Emotional manipulators are masters at getting what they want. This means you’ve got to learn how to deal with them without letting yourself get dragged down by their manipulation tactics. If you find yourself dealing with one, here’s how to deal with an emotional manipulator and ways to protect yourself from their emotional manipulation tactics.
Emotional manipulation can have a profoundly negative impact on your mental health. People who emotionally manipulate others may not always be aware of that impact and may not always intend to harm the victim of manipulation, but that harm often happens anyway.
Emotional manipulation is an emotionally immature means of satisfying one’s wants and needs. It is a defining characteristic of narcissism, emotional immaturity, and some types of insecurity.
In this article, we’ll explore why some people emotionally manipulate others and what you can do to keep your mental and emotional health and well-being in check if you have been a victim of emotional manipulation.
What is emotional manipulation?
Emotional manipulation is the act of influencing another person’s emotions and thought patterns to get what you want. It is immature and selfish on an interpersonal level, but it happens on a much larger scale, too.
Corporates and advertisers are skilled emotional manipulators. They appeal to customer insecurities and desire to encourage them to pay for a product or service, often through subtle messages that evoke fear, guilt, or shame of oneself, and through offering solutions to those feelings achievable by purchasing what they have to offer.
Individual emotional manipulators are not much different. Like the advertisers, they want something from you and will use clever tactics to play on your emotions to get it. The danger with emotional manipulation on an interpersonal level is that it becomes quite dangerous if left unchecked.
Emotional manipulation between individuals is a form of emotional abuse. It can lead you into an emotional black hole that absorbs your life energy and puts you at risk of developing mental health issues like depression and anxiety, and you might not even be aware of how that other person had such an influence.
Examples of emotional manipulation
Guilt-tripping is a hallmark example of emotionally manipulative behavior. The manipulator uses logic and reason as well as guilt to influence your behavior. They might remind you of a time when they helped you out in order to encourage you to help them now, even if you don’t have the time or resources. An emotionally manipulative parent might remind you of how they put a roof over your head and worked hard to feed you. They want you to feel guilty so that you fulfill their current wishes.
Instead of confronting an issue or calling you out on some hurtful behavior, an emotional manipulator might instead choose to give you the silent treatment, give you backhanded compliments or engage in other passive-aggressive behaviors that make it hard for you to know what the problem really is. They want you to feel uncomfortable and confused so that you’ll ask them what’s wrong instead of coming to you first. Their behavior is a means of controlling yours and often comes from a place of insecurity about being assertive.
Emotional manipulators are incredibly skilled liars. They can convince you of non-truths that make you question your reality and leave you feeling confused and disoriented. They might even get you to apologize for things of which the blame was in no way yours to take on.
Invalidation makes you wonder if there is something wrong with you for feeling the way you do. It undermines self-confidence because it causes self-doubt. This, in turn, diminishes self-esteem.” – Adelyn Birch, 30 Covert Emotional Manipulation Tactics: How Manipulators Take Control In Personal Relationships
If you’re in a manipulative relationship (which is an emotionally abusive relationship), then you’ve likely been a victim of gaslighting. A gaslighter will deny something they said or did when you confront them about it.
For example, if they promised to meet you at 7 pm for dinner but show up at 8 pm, they might try to convince you that you both agreed at 8 pm. They’ll make you question your memory and doubt yourself and will rely on the fact that you have no proof that 7 pm was the agreed time to meet.
Why do people emotionally manipulate others?
Often, the cause of emotionally manipulative behavior is deep insecurity stemming from a perceived lack of control over one’s own life. It’s used as a survival mechanism against feeling powerless, a feeling that can lead to despair and a range of other difficult emotions and dangerous thoughts.
The roots of emotional manipulation often lie in a person’s family history. Suppose in one’s family of origin a person felt the need to compete for their parents’ love, affection, and acceptance or felt that their own feelings we invalid.
In that case, they may have learned to achieve those things through emotional performance. They know that acting in a certain way, such as crying, sulking, or engaging in a dangerous activity, will catch their parents’ attention, so they learn how to feign these things.
An emotionally manipulative person believes that their behavior is completely justified. Life has been unfair in one way or another, so they feel that they have the right to behave unfairly.
How to protect yourself against emotional manipulation
Recognize the signs
We outlined some of the common signs of emotional manipulation earlier. Just to remind you, these were:
- Passive aggression
There are many signs of emotional manipulation, and some are more subtle than others. It’s wise to keep even the most subtle signs in mind to help you gain an advantage over the emotional manipulator in your life. If you suspect that someone in your has been trying to manipulate you, or you anticipate that behavior in the future, bear the following signs in mind:
- They get close to you very quickly
- They twist the meanings of words
- They play the victim
- They target your insecurities
Emotional manipulators are skilled verbalists. They can twist your words in a way that makes you hesitant to express yourself. You don’t want to say the wrong thing or appear hypocritical, but you would only appear that way because the manipulator has twisted your words. They also create illusions and false promises. They can promise you the world but make seemingly rational and justified excuses all day long as to why they couldn’t follow through.
