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Are You Being Manipulated? How to Spot Common Manipulation Tactics

what is manipulation

Manipulation is behavior aimed at controlling or undermining someone. In a relationship, manipulation can be used to gain something: control, money, power, social status, or enjoyment, just to name a few examples. 

Relationship manipulation can exist in all forms of relationships: parental, child-parent, sibling, friend, coworker, employer, and romantic. Manipulation exists on a spectrum. Being rejected or told no isn’t fun for anyone, and resorting to small forms of manipulations are probably more common than you might think. For example, telling a small white lie: “Oh yeah, I love that band!” to impress friends is technically a form of manipulation. 

Even in small amounts, manipulation is harmful. It’s exhausting and stressful keeping up with lies, and not being authentic can lead to decreased life and relationship satisfaction. On the victim's side, you might feel things are “off” or like you don’t even know them. 

In large amounts, manipulation can be emotionally abusive, toxic, and dangerous to both members' mental and physical health. 

This article will go over the types of manipulation to look out for, how to tell if you’re being manipulated, and what to do when you’ve identified manipulation in your relationship.

Am I being manipulated?

If you recognize any of the above tactics, you might be the victim of manipulation. Before you jump to conclusions though, it’s important to sit down and have a conversation with them. People may rely on manipulation when they are feeling scared, ashamed, or defeated. It doesn’t make their behavior okay, but people often manipulate because they’re in emotional pain. When a person’s manipulation is not a repeated offense and they are willing to work through the underlying need that is causing them to manipulate, then healing is possible. 

Don’t broach the topic of manipulation if you feel unsafe physically, emotionally, or mentally. Call someone you trust or see a therapist. If you are in imminent harm, call 911.  

Signs you’re being manipulated include:

  • They seem to bounce between flooding you with love and putting you down.
  • They’re uncaring about your boundaries. 
  • They often put time pressure on you to act quickly. 
  • Their words and actions don’t match up. 
  • You’ve caught them lying multiple times.
  • You feel uncomfortable, guilty, shameful, or generally “off” when you’re around them. 
  • You feel like you’re going “crazy”. 

It can be hard to know if you’re being manipulated. Sometimes, the people around you can see the truth more clearly. If you have a loved one point out manipulative behavior to you: listen to them. Manipulation can be hard to spot because of how close you are to the relationship, so an outside perspective can be crucial. However, you won’t always be able to rely on outside opinions. If your loved ones have also been manipulated or you have been blocked from being able to see them, you may have to rely on your own judgment. Trust your gut and always act to keep yourself safe.

 

Playing the victim

Playing the victim involves portraying oneself as the innocent party in a situation to gain sympathy, avoid responsibility, or manipulate others into feeling sorry for them.

Example: “I had such a hard day at work and then you drop this accusation on me? After everything I’ve done for you?”

Isolation

Isolation is a form of manipulation where one person cuts off or controls another person's contact with friends, family, or support systems to increase their control over the victim.

Example: Discourages you from seeing your friends or claims they don’t like/trust your friends.

Love-bombing

Love-bombing is an intense and overwhelming display of affection, attention, or flattery used to manipulate someone into feeling emotionally dependent or indebted to the manipulator.

Example: Extra attention, gifts, and verbal praise at the beginning of your relationship. 

Coercive control

Coercive control is when a person uses a pattern of controlling behaviors, manipulation, and intimidation to dominate and exert power over their partner, often in an abusive relationship.

Example: Taking control of your money and schedule. 

Passive aggression

Passive aggression is a behavior where someone expresses hostility or anger indirectly through subtle, underhanded actions or comments instead of openly addressing their concerns.

Example: You ask them to do something and they comply but only while whining, complaining, or doing it wrong. 

Types of manipulation to look out for

Manipulation is always a play for control. People who manipulate may want something else in addition to control, but they will attain their goals through control—usually emotionally but sometimes physical and social controlling tactics can be used as well. 

Types of manipulations include:

Gaslighting

Gaslighting is when someone manipulates another person into questioning their reality, memory, or perception. This can involve denying things that have happened, making the victim feel like they are going crazy or imagining things.

Example: “I never said that. You must be forgetting, I would never do that.”

Projection

Projection occurs when someone attributes their own thoughts, feelings, or characteristics onto another person. It is a defense mechanism used to avoid dealing with one's own undesirable traits.

Example: You caught them lying and when you bring it up they accuse you of lying. 

Silent treatment

The silent treatment is a form of emotional manipulation where a person withdraws communication or ignores another as a way to control or punish them, causing feelings of confusion, hurt, and isolation.

Example: You don’t do what they want one night so they ignore you for the next three days. 

Smear campaign

A smear campaign involves spreading false or damaging information about someone to tarnish their reputation, isolate them from others, or maintain control over them through fear or manipulation.

Example: It could be overt—going behind your back to talk badly about you to your friends—or covert—jokingly saying things like “She’s just so dumb sometimes” or “Oh I wouldn’t trust him with that!” aiming to put you down and discredit you. 

Lying

Lying is a deliberate attempt to deceive or mislead others by presenting false information as the truth, often used to manipulate people's perceptions, decisions, or behaviors for personal gain.

Example: They routinely come home from work late and when you confront them about it they say they just have to work late. 

Changing expectations

Changing expectations is a form of manipulation where one person keeps altering the rules, boundaries, or standards in a relationship to create confusion, undermine the other person's confidence, or maintain control.

Example: “If you just do this one thing for me, I’ll move in with you.” and then once you do that thing, they’ll say something else similar. “One more time, and then I’ll move in with you.” 

Triangulations

Triangulation is a manipulation tactic where one person involves a third party in a conflict or relationship to create division, gain an advantage, or control the dynamic between the other individuals involved.

