Three Traps People Use to Control You

... and strategies for gaining greater emotional freedom.

Posted Jul 09, 2020

Diane Dreher photo
Source: Diane Dreher photo

Years ago, my boyfriend asked me to marry him as we stood together under the stars. He was a senior in college, graduating in a few weeks. I was a junior, working my way through school with a heart full of dreams. “Yes,” I answered. But in the next moment he said, “If you love me, you’ll drop out of school and work so I can go to grad school.”

“Drop out?”  I loved college. It was my path to the future. Of course, I loved him, but I wanted to go to grad school to become a college professor.

“Why can’t we both go to grad school?” I asked.

“You’re being selfish,” he said, and broke up with me that night.

His proposal left me with two undesirable choices: I could either love him and drop out of school or stay in school which meant I didn’t love him. Yet there were other options we never discussed. He could have worked for a year and saved his money. We could have gone to grad school together, working part time, getting scholarships or student loans. As it happened, we both got PhDs and became college professors but our relationship fell apart because of a false dilemma, a trap that limits our choices and can all too often control our lives (Dreher, 2000).

Here are three common traps that can limit our emotional freedom:

1. False dilemma. In the Western world, we often fall into this divisive dualism, seeing our options limited to either one extreme or the other: all or nothing, right or wrong, your way or my way. This reduces our choices to only two when we live in a universe of multiple possibilities. Too often people use it to manipulate us, to trap us into choosing one of two extremes.

2. Blaming and shaming. People can also try to control us by name-calling, using guilt to manipulate us. My boyfriend called me “selfish” for not doing what he wanted. As psychologist George Simon (2010) has pointed out, people he calls “covert aggressors” try to control us with shame and guilt. We fall into this trap when we do what they want because we don’t want to be shamed as “selfish” or put into another negative category.  When I understood what my boyfriend was trying to do, I gained greater emotional freedom.

3. Imposing their purpose on others. Each of us has our own purpose, but often people try to control us by imposing their purpose on us, telling us what our purpose should be. As a college professor, I often see troubled students whose parents try to mold them into their own idea of success, choosing their majors for them and pressuring them to ignore their own needs to conform to their parents’ expectations. In contrast, studies in positive psychology tell us that in order to flourish we each need to find our own source of meaning and purpose (Dreher, 2008; Maslow, 1991; Seligman, 2004).  

Awareness is the first step for any lasting behavior change. Now that you’re aware of these traps, the next time someone uses one of them to derail you, take a deep breath to prevent yourself from mindlessly reacting. Then tune into your feelings, which Yale University psychologist Mark Brackett reminds us are vital keys to living a healthier, more productive life. As he explains, we need to give ourselves “permission to feel” (2019).

Here are a few questions to help you become more aware of when people are trying to trap you:

  • “How do I feel?”
  • “What do I need?”
  • “What are my options?”

Then take a moment to reflect on your answers. How do you feel and what do you really need? Finally, consider your options before taking action.

As you become more aware of your feelings and needs, you’ll be less likely to fall into manipulators’ traps and more able to discover new choices and possibilities for your life.

This post is for informational purposes and should not substitute for psychotherapy with a qualified professional.

Facebook image: Antonio Guillem/Shutterstock


Brackett, M. (2019). Permission to feel: Unlocking the power of emotions to help our kids, ourselves, and our society thrive. New York, NY: Celadon Books.

Dreher, D. E. (2008) Your personal renaissance: 12 steps to finding your life’s true calling. Cambridge, MA: Da Capo Press.

Dreher, D. E. (2000). The tao of inner peace. New York, NY: Penguin Putnam. An earlier version of this false dilemma example appeared on page 8.

Maslow, A. H. (1991). How we diminish ourselves. E. Hoffman (Ed.). Journal of Humanistic Education and Development, 29, 117-120. (Originally written in 1966).

Seligman, M.E.P. (2004). Authentic happiness. New York, NY: Atria Books.

Simon, G. (2010). In sheep’s clothing: Understanding and dealing with manipulative people. Marion, MI: Parkhurst Brothers, Inc. An eye-opening study of covert aggressors and their many manipulative techniques.