6 Signs You’re Dealing With a Micromanipulator, a Therapist Says

Updated: Apr. 15, 2024

Manipulation in a relationship can pop up in subtle ways. We asked a clinical psychology expert to share the specific ways you experience micromanipulation.

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What is micromanipulation?

While manipulation in a relationship can be obvious and, unfortunately, sometimes abusive, micromanipulation is a different story. It’s subtle and not-so-easy to spot, and can come in the form of passive-aggressive comments or questions that make you rethink your thoughts or values.

According to Hillary Schoninger, LCSW, LCSW, MSW, micromanipulation is most common with narcissists, who are always looking to draw attention back to themselves and control the narrative around them.

But how are you meant to track micromanipulation in a relationship if it’s meant to be subtle? We asked Schoninger to share a few signs to look out for, and what steps to take if you’re being micromanipulated.

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They contact you out-of-the-blue.

In an example published in Psychology Today, micromanipulators might try to get your attention by contacting you at random times. For example, you can often tell if a person has texted you in order to get back on your radar—and to get you texting them again. This could be a sign of micromanipulation.

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They are looking for sympathy or empathy.

In some cases, those out-of-the-blue moments of contact can also be moments when they’re looking for sympathy or empathy from you, in order to keep your attention for a while longer.

“It’s always about shifting the narrative back to them—what makes them feel empowered and maybe what makes them feel possibly victimized,” says Schoninger. “Whatever they need, they are going to do their best to manipulate so you react.”

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Their compliment isn’t actually nice.

Have you ever heard someone say the phrase, “Bless your heart” but not actually mean it? If you’ve ever heard someone say a compliment but their tone doesn’t actually match the compliment, it can easily be used in micromanipulation.

“That to me is like a microaggression, but it’s also manipulative because you’re trying to say something but you’re not being authentic,” says Schoninger. “It should be an authentic saying and said in beautiful kindness, but you’re making it gross, and that’s manipulation.”

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You have to work around their schedule and needs.

If you find a person isn’t being accommodating about their timing or needs in the relationship, they are forcing a particular situation to tailor to their life without regarding those around them—which is something Schoninger sees often with her clients. She offers a particular example of how one client was struggling with her mother-in-law, who refused to see her new grandchild outside of the allotted times that worked for the grandmother. But instead of changing her schedule to fit the baby’s needs, the mother-in-law accused the client of not allowing her time with the baby.

“So it’s like changing the narrative so that ego says ‘I need to be in charge, I need to be a leader’ and not considering the other people’s feelings,” she explains.

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They’re making you feel guilty.

Another way in which a micromanipulator plays the “victim” is by making you feel guilty for something, even if that means gaslighting you (meaning a person is manipulating you psychologically so that you see a situation differently). Even if you know they aren’t the victim of a situation, and you are not to blame, a micromanipulator can change the narrative enough to make you think you are actually to blame—even if they are using covert microaggressions.

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They’re reshaping the narrative

“If you look at it as a whole, [manipulation] is always changing the narrative or the plot so you get what you want,” says Schoninger. “So if a narcissist is manipulative, they are operating from a place of ‘OK, how can I change whatever the variables might be so I can get what I want?’ Regardless if it hurts people.”

Even if it’s subtle, micromanipulators can try to change the narrative in front of you in order to get what they want—whether it’s in tiny, subtle comments or questions that make you rethink a certain situation or event.

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How to handle a micromanipulator

If any of these signs stand out to you, Schoninger says the best way to handle it is by taking some space for yourself.

“I say that the first step is always space to think about creating boundaries,” she says. When you’re starting to feel this way, really start to go inward and to talk it through to yourself and ask yourself what’s this dynamic creating for yourself. You can just choose to take a break and see what it’s like not being in that space where you might feel disempowered.”

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