Are You Being Manipulated?
How to recognize the motives and tactics of manipulators.
Posted April 27, 2017 | Reviewed by Kaja Perina
We all want to get our needs met, but manipulators use underhanded methods. Manipulation is a way to covertly influence someone with indirect, deceptive, or abusive tactics. Manipulation may seem benign or even friendly or flattering, as if the person has your highest concern in mind, but in reality it’s to achieve an ulterior motive. Other times, it’s veiled hostility, and when abusive methods are used, the objective is merely power. You may not realize that you’re being intimidated.
If you grew up being manipulated, it’s hard to discern what’s going on, because it feels familiar. You might have a gut feeling of discomfort or anger, but on the surface the manipulator may use words that are pleasant, ingratiating, reasonable, or that play on your guilt or sympathy, so you override your instincts and don’t know what to say. People who are people-pleasers, non-assertive, or codependent have trouble being direct and assertive and may use manipulation to get their way. They’re also easy prey for being manipulated by narcissists, borderline personalities, sociopaths, and other codependents, including addicts.
Favorite weapons of manipulators are: guilt, complaining, comparing, lying, denying (including excuses and rationalizations), feigning ignorance, or innocence (the “Who me!?” defense), blame, bribery, undermining, mind games, assumptions, “foot-in-the-door,” reversals, emotional blackmail, evasiveness, forgetting, fake concern, sympathy, apologies, flattery, and gifts and favors. Manipulators often use guilt by saying directly or through implication, “After all I’ve done or you,” or chronically behaving needy and helpless. They may compare you negatively to someone else or rally imaginary allies to their cause, saying that, “Everyone” or “Even so and so thinks xyz,” or “says xyz about you.”
Some manipulators deny promises, agreements, or conversations, or start an argument and blame you for something you didn’t do to get sympathy and power. This approach can be used to break a date, promise, or agreement. Parents routinely manipulate with bribery – everything from, “Finish your dinner to get dessert,” to “No video games until your homework is done.”
Manipulators often voice assumptions about your intentions or beliefs and then react to them as if they were true in order to justify their feelings or actions, all the while denying what you said in the conversation. They may act as if something has been agreed upon or decided when it hasn’t in order to ignore any input or objection you might have.
The “foot-in-the-door” technique is making a small request that you agree to, which is followed by the real request. It’s harder to say no, because you’ve already said yes. The reversal turns your words around to mean something you didn’t intend. When you object, manipulators turn the tables on you so that they’re the injured party. Now it’s about them and their complaints, and you’re on the defensive.
Fake concern is sometimes used to undermine your decisions and confidence in the form of warnings or worry about you.
Emotional blackmail is a form of manipulation that is emotional abuse. It may include the use of rage, intimidation, threats, shame, or guilt. Shaming you is a method to create self-doubt and make you feel insecure. It can even be couched in a compliment: “I’m surprised that you of all people you’d stoop to that!” A classic ploy is to frighten you with threats, anger, accusations, or dire warnings, such as, “At your age, you’ll never meet anyone else if you leave,” or “The grass isn’t any greener,” or playing the victim: “I’ll die without you.”
Blackmailers may also frighten you with anger, so you sacrifice your needs and wants. If that doesn’t work, they sometimes suddenly switch to a lighter mood. You’re so relieved that you’re willing to agree to whatever is asked. They might bring up something you feel guilty or ashamed about from the past as leverage to threaten or shame you, such as, “I’ll tell the children xyz if you don't do what I want.”
Victims of blackmailers with certain personality disorders, such as borderline or narcissistic PD, are prone to experience psychological FOG, which stands for Fear, Obligation, and Guilt, an acronym invented by Susan Forward. The victim is made to feel afraid to cross the manipulator, feels obligated to comply with his or her request, and feels too guilty not to do so. Shame and guilt can be used directly with put-downs or accusations that you’re “selfish” (the worse vice to many codependents) or that “You only think of yourself,” “You don’t care about me,” or that “You have it so easy.”
Codependents are rarely assertive. They may say whatever they think someone wants to hear to get along or be loved, but then later they do what they want. This is also passive-aggressive behavior. It's a form of passive manipulation motivated by fear more than hostility. Rather than answer a question that might lead to a confrontation, they’re evasive, change the topic, or use blame and denial (including excuses and rationalizations), to avoid being wrong. Because they find it so hard to say "no," they may say yes, followed by complaints about how difficult accommodating the request will be. When confronted, codependents have difficulty accepting responsibility because of their deep shame. Instead, they deny responsibility, and blame or make excuses or make empty apologies to keep the peace.
They use charm and flattery and offer favors, help, and gifts to be accepted and loved. Criticism, guilt, and self-pity are also used to manipulate to get what they want: “Why do you only think of yourself and never ask or help me with my problems? I helped you.” Acting like a victim is a way to manipulate with guilt.
Addicts routinely deny, lie, and manipulate to protect their addiction. Their partners also manipulate for example, by hiding or diluting an addict’s drugs or alcohol or through other covert behavior. They may also lie or tell half-truths to avoid confrontations or control the addict’s behavior.
Passive-aggressive behavior can also be used to manipulate. When you have trouble saying no, you might agree to things you don’t want to, and then get your way by forgetting, being late, or doing it half-heartedly. Typically, passive-aggression is a way of expressing hostility. Forgetting “on purpose” conveniently avoids what you don’t want to do and gets back at your partner – like forgetting to pick up your spouse’s clothes from the cleaners. Sometimes, this is done unconsciously, but it’s still a way of expressing anger. More hostile is offering deserts to your dieting partner. See also "Dealing with a Passive-Aggressive Partner."