5 Types of Manipulative Behavior That Aren’t So Easy To Spot

Photo: Getty Images/Catherine Delahaye
At some point or another, all of us have exhibited and experienced signs of manipulation and the accompanying behavior—it’s part of human nature to a certain degree. (Have you ever had a small child “fake cry” or look at you super wide-eyed with hope when they want something? Yep, that’s the feeling.) But as you get older, it’s not so cute. Be it lying, ultimatums, or other tactics intended to control or influence someone to achieve a certain outcome, it's important to know how to identify different types of manipulative behavior so you can address them and set healthy boundaries for yourself and others.

Experts In This Article

"Manipulative behavior can be described as one person attempting to influence another’s emotions to produce a desired reaction or outcome," explains Anisha Patel-Dunn, DO, therapist and Chief Medical Officer at LifeStance Health. While the definition is straightforward, manipulative behavior can camouflage itself as all sorts of interpersonal games. Generally speaking, however, "you are being manipulated when you feel you do not have autonomy, choice or 'permission' to set boundaries," according to psychotherapist and psychoanalyst Babita Spinelli, LP.

To spot the many forms of manipulation IRL, we asked mental health experts what seemingly harmless actions are really red flags. Below are a few common types of manipulative behavior to be on the lookout for. Just remember: If someone you love is causing you mental or physical harm, consider seeking out the help of a professional. Your well-being is not up for negotiation.

5 lesser-known types of manipulative behavior to keep on your radar

1. Gaslighting

The term "gaslighting" hails from the 1938 play, Gas Light by Patrick Hamilton that was turned into an iconic movie Gaslight (1944), in which a husband manipulates his wife until she believes she's lost touch with reality. Unfortunately, this premise is still relevant today. "Gaslighting is a form of manipulation that takes place in relationships that are toxic," Spinelli says. "It's when the abusive individual dismisses the experience of the victim. The result would be that the victim would start to question their own reality."

You can confront someone who's gaslighting you using the following phrases Sarah Jane Crosby, a Dublin-based psychotherapist, previously shared with Well+Good.

  • "We remember things differently."
  • "If you continue to speak to me like this I’m not engaging."
  • "I hear you, and that isn’t my experience."
  • "I am walking away from this conversation."
  • "I am not interested in debating what happened with you."
  • "I will speak to you about [A+B]. I’m not willing to speak to you about [C]."

2. The silent treatment

In this scenario, the manipulator stops speaking to the other person because, yes, they are genuinely upset, says mental health counselor Leon Garber, LHMC; however, they use silence with the intent of maintaining power. “The victim is made to believe that they’ve done an egregious act that can only be forgiven through extensive efforts,” he explains.

Spinelli adds that giving someone the silent treatment doesn't have to happen in person; digital communication is often fraught with manipulative behaviors. "Deliberately not responding to text messages or emails with the intention of making a person wait in order to elicit anxiety or maintain control is a huge sign of manipulation," she says. So keep an eye out for intentional silence of all varieties.

That said, Dr. Patel-Dunn points out that sometimes people do need space to process before they can have a constructive conversation, so not all silence is a form of manipulation. The best way to determine what you’re dealing with is to ask. "If you find yourself on the receiving end of someone exhibiting the silent treatment, you can try setting clear boundaries and outlining your expectations. For example, say: 'I understand that you’re upset, but I would like to discuss this when we’re both feeling up to it. I’m going to give you some space, and I’ll check back in with you later today to see if you’re up for a conversation.'"

3. Guilt tripping

The intention of guilt tripping is to make the person you’re speaking to feel bad or ashamed so that they’ll modify their behavior to meet your expectation, explains Garber. “Guilt tripping can include reminding another about how much you’ve sacrificed for them, which is the form it usually takes; however, it can also include making another feel guilty about qualities and possessions the manipulator doesn’t have, like talent or a good reputation,” he says. “In this respect, the other party feels like they have to repay a debt.” Someone who's making you feel like this is manipulating you . And even if they're not necessarily realizing what they're doing, it's important to call it out when you see it, or remove yourself from the situation entirely.

4. Flattery

Compliments are great and everything, but you know when you just feel like your flatterer is not being genuine? Our mental health experts say to go with your gut. "This manipulative strategy involves expressing the ways in which you believe the other is special and often includes exaggeration,” says Garber. So this could look like a friend that’s constantly complimenting you in OTT ways that make you uncomfortable. “An example would be: 'You’ve helped me so much, and I can’t imagine what my life would be like without you,'” Garber says. “Since, we have a tendency to seek out positive, self-referential information, we can fall prey to flattery as a means of sustaining our self-esteem. The manipulator either knows they’re exaggerating or that their intent goes behind just providing a compliment.” They may, either consciously or unconsciously, be attempting to curry favor or keep you close to them by boosting up your ego (rather than really connecting with you).

This type of manipulation is fairly harmless, but can be annoying. So if you have someone in your life who's consistently manipulating you in this way, consider sitting them down and starting the conversation with "When you do [X], it makes me feel [Y]."

5. Love bombing

Grand urgent overtures of love in a blossoming relationship (aka love bombing) is a form of manipulation, says Spinelli. "It’s a strategic intent to manipulate the feelings of someone to fall quickly into the relationship," she explains. While people tend to associate love bombs with the beginning of relationships, they can also happen as time goes on. For example, maybe they buy you expensive gifts or are extremely attentive after they’ve hurt your deeply in some way or crossed a boundary in an effort to get you to forgive them rather than addressing their behavior. Love bombing relationships are almost always irredeemable, so being able to spot the signs early can save you some heartache long-term.

If you or someone you know is in an abusive relationship, please seek help from the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-899-7323 or thehotline.org.


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