Emotional manipulation happens all the time and is often subtle and hard to detect. The results of psychological manipulation tactics are often the most visible signs it is occurring. Another person’s control over you can have a detrimental effect on your mental health, exacerbate anxiety issues, and lead to depression. It is impossible to have a healthy relationship when emotional manipulation is involved.
What Is Emotional Manipulation?
A form of social influence, emotional or psychological manipulation is not a healthy practice. It includes applying pressure to control someone’s thoughts and behaviors through crafty, abusive or other underhanded practices. Emotional manipulation happens when someone uses deception, or similar mechanisms, to exploit another person’s vulnerabilities to achieve his own goal.
An emotional manipulator might talk down your performance at work to make you feel insecure, so that you won’t compete for a promotion. An emotional manipulator may use lies or deception to alter your perception of reality. Their goal is to tip the balance of power in their favor. Manipulators control other people by exploiting their weaknesses.
When someone is emotionally manipulated, they feel pressure to act a certain way because they’re afraid of certain consequences if they don’t. A victim of manipulation might be afraid her husband will stop loving her if she doesn’t make the dinner he wants. Now, if she makes dinner because she loves her husband and wants to see him happy, then she’s not being manipulated. When she does it out of fear for emotional consequences, then he’s controlling her.
Emotional manipulation can happen between any two people, including between child and parent, significant others, and friends.
Signs of Emotional Manipulation
Emotions are often hard to express, understand and process, which is why emotional manipulation techniques can be subtle and often go undetected. It can be very destructive to the victim’s mental health and is a big red flag that a relationship isn’t healthy. Recognizing the signs of manipulation in a relationship is the first step in separating yourself from the practice.
Here are some signs of a manipulative person to look for to determine if someone is subtly trying to manipulate you:
- They make you feel sorry for voicing concerns or complaints. When you mention something that bothers you, this type of manipulator makes you feel sorry for bringing it up. You can never express your concerns without fear of reprisal. Their idea is to force you to keep your complaints to yourself and turn the focus back to them. It’s impossible to develop a trusting relationship with this type of person because you can’t talk about your feelings or ask for the change you need.
- They deny something they said previously. Lying, exaggerating and understating the truth are all means of manipulation. Manipulators will distort the facts to bolster their own argument, making it impossible for you to prevail. They might agree to a condition and later refuse to admit they ever said that. When dividing up household chores, for example, someone might agree, or even volunteer, to mop the floor. When the floor is not cleaned and you bring it up, that person will claim to never have agreed to do it. This type of manipulator is always moving the goal and changing the conditions to keep you off balance.
- They make you feel guilty. A guilt trip is a classic emotional manipulator tactic. Your actions are unreasonably tied to the happiness of your manipulator. When your significant other tells you it’s okay to go out with your friends then continues saying they’ll just sit at home all alone, that is a guilt trip. They wants you to feel sorry for them and choose to stay home instead. A guilt trip typically involves a tacit blame laid on the victim for the benefit of the manipulator. It can happen when the boss says he’ll have to stay late and finish the project instead of going home to his sick wife. He is emphasizing his sad situation to manipulate you into working late.
- They diminish your problems and highlight their own. Whenever you try to share your difficulties with this type of manipulator, they make those problems feel insignificant. They don’t express the appropriate sympathy for your situation. By highlighting their own problems — which they assume are much worse — they force you to believe that your problems don’t matter. You may be manipulated into thinking the stress you are experiencing is not warranted and that you’re weak.
- They communicate in a passive-aggressive style. Passive-aggressive is an indirect way of communicating that often leads to an emotional reaction. This type of manipulator might talk behind your back. Instead of telling you they don’t like your cooking, they tell your best friend, knowing it will eventually get back to you. The silent treatment is another form of passive-aggressive behavior. It makes you feel unimportant or as if you are not worthy of verbal communication.
- They make subtle threats or use aggressive language. This type of manipulator might use a loud voice or stand very close to you when they’re talking. The tone of voice is meant to force you to acquiesce and discontinue the debate, and they may be trying to scare you into not wanting to escalate the situation any further. The body language this manipulator uses is meant to be imposing. If they are not of large stature, they may position themselves above you on a step or incline, or stand over you while you are seated. They may also use large hand gestures with a lot of fast movements, especially near your face. These are also meant to intimidate and coerce you into acting as they direct.
When you see these unhealthy types of behavior and communication methods, there’s probably emotional manipulation going on. Patterns of behavior are partially learned from the people around us. If you grew up around people who used emotional manipulation to get what they wanted, you might have developed some of these habits, as well.
Emotional Manipulation in Relationships
The free and safe expression of your ideas and beliefs is part of what makes a relationship healthy. When two people can do this with each other, they form a special bond. A relationship is not always equal or evenly balanced every day, but over an extended time, everything equals out.
One person might provide the emotional support while the other is going through a crisis. In time, the crisis will end and the supportive person will become the recipient of support. Everyone takes their turn. The mutual respect two individuals in a relationship have for one another helps them maintain personal boundaries while growing together.
