Unmasking the Emotional Manipulators Among Us

Written by on May 8, 2017 in Emotional Mastery

Emotional Manipulator


At 98 years young, my late grandmother-in-law was a charming and masterful manipulator, especially when it came to getting her grandson (my husband) to do chores around her house.

He did a good job of feigning resistance during our weekly visits but eventually trudged outside to tackle the list of tasks. Then she’d wink at me and say, “Come on sweetie, let’s fix us a cup of tea and watch Roller Derby!”

This obvious charade worked because they were both in on it (as evidenced by the fact my husband always dressed in his “handyman” clothes for these visits) and they adored each other.

Unfortunately, the truly great manipulators among us are nowhere near as harmless. Worse, their ability to hide their evil intentions behind the most disarming masks make them difficult to spot … unless you know what to look for.

We must learn to accept every person and situation for what it is rather than trying to manipulate it into what we want it to be.

The Nature of Manipulators

While all human beings are manipulative to some degree, there are few things more treacherous than a bad person with good people skills. They will lie, cheat, treat you badly and somehow manage to make it all seem like your fault.

Manipulators rarely act out at the beginning of a relationship. Typically they take the time to build a foundation of trust by encouraging you to share your challenges, hopes, and dreams with them. It feels good to have someone interested in you and it makes them appear caring and unselfish, but what they are really doing is probing for vulnerabilities that they can later use for their own benefit.

They will then gradually test various weak spots a little at a time to see how far they can push you. This is precisely what makes them so hard to spot until they’ve thoroughly inserted themselves into your life.

It may be tempting to assume that women are far more susceptible to emotional manipulators but this is not the case. Please keep in mind that ultimately psychological manipulation is a form of abuse, and research studies indicate that people of all genders and ages have reported experiencing the harmful effects of this treatment.

Common Tactics of Emotional Manipulators

To unmask the emotional manipulators among us let’s take a look at a few of their most common tactics and see if any of these sound familiar to you.

They Belittle You

A signature technique of the emotional manipulator is to make critical remarks, often disguised as humor or sarcasm to point out your flaws and make you feel foolish. Then when you complain about it, they’ll turn the situation around by saying you’re just too sensitive and critical. The goal is to make you feel inferior because then you are easier to control.

It’s Never Their Fault

The emotional manipulator has a knack for spinning the most ridiculous lies with the greatest conviction, and if it involves a problem it’s never their fault.

For example, you arrive at work to find you’ve missed an important meeting because your manipulator roommate never told you about the phone call with the change in time. Instead of accepting responsibility for not giving you the message, they become the victim by blaming you for being late getting home which ruined the dinner they worked so hard to prepare.

Manipulation is a common characteristic of emotional abuse that serves to slowly but steadily wear away at your confidence, sense of self and perception of reality.
They are Master Guilt Trippers

Emotionally manipulative people will keep a scorecard of every little thing they have ever done for you to guilt you into feeling like you owe them. If you refuse to go along with the ploy, they’ll accuse you of being insensitive and mean because you don’t appreciate them.

They Use Others to Control You

Rather than deal with problems directly, manipulators will talk behind your back and get other people to send hurtful messages or to blame you for their issues. If you attempt to confront them on their behavior they play innocent by blaming someone else for misinterpreting an innocent comment.

They Practice One-Upmanship

Whatever your problems may be, the emotional manipulator will always have it so much worse. If you tell your manipulator what a rough day you’ve had (hoping for a sympathetic ear), they’ll respond by telling you how their day was so much worse and how lucky you should feel that you don’t have their problems.

They Will Use Anger and Confrontation to Coerce You

Many people have a real issue about avoiding confrontation and manipulators use this to their advantage. For example, they may resort to anger or intimidation to interrupt a conversation that’s heading in a direction they don’t like, with the intention of coercing you into giving in to whatever they want just to “keep the peace”.

