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Understanding and dealing with emotional manipulation tactics

Understanding and dealing with emotional manipulation tactics

Spotting emotional manipulation is vital—and unfortunately, deceptive behaviors are all too common in many relationships. Whether you’re struggling with manipulative communication, actions, or experiences, it’s crucial to safeguard your emotional health and protect your relationships and yourself.

We’ve assembled a streamlined guide to understanding and dealing with emotional manipulation. Learn how to recognize and respond to different forms of manipulation, and how to protect yourself when needed.


How to Identify Emotional Manipulation

Some of the most common forms of emotional manipulation often involve the other individual(s): 

  • Consistently undermining your self-esteem
  • Adopting a victim mentality to evoke sympathy
  • Employing gaslighting techniques to sow doubt in your perception
  • Exercising control through isolation from loved ones
  • Using threats of negative consequences to enforce compliance
  • Subjecting you to excessive criticism and humiliation

More subtle uses of emotional manipulation tactics include:

  • Love bombing—the excessive display of affection early in a romantic relationship
  • Employing the silent treatment as a form of punishment
  • Inducing sudden mood swings to keep you off balance
  • Projecting their own flaws onto you to deflect blame.
  • Establishing unrealistic expectations and frequently shifting goalposts
  • Fostering a sense of dependency, making you rely on them
  • Exploiting personal secrets and information to control or manipulate
  • Amplifying your insecurities to serve their own interests

The purpose of emotional manipulation isn’t simply to hurt your feelings – but to begin to erode your sense of self-esteem and internal compass. When they are able to convince you that you’re in the wrong, the emotional manipulation begins to become a successful method for you to be gaslit and controlled even further.

The Four Stages of Manipulation

While emotional manipulation doesn’t necessarily have four succinct steps, the process may be distilled into the following four phases: 

  1. Scouting out the victim: The initial stage of manipulation involves the manipulator carefully examining the target’s vulnerabilities, insecurities, and desires. They gather crucial information to better understand how to exert influence and gain control over the individual.
  2. Manipulating the victim: In the subsequent phase, the manipulator deploys a range of tactics and techniques to manage the target’s thoughts, emotions, and actions. Tactics such as flattery, guilt-tripping, or gaslighting are often used to achieve their specific objectives.
  3. Exploiting of the victim: Once the manipulator has established control and trust, they proceed to exploit the target’s vulnerabilities. This exploitation may take the form of financial gain, emotional support, or other advantages, all at the expense of the targeted individual.
  4. Maintaining control over the victim: In the final stage of manipulation, the manipulator focuses on sustaining control over the target. They may persist in using manipulative tactics to ensure the individual remains under their influence. 

Recognizing these stages is crucial for safeguarding yourself from emotional manipulation.

Outsmarting Emotional Manipulation

Outsmarting emotional manipulation means protecting yourself from being taken advantage of. You can accomplish this by starting to: 

  1. Educate yourself: Knowledge is your armor. Familiarize yourself with the common manipulation tactics listed in the sections above and use them as the telltale signs to swiftly identify attempts to control or gaslight you.
  2. Trust your instincts: In relationships or interactions, rely on your intuition. If you sense manipulation, take a step back to protect yourself.
  3. Establish clear boundaries: Communicate your personal boundaries effectively. Clearly articulate what you find acceptable or not in your dealings with others.
  4. Stay composed: Emotional manipulators may aim to provoke strong emotional reactions. Maintaining emotional composure can disrupt their efforts.
  5. Lean on trusted allies: Discuss your concerns with trusted friends, family, or a therapist. They offer valuable perspectives and support.
  6. Practice assertive communication: Express your feelings, needs, and boundaries assertively, preserving your emotional control and decision-making power.
  7. Seek clarification: When manipulation is detected, question motives and statements. Manipulators often retreat when confronted.
  8. Avoid isolation and loneliness: Emotional manipulators might attempt to isolate you from loved ones. Maintain your social ties and seek help when needed.
  9. Stay informed: Continuously enhance your emotional intelligence and understanding of psychological manipulation for greater emotional resilience.
  10. Consider professional guidance: When dealing with a persistent manipulator or struggling to cope, consult a therapist or counselor for valuable guidance and coping strategies.

Prioritize your emotional health by remaining vigilant, defining boundaries, and seeking assistance when necessary.

