What Is Emotional Manipulation?

What Is Emotional Manipulation?



Are you being manipulated? Maybe right now you’re wondering: what is emotional manipulation?

This is a common phenomenon that you might have never heard about before!

Instead, you might just feel confused, conflicted, or even angry, without fully understanding why.

This could be a result of emotional manipulation! Read on to find out the signs and learn how to fight back!


What Is Emotional Manipulation?


Let’s start with a definition. Emotional manipulation is when someone tries to control your feelings by influencing your thoughts and actions.

They’re not telling you to do something outright. But you suddenly feel like you need to do something that you don’t want to do.

If you’ve experienced this, you know it feels pretty gross, right? However, please keep in mind that they might not even realize they’re doing it.


How Manipulators Work


Manipulators often use negative emotions like guilt, fear, or feelings of worthlessness. They might make threats, play on insecurities, or try to make you feel responsible for their happiness.


Signs Of Emotional Manipulation


Are you wondering “what does emotional manipulation look like?” The signs and symptoms will vary here from person to person. But here’s a list to give you an idea of what to look for.


They’re gaslighting you



Telling you something isn’t true when you know it is or vice versa. For example, your boyfriend saying “No. I wasn’t at lunch with Sally” when you already saw them there together.

This one is especially toxic, because it leaves you questioning yourself, injures your self-trust and leaves you questioning everything in your reality.


They use guilt trips



Parents, everywhere take note! A good old-fashioned guilt trip is a classic example of emotional manipulation. Now, there might be good reason to engage with this if you’re trying to get your fourteen-year-old to do their homework. But there’s definitely no room for this tactic amongst healthy adults.


They’re passive-aggressive


A classic here is swearing they’re not mad when it’s very obvious they are. This one can just be a sign of an emotionally immature person in general, but it can also be used in a manipulative way.


They do favors/things for you that you feel uncomfortable with, don’t want, or didn’t ask for

Surprise! Manipulation isn’t just about doing bad things. Many times it’s about doing things that look nice or innocent on the surface–but actually come with a whole ton of strings.

For example, you have a dinner party and tell everyone not to bring anything. But they show up with something anyway. Then spend two months talking about how they how much they “helped” you.


They Get Close Too Fast or Use Lovebombing


Faking emotional intimacy (too much, too soon) can definitely be a sign of emotional manipulation. All the men faking relationships/love trying to get women to sleep with them. True emotional trust and intimacy takes time. Seriously question why someone would want to be in a rush here or tell you things that can’t be true. (ie. dropping the L-word after two dates!)


They have a Victim Mindset



After all, when they always have the biggest problem in the room, you couldn’t possibly think they were up to something bad, could you? (Eeeeek!) The constant need to center themselves can definitely be a sign that they’re secretly wanting to control you.


You feel violated or disappointed in yourself



If the manipulator succeeded at getting you to go over your boundaries, you might feel shame or disappointment. Even if you thought it would be okay in the moment, this is showing that something went against your values or moral code.


You constantly feel the need to defend yourself



Sometimes your manipulator might do a lot of work to undermine your self-esteem. (Ooooph, hello to my ex-husband!) That leaves you constantly defending yourself, over things both big or small. Exhausting!


You often feel stressed out or confused by your interactions


If you’re constantly walking away from your time together feeling tired, stressed out or confused, then that might be a sign that something strange is going on. Constantly coming up against pressure to change or do things you don’t want to do can make you feel like you’re going insane, even though you don’t fully understand why.


They Use Your Weaknesses or Insecurities Against You


When you’re getting to know, it’s normal to open up and share intimate details about yourself. However, the emotional manipulator won’t hesitate to use those against you. This can happen in subtle ways or they might do it publicly and on purpose! Think: bringing up your previous mistakes or failure in front of co-workers or potential dates. Make no mistake! This one’s intended to keep you close or in-line.


What To Do If You’re Being Manipulated Emotionally


Tip #1: Is It Positive Influence or Manipulation?


Some outside influence isn’t a bad thing. For example, your best friend who’s trying to get you to join the gym with them. Their efforts might be annoying or unwanted, to be sure! But that’s very different that manipulation.