Manipulation Doesn’t Happen in a Vacuum

Learning to identify common tactics of a manipulator is just one piece of the puzzle. Under the right circumstances anyone can fall victim to an emotional manipulator, however, they tend to look for people who are especially easy going, gentle, and sympathetic.

Following are additional traits of those who are particularly susceptible to emotional manipulators.

  • The person who regularly sacrifices their own well-being for others.
  • The person who craves approval and acceptance from others.
  • The person who will give in rather than deal with conflict or confrontation.
  • The person who has weak (or no) boundaries and can’t say “no”.
  • The person who suffers from self-esteem issues.

Admittedly, this brief list represents issues that some people struggle with their entire lives, but the simple act of acknowledging your vulnerabilities can help you to be better prepared to protect yourself, especially if you commit to strengthening these areas.

Breaking the Cycle

Master manipulators spend a great deal of time developing a persona that serves their purposes and an environment in which meeting their needs makes you feel good, so they are highly unlikely to change simply because you ask them to. In fact, if you attempt to point out their faulty behavior you can expect them to quickly turn the tables on you.

The most important thing you can do is to focus on your own behavior beginning with setting and managing healthy personal boundaries. It also means learning to say “no” firmly and without guilt.

Of course, we all know that saying no without feeling guilty is often easier said than done, especially when it comes to friends and family. After all, not all manipulators are evil in fact some truly believe they have your best interest at heart.

So in my next post, we’re going to continue this conversation by looking at how to draw an invisible line in the sand to protect your own well-being by learning to say “no” in a way that is effective and at the same time compassionate.

Your Turn: Have you been able to successfully deal with emotional manipulators in your own life? Please consider sharing with us in the comments below.

Sometimes, adversity is what you need to face in order to become the person you were meant to be.
About Marquita Herald

Marquita Herald

Marquita is an author, resilience coach and the chief evangelist at Emotionally Resilient Living. She’s also an unapologetic workaholic who loves red wine, rock n’ roll, road trips (and car dancing!), peanut butter cookies and (especially) a dog named Lucy.

She’s saddened and frustrated by excuses and cruelty and believes authentic compassion is the most powerful force in the world.

To learn more about Marquita and the mission of Emotionally Resilient Living click “here.

Thank you for sharing!

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  1. Joyce Hansen

    I still find at times doing things so as to not aggravate someone else. Manipulation creeps into many areas of our lives and we fail to recognize it unless we ask why and how. A wonderful article and I will be sharing it with friends.
    Joyce Hansen recently posted…Why 90% of Your Blog Is Not MemorableMy Profile

  2. Bola

    I’ve spent a lifetime dealing with manipulator. If only we could see behind th mask! Lovely post.

  3. Donna Merrill

    Hi Marquita,

    What a wonderful topic you have chosen! There are manipulators everywhere in our lives. If we fall prey to them, we are sunk!

    As I was reading along, I recalled my life with my ex husband. Each topic was right on the money here of his personality.

    The good thing was that I learned to say “no” as well as working on my self esteem.

    Donna Merrill recently posted…How To Work Through Adversity – Tips For The Successful BloggerMy Profile

  4. Edward Thorpe

    Hi Marquita,

    Can’t believe I never stopped to realize the truth of your statement, psychological manipulation is a form of abuse! If more people kept this in mind, they could become less tolerant targets of manipulators, ya think?

    While I’m a lousy candidate for manipulators, some family members seem to relish whining about their mistreatment from people who ‘use’ them.

    Now that’s another story, isn’t it? Thanks for an interesting post.
    Edward Thorpe recently posted…The 2 Types Of Self-AwarenessMy Profile

  5. Hi Marquita,
    As I was reading your excellent article, I had only one person come to mind, thankfully. I no longer know these types of people any longer. But just for fun one person came to mind. See if you guess who before the end.
    ” A bad person with good people skills”
    Lie, cheat and treat you badly, making it all
    seem to be your fault”

    It’s never their fault – (fired the head of the FBI)
    If you confront them
    on their behavior they blame someone else for
    misintrerpreting – (fake news)

    Managing master manipulators – Learn to say
    NO ! He may not be truly evil he thinks he
    has the best interest (of the American people)
    Master manipulation type of person. D T.

