19 Red Flags You’re Being Manipulated, According To Therapists
Emotional manipulation is, by its very nature, underhanded and tough to spot—so how are you supposed to recognize when someone's manipulating you? There's one telltale sign, according to a psychoanalyst at Yale University's Center for Emotional Intelligence.
Emotional manipulation occurs when an individual you’re interacting with attempts to use your emotions in order to get what they want. “It is, plain and simple, a power play,” psychoanalyst Robin Stern, PhD, co-founder and Associate Director for the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence, tells The Healthy. “And the goal is to control you.”
Emotional manipulation can happen in romantic relationships, among family, at work, and in just about any interpersonal situation—in fact, it’s incredibly common, according to Amelia Kelley, PhD, a licensed mental health counselor and trauma-informed therapist, as well as co-author of What I Wish I Knew: Surviving and Thriving After an Abusive Relationship.
These therapists outline that emotional manipulation is:
- A form of abuse
- Found in many types of relationships, including between romantic partners, family members, friends, and coworkers
- Often very subtle and challenging to recognize.
“This form of abuse causes a great deal of distress and harm for the victim,” Kelley explains. “It can cause insecurities, self-doubt, isolation from others outside the relationship, and make it more likely the abuser will progress into more severe forms of abuse and control.” (On a related note, don’t miss 12 Signs You’re in a Toxic Relationship.)
The number one sign you’re being emotionally manipulated
If emotional manipulation is, by its very nature, underhanded and difficult to spot, then how are you supposed to recognize it, much less avoid or stop it? There is one telltale sign, according to Stern: Confusion.
If you’ve ever hung up the phone or left a conversation wondering, What on earth was that?, Stern says there’s a chance the other person was being emotionally manipulative. Because they’re attempting to override your own instincts, self-knowledge, and emotions, you may be left feeling incredibly confused about what just hit you—a feeling they then use to their advantage to control you. Stern says that at its worst, this type of manipulation can make even the most emotionally stable person doubt your own good sense or make you feel like you’re going crazy.
Fortunately, when you’ve learned the signs of manipulation, it becomes much easier to spot it when it’s happening to you or a loved one, or even in pop culture and the news, says Joanne Frederick, PhD, Licensed Mental Health Counselor in Washington, D.C., and author of Copeology.
To help you navigate whether you’re dealing with a manipulator, experts Stern, Kelley, and Frederick laid out some of the clearest signs of emotional manipulation for readers of The Healthy to track.
(For even more wisdom, here are other possible signs you’re in an unhealthy relationship.)
Signs someone is trying to emotionally manipulate you
They make you doubt your own reality
This is called gaslighting, and it’s a top tactic of emotional abusers. The goal of gaslighting is to make you feel like you can’t trust your own experiences so that you’ll instead allow the manipulator to control you, says Stern (who is also the author of The Gaslight Effect: How To Spot and Survive the Hidden Manipulation Others Use To Control Your Life).
For a deeper dive on gaslighting, read What Is Gaslighting—and How To Tell if You’re Experiencing It.
They isolate you from other relationships
Talking to other trusted people in your life may help you gain insight or see through the manipulation, so a manipulator seeks to make you feel like they are the only one you can trust. “In order to continue the manipulation tactics, isolation is essential, as they want to eliminate the chance that their victim will gain insight into the abuse,” Kelley explains.
They start fights often
One way to short circuit a healthy discussion and exert control is to start an argument, blowing the current conflict out of proportion, bringing up past conflicts, or twisting the conflict into something else. Says Kelley: “Manipulators seek out arguments, often reveling in perceived witty or intelligent retorts and invalidating your feelings.”
You always end up apologizing, even if you don’t know why
Manipulators often play the victim as a way to avoid responsibility for their actions and make you feel compelled to “help” them. “They are so good at this that you always end up apologizing to them, even if they were in the wrong,” says Frederick. (Also read up on the three key points a sincere apology contains.)
They bring outside people into disagreements
Called “triangulation,” this tactic makes it harder to stand up for yourself as the manipulator brings in family, friends, or coworkers on their side, says Frederick. “They will call on others in your close circle to help resolve the issue, in which they make it seem as if you are the problem.”
They get too close, too fast
Emotional manipulators may “share” their intimate secrets and vulnerabilities with you right away, which for you might create a feeling of closeness… but, says Frederick, their goal is to make you feel special so that you divulge your own secrets, which they can then use to control and further manipulate you.
They tell you it’s for your own good
Manipulators are highly skilled at making you think what’s best for them is what’s best for you, even when your first take on it is that it feels very wrong, or not aligned with your genuine values. “They work hard to adjust the thinking and reasoning of their victim in any way that suits them,” says Kelley.