How to Tell the Difference


There are a few things to look out for here.

Ask yourself: what kind of agenda could this person have? Is there a reason why they want me to feel or do a certain thing? Many times it’s easy to see right through the relationship, to the core of what someone really wants from you.

On the other hand, positive influence is when you offer someone encouraging thoughts to help them feel better, without any hidden agenda.


Tip #2: Remember You’re In Control


Your emotions are in your control. Periodt! Other people can do their best to try to influence you. But at the end of the day, you are the one who decides what gets in and what doesn’t.

For example, someone might say something guilt-trippy to make you feel bad. But it’s up to you to decide if you take on those thoughts and feel guilty.

In other words, you don’t have to agree to the guilt-trip or other emotional manipulative tactic. You can see what’s happening and choose your own thoughts and feelings anyway!

The most important thing here is to tune in and ask yourself: what do you want? How do you want to feel? How do you want to react to this situation?

For more, check out this post and learn how to feel better about anything!


Tip #3: Protect Yourself


The key to stopping manipulation is awareness. Notice how someone’s words make you feel. If you feel negative emotions, it might be a sign they’re trying to control you. If this is a behavior of pattern with a certain person, decide how you want to proceed. Do you need to lay down a boundary? Or perhaps it’s time to end the relationship.


Tip #4: Set Boundaries


Many times the person who’s trying to manipulate is is a co-worker, friend, or even family member. In these situations, you might not be able to walk away. So you must learn how to protect yourself by setting boundaries.

That means letting them know what the problem behavior is as well as what you will do if they try it again. But this isn’t a perfect science! Sometimes you’ll need to enforce the boundary a few times before they get it. Sometimes they’ll push back against you. And other times, their reactions will let you know that it is time to walk away from the relationship (or at least, to limit the time you spend together).


Why Am I Emotionally Manipulative?


Did reading this list raise a A-Ha Moment…about your own behavior? Don’t worry my dear. You’re far from alone in this!

Many of us learned emotionally manipulative behavior from our parents (just as they likely learned it from theirs and so on.) When you’re a kid, you naturally model the behaviors you see in the world around you. And when you’re young, before your prefrontal cortex fully develops, you simply don’t realize that this is not ethical behavior!

So there’s a good chance you’ve picked this up accidentally. However, awareness is always the first step towards healing! Now that you know what emotional manipulation looks like, you can make a point to move towards new, healthy behaviors instead.

To notice it, check in with your own emotions. If you’re feeling tense and controlling, you might have slipped into manipulating territory. However, if you feel positive and genuinely want to help someone, (without benefit to yourself) you’re likely being a positive influence.


Is Crying A Form of Manipulation?


There’s not a clear answer here unfortunately! Yes, people definitely can use crocodile tears to manipulate others. (I’ve had this happen to me and it sucks!) But sometimes people are just emotionally overwhelmed to the point that they have to cry.

Basically, you can’t accuse everyone of using tears as emotional manipulation. But if you’ve sensed that behavior in someone (or they do it multiple times) it might be worth considering.




Are you struggling with an emotional manipulator–or feeling the after effects? If you’re ready to work with an affordable therapist, try out Betterhelp!




So tell me: have you ever felt emotionally manipulated? How did that make you feel? What are you going to do differently next time?





Remember This If You’re Being Manipulated


No one has to stay in your life that’s bringing you harm! While I can’t tell you what the right actions are for you, remember that it’s important to protect your peace and self-worth. Sometimes that means walking away from potential love-interests or even family members.

Remember, you are responsible for your thoughts and feelings–only always. No one can manipulate you without your permission and many manipulators don’t even realize they’re doing it.

Set your boundaries and expectations high and expect others to meet you there! Many times, they will be happy to do so.

By being aware of your emotions and setting boundaries, you can protect yourself from manipulation and build healthier relationships.



Jenn Stevens The Self-Worth Project

PS Looking for more? You might also want to check out this post about use CBT to feel better about anything, or understanding the narcissist relationship cycle.


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What Is Emotional Manipulation?

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