Emotional Manipulation: Recognizing, Coping, and Protecting Yourself

puppetteer holds 2 theatrical masks to represent emotional manipulation

Emotional manipulation includes behavior that emotionally exploits, influences, or controls a target victim.

Such as, emotional manipulators seek to influence you in a way that benefits them, while harming you.

We review some common forms of emotional manipulation, how to recognize them, and what you can do next.

hands breaking handcuffs as a symbol of breaking free of emotional manipulation

1. They Always Twist Things (Gaslighting)

The manipulator muddles the waters to hide his abuse and make you lose sight of what’s true and fair

Some red flags of gaslighting include:

  • Reframing obviously poor behavior into “normal” or “good”
  • Blaming the victim. For example, they may say that their poor behavior is because of you and what you did or said
  • Lying and denying what’s true
  • Lawyering, where normal conversation is impossible amid various “what it means”, “can you please explain” and “what I truly meant with X is.. “
  • Muddling the water with tangential issues and questions that avoid the main problem: their behavior
    • Word salad. When you finally show enough undeniable evidence, they launch into an endless and incoherent tirade
  • Use your own emotions against you. For example, if you get angry, that’s the “proof” that you’re too volatile or aggressive. Of course, they may have caused your well-motivated anger
common emotional manipulator phrases when he is gaslighting

A common refrain of gaslighters is that they HATE apologizing, they HATE making amends and they’re NOT interested to improve things

Gaslighting is maddening in both senses: it makes you angry, and it can also make you doubt your own sanity.

We have a longer article specific to gaslighting.
Many of our readers found it enlightening:

Gaslighting: What Is It, Who Does It, And Why

2. They Make You Feel Guilty (Guilt-Tripping)

The manipulator makes you feel guilty and “bad” for not doing as he wishes

Guilt tripping is an emotional manipulation tool more common for low-power manipulators.

Higher-power manipulators with the power or skills to impose or influence choose that.
So it’s when he lacks either the ability to lead or the strength to enforce that he resorts to guilt-tripping.

Here is an example:

an example of guilt tripping

Her: I need to get out of here right away. I know you can help me, but you won’t

When I get that message I did feel bad.

BUT I also felt angry because of the sheer audacity of this person.

I had met this lady on one single night, never promised anything, never implied even the possibility of keeping in touch -let alone traveling together-, and… We didn’t even have such great chemistry.

Didn’t stop her from trying a guilt-trip, though.

Notice all the hidden and made-up frames: that it was my duty to take her with me, and that I was “bad” for not doing so.

3. They Make You Fearful (Fear-Stoking)

The manipulator makes you fearful to keep you on your toes

The manipulator prefers you fearful.

When you’re fearful you’re less resourceful, needier, and easier to control.

There are countless ways of stoking fears, including:

  • Make you jealous, so you cling to them and bend to their will in fear of losing their affection and commitment
  • Triangulation, a subset of jealousy to make you fear a specific “competitor”
  • False financial distress. If they’re the breadwinners, they may pretend that their job is at risk or that their business is in dire straits. This way they make you feel bad for your expenditures, or cut and control your spending
  • Overwhelming displays of emotions (read on)

Some emotional manipulators take a two-pronged approach.
While they make you fearful, they present themselves as the ones who can protect you. That way, you also become more emotionally dependent on them.

Emotional Manipulation In Dating

Dating is full of emotional manipulation.

Some men in misogynist manosphere circles emotionally manipulate as part of what they call “dread game”.
Also see “games men play“.

And of course, some women are also playing the emotional manipulation game.
Also see “games women play” and “manipulative games women play“.

text example of emotional manipulation in dating

She just says “no” to my date confirmation. A double power move: denies the date, and under-invests. Good thing I’m not the type to fall for that :).

4. They Treat You Like A Naive Idiot (Teacher Frames)

The manipulator plays the teacher role to make you feel mentally and intellectually inferior

Emotionally manipulative narcissists want to feel “superior” to others.

That sense of superiority they crave often includes mental superiority.
And they want you to be -and know, and feel- inferior to them.

Thus emotional manipulators rarely welcome your ideas and contributions.
Instead, on one side, they demean, criticize or ridicule your contributions.
And on the other side, they act like they always know better.

To inculcate in you that they’re “above you” they also teach and instruct you on how to be better.

Good emotional manipulators teach” with confidence and authority because most people are mentally programmed to believe confident conmen.

Example Of Teacher Frames:

Manipulator: (teaches others and acts like a Jesus-like savante)

Consequences

Teacher frames can annoy you even if you won’t exactly realize why.

You will act snappy or aggressive, and then the manipulator can use your emotions against you.

They may say you don’t want to learn, or that you have too big of an ego.

And still, being annoyed is far better than accepting.
Because if you accept that teacher/pupil frame you end up feeling inferior to the manipulator.
Even looking up to him.

