Manipulative tendencies can surface in any relationship. Knowing what to look for can help you avoid them.
Manipulation can happen to anyone in all kinds of relationships, from friends and romantic partnerships to parents and family relationships. Even work colleagues and your boss might have manipulative tendencies.
Yet, a manipulative person can be hard to recognize.
Manipulation in relationships can sometimes be so subtle and effective, you may wind up questioning your perception of the situation, rather than the other person’s actions or motives. Gaslighting can make discerning manipulative tactics especially difficult.
But by learning what to look for, you may be able to protect yourself from manipulation tactics and psychological games before they start.
Manipulative people often use common manipulation tactics and behaviors to get what they want. Here’s what to look for.
Guilt-tripping is when someone tries to make you feel responsible or guilty of your actions or decisions.
Drake explains that guilt trips often involve using something one person did for the other as “leverage” to get what they want.
Some examples of guilt-tripping might be:
- “If it wasn’t for me, you wouldn’t have gotten through college. You owe me.”
- “I’m the one who is working all the time, while you are spending time with friends. I deserve this expense.”
- “If you can’t come over, then I might as well not invite anyone else that night. There’s no point then.”
People with manipulative tendencies often lie to try to control or coerce others, as well as avoid blame or consequences for their actions.
For example, a teenager who’s been told they are not allowed to hang out with a particular group might lie about their whereabouts. Or, they may lie to the other parent about being given permission to go out with their friends.
“If one parent doesn’t check in with the other parent, the teen may be given permission to go with those friends,” Drake explains.
Pathological lying may be a sign of a mental health condition.
It can be hard to tell the difference between a compliment and flattery.
A compliment is given to sincerely point out something positive with no expectation of gain. But flattery is often used disingenuously as a tool to gain emotional leverage. With flattery, there’s often an expectation of getting something in return.
For instance, someone who wants a raise or promotion might regularly praise their manager’s strengths and accomplishments.
Projection happens when one person claims an emotion they’re feeling — such as jealousy — is actually being experienced by someone else.
For example, a person with manipulative tendencies might cause tension and drama, but blame someone else for creating that energy.
Maggie Holland, a licensed counselor in the state of Washington, explains that projecting aids a person who manipulates in dodging responsibility for their actions and helps them avoid changing their behaviors. “But it can also erode your trust in your own reality,” she adds.
If you think you might be projecting, Holland suggests pausing and asking yourself: “Is this my stuff or their stuff?” This can be helpful for disrupting projection.
“It’s also really important that we don’t project our own values onto a manipulator, because that just sets us up for a lot of disappointment and frustration,” Holland adds.
‘Moving the goalposts’
Sometimes, no matter how much you show up for someone who manipulates, they will change their expectations at the last minute to keep you constantly running toward their “goalposts.”
Someone who moves the goalposts can set you up for frustration and exhaustion.
Holland explains that with manipulative people, “you’re never going to actually reach those goalposts, and your efforts and success won’t be acknowledged if you do.”
Believing in yourself, recognizing your own needs, and disengaging can be helpful for avoiding feelings of demoralization.
Holland suggests working to understand your personal values, goals, and standards to feel like you met your own expectations.
“Remind yourself that you’re just a human being, doing the best you can, and that is enough.”
Triangulation can take many forms, but often happens when a third person is brought into your communication, instead of keeping the issue between the two people it impacts.
For example, a manipulative person might involve your mother in a disagreement to take their side against you. “Now, all of a sudden, you’re disagreeing with two people and the odds are not in your favor,” Holland explains.
According to Holland, triangulation often keeps manipulative people from having to take responsibility and may protect them from feeling like they’ve lost an argument.
Becoming aware of triangulation can be helpful for spotting it. Try to disengage with “triangles” whenever they come up unfairly.
“This means you’re going to have to set and stick to some firm boundaries, but remember that boundaries are not meant to control people, but to ensure that you’re still able to remain in a relationship with them in a healthy way,” says Holland. “Boundaries are not heartless, they’re actually really healthy.”
Love bombing is manipulation through excessive attention, often showering you inappropriately with gifts, compliments, affection, and time.
These things may be wonderful, which can be confusing. However, love bombing is when this feels enrapturing, takes all your attention, and is excessive.
“It might feel great at first, but it usually leaves you isolated and makes you lose sight of who you are,” Holland explains. “Once you’re ‘swept away,’ this attention might stop, and will leave you feeling like you’re seeking it out or chasing it down again.”
If you’ve already experienced love bombing and are on the other side, give yourself patience and work to forgive yourself. “You’re not blind. A manipulative person took advantage of your normal human nature to want to feel desired and cherished,” Holland adds.