Example: “I can see you’re upset and not thinking clearly, so I called your friend so she can help us sort this out.” Now you’re having to talk to them through your friend, which changes the dynamic, especially if the friend is more loyal (or also being manipulated by) the manipulator.

Why do people manipulate others?

It can be heartbreaking to realize the person you love, or thought you loved, is manipulating you. Why? You might ask. Why would they do something so awful? 

Manipulation is, at its core, a way to protect the self. If they can stay in control, then they don’t have to feel any hurt. It is also a sign of mental illness. 

A few reasons why people manipulate others include:

  • Low self-esteem: Putting others down makes them feel good.
  • Need for control: In order to feel safe, some people have to be in complete control. 
  • Personal gain: Some people manipulate others for external causes like power, money, and fame. 
  • Avoidance: Manipulation can be used to avoid confronting their own pain and issues. 
  • Mental health disorders: Substance Use Disorder, Narcissistic Personality Disorder, Antisocial personality disorder, and Borderline Personality Disorder are correlated with higher levels of manipulation. 

Whatever their reason for manipulating, it’s important to remember that it is not your job to fix them. Love can be a powerful motivator for positive change, but love alone cannot heal mental health issues or stop someone from being manipulated. 

So if you love someone who is manipulating you, ask yourself: Are they serious about changing? Are they willing to put in the work to heal their inner wounds and stop manipulating? Am I at risk for emotional, physical, or mental harm? 

If you think you might be at risk for emotional or physical abuse, put distance between yourself and the person manipulating you. If you’ve confronted them about their behavior and they seem honest in their desire to change, make sure you have strict boundaries in place and hold them accountable.

What to do when you’re being manipulated

If you think you’re being manipulated, you might be overwhelmed. What do you do now? Here are some steps you can follow:

  1. Know the signs: Keep track of their behavior and notice what is manipulative. 
  2. Be aware of your emotions: Emotional manipulation is the most common form of manipulation, but despite all of the manipulative tactics people may use, your emotions are still your own. Practice being aware of what your emotions are and when they change (and if it is in response to a manipulative tactic or not).
  3. Stay calm: Don’t escalate the situation by yelling, throwing things, or using hostility; the manipulator may rise to your level and the situation can quickly escalate. Instead, get yourself somewhere safe. If a confrontation is warranted, do it in a public space. 
  4. Make strong boundaries: If you are unable to fully remove yourself from a manipulator’s life, or you’ve made the decision to stay in a relationship with them, then it’s important to have strong, healthy boundaries. They may try to cross these boundaries, but don’t let them. 
  5. Maintain an external support system: Keep in contact with friends and family you can trust. How much you tell them is up to you, but think carefully about what you want to tell them. 
  6. Know when to walk away: Sometimes, love isn’t enough. If they claim they want to get better but make no changes to actually get better, then it may be time to leave. 
  7. Get therapy: Being the victim of manipulation can be traumatizing. If you have flashbacks, distressing memories, intense emotional reactions, or are otherwise impaired by your experience, therapy can help you heal and recover.

People manipulate others for all kinds of reasons. If you have been a victim of manipulation, try to remember that it is not a reflection of you or your character. Recognizing the signs of manipulation is the first step towards breaking free from a manipulative relationship and towards healing and growth. 

For more information on how therapy can help you recover from a manipulative relationship, give Lifebulb Therapy a call. We have therapists near you who can help. 

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Frequently Asked Questions

Manipulation refers to the act of influencing or controlling someone through deceptive or exploitative tactics. It involves using strategic behaviors, words, or actions to shape the thoughts, feelings, or behaviors of others to serve one's own interests. Manipulators often employ psychological techniques aimed at gaining power, control, or advantage over their targets, sometimes by exploiting vulnerabilities or insecurities. It's important to recognize manipulation and set healthy boundaries to protect one's well-being.

Manipulation can take on various forms, and it's essential to recognize them. Some common types of manipulation include gaslighting, where someone manipulates another person's perception of reality; playing the victim, where someone portrays themselves as innocent to avoid responsibility; isolation, where someone controls or cuts off another person's contact with support systems; love-bombing, an overwhelming display of affection used to gain emotional dependence; coercive control, a pattern of controlling behaviors in abusive relationships; passive aggression, indirect expressions of hostility or anger; projection, attributing one's own traits onto others; silent treatment, withdrawing communication as a means of control; smear campaigns, spreading false information to damage someone's reputation; lying, deliberate deception to manipulate others; changing expectations, altering rules and boundaries to create confusion; and triangulation, involving a third party in a relationship to gain advantage or control.

 Manipulation typically follows a progressive pattern that consists of four stages. The first stage involves assessing the target's vulnerabilities, fears, or desires, which the manipulator will exploit. The second stage is called the "grooming phase," where the manipulator builds a rapport, gains trust, and establishes control over the target. This phase often includes love-bombing, flattering, or overwhelming the target with attention. The third stage is where the actual manipulation occurs, with the manipulator using various tactics to influence, control, or deceive the target. Lastly, in the fourth stage, the manipulation intensifies, and the manipulator may exert even more control or resort to extreme measures to maintain dominance over their target.

 Recognizing if you're being manipulated can be challenging, but there are signs to watch for. Trusting your instincts is crucial. Look out for frequent inconsistencies or discrepancies in the other person's words and actions. Pay attention if you often feel confused, invalidated, or doubting your own reality. Manipulators may use guilt, fear, or obligation to make you comply with their wishes. They may isolate you from loved ones or control your access to information. Additionally, observe if you're often making excuses or compromising your own needs to please the other person. Seeking support from trusted friends, family, or professionals can provide an external perspective to help identify and address manipulation. Remember, you have the right to set boundaries and prioritize your well-being.

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