The manipulator may seek -or make up- more basic and simple mistakes you make.
Their teacher frames become infantilizing. And when teacher frames become infantilizing you revert to an infant.
And you feel unable to cope with the world’s most basic challenges.

5. They Make You Feel Bad For Voicing Concerns (Dimissive Guilt-Trip)

The manipulator makes you feel bad and “wrong” just for taking his time

The manipulator presents himself as busy and overburdened with “important stuff”.

And he makes you feel like your concerns are “small stuff” that he has no time for.

This approach also frames the emotional manipulator as higher value than you. (If it’s a relationship, that would be higher SMV).

He is higher value because the frame is:

Your issues are inconsequential because I’m busy with more important things. They only matter to you because you do nothing worthwhile and have nothing to busy yourself with.

This is a lot more common with go-getter, businessmen, and “alpha male” types of men.
These types of men sometimes mix it with an attitude that mixes aggression and annoyance (“aggressive dismissal”).

This type of manipulation also has a convenient upside for the manipulator:

5.2. They Make You Feel Your Problems Are “Smaller Than His”

When your problems are smaller, your problems will always lose the right to be heard against his problems.

So all he has to do when you voice a concern is to voice his own concerns. And you lose the right to be heard since his concerns are “more important”.

Such as, the emotional manipulator monopolizes the “problem conversation”.

Every time you have a fair issue to discuss, all he has to do is to bring up his own problem. And you lose the chance to be heard –plus feel guilty about even bringing your issues up-.

6. They Make You Feel Indebted (Social Scalping)

The manipulator makes you feel overly indebted whenever he does something for you

Some examples of social scalping include:

  • Playing the martyr, when they frame their giving as costly, difficult, and very challenging for them to provide
  • Playing the “Atlas”, Atlas was the man who carried the weight of the world on his shoulders. He plays the Atlas when they frame your requests as large, costly, and difficult… And falling on an already overburdened person
  • Playing the savior, when they say that “if they didn’t do X”, it would have been a disaster for you

We perfected the science of social scalping as emotional manipulation on this website.
We dig deeper into it on our premium course Power University, but here’s a good infographic as an overview:

emotional manipulation of interpersonal exchanges infographic

PRO Tip: Imagine The Best Possible Behavior & Compare It

Here’s a great rule of thumb to spot emotional manipulation:

To spot emotional manipulation, think what someone who has your best interest in mind would do. And then compare it to what the emotional manipulator does.

And this is how a good partner differs from an emotional manipulator:

  • Good partner: frames his giving as a pleasure to him and as “normal” among people who like, care, and support each other
  • Emotional manipulator: frames his giving as extraordinary. And exceptionally costly for him, and exceptionally useful to you

7. They Make You Feel Special And Move Too Fast (Love Bombing)

The manipulators get maximum emotional investment and maximum leverage feigning endless love and devotion

In intimate relationships that turn toxic a common pattern of dark-triad manipulators is:

  1. Love bombing. Intense courtship, love notes, devotion, promises and, often lots of lies
  2. Pull-back. When the manipulator achieves his goal (gaining your trust, a relationship, living in, or securing a loan/gift)
  3. Devaluing stage. The initial love turns into disappointment, criticism, and nasty games and power moves. The devaluing stage can alternate abuse with intimacy. It can be a dark psychology technique to make the victim even more addicted. It can also happen “naturally” with avoidant partners in (see “anxious-avoidant trap“)
  4. Discard. When they move to a fresh target

So be careful when someone seems too enamored, too intense, and moving too quickly.

8. They Make You Feel Insecure (Self-Esteem Undermining)

The manipulator uses your (supposed) weaknesses to lower your self-esteem

There are endless ways to make you feel insecure:

  • “Joking” about your shortcoming (ie.: weight). On the surface, they’re just teasing. But deep down, the effect is still to make you feel less attractive, lower value, and insecure.
    Joking is a common covert power move
  • Unfavorable comparison with supposedly better partners. Sometimes the comparison is also made up.
  • Demeaning & criticizing are more direct ways to make you feel worse about yourself.
    Notice though that more advanced emotional manipulators use more indirect and covert ways.
  • Use your insecurities & vulnerabilities against you. The more intelligent emotional manipulators study or elicit your vulnerabilities first. Then, “joke” or criticize you for them.
    PRO Tip: sharing a false vulnerability may be a great test to spot emotional manipulators.
  • Exaggerated self-promotion, so you may feel like “they’re too good for you”.
    Notice that the best emotional manipulators rarely openly brag. Instead, they’re far more covert and strategic in making you feel like they’re so awesome.

Why do they do it?

Simple, when you feel insecure you’re easier to control, and more dependent on the emotional manipulator.

