Manipulation: Symptoms to Look For

Medically Reviewed by Jabeen Begum, MD on April 03, 2023
5 min read

It’s natural for people in relationships to have problems as the relationship grows. Sometimes these issues stem from emotions or greed. One type of problem that can surface in any type of relationship is manipulation. Learn the signs of manipulation and what to do about it if it happens in your relationships.

Manipulation is the exercise of harmful influence over others. People who manipulate others attack their mental and emotional sides to get what they want. The person doing the manipulating, called the manipulator, seeks to create an imbalance of power. They take advantage of you to get power, control, benefits, and/or privileges. 

Manipulation can happen in close or casual relationships, but they are more common in closely formed relationships. It includes any attempt to sway someone’s emotions to get them to act or feel a certain way.

Manipulators have common tricks they’ll use to make you feel irrational and more likely to give in to their requests. A few common examples include: 

  • Guilt
  • Complaining
  • Comparing
  • Lying
  • Denying
  • Feigning ignorance or innocence
  • Blame 
  • Mind games  

Manipulation can happen in many forms. In fact, acting kind can be a form of manipulation, depending on the intent. 

People who manipulate others have common traits that you can look for. They include: 

  • They know your weaknesses and how to exploit them.
  • They use your insecurities against you.
  • They convince you to give up something important to you, to make you more dependent on them.
  • If they succeed in their manipulation, they will continue to do so until you  get out of the situation.

Other signs of manipulation include: 

Location Advantage

A manipulator will try to bring you out of your comfort zone and places that you are familiar with to have an advantage over you. This can be in any place that the manipulator feels ownership of or in control.

Manipulation of Facts

A manipulator will lie to you, make excuses, blame you, or strategically share facts about them and withhold other truths. In doing this, they feel they are gaining power over you and gaining intellectual superiority. 

Exaggeration and Generalization

Manipulators exaggerate and generalize. They may say things like, “No one has ever loved me.” They use vague accusations to make it harder to see the holes in their arguments.

Cruel Humor

This tactic used by manipulators is meant to poke at your weaknesses and make you feel insecure. By making you look bad, they feel a sense of psychological superiority. 


This tactic is used by the manipulator to confuse you and make you question your own reality. The manipulation happens when you confront the abuse or lies and the manipulator tells you that it never happened.

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 seek passive-aggressive ways to let the other person know they don’t really want to be doing it. They may use specific passive-aggressive techniques such as:

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

People can be passive-aggressive for many reasons that aren’t always intended to manipulate. But chronic (long-term) manipulators will use this tactic to make you feel guilty and give backhanded compliments. They are doing this to show anger without directly being angry, making you feel confused.

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.

Other forms include 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 overwhelm someone or subvert their goals.


Another strategy used by emotionally manipulative people is to twist facts or other information needed to accurately assess a situation. 

In some cases, the manipulator will simply lie or claim ignorance about something. 

Guilt and Sympathy

Many people are highly susceptible to guilt. Some even go so far as to punish themselves in response to things they feel guilty about.

Emotionally manipulative people prey on this vulnerability. They may play the victim or remind you of past favors. They want you to feel a sense of obligation or sympathy that they think will make them more likely to get what they want.


The simplest example of this kind of emotional manipulation is the silent treatment, when someone punishes you by ignoring you.


Sometimes a manipulative person will compare you to 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 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, to try to pressure you into making their preferred decision.

Love-Bombing: Overwhelming and Unearned Closeness

Showering a new acquaintance with praise and affection, also called “love-bombing,” is a common tactic of emotional manipulation. It's even used in cults. An emotional manipulator may try to bind you to them through manufactured vulnerability or an artificially accelerated relationship.

Constant Judging

The manipulator does not hide their manipulation behind humor or “good fun.” In this case, they're open about judging, ridiculing, and dismissing you. They want to make you feel like you’re doing something wrong, and that no matter what you do, you will be inadequate to them. They only focus on negative aspects and don't offer constructive solutions. 

Manipulation can be hard to identify or admit to when it happens to you. You are not at fault and you may not be able to prevent it. But there are things you can do to reduce the emotional impact of manipulation. Here are ways to set strong boundaries in a relationship: 

  • Communicate in clear, direct, and specific ways.
  • Understand when manipulation is not normal and needs to be addressed.
  • Set boundaries around manipulation and find a way to let the person know that you understand they are manipulating you, and that you don’t want to be a part of that conversation.
  • Seek out a trusted person, who is not under the influence of the manipulator, and ask their advice about your situation. 

Being able to identify manipulation is a large part of your solution. If manipulation is coming from a loved one, it can be very difficult to seek help. But manipulation can take a toll on your own emotional well-being. So it's important that you find a safe way out of the situation.

If you feel like someone may be trying to manipulate you – whether it's a  partner, relative, friend, co-worker, or anyone else – it's important to get help, especially if the situation is abusive in any way. Resources include: 

  • Relationship counselor
  • Therapist
  • Friends
  • Trusted family members
  • National Domestic Violence Hotline: 800-799-7233