No matter who the manipulator is, however, manipulation can be seriously harmful, causing you to make decisions you wouldn’t otherwise make or question your own judgment outright. That’s why it’s so important to spot the signs of manipulation in action: Learning how to tell if someone is manipulating you from the outset can help you know when you need to take action, advocate for yourself and your boundaries, or cut ties entirely.
What are the traits of a manipulative person?
Just like other elements of behavior and personality, manipulation falls on a spectrum, says clinical psychologist Carla Marie Manly, PhD, author of Joy From Fear. Manipulative characteristics “can range from extremely low to pathologically high,” she says.
Generally, however, “manipulative people tend to have high to extremely high levels of exploitative, self-serving traits including dishonesty, overconfidence, lack of empathy, suspiciousness, dominance, remorselessness, impulsiveness, inconsiderateness, lack of accountability, and mercilessness,” says Dr. Manly.
People who excel at manipulating others also have a strong desire for control. “Those who engage in manipulative behaviors employ these toxic tactics because it gives them a sense of power over others,” says Dr. Manly. She adds that often people who are highly manipulative also have a mental health condition leading them to engage in this behavior, such as antisocial personality disorder or narcissism. “These types of serious disorders often arise due to a combination of genetics, upbringing, and inherent personality,” she says.
Types of manipulation
These are some specific examples of manipulative behaviors that are worth being on the lookout for, according to psychologist Rachel Hoffman, LCSW, PhD, chief clinical officer at mental health telemedicine service Real:
- Gaslighting, lying, and guilt-tripping
- Refusing to compromise
- Passive-aggressive behavior, including the silent treatment
- Extreme emotional highs and lows that impact the relationship
- Isolating you from relationships with family and friends
- Intentionally damaging your self-esteem and confidence by making hurtful comments and jokes
- Pressuring you to make quick decisions
- Withholding information from you
Signs of manipulation in action
If you’re not certain whether someone is exhibiting manipulative behavior , Dr. Hoffman suggests asking yourself these three questions to spot the key signs of manipulation in practice:
1. Am I being gaslit?
If you find yourself constantly questioning your reality and replaying situations to uncover the truth, that is a strong sign you're being manipulated through gaslighting, says Dr. Hoffman.
2. Am I being isolated from other relationships?
A manipulative person wants your full focus and loyalty and will often take steps to create distance between you and other important people in your life, says Dr. Hoffman.
3. Am I being pressured to make fast decisions?
Maybe you don’t feel like you have enough information about a person or scenario, or maybe something in your gut just doesn’t feel right. Someone engaging in manipulative behavior will put extreme pressure on you to ignore those feelings and make quick choices.
Common manipulation tactics and techniques
Many manipulators are great storytellers, and use their ability to spin a yarn to both form connections with potential targets and keep them under their thumb. “They can weave tales that leave others, and sometimes themselves, believing in their lies,” says Dr. Manly. “These stories generally have a self-serving goal, whether it’s to boost their own ego, attack another’s self-confidence, or get their needs met in the material realm.”
Manipulators are also adept at reading and exploiting situations to reach those self-serving goals. For example, they might be able to quickly suss out someone else’s needs or weaknesses as a means to build a bond, and then use that same information against the person to gain control.
It might seem like someone would need to be extremely intelligent to control the emotional chess of manipulation, but Dr. Manly says this isn’t always the case. While not all manipulators are smart, they are “exceedingly crafty and often charismatic,” she says. “It is their duplicitous, self-serving nature that makes them so dangerous.”
Common phrases manipulators use
Look out for phrases that emphasize or take advantage of a weakness or sensitivity. For example, a manipulator might tell someone who is self-conscious about their looks that “this shirt would look perfect on you” to position themselves as a fan of theirs. This way, the person on the receiving end may be more willing to readily trust the manipulator’s judgment at a later point.
Similarly, a manipulator might use someone’s insecurity to bait them into doing something that benefits them—for example, by saying something like, “You deserve this for yourself” to convince someone who worries about overworking to call in sick and hang out with them. Another phrase they might use: “You’ll feel so much better if you do [insert thing here]…” to convince someone to take an action about which they may feel hesitant or even reticent.
Other common things that manipulators say? Phrases meant to help them dodge blame, accountability, and consequences for their actions or words, says Dr. Manly. If a manipulative person finds themselves in a situation where something goes awry, their impulse will be to shift the blame away from themselves. “You can count on the manipulator to avoid accountability with phrases such as, ‘I warned you not to do that,’ ‘It’s too bad you made such a poor choice,’ or, ‘If only you had thought more about the possible consequences,’” says Dr. Manly.
The most skilled manipulators may also communicate a favorable idea in such a deviously artful way as to make you believe that the idea was yours all along. For example, let’s say a manipulator convinced you to buy them an expensive gift. They might say something like, “You were so kind to think of spending your paycheck on that gift for me” as a means to convince you that you thought of the idea first and that it’s something you should do again.
What are the stages of manipulation?
Generally, a manipulative person will attempt to influence a target in four stages, according to Dr. Manly. This sequence is a means for the person to find someone susceptible to their machinations, ingratiate themselves with the person, and then start the abuse.
This first stage involves the manipulator finding someone whom they think will be easily susceptible to their manipulation techniques—what Dr. Manly calls “feeling out.” The manipulative person needs to identify someone who’s highly empathetic, has a weakness or insecurity they can use against them, and seems eager to form a close bond.
