Emotional Manipulation: What it is and how to deal with it

Emotional Manipulation

Have you ever wondered how somebody got you to do something you didn’t really want to do? Or why you ended up in a situation that you didn’t feel you chose?

If you frequently feel this way around your partner, then you may want to consider whether or not you are being emotionally manipulated.

Some people are highly skilled at manipulation. They learned it as a survival skill to get what they needed in life.  But for many, manipulation becomes a habit that carries into adulthood when it’s no longer necessary.

What is Emotional Manipulation:

Manipulation is essentially the use of unclear agendas in attempts to get another person to do what you want. Both the manipulator and the person being manipulated may be unaware that this is occurring.

Let’s be clear: Manipulation is not the same as influence. We all use influence to advance our goals. This is part of healthy social functioning. Influence recognizes the rights and boundaries of other people, and is based on direct, honest communication. But with manipulation, there is a tendency to exploit others and disregard their feelings. 

Who is vulnerable to emotional manipulation?

Anyone is subject to emotional manipulation by the highly skilled. But there are some common traits that people who are susceptible to manipulation share. Do any of these apply to you?

Feeling useful and loved only when meeting the needs of others. This goes beyond being nice. In this case, your sense of worth is tied up in doing things for others, to the point that you compromised your own well-being. Manipulators are drawn to this type of person.

Fear of expressing negative emotions. Do you go to any length to avoid a confrontation, or want things to be pleasant at all times?  Manipulators have an easy task in this kind of relationship: all they have to do is to threaten to get upset.

Difficulty saying no.  If you are afraid of the conflict that may arise when you say no, you play into the hands of the manipulator.

Weak sense of self. This means not knowing where you begin and the other person ends. Without a strong sense of self, it’s hard to trust your own judgment or to make decisions in your favor. This makes you a good match for manipulators.

Characteristics of Manipulators:

Just like people who are susceptible to manipulation, emotional manipulators also have some common traits.

 They don’t care what you want. They may act as though they do, and may even think they do. But they can orchestrate the people and events around them in a way that other’s don’t notice.

They are charming so everyone will like them. They put on their best impersonation of a nice person around others. They continue this facade throughout your time together. This deception is how they make you out to be the crazy one.

They know what gets to you. They will use your vulnerabilities as ammunition. It’s your secrets and fears that they use to make you appear unstable and unreasonable.

They always seem to get what they want from others. They can do this with either outright “cons” or, more subtly, they create the appearance that what benefits them was your idea.  They can also make other people feel sorry for them or use guilt to avoid responsibility.

Manipulative Techniques:

There are many techniques manipulators use to achieve their goals:  positive reinforcement (praise, affection, gifts, and attention), negative reinforcement (yelling, silent treatment, sulking), or most effective: sporadic positive reinforcement. Like gambling, sporadic positive reinforcement creates excitement and anxiety. While you may win repeatedly, you lose money overall.

Another way to manipulate is obviously to lie. But this includes lying by omission. This is a subtle form of lying by withholding relevant pieces of information.

There are also more insidious ways of manipulation. While the standard guilt-tripping, shaming and blaming approach is easier to spot, these are harder to identify:

Rationalization (excuses), Minimization (“it was only a joke”), Diversion (not giving a straight answer), Covert intimidation (putting people on the defensive with veiled threats), Projection (saying things about you that you know are true about them), and Seduction (charm or flattery to lower your defenses).

Emotional Manipulation: How to Deal with it

While you may not be able to change the behavior of the manipulator, you can change your own responses to raise your integrity.

Here are some ways to handle emotional manipulation:

Be Aware. The first thing is to listen and look for the techniques I mentioned above.

Listen to your feelings. If you are feeling confused, minimized, or full of self-doubt, then you need to pay close attention to what your partner is saying and doing.  No, you are not making a mountain out of a molehill. And no, you are not crazy.

Find the cause of your feelings. If you routinely feel guilty after speaking to a certain person, “rewind” the conversation in your mind and try to place where it started. It can help to write this down so you can notice a pattern emerging over time.

Notice when actions don’t match words. Don’t let words appease you. Listen to actions instead.

Know that the problem is them, not you. If you realize you’ve been hoodwinked, remember 1) it isn’t your fault and 2) they’re dealing with serious problems of their own. This provides context, but don’t misplace sympathy.

Assess Your Relationship. Weigh the outcome of addressing the issue. Anyone with the power to cause you emotional harm can make your life somewhat difficult. You may want to talk with friends first or get some reality-checks. Is the level of manipulation you experience best handled by your own inner work? Or is it worth confronting it head-on?

Assert Yourself.  This starts with no longer responding to their techniques the way you used to. You say “no” if you don’t want to, or speak your mind even if they don’t like it. Work on feeling okay with how they might respond negatively. If it’s not yours, don’t pick it up.

Confront them. In this case, consider the angles before you move forward. When you point things out to a manipulator, they will rarely just admit it.  Plus, you may be a little nervous and easily derailed. So be clear on what specific behaviors are bothering you and how it makes you feel. Follow up with a request to change the behaviors. When they start denying or minimizing, stick to your guns and keep your cool.

Taking power back in an emotionally manipulative relationship takes real commitment on a daily basis. It requires a little bit of vigilance at first.

But with practice, you’ll develop an inner strength that can never be lost.

Good luck and let me know how it goes in the comments below!

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