Written By: DiveThru Team
Reviewed By: Amanda Kobly M.Ed., Registered Provisional Psychologist
Written By: DiveThru Team
Reviewed By: Amanda Kobly M.Ed., Registered Provisional Psychologist
It can be hard to see the signs of emotional manipulation. Sometimes, the people we trust the most are actually using tactics to make you feel guilty, wrong, or like you’ve hurt them, even though you’re the one that’s being hurt. In fact, they might be using manipulation tactics without even realizing it! This can be confusing and hard to spot.
If you’re being manipulated, you probably feel some mix of fear, guilt, or obligation, but you don’t understand why. We’re here to help you see the signs, understand that you’re being manipulated, and respond from there!
There are many types of emotional manipulation, and knowing how to tell if you’re being manipulated can help you navigate your own feelings. Here’s 12 examples of what someone could say to manipulate you, and the emotional manipulation tactic that they’re using.
Let’s DiveThru it!
If someone says something that makes you upset, but then insists that it’s a joke, it’s “just a prank bro,” or that you’re being too sensitive, then they’re trying to tell you that you aren’t allowed to be upset with them. Uuuuuhhh, nope. That’s not how that works. If you’re upset by a comment or “joke,” you’re allowed to be upset, and no one can invalidate that feeling.
If you’re comfortable with the person, you can try to use “I” statements to explain to them why it hurt you, like, “I didn’t think that was funny because that topic is triggering to me.” If the person didn’t mean to hurt you, using an “I” statement like that can help them understand where you’re coming from.
Yikes. Major red flag. A manipulative person will prey on your insecurities to make you feel bad about yourself. So whether it’s your weight, income, education, or appearance—if you feel insecure about something, they’ll sniff it out and use it against you.
It could also take the form of a backhanded compliment, like, “I like your hair today. It looks better than it usually does.” Still an insult, but starting with a compliment gives the manipulator the ability to deny the insulting part. Rude AF.
Gaslighting is a form of emotional manipulation where the person tries to convince you that you’re misremembering things or just “crazy” in order to change how you feel about a situation. So if you know that your partner was being rude to you all night but they try to convince you that it never happened, you’re overreacting, or that you “always get like this,” it may be them gaslighting you. Long-term, gaslighting can cause people to question their own senses and reality because they’re constantly having their experiences invalidated.
Gaslighting is also pretty common in relationships with people who have narcissistic personality disorder. A lot of the behaviour in this list can be exhibited by people with NPD, honestly, so check out our other article if you wanna know more.
A common form of manipulation is when a manipulator uses other people in your life to back them up. They’re trying to make you feel outnumbered and powerless. By pitting you against not only them, but people you’re close to, like your friends and family members, they’re trying to take away your support system and give themselves the upper hand. Sooo not okay.
This tactic is called home court advantage. The manipulator wants to be in a place where they feel powerful and in control. In a workplace setting, this could look like a person insisting that you talk to them in their office rather than in your workspace. With a partner or friend, they would want to speak to you at their home instead of yours. Think about it – don’t you feel more comfortable and at ease in your own space? That’s what they’re banking on.
Have you heard the term “love bombing” before? It’s a form of manipulation in relationships where someone showers their romantic interest with grand gestures, too much attention, and big proclamations of love. They might claim that you’re soulmates, give you lots of gifts, and always text/ call you.
Check in with yourself: if the love you’re receiving is super early and pretty overwhelming, they’re likely love bombing you in order to get an intense commitment right away. Red flag!! Someone who loves you will respect your boundaries, time, and individuality, and not go too big, too fast. This can also be done inadvertently without ill intent, but it’s still harmful. It’s really important to set boundaries, no matter how excited you are about your new relationship.
Maaaaybe you’re new to setting boundaries, or find that sticking with them is really tough. We’ve got a great course all about boundaries in the DiveThru app! In “Boundaries 101,” registered therapist Simone Saunders goes through the different types of boundaries, how to set them, and how to enforce your boundaries. In a manipulative situation, boundaries will be suuuuper important. Get into the app and check the course out!!
