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Signs of Emotional Manipulation

Medically Reviewed by Dan Brennan, MD on November 23, 2020

What Is Emotional Manipulation?

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.

Almost everyone can be a little bit manipulative from time to time. Sometimes a person is having a bad day. Sometimes they’ve fallen into bad habits and poor communication. In these cases, calling someone out on their bad behavior may be enough to put a stop to it,

However, some people are habitually or pathologically manipulative and must be handled with care. A person who habitually engages in emotional manipulation is said to be Machiavellian. This term comes from Niccolò Machiavelli, the author of a 16th century book called The Prince, which advocates for political leaders to use manipulative tactics.

Signs of Emotional Manipulation

Emotional manipulation can have many different contexts and styles, but here are eight classic strategies that emotionally manipulative people use: 

Passive Aggression

In passive aggression, the manipulator doesn’t voice negative feelings toward or problems with a person. Instead, they find indirect ways to express their anger and undermine the other person. 

Emotional manipulators will often agree to a project or action, then start looking for passive-aggressive ways to let the other person know they don’t really want to be doing it. Specific passive-aggressive techniques employed by emotional manipulators include:

  • Sullenness or cynicism
  • Intentional mistakes and procrastination
  • Complaints about being underappreciated or somehow cheated out of something
  • Resentment and covert opposition

Social and Emotional Bullying

Bullies don’t always use physical violence. Constant criticism, raised voices, and threats are forms of emotional bullying. Social bullying can take the form of rumor spreading or deliberate exclusion.

Bullying can also take the forms of intellectual and bureaucratic bullying. In intellectual bullying, someone tries to claim the role of subject matter expert, making another person feel inadequate and dependent on them for information. Bureaucratic bullying is the use of red tape — laws, procedures, or paperwork — to either overwhelm someone or subvert their goals.

Distortion

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 own 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.

Withdrawal

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.

Comparison

Sometimes a manipulative person will draw a comparison between you and someone else in order 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.

Dealing with Emotional Manipulation

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, has 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 at home and cannot leave the situation, the following actions may help to counter emotionally manipulative tactics in the moment:

  • Avoid people who engage in love-bombing
  • Assert yourself and your boundaries out loud, even if it feels rude to do so
  • Speak to others about the emotional manipulation and get their validation
  • Take your time instead of being rushed into decisions you may regret

Support and Resources

Depending on the source and type of emotional manipulation, you may benefit from professional counseling or a support group. 

If you are in an emotionally abusive relationship, there are organizations that can help. Call the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-7233.

WebMD Medical Reference

Sources

SOURCES:

American Psychological Association: APA Dictionary: “Machiavellianism.”

American Psychological Association: APA Dictionary: “manipulation.”

Emotion: “When guilt evokes self-punishment: Evidence for the existence of a Dobby Effect.”

Episteme: “Communities of Disrespect: What Happens When Personhood is Lost.”

Frontiers in Psychology: “Strategies and motives for resistance to persuasion: an integrative framework.”

Journal of Experimental Social Psychology: “Decision speed and choice regret: When haste feels like waste.”

Journal of Personality: “Manipulation in Close Relationships: Five Personality Factors in Interactional Context.”

Mayo Clinic: “What is passive-aggressive behavior? What are some of the signs?”

National Domestic Violence Hotline: “Here For You.”

The Journal of Urgent Care Medicine: “THAT’S NOT WHAT HAPPENED! HOW TO DEAL WITH GASLIGHTING IN THE WORKPLACE.”

UK Center for Research on Violence Against Women: “Does treatment with intimate partner violence offenders work?”

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