2. Friendship formation
This stage involves a “careful campaign to create the illusion of a genuine, trustworthy friendship or partnership,” says Dr. Manly. Things may seem totally normal during this stage to the person being manipulated, or perhaps too good to be true, as the bond develops quickly and seamlessly.
Once the relationship is established, the love-building stage is about deepening the bond and intimacy with their victim, gaining their victim's trust so they can eventually harness it for their personal agenda.
With the foundation of a seemingly equal and genuine relationship laid, the manipulator then moves into some type of abusive behavior as outlined above; this is when the signs of manipulation typically become apparent, whether that manipulation involves gaslighting, guilt-tripping, love-bombing, or something else.
“Once the manipulator has successfully pulled the victim into their web, various levels and types of abuse are employed to reduce the victim’s sense of self-worth and capacity,” says Dr. Manly.
What to do if you notice you’re being manipulated
Being manipulated can be seriously detrimental to your emotional well-being, so it’s important to reach out to close loved ones (or a mental-health professional) as soon as you spot the signs of manipulation.
“Ongoing manipulation can happen in very close relationships over a prolonged period, and the complexity can make it hard to recognize and unpack,” says Dr. Hoffman. “Friends and family, particularly those who don’t know the manipulator well, can serve as objective and safe third parties, while a therapist can help the victim properly process the situation.”
Setting strong boundaries is another important step to take after identifying the warning signs of manipulation. “While clear and consistent boundaries can protect you from being manipulated, you must also communicate what you expect moving forward [from the manipulator], as well as the consequences for not respecting that boundary,” says Dr. Hoffman. The manipulator will likely respond poorly to your boundary setting, and may try to convince you to weaken or remove them all together.
Nevertheless, Dr. Hoffman emphasizes that it’s key to “continue to communicate what that boundary is, and what will happen if it gets violated, and be prepared to walk away from this person entirely.” If you find yourself with someone who is constantly violating or pushing your boundaries and won’t change their behavior, she adds that “it’s certainly worth considering if the relationship makes sense to continue in any form.”
Making that call can be difficult when you’re in the midst of manipulation, which is why, again, it’s so important to tap your support network of loved ones for their insights. Hearing the encouragement of people who have your best interests in mind can help you learn to trust your instincts when someone’s behavior toward you changes for the worse.
What to do if you notice a friend or family member is being manipulated
It’s important to provide a non-judgmental and safe place for the person being manipulated. “Actively listen, ask clarifying questions, and be honest, while avoiding being overly critical,” advises Dr. Hoffman. Perhaps this person doesn’t realize they’re being manipulated—it’s worth hearing what they have to say.
Dr. Hoffman also advises getting a sense of where they stand in regard to the situation before gently reminding them that what they’re experiencing—from your perspective—looks like behavior that they should not tolerate. Still, it’s important not to blame them or question how they could’ve been so naive; lead with empathy and support, and ask how you can help instead.
Frequently asked questions about manipulation
Who do manipulators typically target?
People who struggle with setting boundaries, have a surplus of empathy, and have low self-confidence, are easy targets for manipulation. While empathy is a noble quality, too much of it can undermine your mental and emotional well-being, says Dr. Hoffman. “Manipulators count on people with an endless supply of empathy and prey on those with a lack of self-confidence and self-esteem by making them feel like they won’t be able to do any better.”
Members of minority or marginalized groups are also at a higher risk of being manipulated. “These people often receive the most unconscious bias from majority group members who often get to use their power and privilege to manipulate not just people but systems, too,” says executive coach Brooks E. Scott, founder of coaching platform Merging Path.
How do you outsmart a manipulator?
Because manipulative people are typically quite attuned to others’ feelings and weaknesses, Dr. Manly says it’s difficult to trick or outsmart them—and can even be dangerous to try to do so, depending on the circumstance.
Rather than focusing on getting one over on a manipulator or figuring out how to manipulate a manipulator, Dr. Manly recommends neutralizing their powers by carefully observing their behaviors and inclinations (so you’re less likely to fall victim to their overtures).
If you can identify the signs of manipulation in their commonly used phrases or tactics, you can also figure out how to avoid playing into their games. “As you learn to study a manipulator [rather than be drawn in by them], their red-flag behaviors will become more obvious and thus easier to avoid,” says Dr. Manly.
What should you do if you think *you’re* being manipulative?
If any of the above signs of manipulation are reminiscent of behaviors you’re wont to do, you may find yourself wondering, “Am I manipulative?” And if you tend to lean on deception as a means to get what you want or skew toward “white lies” or other embellishments to garner the sympathy of others, you might fall into the manipulative camp.
According to Dr. Manly, however, it’s possible to unlearn this harmful behavior if you commit to doing so. With work, even deeply ingrained behaviors can be altered, she says. “Due to neuroplasticity [aka the ability of the brain to change over time], a manipulative person can surely work to shape their brain in positive ways,” she says.
The first step is noticing the signs of manipulation in action—or listening carefully to loved ones who may have identified your manipulative tendencies—and considering what internal motives might be leading you toward that behavior. From there, however, Dr. Manly recommends seeking some professional help to go down the path toward behavior change. A therapist or psychologist trained in helping those who struggle with personality disorders will be the best resource in this scenario.
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