As such, it’s wise to pay less attention to the words of an emotional manipulator and more to their actions. By focusing on what they do, you can develop a greater sense of their character and will be less likely to place your trust in them in the future, thus saving yourself from a lot of confusion and frustration.
Maintain your self-esteem
Whether you’re dealing with an emotional manipulator or not, it’s always important to be mindful of how you feel and to keep your self-esteem high. High self-esteem is not the same as arrogance or overconfidence – it’s about believing in yourself and your abilities, your inherent self-worth, and your right to be here. It’s the foundation of confidence and supports positive, growth-oriented decision-making.
A lack of self-esteem had the opposite effect. It is an obstacle to consistent and healthy decision-making because it makes you feel incapable and unworthy. It creates feelings of self-doubt and makes them markedly more vulnerable to external influence. As such, people with low self-esteem are a prime target for emotional manipulation. Emotional manipulators might even try to bring down your self-esteem to make an easier target to influence and manipulate.
“Emotional manipulation methodically wears down your self-worth and self-confidence and damages your trust in your own perceptions,” explains Adelyn Birch, “It can make you unwittingly compromise your personal values, which leads to a loss of self-respect and a warped self-concept. With your defenses weakened or completely disarmed in this manner, you are left even more vulnerable to further manipulation.”
So, how do we maintain our self-esteem and protect ourselves from manipulation? We stay grounded. We put our time and energy into things we enjoy, and which give us a sense of meaning and belonging. We cultivate a strong sense of self-worth and inherent validity by reaching out and connecting with people whom we trust and whom we know have our best interests at heart. We set healthy, firm boundaries around people and behaviors that challenge our well-being.
Protect yourself with boundaries
Boundaries define us. They define what is me and what is not me. A boundary shows me where I end, and someone else begins, leading me to a sense of ownership. Knowing what I am to own and taking responsibility for myself gives me freedom. – Henry Cloud
A boundary is a means of protecting your energy and maintaining your health. Understand that boundaries are not something that we can expect others to respect. It’s great when they do, but not everyone is going to respect your boundaries because sometimes those boundaries are an inconvenience for others.
For example, an emotionally manipulative mother might call you frequently to complain about your sister. She might criticize her life choices and even make jokes about her because deep down, she feels insecure and needs a scapegoat. If you decide that you no longer want to tolerate this negative talk about your sister, your mother may have no one to complain to and may have to deal with her deeper and difficult feelings by herself.
It can be hard to set healthy boundaries with family members, especially parents, because we think we’re supposed to love them and offer them unconditional time and respect. However, you can love someone and still set a healthy boundary.
If someone’s behavior, even your parents, is making you feel bad about yourself and is jeopardizing your mental and emotional and well-being, setting a boundary is an act of self-love that helps you stay well. The same principle applies to friends and romantic partners – it doesn’t matter who it is. Anyone who jeopardizes your well-being is someone with whom you must set a boundary.
‘It is necessary, and even vital, to set boundaries for your life and the people you allow in it.’ – Mandy Hale.
Know when enough is enough
Boundaries are an effective way to put a protective shield around our well-being, and it’s great when people respect them. All of us make mistakes because we’re human, and that includes instances of emotional manipulation.
We might not even fully realize we’re emotionally manipulating someone when we’re doing – have you ever guilt-tripped a friend into doing you a favor, even jokingly? We all engage in unhealthy behavior sometimes, but we usually have the conscious awareness soon after to realize our error and apologize.
When friends set boundaries with us about certain behaviors, we appreciate it because now we know how to have an even better relationship with that person.
However, some people simply don’t respect your boundaries. Chronic emotional manipulators are like this. You’ve put a boundary in place, but that doesn’t stop them from using manipulative tactics to influence and get you to fulfill their wishes. As such, it’s important to follow through with a boundary.
A crossed boundary needs to have a consequence; otherwise, it’s ineffective. In the case of emotional manipulation and many other toxic behaviors, that consequence can be walking away from that person, even completely removing them from your life.
Your commitment to your boundary and your display of self-respect when you really don’t tolerate crossed boundaries not only serves you – it paves the way for the manipulator to understand the consequences of their actions and maybe reconsider those behavioral tactics in the future.
Emotional abuse is extremely dangerous, and the issue needs to be resolved as soon as possible if you want to stay healthy and avoid a broad range of physical and mental health risks. If you believe you have been a victim of emotional abuse, don’t hesitate to reach out and speak to a licensed therapist or counselor.
Emotional abuse can take a significant toll on your mental health, but a trained mental health professional can help you better understand what’s happening, how to process your emotions and experiences, and what actions and steps you can take to remove the emotional manipulator from your life.
It’s also important to reach out to friends or family for support for your own sanity. If you suspect that someone in your life is behaving in ways that are emotionally manipulative and concerned about becoming a victim of their behavior, ask those close to you whom you trust to keep a watchful eye.
They don’t necessarily need to intervene, but they can check in with you on a regular basis and remind you of your concerns as a means to stay conscious and aware of your behavior.