Smokescreening/ a red herring is a tactic where the manipulator brings up a different topic—usually something you did wrong in their eyes—in order to deflect from being confronted by you. If you try to communicate with a manipulator and they want to change the subject right away, it’s a big sign that they’re being manipulative.
Okay, so this one will kinda depend on context and intention. Getting to know someone isn’t an inherently bad thing. Obviously. But if you find that the person asks lots of probing questions right away without offering much information of their own, they could be establishing a baseline and looking for weaknesses to manipulate later. Again, that’s not to say you shouldn’t get to know a new partner! But it should be a conversation you have together, not an interrogation.
Remember that thing we said earlier about setting boundaries? That applies here too. If you like the person, but find their questions to be a bit much, you can let them know that you aren’t ready to divulge everything right away and that you’ll tell them when you’re ready. Setting a boundary around your personal information is toootally fair.
To give you a less relationship-y example, think of a salesperson at a car dealership. If they get you talking and find out that you need to buy a car that day, they might keep the selling price high because they know you’re desperate. So, y’know, keep some information close to the chest.
Aaahh, yes. The silent treatment. This is a form of manipulation that’s loud and clear—without saying a word. The goal of the manipulator is to make your thoughts spiral. This is because silence can be uncomfortable, especially if it’s unexpected. They want you to reach out, apologize, and make up for whatever it is that’s making them ignore you, even when they don’t make the reason for the silent treatment clear. The silent treatment is not an effective replacement for open and honest communication.
The door-in-the-face technique can be used to manipulate people into giving into a request by making a bigger request at first, which then makes the following request seem small. In the example above, borrowing someone’s car is a pretty big request, so asking for a ride to work seems reasonable in comparison, even if it’s not something you want to do.
The foot-in-the-door technique is similar, but in the other direction. The person will ask for something small, then escalate to something bigger. A salesperson in a retail setting might use this by asking you to try a sample of their product, then, after you’re covered in twelve of their products and have been in the store for fifteen minutes, they ask you to buy something. You already said yes in the beginning, so why not say yes now?
Toxic workplaces loooove guilt-trips. Your manager or supervisor might guilt you into staying late in order to lessen the load on your co-workers, prove your dedication to your workplace, or show that you’re “worthy” of a raise or promotion. Remember: you sign an agreement with your workplace to work a certain amount of scheduled hours per week, and you shouldn’t have to work late if you aren’t able to or don’t want to. A good work-life balance is vital to your mental health.
This tactic is called moving the goalpost. The manipulator will ask for something, then change what they want after the manipulated person gives in. You give ‘em an inch and they try to take a mile! It’s a form of boundary pushing where the manipulator is trying to see how much they can get from another person. Remember what you originally agreed to and, if you don’t want to do more, then don’t do it!
This is an under-discussed form of sexual assault. Just because you consented to one thing doesn’t mean that you consent to anything more than that. Consent is an ongoing process, and there’s nothing sexier than our boundaries being respected!
You’ve made it through this list and thought, “huh, maybe I am being manipulated…” How do you respond?
As always, it depends on the context. In a sales situation, spotting manipulation can help you shut it down and protect your money. Let that salesperson know that you read up on all their tricks and you want a fair deal! Or take that free lotion sample from your fave place, say thanks, and walk out—because you’re not obligated to buy anything.
If you find that someone you’re close to is manipulating you, it can be a bit more complicated. Sometimes, manipulative people will use these tactics without even meaning to. If someone was brought up in a household where emotional manipulation was the norm, that might be how they were taught to communicate.
Does that mean it’s okay? Nope! It’s a conversation you’ll need to have with the person involved, for sure, and as long as you both remain direct and honest with communication, it can be worked out. But not everyone will be receptive, or accept that their behaviour is manipulative. Be ready to set boundaries with that person.
Purposeful manipulation is a form of abuse. If you find yourself unsure of your feelings, questioning yourself, and feel your mental health declining, reach out to your support system. Establishing firm boundaries with the manipulative person will be super important, as we said before. And a good practice is to delay your response to a request or demand from a manipulator—so you don’t let them guilt, shame, or confuse you into giving in. If it doesn’t feel right, check in with your emotions, and stick with your boundaries!