How to See Through Manipulation and Avoid Being Used
Learn how to recognize manipulation before you become a victim.
Posted September 27, 2021 | Reviewed by Davia Sills
- Seeing through manipulation can save you hurt in the long run.
- Master manipulators use hallmark tools to get what they want.
- Pay attention to red flags that may indicate you're being manipulated.
Humans learn through development and social experiences how to manipulate other people—and their surroundings. Infants learn what works and what isn’t quite as successful to get their basic needs met, and in much the same way, as adults, we learn through repetition, trial and error, and general experience how our actions influence our outcomes.
Sadly, in some cases, certain individuals become master manipulators, using these same lessons to build a repertoire of ways they can use others to get what they want. The casualties of these behaviors end up being people and relationships. Learning how to recognize manipulation when it first occurs can prevent you from ending up on their victim list.
Too good to be true
If someone seems too good to be true, they probably are. Master manipulators often overly emphasize and depend on their reputation—they’re always a great person who wants nothing more than to be helpful to others, rescue the wounded, and be recognized for their astounding feats. They will tout their own sacrifices to all eager listeners, and a key to their motivation is the intense focus on what they have done.
Self-sacrifice is just a cover for manipulative people. Most often, it’s used as a mechanism for gaining trust, and it helps them identify potential victims. If you find yourself wanting to be rescued and easily buying into the idea of a human savior who is willing to drop everything to help you out, you will be a more pliable victim than someone who has a more pessimistic viewpoint.
In the same vein, if someone constantly surprises you with their ability to guess what you want or need at every turn, warning signals should start flashing. Genuine relationships take time to build trust and get to know each other. Master manipulators need to bypass this stage in order to avoid the risk of being found out before you’re “hooked.” The most efficient way for them to do this is by quickly learning what works to impress you and milking that for all it’s worth.
All good versus all bad
Have you ever found yourself in a conversation with someone who loves to talk about the wonderful people they have helped and been influenced by—except for that one person who did them wrong in some way several years ago? Manipulators will almost always find a way to sneak in juicy tidbits of how they have been hurt (unfairly, of course) despite their best efforts at being a perfect person, and most of the time, this takes the form of black-and-white thinking.
These individuals will assume you want the dirty details of their past rejections, pain, etc.—and with or without your permission, they will likely launch into diatribes aimed at the unjustness of their treatment once they have gained a little of your attention. When it comes to holding grudges, manipulators are undisputed champions.
If you find yourself uncomfortable when listening to someone’s inability to let go of past “wrongs,” and the conversation seems tinged with a bias toward the speaker, you may want to take a healthy step back. Sometimes it is helpful to consider there are always two sides to every story, regardless of how convincing the current one you are hearing is. Unlike master manipulators, most people will be able to genuinely acknowledge their own role in past hurtful situations—but they probably will not share these stories until your relationship has reached a higher level of intimacy, whereas manipulative individuals tend to use these as ways to connect (and buy your sympathy) from the start.
The chameleon effect
Master manipulators can mold themselves to fit any situation. Are you someone who connects over sports? They will immediately be able to “talk the talk” enough that you believe they are a fan and have been for years. Maybe you prefer to travel—don’t be surprised when these individuals impress you with their globetrotting know-how.
People who have survived relationships with manipulators are often shocked to learn after the fact that their “connection” with each other was imaginary. No one knows how to create similarities like a manipulative person does—and they easily change up their hobbies and interests to fit their current crowd. A master manipulator trying to win you over can be very convincing when sharing their excitement at your common interests.
One of the oldest tricks in the book for manipulators is making you believe that you hold the key to their dreams. Has someone you’ve barely met persuaded you they need your help in some way? Have they painted you as an expert in something that they’ve always wanted to do, or have they convinced you their success is somehow related to your assistance? It may seem gratifying to be appreciated and admired in the beginning, but in the hands of a manipulator, it will quickly turn into a tool to use you.
People with an end goal of getting what they want from others are experts at building immediate connections. They come across as just so likable, so easy to talk to, so down-to-earth. They love to start up conversations with strangers, especially when in a situation that will boost their ego or play into the image they are trying to build at the moment.
Once you’ve been caught up in the manipulator’s charm net, it can be difficult to extricate yourself and see through it before it’s too late. Master manipulators can sway you into behaviors that you would normally never find yourself doing—and often, it is in their defense. They may ask you to bear witness in some way to what a great person they are, or they may use you to advance themselves in some fashion. All of their requests will springboard from the great initial connection you had.
If you experience the first meet-and-greet with someone, and it feels like there is more to the event—but you just can’t put your finger on what—it could be your instincts trying to get your attention. When a startup conversation is subtly steered in a way to persuade you of one person’s wow factor, it could be a good time to analyze those feelings in-depth and identify any potential red flags.
The bottom line
Once you have been exposed to a master manipulator, your trust in others will exponentially suffer. Though that can be protective in some cases, it can also predispose you to unnecessary hurt and relationship challenges. Learning some prevention to keep yourself safe from manipulation is an important step in avoiding the long-lasting repercussions of falling prey to it.
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