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Verified by Psychology Today

4 Core Tactics of Psychological Manipulators

1. Taking advantage of intimate relationships.

Key points

  • Narcissists and manipulators use many of the same techniques to gain control of their victims.
  • Psychological manipulation usually begins with minor boundary violations that gradually escalate.
  • Recognizing manipulation tactics is the first step to intervening.

Psychological manipulation is a prevalent tool used by individuals with narcissistic tendencies. Its power lies in how easily it can go unnoticed while simultaneously being a devastating method of control. The key to overcoming this type of abuse begins with understanding how it manifests in daily relationships and interpersonal interactions.

Recognizing common manipulation tactics

Though the most effective way to extinguish narcissism from your life is to avoid all forms of communication and interaction with that person, there are times when this is not possible. To protect yourself as much as possible from being hurt, being able to identify the most common tactics of psychological manipulators and narcissists is crucial.

1. Taking advantage of intimate relationships. Psychological manipulation thrives in intimacy. It’s a close, familiar way of using others that requires vulnerability to work well. Because intimate relationships all come with a level of vulnerability, they are the perfect breeding ground for this form of manipulation.

Many psychological manipulators are family members, close friends, or romantic partners—these relationships give them an opportunity to build trust and later use that trust as a stepping stone to abuse. In order to take advantage of someone, manipulators must have a solid understanding of that person’s weaknesses, worries, and personal history. The perfect method of reconnaissance is spending time observing, taking notes, and learning how to manipulate someone from the inside perspective of an intimate relationship.

This type of abuse forms slowly, and manipulators will often test the waters in close relationships before they launch a full-out attack. Trying out different approaches to see how successful they are is usually the starting point. Depending on the outcomes, they will either scale back and try a new method, or they will begin using what has proven effective, but on a much larger scope.

2. Projecting blame. Psychological manipulators rarely, if ever, take responsibility for their actions to their victims—to do so would damage their credibility and cause doubt in the abusive relationship. Most manipulators will adopt a self-righteous attitude with their victims, often centered on how they have been “wronged” by that person in some way, and they will typically excuse their behaviors as retribution for how they have been treated. Their golden rule is simple: If you don’t give me what I want, I am entitled to treat you any way I choose.

Healthy relationships are based on a give and take. When hurt occurs, both sides examine how they may have contributed and take accountability for those actions. In an abusive relationship, the victim is forced into a position of being the cause for all that is wrong. Blame is projected onto that person for every problem in the relationship, including the manipulative behaviors of their abuser.

Refusing to take responsibility keeps manipulators in the safe zone. If their victim is somehow labeled as responsible for the abuse—either due to a made-up reason or for an actual situation—the manipulator grants themselves permission in their own eyes (and often in the eyes of outsiders) to exert power and control over that person.

This tactic produces twofold results: The abuser gains sympathy from others for how they have been “mistreated,” and they are suddenly gifted with a blank check to treat their victim however they choose. From that point forward, the psychological manipulation can be excused as a “natural reaction” to their own feelings. This also puts immense pressure on victims to conform, and in the long run, it can produce devastating effects on their self-image.

3. Violating boundaries. Psychological manipulators despise boundaries. Their ultimate goal is power and control, and firm boundaries interfere greatly with that goal. To that end, they become skilled at testing and violating others’ boundaries—usually starting with small limits and working their way up as they become more accomplished.

In a well-functioning relationship, both parties will be able to set and communicate their limits to each other while trusting these will be respected. When it comes to psychological abuse, the opposite is true. The expectation becomes no boundaries. If victims attempt to intervene in the process by resetting boundaries, it is often treated by the abuser as being disloyal or disrespectful.

Manipulators ensure that this is a slow-burn process. By subtly testing what works and what does not, they will learn how to cross others’ boundaries without being stopped. Once they become proficient, their boundary violations will change as well—they will transform into overt behaviors that, if taken out of context, would shock their victims. However, because of the slow build up and preparatory phase, many victims never see the violations coming.

4. Gaslighting. Psychological manipulators are masters at getting others to question their own reality. This often occurs in the form of telling blatant lies that border on unbelievable or countering a victim’s memory of events. When paired with the abuser’s refusal to accept responsibility for their actions, this technique can be destructive.

Gaslighting can be difficult to pinpoint because it’s a gradual process that undermines the sanity of its victims. Many individuals who use this tactic work very hard to convince their victims they are too sensitive or are making a big deal out of nothing. Because these types of manipulations tend to snowball as abusers see their success, they can lead to a damaging cycle.

An important dynamic of gaslighting is that many victims will align their perceptions to fit with their abusers’ to avoid conflict or loss of the relationship. This protective defense mechanism, based on power and control, reinforces the cycle and leads to exponential destruction in the end.

The first step for victims

Psychological manipulation is harmful on many levels, notably the doubt and dependency it can create in its victims. These effects can last years after the relationship has ended, and many experts view these experiences as a form of chronic trauma.

Recognizing common tactics of psychological manipulation can provide a warning signal to intervene, potentially reducing pain in the long run. In situations where victims are unable to stop all communication with manipulators, it can also be a vital step in preserving their mental well-being.

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