  6. Joy Healey

    Hi Marquita,

    I know that my weak spots are giving in rather than dealing with conflict and finding it hard to say “no”. Typically, it’s often easier to just do “it” than to face an argument.

    Having become aware of these weak spots I AM working on not being manipulated, because there was one friend in my life who was a real manipulator. Funnily enough, she was always telling me I was being manipulated by other people – but as she explained it to me, I realised just how she was manipulating me! She is now history, but actually I can be grateful to her for exposing the manipulators – including herself!

    Joy – Blogging After Dark

    • Oh my, what an eye-opening experience that must have been for you Joy! I couldn’t agree more with you about the value of learning from people like this, in fact a few months ago I wrote a piece on being grateful for the “jerks” in my life for the very same reason. 🙂 Thanks for sharing your story with us.

  7. Marquita, sometimes I believe many ignore the manipulations especially the ones associated with the ones we love.
    I understand that because I have done that when my parents or sister try to manipulate me sometime or the other.
    Sushmita Thakare Jain recently posted…Have you checked out, Pinterest Propel for successful advertising?My Profile

    • It’s true that there are those who choose to live with the manipulators in their life, particularly when it involves family. If this works for you, that’s fine as long as you understand that doing so not only sends a clear message that this is acceptable behavior to you, but it serves as an engraved invitation to continue. When it’s relatively benign, such as the example I used about my late grandmother-in-law, then it’s likely harmless. It’s entirely up to the individual to set and honor their own limits, they just need to understand that they also must live with the consequences of those decisions. Thanks for sharing your thoughts with us!

  8. Marquita, manipulation is an art form some people have mastered beautifully. You hit on so many wonderful points about manipulating and being manipulated in this blog that I may read it again just to be sure I didn’t miss any that were still hidden behind the mask. Can’t wait to read the next one!

    • Thank you so much for taking the time to share your thoughts with us, and especially for letting me know that you found value in the post Kathleen! 🙂

  9. Marquita, As I read your article I could easily acknowledge how these people have shown up in both sexes at various points in my life and it took a long time to recognize it for what it was. Thank you for the depth of your exploration into the characteristics manipulators display. While not every person displays every quality, there are certain commonalities that are hard to mask.

    • I’m glad you found value in the article Yvonne, and you are so right about the examples I’ve shared being just that, a sample of the types of tactics use. It’s good to keep in mind that no two manipulators are alike. Thanks for stopping by! 🙂

  10. Sue Kearney

    Yes, I’m nodding as I’m reading. And then boing!

    This doesn’t happen in a vacuum.

    So true.

    When my daughter was young her therapist told me that if I stopped paying off (slot machine metaphor here) my daughter would stop yanking on my proverbial handle (provoking me). Simple! It took a lot of practice to make these changes, but once I got the concept, I was set free.
    Sue Kearney recently posted…Insights on morning routines, legacy, and learning how to sleepMy Profile

    • Yes! One of my favorite motivational speaker/author is Anthony Robbins and he always talks about the payoff for our bad behavior. As you learned, the step to changing our reaction may be relatively basic, but that doesn’t mean it’s going to be easy (or painless) to implement. Thanks for sharing Sue! 🙂

  11. Vatsala Shukla

    If only manipulation could be the type where the base is pure love like that between your husband and his grandmother or the way my little Coco manages to make me go for out of turn walks when she knows I’m working and she doesn’t need to do anything outside. Nothing like that look to make me melt. 🙂

    Sadly, that isn’t so. I thought a lot before I started to write and realized that there have been instances of manipulation in my life too especially in the time that followed my father’s death. The manipulator was able to manipulate me because my defenses were down and I didn’t listen to my intuition which kept telling me to run.