When there’s a disagreement, both partners may argue to try to sway the other’s point of view. Sometimes they may decide to maintain their differences of opinion and neither changes their mind. There may be times when one partner presents a stronger case and the other decides to change their views or behavior because of that.
Sometimes disagreeing partners may resolve their difference in another way. Instead of reacting to the merits of the argument, one partner may decide to acquiesce to the other as a sign of respect. The partner who changes does so by their own decision and not because they were coerced or afraid of consequence if they did not give in. In a healthy relationship, partners take turns being the one who gives in when an agreement cannot be reached.
Emotional manipulation has no place in this type of healthy, nurturing relationship. Partners in a relationship are free to express their needs and opinions. No one should be coerced or manipulated into acting a certain way. Emotional manipulation is dangerous to relationships because it forces people to alter their behavior for the wrong reasons.
Behaviors based on guilt or fear are not genuine. Would you like someone to love you because they are afraid not to? Emotional manipulation puts all the power into the manipulator’s hands and leaves the other partner feeling weak and vulnerable. At any time, the manipulator might unleash his wrath, refuse to talk or simply walk out of the relationship.
How Emotional Manipulation Effects Mental Health
People who are the targets of emotional manipulation are made to feel small and powerless. When someone pushes you around all the time, you start to believe that you are weak. Emotional manipulators cause a reduction in the victim’s self-esteem by constantly reminding them of their mistakes.
Then, manipulators develop a tremendous sense of power. Whether they are conscious of it or not, they see that they get their way all the time and begin to develop a god complex, believing that their way is always best and that it’s natural and right for them to have power over the other person.
Mental health issues, specifically anxiety and depression, can be exacerbated by emotional manipulation. The target of the manipulation begins to anticipate attacks from the manipulator as if they were physical. Stress builds each time their manipulator yells, gives them the silent treatment or utilizes other manipulating tactics. There’s a constant fear that vulnerabilities will be exposed or exploited.
Depression can develop because of emotional manipulation when the partner who is being manipulated experiences a feeling of powerlessness. The manipulation points out flaws, mistakes and vulnerabilities that you aren’t proud of. Having these things held up to your face repeatedly can diminish your sense of self-worth. It’s easy to believe the manipulator is right about you, and depression sets in.
How to Stop Emotional Manipulation
Emotional manipulation can create mental health issues and a downward spiral in a relationship. As soon as you recognize you’re being manipulated, take steps to stop it, or distance yourself from the manipulator. Here are a few suggestions for how to respond to manipulation:
- Remember your worth and fundamental human right to respect. There’s never a reason for someone to raise their voice to you, bully you, or strike you. When a conversation escalates to shouting, walk away. Suggest postponing the conversation until the other person is less angry and can better control their temper. In a debate or discussion where you and the other person have opposing views, you have a right to be heard. Listen when it is not your turn to speak, but do not abdicate your right to express your opinion clearly and uninterrupted. You are on equal ground with the other person as a person deserving of respect.
- Avoid blaming yourself. Each person is responsible for themselves. You are not to blame when someone becomes angry or aggressive. Do not accept the guilt another person tries to throw at you. If that person does not like your behavior or the ideas you choose to share, they have several options that do not include manipulating you into believing it’s your fault.
- Put the focus back on the manipulator by asking clarifying questions. When a manipulator tries to get you to do something, ask some questions that might show them the request is unreasonable. Ask if the request seems reasonable. Restate what they’re asking you to do in the form of a question. Ask if it’s a demand or a request, if you have a say in it and what you get out of it. These questions will force the manipulator to look at the situation from your perspective.
- Use time to your advantage. It is hard to make a good decision under pressure, which is exactly what a manipulator is counting on. They will force you to agree to something before you have a chance to think about it, hoping to push you into it and knowing you’ll follow through on your word. Instead of answering right away, take time to think about it. Walk away so you’re not under their influence while you consider what you want to do.
- Learn to diplomatically but firmly say “no.” Resisting a manipulator is tricky, but it can be done. Saying no is not always the easiest, but if you practice it can get easier. The key to telling a manipulator no is to be firm but pleasant. Raising your voice or expressing anger may only inflame this type of personality, but you have to be able to say “no” and mean it.
- Stay safe. Most of the threatening behavior of manipulators is just bluster, but if you feel that confronting them could put you in physical danger do so in a public place with plenty of people around. Staying safe also means protecting your mental health. Limit your exposure to an emotional manipulator as much as you can, because the messages you get from them can be damaging.
Be gentle with yourself. It’s easy to get caught up in the head games of an emotional manipulator. What is important is that you realize what is happening, so you can make some changes and minimize the damage. Your freedom to express yourself through words and actions is essential to your well-being and your mental health. You can’t alter the behaviors of others, but you can limit your exposure to situations that are unhealthy and refuse to internalize the messages a manipulator tries to feed you.