They make sure you speak first
Asking probing questions gets you to share your thoughts early on. They can then use your answers to manipulate your decisions, usually with a hidden agenda. “This is especially common in business relationships,” adds Frederick.
On a similar note, read 10 Proven Ways To Make Better Decisions.
They project their feelings onto you
Does your loved one suddenly accuse you of cheating? Did your boss tell you you’re having an emotional reaction to criticism? That can be a telltale sign that they, themselves, are guilty of the very same, says Kelley. “Manipulators often project their feelings onto others,” she explains.
They twist facts
“They are masters at altering reality with lies or misstatements to confuse you,” Frederick says of manipulators, adding that they may exaggerate events to make themselves seem more vulnerable so you’ll feel inclined to support and stand by them. They may also underplay their role in a conflict to gain your sympathy.
They discount your concerns
If you ask questions, make a suggestion, offer your opinion, or voice a criticism, they often respond aggressively. They will try to make you feel dumb, uninformed, silly, or guilty. “They use guilt as a tool and silence as a weapon,” says Kelley.
They “one up” your problems
Your problems always take a backseat to their concerns… and for anything you’ve been through, well, they’ve been through worse. “Instead of listening when you have a problem, an emotional manipulator may take the opportunity to bring up their own issues—their goal being to invalidate your experience so that you’re forced to focus on them and their problems,” says Frederick.
They’re always “just joking” when they say something mean or rude
Making critical or hurtful comments and then brushing them off by claiming, “It’s just a joke” or “I was being sarcastic!” is a way for them to get their barbs in and hurt you without accepting responsibility, says Frederick. (You may find these 17 quotes that shed light on passive-aggressive behavior helpful.)
They use your insecurities against you
Kelley says once they’ve identified your weaknesses, a manipulator will use them to hurt and exploit you. Think of it as a type of emotional blackmail.
They make you sound out of control or unreasonable
Has anyone ever told you that your feelings are “too much”… or even suggested you are mentally ill for being worried or angry? “Your feelings are valid because they are your feelings,” says Stern. The fact that you experience them makes them real.
They are never wrong
Even if you catch a manipulator in a lie or a mistake, they probably won’t admit it, says Stern. Instead, they will find a way to justify their actions or make them someone else’s fault.
They use guilt trips or ultimatums
Frederick says both guilt trips and ultimatums are designed to put you in a difficult spot where you are forced to make a decision in that moment, without the opportunity to think about it. “They may make comments and take actions meant to leave you feeling vulnerable and upset,” she says.
They give you the silent treatment
Abruptly stopping all types of communication is an effective way of dehumanizing you and gaining control over you, says Frederick. In a relationship with a manipulator, you may do just about anything to stop feeling the sense of punishment.
They say or do something and later deny it
“I never said that!” is a catchphrase of the emotional manipulator, says Stern. They may accuse you of having a bad memory or making things up.
What to do if you are being emotionally manipulated
Emotional manipulation is never healthy, and it’s important to stop the interaction as soon as possible. If you’re not sure that what you are experiencing is in fact emotional manipulation, allow yourself some space to step back from the other person. Even if the relationship has caused you to grow distant from people who truly care about you, consider reaching out to them and seeking their feedback. You could tell them you need some time and patience—that maybe you’re not ready to end your relationship right this moment, but you’re doing some serious thinking to evaluate whether it’s a situation that’s positive enough for you to remain in.
And one-on-one with your manipulator, therapist Kelley says the first step is to call it out and name it with your words. You might try, “Are you trying to make me feel guilty?” Or, “I trust my memory of the incident.”
From there, establish your personal boundaries and enforce them with clear, direct communication. Kind people often resist this for fear of being “rude” or “causing a scene.” But you’ve got to be strong: Manipulators will use your caring traits or self-aware patterns against you. “Remember that the goal is not to convince them or make them see it your way, but rather just to make your message known,” Kelley says. (Practice these 13 easy phrases for how to set boundaries.)
Then, make decisions that feel right and healthy for you, recognizing that the emotional abuser will likely not agree with it. This can feel easier said than done, so if you find yourself constantly struggling with emotional manipulation, it might be time to seek out a therapist who can help you recognize patterns and develop healthy communication skills.
For tips on keeping your mind, body, and relationships healthy, sign up for The Healthy newsletter. Also, don’t miss:
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- Robin Stern, PhD, a licensed psychoanalyst, Co-founder and Associate Director for the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence and an Associate Research Scientist at the Child Study Center at Yale, and author of "The Gaslight Effect: How to spot and survive the hidden manipulation others use to control your life"
- Amelia Kelley, PhD, a licensed mental health counselor and trauma-informed therapist in Cary, North Carolina, and co-author of What I Wish I Knew: Surviving and Thriving After an Abusive Relationship
- Joanne Frederick, PhD, Licensed Mental Health Counselor in Washington, D.C., and author of Copeology