What is Psychological Manipulation?
Psychological Manipulation is a type of influence that attempts to change the behavior or perception of others through underhanded, deceptive and abusive techniques. This advances the interests of the manipulator, generally at the victim’s expense, in methods that may be considered abusive, devious, deceptive, and exploitative. Psychological manipulation can be defined as the exercise of undue influence through mental distortion and emotional exploitation, with the intention to seize power, control, benefits and/or privileges at the victim’s expense.
It is important to distinguish healthy social influence from psychological manipulation. Healthy social influence occurs between most people, and is part of the give and take of constructive relationships. In psychological manipulation, one person is used for the benefit of another. The manipulator deliberately creates an imbalance of power, and exploits the victim to serve his or her agenda.
Psychological Manipulators know what they want and fight hard to get it.
The tactics Psychological Manipulators use are very effective methods of power and control, because they’re almost impossible to be seen as aggressive on the surface, at the unconscious level, the victim feels backed into the corner. Once a victim is backed into a corner, it is more likely that they’ll back down or give into the manipulator’s demands.
Why Do People Manipulate?
There are many motivations behind manipulation – as varied as the manipulators themselves. Perhaps the manipulator needs to gain something purposefully or feels that they have to advance their own causes or plans – no matter what the cost to others may be. Maybe they need to feel powerful and in-control of their relationships with others. Maybe feeling powerful over others increases their own self-esteem. Maybe the person does not have the social skills to obtain what is wanted or needed by traditional means. Some Psychological Manipulators are psychopathic, having trouble empathizing with or understanding the feelings of themselves or others, and placing their own desires foremost because of it.
How Do Manipulators Manipulate?
There are many techniques that manipulators can use to gain power and control over their victim. Here is a breakdown of some manipulation techniques.
Brandishing Anger – manipulators use anger and rage to shock their victims into submission, although real anger is not necessarily experienced by the manipulator. The anger is simply a show to get whatever he or she wants by cowing the victim into submission.
Covert Intimidation – The victim is thrown on the defensive by manipulator using subtle, indirect, or implied threats.
Denial – The manipulator refuses to admit that he or she has done anything wrong.
Diversion – Rather than giving a straight answer, the manipulator will often change the subject, often without the change being noticed.
Feigning Confusion – The manipulator plays dumb – pretending she or he has no idea what the victim is talking about, or is confused by the topic at hand.
Feigning Innocence – The manipulator suggests that anything harmful was done unintentionally or that it didn’t happen. This makes the victim question their judgement and/or sanity in feeling hurt or betrayed.
Evasion and diversion – Providing vague, rambling, incoherent responses to the victim. This often leads to confusion over the matter at hand, as well as making it less likely that the victim will be inclined to pursue further conversations on the topic.
Gaslighting – A form of psychological abuse involving the manipulation of situations or events that cause a person to be confused or to doubt his perceptions and memories. Gaslighting causes victims to constantly second-guess themselves and wonder if they’re losing their minds.
Guilt-Tripping – The manipulator suggests to a conscientious victim that he or she doesn’t care enough, is too selfish, or has it easy. The victim generally feels guilt or shame as a result, and is thrown into a submissive, anxious, and self-doubting state.
Isolation – It is far easier to keep a person under control if they are isolated from family members and friends who could shed some light and truth on the situation.
Love-Bombing – Manipulators typically use love-bombing as a manipulation tactic, they will go on a charm offensive and get you hooked into thinking this is the best relationship ever, then they’ll drop you like a ton of bricks without explanation.
Lying – By the time the truth is apparent, it may be too late to do anything about it. Many manipulative personality types are experts at lying and may do so in subtle ways that are hard to detect.
Lies of Omission – This is lying by withholding a part of the truth, usually with the intention of making something seem innocuous, or less harmful than it really was.
Minimization – The manipulator asserts that his or her behavior is not as harmful as is suggested.
Mood Swings – Never knowing what mood your partner is going to be in when you get home, whether they’ll be happy or angry is a very useful tool to the predator. It keeps their victim off balance and makes them more malleable.
Not Telling The Whole Story This is different to lying as a predator will often keep a key part of the story to themselves in order to put their victim at a disadvantage.
Over-the-top aggression – Manipulators often use rage and aggression to shock their victim into submission. The anger is also a tool to shut down any further conversation on the topic as the victim is scared but focused now on controlling the anger, not the original topic.
Playing the Victim – The manipulator portrays themselves as a victim of circumstance or other people in order to gain pity, sympathy, or compassion from their conscientious victim.
Positive Reinforcement – This includes buying expensive presents, praising them, giving money, constantly apologizing for their behavior, excessive charm, and paying lots of attention to his or her victim.
Projecting the Blame – Scapegoating in subtle ways, blaming the victim or other people for the negative actions or consequences of their actions. This helps to portray the manipulator in a more positive light, and can actively harm the victim’s relationships with other people, who may not even have been involved.
