pathological, meaning they occur repeatedly, for a long time, and across circumstances, like work, school, and personal relationships.
This pattern of behavior could be a symptom of an underlying personality disorder, like narcissistic personality disorder (NPD), or other mental health conditions.
Manipulation isn’t always easy to spot. In fact, at times, it can be subtle, as someone may appear well-meaning toward you, says Phillips.
“For example, those with antisocial personality disorder may come across as very charming, but their goal may be to have control or harm you,” he says.
Some signs of a manipulative person may include:
- persistent excessive attention, love, and flattery
- persistence despite boundaries
- time pressure (to get you to act)
- incongruence between words and actions
- you feel guilt, shame, or generally “off” around this person
DARVO strategy used by manipulative people
You may find it helpful to familiarize yourself with “DARVO.” This is one way a manipulative person can shift the blame, confusing the details of what happened and who may be at fault.
It works like this:
- D: denying the behavior and
- A: attacking you by
- R: reversing the
- V: victim and
- O: offender roles
For example, to stay employed, someone might say to their manager, “I didn’t turn the project in late. I notice that you’re forgetful sometimes; I bet you forgot to tell me the due date in our meeting last week.”
Manipulation can come in many forms, but the main goal of all types is likely a sense of power, control, or resources.
Some common manipulation tactics may include:
- coercive control: taking charge of your schedule, money, or connections
- changing the rules: making the “finish line” harder and harder to achieve
- emotional blackmail: threatening to release information or abandoning you unless you oblige
- gaslighting: denying or minimizing what you see, hear, feel, or know
- guilt-tripping: keeping score or reminding you of what you owe them, or playing the victim
- isolation: trying to limit access to your inner circle or community
- lying: omitting parts of the truth or making up false information
- love-bombing: overwhelming you with flattery and attention
- passive aggression: expressing anger indirectly, like back-handed compliments
- projection: accusing you of doing what they are doing
- silent treatment: ignoring your attempts at communication
- smear campaign: talking badly about you behind your back to others
- triangulation: pulling in a third party to try to persuade you to do something
- triggering your insecurities: put-downs or casting insults disguised as jokes
When it comes to the causes of persistent manipulative behavior, everyone’s story and motivations may be different.
A consistent pattern of manipulation can often form in childhood, says Dr. Lee Phillps, a psychotherapist and certified sex and couples therapist in Virginia and New York.
For example, if someone learns early on that they can’t get their needs met directly, they may have to source other ways to feel safe emotionally, physically, and beyond.
“If a manipulative person grew up in a home characterized by competitiveness and conflict, this can carry with them into adulthood,” he explains. “If they were abandoned by a parent or a caretaker, they can crave attention as an adult and may manipulate to achieve it.”
Some mental health conditions and interpersonal styles can be associated with constant manipulative behaviors (though it’s also possible to still be manipulative without one).
Examples may include:
- antisocial personality disorder (ASPD): using a fake persona to get into your circle
- borderline personality disorder (BPD): taking frantic efforts to avoid abandonment
- codependency: using strategies to “manage” people around you
- histrionic personality disorder (HPD): using appearance to acquire validation
- insecure attachment style: using a break-up as a test of someone’s loyalty
- narcissistic personality disorder (NPD): using projection to shift the blame to you
- substance use disorder (SUD): using an excuse to acquire funds for substances
Yes, manipulation can be a form of psychological and emotional abuse.
“The victim of a manipulator will often question their own sanity and feel like they are the problem. Due to the abuse, the person will often live in fear and report they are constantly walking on eggshells,” says Phillips.
Research shows that being on the receiving end of emotional manipulation can lead to:
- increased stress
- lowered life satisfaction
- low self-esteem
- social withdrawal
Manipulation is a behavior to try and achieve a means to an end, like control or a specific desired outcome.
If you find yourself resorting to manipulation in relationships, you may find it helpful to seek cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), says Phillips.
If you’re the target of manipulation or experiencing narcissistic abuse, it’s highly advisable that you reach out for professional support.