Recognizing Manipulative Phrases

Recognizing manipulative phrases is vital for healthy relationships and self-protection. Key tips for recognizing manipulative phrases include:

  • Excessive flattery or charm: Manipulators use exaggerated praise to gain trust.
  • Guilt-inducing language: They make you feel responsible for their feelings or actions.
  • Gaslighting: Undermining your confidence in your perceptions with statements like, “You’re too sensitive.”
  • Playing the victim: Portraying themselves as victims to gain your sympathy.
  • Emotional blackmail: Using threats to make you comply, like “You’ll regret it.”
  • Defensiveness and avoidance: Refusing to address concerns or deflecting blame.
  • Projection: Projecting their flaws onto you.
  • Shifting responsibility: Setting unrealistic expectations and moving the goalposts.
  • Love bombing: Overly affectionate early on to create dependency.
  • Silent treatment: Using it as a form of control.

Stay alert to these manipulative tactics for healthier relationships.

Vulnerability to Emotional Manipulation

Emotional manipulation has the potential to impact a wide range of individuals, with some people being more prone to it, including:

  • Individuals with low self-esteem: Those who struggle with their self-worth may find themselves more susceptible to manipulation, as manipulators can exploit their insecurities.
  • Empathetic individuals: People who possess a strong sense of empathy and compassion may be at a higher risk, as their desire to help and please others can be taken advantage of.
  • Individuals facing challenging situations: Those dealing with personal or emotional difficulties can be vulnerable targets, as manipulators may offer false solutions or support.
  • Individuals exhibiting codependency traits: Those with codependent tendencies may become entangled in manipulative relationships due to their excessive reliance on others.
  • Children and adolescents: Younger individuals who are still developing their emotional and social skills may be more susceptible to manipulation, particularly by their peers.
  • Recent trauma survivors: Those who have recently experienced trauma may be more vulnerable, as manipulators can exploit their emotional fragility.
  • Seniors: Older adults facing loneliness or cognitive decline could become targets for manipulation.

It is crucial to bear in mind that anyone can fall victim to manipulation, and the responsibility lies with the manipulator’s behavior, not the character of the victim. Developing awareness and the ability to recognize manipulative tactics can serve as a defense against emotional manipulation.

Yet equally important is learning how to communicate your grievances and crossed boundaries without becoming defensive, agitated, or provoked.

Effective Communication with Manipulative Individuals

For effective communication with individuals prone to using emotional manipulation, you should: 

  • Set clear boundaries: Tell them what’s acceptable and what’s not.
  • Keep things cool: Don’t get triggered; stay calm when you talk with them.
  • Active listening: Tune in, don’t space out.
  • Seek clarity rather than confrontation: When you sense manipulation at play, ask them to explain their behavior or statements peacefully. 
  • Use “I” statements: Own your feelings.
  • Stay factual: Keep it real, ditch the drama.
  • Avoid playing the blame game: Express how their behavior affects you without attacking them
  • Show empathy: Try understanding their viewpoint but keep your boundaries in place.
  • Be consistent: Stick to your rules and boundaries for how you expect others to treat you.
  • Get support: Talk to your support system about how to remove yourself from the relationship if needed
  • Limit contact: If things get rough, go low or no contact.
  • Get educated: Learn the manipulation tactics we’ve listed above.
  • Remember, self-care is the top priority: If it’s too much, cut ties for your peace.

Overall, it’s better to avoid playing head games with emotionally manipulative people. There’s no way to fight fire with fire; sometimes the hardest battle is walking away peacefully.

  • Medical writer
  • Editorial writer
  • Clinical reviewer
  • 1 sources
Kate Hanselman, PMHNP in New Haven, CT
Kate Hanselman, PMHNP-BCBoard-Certified Psychiatric Mental Health Nurse Practitioner
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Kate Hanselman is a board-certified Psychiatric Mental Health Nurse Practitioner (PMHNP-BC). She specializes in family conflict, transgender issues, grief, sexual orientation issues, trauma, PTSD, anxiety, behavioral issues, and women’s issues.

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Alexandra “Alex” Cromer is a Licensed Professional Counselor (LPC) who has 4 years of experience partnering with adults, families, adolescents, and couples seeking help with depression, anxiety, eating disorders, and trauma-related disorders.

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Jason CrosbyMental Health Writer

Jason Crosby is a Senior Copywriter at Thriveworks. He received his BA in English Writing from Montana State University with a minor in English Literature. Previously, Jason was a freelance writer for publications based in Seattle, WA, and Austin, TX.

We only use authoritative, trusted, and current sources in our articles. Read our editorial policy to learn more about our efforts to deliver factual, trustworthy information.

  • Ngoc, N. N. Et al. (2020, November 9). A Meta-Analytic Investigation of the Relationship Between Emotional Intelligence and Emotional Manipulation. Sage Journals.

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