Punishment – can include constant nagging, shouting, the silent treatment, physical and emotional abuse.
Rationalization – An excuse from the manipulator for inappropriate behavior. Rationalization involves giving reasons as to why their behavior was justified and appropriate. When coupled with Guilt-Trips or Scapegoating, the manipulator will often wind up looking like a victim, evoking sympathy from the real victim.
Sarcasm – A predator will often be sarcastic about their victim in front of others. They do this to lower the self-esteem of the victim and to show others how powerful they are.
Seduction – Using charm, praise, or flattery to lower the defenses of the victim so that the manipulator gains trust and loyalty.
Shaming – Sarcasm and insults can be used by the manipulator to increase self-doubt and fear in the victim, to make the victim feel unworthy. This may be accomplished by anything from a very subtle fierce look or unpleasant tone of voice to a rhetorical comment. This may make the victim feel badly for daring to challenge them, which also fosters a sense of inadequacy in the victim.
Spinning the Truth – How many times have politicians twisted the facts to suit themselves? This spinning of the truth is often used to disguise bad behavior by predators such as sociopaths.
Vilifying the Victim – A powerful method of putting the victim on the defensive while masking aggressive intention. When a manipulator accuses the victim of wrongdoing, they are making the victim defend themselves whilst the predator is able to mask their own manipulation techniques. The focus is on the victim, not the accuser.
Vulnerabilities Exploited By Manipulators:
The following are a list of vulnerabilities that may exist in the victims of manipulators. By no means comprehensive, these traits tend to be common in people who are often victimized by Psychological Manipulators.
- A desire to please and earn the approval and acceptance of others.
- Naivete – the victim doesn’t want to believe that anyone is cunning or ruthless and may be in denial of own victimhood.
- A fear of negative emotions.
- Over-internationalization – believing what the manipulator says to be true, which can result in self-doubt or shame.
- Excessive empathy – the victim tries really hard to understand the point of view of the manipulator and believes the manipulator has a justifiable reason to be hurtful.
- Over-conscientiousness – victim is too willing to give the manipulator the benefit of the doubt.
- Low Self-Confidence – victim lacks the ability to say no, doubts themselves, lacks confidence.
- Emotional Dependency – the victim has a dependent or submissive personality. The more submissive or dependent, the more vulnerable the victim is to exploitation.
- Low emotional skills – when the victim does not understand his or her emotional self well, they misinterpret feelings
In an article by Fiona McColl about manipulation, she identifies several methods of spotting manipulation. If you think you are being victimized, these are common signs to look for.
1. Home Court Advantage A manipulative person can insist on you meeting in a physical space where he or she can exercise dominance and control such as a manipulator’s office, home, car, or other spaces. The common thread is that he or she feels comfortable, owns the space, and feels familiar. All of which are things a victim lacks.
2. Let You Speak First to Establish Your Baseline and Look for Weaknesses This is what most sales people do when they meet you – they ask general and probing questions to gather a baseline read on your thinking and behavior – which lets them evaluate your strengths and weaknesses.
3. Manipulation of Facts Examples: Lying. Excuse-making. Two-faced. Blaming the victim for causing their own victimization. Deformation of the truth. Strategic disclosure or withholding of key information. Exaggeration. Understatement. One-sided bias of issue.
4. Overwhelm You with Facts and Statistics some manipulators like to use “intellectual bullying” which makes them appear expert and knowledgeable in some areas. They impose alleged facts, statistics, and other things you may not know. This can happen in sales, work, or social arguments. By assuming that they know more than you do, they hope to push through their own agenda. Some people use this to feel intellectually superior.
5. Bullshit apologies are often noticeable. If your inner gut is telling you that an apology is bullshit, it probably is. Further if you are honest with an emotional manipulator about your feelings, he or she may turn their angst and stress upon you, until YOU wind up comforting THEM.
6. I’ll do you a favor, I guess is an example of a common manipulation tactic. A manipulator will propose or agree to assist you with a task, and follow the acceptance up with sighs and subtle behavior to let you know they do not want to follow-through on the agreement.
7. Manipulators are awesome at turning a phrase, by which I mean that they may say one thing, then later deny that they did not say anything at all! Also common is the telling of the truth in such a way as to mean something other than what, on the surface, has been said.
8. Guilt is a common tool for manipulators. Because manipulators often do not directly express their needs and wants, they use tactics, such as guilt, to get someone to act the way they want them to act. Typically this is manifested in terms of the victim needing to care for the manipulator’s needs, at the expense of your own.
9. Fighting dirty is not uncommon because manipulators do not like direct confrontation. Often they are passive-aggressive and let you subtly know that they are not happy.
10. Being upstaged by the manipulator’s pain – you have a headache, he has a migraine. Calling them on this behavior often results in someone becoming defensive and combative.