Notice The Difference: A Good Person Stops, An Inveterate Manipulator Doesn’t

Some naturally strategic individuals “naturally” deploy some emotional manipulation tactics.

However, when they realize so -or when you tell them- they will stop.
Or they will talk with you about what makes you feel bad, and adjust accordingly.

9. They Discount Your Successes (Undermining)

The manipulator discredits your success to prevent you from empowering yourself

a father tells his son holding a trophy that he "didn't earn it" and the son is sad about it

Some emotionally manipulative fathers hate to see their own children succeed. It’s painful to realize, but also liberating.

Understand this:

Emotional manipulators don’t want you happy and successful.
Emotional manipulators want you sad and un-successful.

One, because sad and unsuccessful people are easier to control.
And two, because your success is a threat to their own often-fragile self-esteem. So they feel better about themselves if you fail.

So, whenever you win, they seek ways to one-up you and undermine you.

One way to undermine your successes is to delink them from personal value, qualities, or even effort.
Instead, it was based on luck, circumstances, or… Thanks to them.

Example of Emotionally Manipulative One-Upping:

A good example:

Her: I have 37.000 followers on IG
Him: 36.999 of which are mine

He may even be right as far as we know.
But… Was it necessary to undermine like that?
It still feels like a cheap shot.

While the manipulator discredits your wins…

9.2. They Make You Feel You’re To Blame For Anything Bad That Happens

Emotional manipulators also inflate your losses to make you feel bad about yourself.

It can be as simple as:

Emotional Manipulator: Oh, ouch, you didn’t get that promotion? That must hurt, who did they give it to?

And then they ask you “why to her” and “why not to you”. The goal is to insist and expand on the loss and to shift your focus on personal faults.
The most Machiavellian may even play supportive. But they will never shift focus to any truly uplifting topic or thought. That’s a conscious tactic to let you emotionally linger and wallow in defeat.

Minimizing your wins and inflating your losses go in tandem. But “loss inflating” is often a bigger red flag.

Effects

Psychology researcher Martin Seligman calls the self-talk we described “personal agency explanatory styles”.

And negative explanatory styles make you feel pessimistic, depressed, and helpless.
You acquire negative explanatory styles when the manipulator makes you feel that:

  • Your wins have little to do with you
  • Your losses are because of you

So be careful, and always reject the emotional manipulator’s negative frames.

10. They Punish You With Withdrawal (Operant Conditioning)

The manipulator changes your behavior by rewarding what he wants and punishing what he doesn’t want

Manipulators don’t usually talk straight and direct -or, well, they wouldn’t be manipulators-.

Instead, they often prefer covert and passive-aggressive ways.

So instead of telling you what they didn’t like, they seek to change you with “operant conditioning“.
Such as, they reward what they want, and punish what they don’t want.

However, the “punishment” can be covert and (silently) by removing a source of (emotional) pleasure.
For example:

  • Withdrawing attention
  • “Forgetting” dates
  • Not answering texts -or brief and dry answers, or removing emojis-
  • Silent treatment

11. They Unleash Intense Emotional Outbursts (One-Trial Learning)

The manipulator gets your present compliance with overwhelming displays of negative emotions (aggression or meltdown). And they get your future compliance through your fear (one-trial learning)

If covert manipulation fails, you may experience the opposite: an overwhelm of manipulative force.

Two of the more common emotional outbursts include:

  • Raging: when the manipulator becomes aggressive, yelling and threatening
  • Emotional meltdown: when the manipulator self-harm or threatens to end one’s life

Keep in mind that emotional manipulation must not necessarily be conscious or high-power.
It can be subconscious or a consequence of mental disorders -for example, BPD-. A girl I once date scratched herself until bleeding. And then started gulping alcohol to get my full attention.
That is also emotional manipulation.

Example of Emotional Meltdown:

An example of an emotional meltdown (together with guilt-tripping):

Him: I’ll kill my parents, I’ll steal money, just whatever you want, but please don’t foresake me (cries)

Generally speaking:

We consider intense emotional outbursts one of the worst emotional manipulation red flags.

This is why:

Emotional outbursts aren’t only very upsetting, but also very costly for the manipulator.

Raging shows a side of him that can be very antisocial and dangerous.
And emotional meltdowns show that he doesn’t even care about his own reputation -to you, or to the world-.

Meaning: the emotional manipulator stops at nothing to control you.

12. They Make You Addicted To Their Power

The manipulator leverages his higher power and influence over you to make you want to comply, earn his approval, and invest and give

This is where emotional manipulation enters the advanced stage.

We enter the realm of abusive relationships, co-dependent relationships, lover boy types of pimps, and cult leaders.
But also various types of gurus and even some coach-mentor relationships.

And this is where it also gets murky.

The emotional manipulator often doesn’t use violence or coercion.

So many miss the power dynamics at play.
And placing the blame also becomes more difficult.