Some ways to avoid love bombing include:
- regularly spending time with friends and loved ones
- engaging in your own interests outside of this person
- checking in with yourself often to ensure that you’re aligned with your values and standards
Manipulation is coercive or unethical behavior driven by the goal of exploiting or controlling another person for your own personal gain.
Taylor Draughn, a licensed professional counselor, and marriage and family therapist, explains that manipulation “can be a very effective way to get what you want, but it can also be very dangerous.”
She adds, “If someone can manipulate you, they can control your actions and your thoughts. It is important to be aware of the signs of manipulation so that you can protect yourself from this type of abuse.”
While manipulative tendencies are often subtle and sometimes undetectable, there are four stages of manipulation.
- Flattery. The first stage is when the person who manipulates puts on a facade of being kind, caring, and helpful. “They may act like they want to help you with anything you need, but in reality, they’re just trying to get what they want from you,” Draughn explains.
- Isolation. This is when the person who manipulates may start to isolate you from your friends and family. They might try to convince you that your loved ones don’t understand you or want to control you. The goal is usually to separate you from people who might spot the manipulation, Draughn explains.
- Devaluing and gaslighting. During the third stage, someone who manipulates may try to make you feel guilty or confused. “They might start telling you that you’re ungrateful, or that you’re making them unhappy,” says Draughn. The purpose of this stage is to make you doubt yourself, your instincts, and your decisions. “It can be very difficult to break free from the manipulator’s control at this stage,” Draughn adds.
- Fear or violence. The fourth and final stage is when the person who manipulates may begin to threaten you. According to Draughn, they may threaten to leave you, hurt you, or hurt themselves as a way of keeping you under their control with fear. “It can be very difficult to break free from someone who is using threats as a form of manipulation.”
People manipulate others for many reasons, including:
- Control. People who manipulate might be driven by a need for control or controlling tendencies, which may feel thrilling.
- Low self-esteem. Manipulation can be a way for a person to avoid feeling bad about themselves. Jason Drake, lead clinician and owner of Katy Teen & Family Counseling, says that “People manipulate largely due to lack of self-confidence or self-esteem.” “They may not feel that they have the ability to get what they want on their own merits,” he says.
- Ego. A common reason among narcissistic people, someone who manipulates “may believe that they are the brightest and most capable person around, and might use manipulation to feed their ego that they can outsmart others and gain from their efforts,” Drake explains.
- Personal gain. A manipulative person might use these tactics to obtain something they want, such as money, power, or attention.
- Avoidance. Manipulation might offer a way to avoid taking responsibility for their own actions.
Manipulation can be sneaky, but you can work to avoid it with these strategies:
- Know the signs. People who manipulate often exhibit similar types of behaviors. Watch out for people who are overly friendly, make empty promises, or try to make you feel guilty, Draughn explains.
- Be aware of your emotions. Evoking strong emotions is at the core of most manipulation methods. “People who use manipulation often play on your emotions, but remember that you can’t let them control how you feel,” says Draughn.
- Stay calm. It can be important to stay in control of yourself and not lose your cool when dealing with people who manipulate. “Don’t let them rattle you or get under your skin,” Draughn explains.
- Avoid personalizing. Even though manipulation can be hurtful, try to internalize that this behavior has nothing to do with you. “Manipulation has more to do with the other person and their inability to meet their own needs in a healthy way,” says Drake.
- Listen. While it doesn’t feel good for someone to attempt to manipulate you, being confrontational can inflame the situation. Try listening with empathy so that you can identify what their needs or wants are, Drake suggests.
- Respect your boundaries. After listening to the other person and feeling that you are being manipulated, it’s important to hold healthy limits and boundaries in check. “If you respond respectfully, yet assertively, and [don’t] give in to the manipulation, over time, they will generally see you as someone their tactics don’t work on and will move on,” Drake explains.
- Tell someone you trust. It can be emotionally draining and hurtful in dealing with someone who is manipulative. Talking with a close friend or family member about what you’re experiencing can be healing. “Close friends and family can often give you great feedback and advice, and it’s helpful to have a listening ear when dealing with someone who manipulates,” Drake adds.
People with manipulative tendencies may use these tactics to manipulate others for a variety of reasons.
If you have been the target of manipulation, it can feel confusing and hurtful. Try to understand that a manipulative person’s behavior is not a reflection of you, and you don’t have to accept negative treatment and manipulation.
Manipulation can sometimes be subtle enough to go unrecognized. But more often than not, manipulative people use similar behaviors that can be spotted. Knowing what to look for and responding can help you avoid manipulation.
The effects of manipulation can impact your mental health. Talking with a therapist can help you process what’s happened and teach you new skills for moving forward.
If you’re ready to seek help but don’t know where to start, check out Psych Central’s guide to finding mental health care.