Manipulation: Symptoms to Look For

Medically Reviewed by Smitha Bhandari, MD on December 10, 2022

It’s natural for people in relationships to experience problems as the relationship grows. Sometimes these problems stem from emotions or greed. One type of problem that can surface in any type of relationship is manipulation. This is a problem that can lead to others along the way. Learn the signs of manipulation and what to do about it if it surfaces in your relationships with others.

What Is Manipulation?

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 manipulating — called the manipulator — seeks to create an imbalance of power, and take advantage of a victim to get power, control, benefits, and/or privileges at the expense of the victim. 

Manipulation can happen in close or casual relationships, but they are more common in closely formed relationships. In a way, everyone can manipulate others to get what they want. But manipulation is defined as 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  

Signs of Manipulation

Manipulation can happen in many forms. In fact, sometimes kindness can be a form of manipulation depending on the intent. Then the question is raised, is any form of influence considered manipulation?

Whether manipulation has good or bad intentions, it is still an attempt to undermine your rational thinking.

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 are successful in their manipulation, they will continue to do so until you are able to 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 actively 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 are experts in exaggeration and generalization. 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 have 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

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.

Constant Judging

The manipulator does not hide their manipulation behind humor or “good fun.” In this case, they are openly 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 do not offer constructive solutions. 

Treating Manipulation

Manipulation can be hard to identify or admit to when it’s happening to you. You are not at fault for having manipulation happen to you. There is no way to prevent manipulation, because it’s an issue of the manipulator. It’s up to the manipulator to find help.

However, there are ways 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 individual, 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 putting an end to it. If manipulation is coming from a loved one, it can be very difficult to seek help. However, manipulation can take a toll on your own emotional well-being. Therefore, it’s important that you are able to find a safe way out of the situation.

Support and Resources

If you feel like you may be getting manipulated by a loved one, friend, or coworker it is important to reach out to a trusted resource to find help. Resources to consider include:

  • Relationship counselor
  • Therapist
  • Friends
  • Trusted family members
  • National abuse hotlines

Show Sources


GoodTherapy: “Red Flags: Are You Being Emotionally Manipulated?”

Psychology Today: “14 Signs of Psychological and Emotional Manipulation.”

Psychology Today: “Are You Being Manipulated?”

Psychology Today: “How to Spot and Stop Manipulators.”

Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy: “The Ethics of Manipulation.”

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