Is the manipulator an ahole and the one to blame, or did the victim willingly submit and stick around?

Often, it’s a mixture of both.
The manipulator IS a high-power, charismatic, and often high-value individual. But he also abuses his power and influence.

On the other hand, the victims can also often stop being a victim if they worked on their own self-empowerment.
We help people do just that in Power University.

See more for on emotional power dynamics:

The Judge Role: A Tool For Emotional Control

Why They Manipulate

The reasons vary, but most of them revolve around power.

Emotional manipulators manipulate to:

  • Control you
  • Maintain power (clinical psychologist George Simon explains that many manipulators are power-hungry. And power-hungry individuals can’t stand losing power, even when they don’t even have a goal)
  • Enjoy their power and manipulative skills. Some emotional manipulators take pride in their manipulative skills. So the more successful they are, the more they get to feel good and special
  • Enjoy the pleasure of harming others. Yes, evil people exist. And some manipulators enjoy harming others –sociopath author M. E. Thomas admits so-.
    Some bent personalities also simply just “hate everyone”
  • Dog-eat-dog worldview. They can’t conceive that people can collaborate and both be happy and do well.
    They may even see you as doing the exact same on them -if you had their manipulative skills, at least-

For more on the psychology and types of abusers, see:

7 Types of Abusive Men: a Psychological Analysis

How To Deal With Emotional Manipulators

Learning power dynamics and what we teach here will help tremendously.

And some concrete steps, independent of your current levels:

Consult with a therapist, a family member, or a good friend (ideally all 3)

The friend must be a friend of yours, not of both.

Ideally, all are power-aware and understand manipulation dynamics.
You may also consider joining our programs or booking a call.

Warning: don’t take people’s advice too seriously if they’re not power aware or they may mislead you! Let’s define “normal” as non-highly manipulative and empathic. Well, normal people give advice for other “normal” people. But inveterate emotional manipulators don’t function like “normal” people do.
And don’t take most “communication books” advice either. They’re based on normal and sensible people’s personalities, not inveterate manipulators.

man throwing away a popular but useless book for emotional manipulatio

Some “general purposes” communication skills books are great with “normal” and well-adjusted people. But they will set you up for failure with inveterate emotional manipulators

Call out manipulation whenever possible

Unless there are safety concerns or strategic reasons, call out the manipulation.

That sends the message that you’re not an easy mark, and not a victim anymore.

Exceptions & strategic considerations: the manipulator may start to see you as a threat if you show awareness. They may fire you, hide assets, or try to harm you. Think about that as well.

Demand change of behavior

A few emotional manipulators may be unaware of their own manipulation.

And they may be willing to change.
It’s a minority, but it may be worth a try.

Explain the costs of manipulation to appeal to their “WIIFM”

Such as, explain how emotional manipulation is harming you both -the manipulator included-.

Say you’re losing trust and respect for the manipulator. And it’s destroying the relationship.

This is also great because, if he doesn’t change, you will know his priority. And he prioritizes power over the relationship.

Make a “disengagement plan”

You must accept that the emotional manipulator may just be a “bent personality”.

And unwilling or utterly unable to improve. In that case, you’re better off on your own, or with someone better.

Also see “how to end a toxic relationship“.

Monitor possible changes in behavior

See if the emotional manipulator becomes more straight talking, more supportive, more honest.

Give it a deadline

You can give one to the manipulator, but even more important give one to yourself.

If nothing changes, disengage

Either disengage emotionally and only maintain a functional relationship, or end the relationship.
Alternatively, you may maintain the relationship only insofar as you can gain from it.

The Power Moves (TPM) maintains high standards of sourcing guidelines to provide our readers with content that is accurate and actionable.
We rely on peer-reviewed studies, psychology textbooks, academic research institutions, and accredited experts. Learn more by reviewing our full editorial policy.

  • Braiker, H. (2003). Who’s pulling your strings?: How to break the cycle of manipulation and regain control of your life: How to Break the Cycle of Manipulation and Regain Control of Your Life. McGraw Hill Professional.
  • Simon, G. K. (1996). In Sheep’s Clothing: Understanding and Dealing with Manipulative People. A. J. Christopher.
  • Mason, P. T., & Kreger, R. (2010). Stop walking on eggshells: Taking Your Life Back when Someone You Care about Has Borderline Personality Disorder. New Harbinger  Publications.
  • What is emotional abuse?
    https://www.thehotline.org/resources/what-is-emotional-abuse/
  • Hyde, J., & Grieve, R. (2014). Able and willing: Refining the measurement of emotional manipulation. Personality and Individual Differences64, 131-134. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.paid.2014.02.036
  • Konnikova, M. (2017). The confidence game: The Psychology of the Con and Why We Fall for It Every Time.
Processing...
Scroll to Top