11. Overwhelm You with Procedures and Red Tape involves using bureaucracy to maintain their power while making your life harder. This can cause a victim to delay fact-finding, truth-seeking, hide flaws and weaknesses, and evade scrutiny.
12. Raising Their Voice and Displaying Negative Emotions many psychological manipulators raise their voice or cry during discussions – this is called “aggressive manipulation.” Manipulators do this to gain coercion and give them what they want. This aggressive manipulation is often combined strong body language, like standing imposingly or gesturing – to further influence others.
13. Negative Surprises Some people use negative surprises to put you off balance and gain a psychological advantage. This can range from low balling in a negotiation, to a sudden profession that she or he will not be able to come through and deliver in some way. Typically, the unexpected negative information comes without warning, so you have little time to prepare and counter their move. The manipulator may ask for additional concessions from you.
14. Giving You Little or No Time to Decide – while often used in sales, the manipulator applies tension and control over you so you will crack under pressure and give in to the manipulator.
15. Negative Humor – this tactic is used to poke fun at weaknesses and dis-empower their victims. Some manipulators make critical remarks – often disguised as humor or sarcasm – that makes you feel insecure and inferior. By making you look bad, and getting you to feel bad, the aggressor hopes to impose psychological superiority over you.
16. Consistently Judge and Criticize You to Make You Feel Inadequate. n this form of manipulation, he manipulator outright picks on you. By marginalizing, ridiculing, and dismissing you, she or he keeps you off-balance and maintains her superiority. This is designed to make you feel small and not good enough. This is most often accomplished through covert-aggression or carefully veiled aggression.
How To Combat Manipulation:
1. Hold them accountable! Manipulators often are not held accountable and thus have poor boundaries with others. They do what it takes to get their way. If you tell someone how they hurt your feelings and then that person turns that around to be about them and their suffering, bring the conversation back to the original point- that your feelings are hurt.
2. Take notes! Take notes about conversations and important points, so that you can refer back to those notes later when a manipulator claims a conversation went a different way or never happened.
3. Walk away! Sometimes, the best thing to do is to just walk away. Revisit the situation later, and don’t get sucked in to the drama.
4. Know your human rights – The single most important guideline when you’re dealing with a psychologically manipulative person is to know your rights, and recognize when they’re being violated. As long as you do not harm others, you have the right to stand up for yourself and defend your rights.
5. Keep your distance – One way to detect a manipulator is to see if a person acts with different faces in front of different people and in different situations. While all of us have a degree of this type of social differentiation, some psychological manipulators tend to habitually dwell in extremes, being highly polite to one individual and completely rude to another—or totally helpless one moment and fiercely aggressive the next. When you observe this type of behavior from an individual on a regular basis, keep a healthy distance, and avoid engaging with the person unless you absolutely have to.
6. Avoid self-blame – Since the manipulator’s agenda is to look for and exploit your weaknesses, it is understandable that you may feel inadequate, or even blame yourself for not satisfying the manipulator. In these situations, it’s important to remember that you are not the problem; you’re simply being manipulated to feel bad about yourself, so that you’re more likely to surrender your power and rights.
7. Ask probing questions – Inevitably, psychological manipulators will make requests (or demands) of you. These “offers” often make you go out of your way to meet their needs. When you hear an unreasonable solicitation, it’s sometimes useful to put the focus back on the manipulator by asking a few probing questions, to see if she or he has enough self-awareness to recognize the inequity of their scheme.
8. Use the time wisely – In addition to unreasonable requests, the manipulator will often also expect an answer from you right away, to maximize their pressure and control over you in the situation. (Sales people call this “closing the deal.”) During these moments, instead of responding to the manipulator’s request right away, consider leveraging time to your advantage, and distancing yourself from his or her immediate influence. You can exercise leadership over the situation simply by saying:
“I’ll think about it.”
9. Know How To Say “No”―Diplomatically But Firmly To be able to say “no” diplomatically but firmly is to practice the art of communication. Effectively articulated, it allows you to stand your ground while maintaining a workable relationship. Remember that your fundamental human rights include the right to set your own priorities, the right to say “no” without feeling guilty, and the right to choose your own happy and healthy life.
10. Confront bullies (but do it safely) – A psychological manipulator also becomes a bully when he or she intimidates or harms another person. The most important thing to keep in mind about bullies is that they pick on those whom they perceive as weaker, so as long as you remain passive and compliant, you make yourself a target. But many bullies are also cowards on the inside. When their targets begin to show backbone and stand up for their rights, the bully will often back down.
11. Set consequences – When a psychological manipulator insists on violating your boundaries, and won’t take “no” for an answer, deploy consequence. The ability to identify and assert consequence(s) is one of the most important skills you can use to “stand down” a difficult person. Effectively articulated, consequence gives pause to the manipulative individual, and compels her or him to shift from violation to respect.