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What is Emotional Manipulation?
Emotional manipulation is the use of devious means to exploit, control, or otherwise influence others to one’s advantage. In the extreme it is the purvey of tricksters, swindlers, and impostors who disrespect moral principles, deceive and take advantage of others’ frailty and gullibility. At the very least, manipulation is forced influence used to gain control, benefits, and/or privileges at the expense of others.
Emotional manipulation occurs when a manipulative person seeks power over someone else and employs dishonest or exploitive strategies to gain it. Unlike people in healthy relationships, which demonstrate reciprocity and cooperation, an emotional manipulator looks to use, control, or even victimize someone else.
Emotional manipulators often use mind games to seize power in a relationship. The ultimate goal is to use that power to control the other person.
A healthy relationship is based on trust, understanding, and mutual respect. This is true of personal relationships, as well as professional ones. Sometimes, people seek to exploit these elements of a relationship to benefit themselves in some way.
- They sense the weaknesses of others (and exploit them).
- They push you to be vulnerable (to find your weaknesses).
- They don’t respect your boundaries.
- They avoid responsibility.
- They badmouth people (including you) behind their backs.
- They’re experts at laying guilt trips.
- They remove your “home-court advantage.”
- They throw you off balance with negative surprises.
- They distort the truth.
- They use aggressive behavior to get what they want.
- They don’t care about your opinion (or your feelings).
Signs of Emotional Manipulation
Another strategy used by emotionally manipulative people is the distortion of facts, relative importance, or other information needed to accurately assess a situation.
In some cases, the manipulator will simply lie or pretend ignorance about a matter.
A more subtle form of distortion is gaslighting, a tactic in which a manipulator instills self-doubt in someone else, making them question their rights, motivations, or abilities. Gaslighting is a frequent problem in the workplace.
Guilt and Sympathy
Many people are highly susceptible to guilt and will even go so far as to punish themselves in response to perceived sins.
Emotionally manipulative people prey on this vulnerability. They are apt to play the victim or remind you of past favors, instilling a sense of obligation or sympathy that makes them more likely to get what they want.
The easiest example of this kind of emotional manipulation is the silent treatment when someone punishes you by ignoring you.
However, there are more insidious forms of withdrawal as well. When someone from whom you expect a certain affirmation or intimacy deliberately withholds it, that creates a power imbalance and can make you crave the return to approval or closeness.
Sometimes a manipulative person will draw a comparison between you and someone else to goad you. They may use a specific person to make you feel insecure or try to establish a sense that “everyone else” is doing whatever they want you to do. They may even recruit others to pressure you into a certain emotion or action.
Manipulation of Circumstance
This strategy is common in business negotiations. It may be as simple as someone insisting you meet them in their home or office, where they feel most powerful. Or they may create a constraint, such as a deadline, in a way designed to pressure you into an ill-considered decision.
Overwhelming and Unearned Closeness
An emotional manipulator may try to bind you to them through manufactured vulnerability or an artificially accelerated relationship. Showering a new acquaintance with praise and affection, also called “love-bombing,” is a common tactic of emotional manipulation often seen in cults.
Effects of Emotional Manipulation
1. Short Term Effects
Surprise and confusion:
Feeling like whatever is happening can’t possibly be so, wondering why the person who has been a friend or loved one is now acting like a stranger.
You may find yourself wondering if you remember things right or if something is wrong with you. This is a result of everything you do being questioned or being told that you remember things wrong and the manipulative party is right.
Anxiety and vigilance:
Being passive – as taking action can lead to more pain in an emotionally abusive relationship, being passive can become the default. It is something that can be hard not to do when you are in a situation as stressful as one can be.
Shame and guilt:
You may find yourself feeling guilty or blaming yourself for setting off the manipulative presence in your life. As they may blame you, it can become harder not to take that out on yourself, which leads to feeling even worse. Avoiding eye contact.
Walking on eggshells:
Not knowing what will cause a spike in behavior from the other person can lead to thinking excessively about every little thing you do to ensure you don’t upset or anger the manipulator.
2. Long Term Effects
- Isolation and numbness.
- Requiring approval.
- Feeling resentful.
- Excessive judging – you may find yourself watching for what others are doing and holding people, including yourself, to very high standards. This is a means of feeling in control after not being in control. This often requires time and self-compassion to move past.
- Depression and anxiety.
- Stockholm syndrome is also common in these types of situations. The person who is being abused by the abuser will become accustomed to the abuse, and will even defend their painful actions.
How to deal with manipulative people?
Emotional manipulation from a family member, coworker, or trusted friend can have major consequences for your quality of life. If you experience regular and distressing emotional manipulation from another person, your relationship with that person may be abusive.
It is very difficult for abusers to stop abusive behavior, and most forms of therapy available to abusive people, including anger management therapy, have not been shown to have a significant impact on ending their abusive behaviors. The only reliable way to stop being abused by someone is to leave the situation and end the relationship.
If you face occasional emotional manipulation at work or home and cannot leave the situation, apart from getting a good therapist, the following actions may help to counter emotionally manipulative tactics at the moment:
Set and enforce clear boundaries:
Know your boundaries, and don’t hesitate to let people know what they are and what you’re likely to do if they don’t respect them. Ensure clear communication.
Answer their attempted guilt trips with unshakable calm:
When they’re done talking, look at them quietly for a few seconds before you reply, calmly shutting them down.
Focus on their actions, not their words:
Manipulators will say one thing (whatever works for them) and do another. Watch what they do.
Don’t let them off the hook:
When they’re responsible for hurting you or someone else, do what you can to hold them to it. Or cut them loose.
Build a real support system:
Manipulators have less power over you when they can’t isolate you from the people who genuinely care about you.