    I did notice a pattern though – first put the person on a pedestal and then make remarks that cut to the core.

    Nowadays I listen to my intuition and if something doesn’t feel right, I don’t wait to find out. Self-preservation is more important. Thanks for making me take the time to reflect, Marquita.
    Vatsala Shukla recently posted…Helicopter View – You need to see the Big Picture for SuccessMy Profile

    • I agree Vatsala, and heaven knows my little Lucy is also a master manipulator, but as with your Coco, it’s part of their charm. And oh my, it takes a special brand of manipulator to attempt to “work” someone under the circumstances you describe. How sad! For better or worse, I think we almost have to learn these lessons the hard way to truly appreciate the power (and responsibility) we have to create our own healthy and nurturing environment.

  12. Sonal Talwar

    Hi Marquita

    the post reminded me of my friend who easily got manipulated by everyone. It took her a lot of time to realize this that she was being manipulated. It was really difficult for her but somehow she managed it.

    Thanks for sharing!
    Sonal Talwar recently posted…Mother’s Day 2017: 10 Last Minute Mother’s Day Gift IdeasMy Profile

    • I’ve known people like your friend Sonal and it really is sad to see how they struggle to deal with it. Unfortunately, you may run and try to hide from them, but the only path to true freedom is to learn to stand up for yourself and the longer someone has allowed themselves to be used as a doormat the harder it is to push back … but it is certainly possible. Thanks for stopping by!

  13. Chery Schmidt

    Hello Marty! Wow what a great post! I do have a Master Manipulator in my life and I am working on getting her out, BUT this is not an easy task! She is my tenant and has been for 3+ years but just this past week I have just had enough and I am in the process of drafting a End Of Tenancy letter and which will be delivered tomorrow.

    Wow the timing with this is so right for me.

    Thank You For Sharing
    Chery :))

    • Sorry to hear that Chery, but I’m glad my post has provided you with some food for thought. I hope you will stop by to read the next one on saying “enough” because I think you will find it enlightening. Thanks so much for contributing to the conversation. 🙂

  14. Karen says:

    I think more women (especially those of us raised in the 50’s and 60’s – be that nice girl, go along to get along ….. etc.) have trouble dealing with emotional manipulators. And I think overcoming the difficulty starts with self-worth and self-love – once you develop that, it’s harder to allow others to guilt and coerce you into doing things. This comment – “We must learn to accept every person and situation for what it is rather than trying to manipulate it into what we want it to be.” makes me think of a quote by Byron Katie: “When you argue with reality, you lose. But only 100% of the time.”

    • You might be surprised to learn that studies indicate people of all genders and ages have reported being victims of various forms of emotional manipulation. It’s important to keep in mind that phychological manipulation is a form of abuse and while it may begin as annoying and hurtful it can escalate to seriously dangerous surprisingly fast. Thanks for sharing and contributing to the conversation.

  15. I find it easy to walk away from manipulators when they are in a work or volunteer environment. The hard part comes when they are a close family member who relies on you and always makes you feel guilty. The person I am thinking of has now passed, but I immediately thought of her when I began reading this post.
    Doreen Pendgracs recently posted…women’s cocoa cooperatives of the Dominican RepublicMy Profile

    • I hear you Doreen, and I know many people feel the same way, that’s why I felt the issue of guilt and saying “no” was worth a separate post. Thanks for contributing to the conversation. 🙂

  16. You hit on a very relevant topic, Marquita. These manipulators are dangerous to a happy life and should be purged or avoided–when we have that as an option.
    If we’re stuck with them, then boundaries.

    This is a great observation: ” …there are few things more treacherous than a bad person with good people skills.”

    I look forward to next week’s post.
    RoseMary Griffith recently posted…Downtown Tucson, Arizona is an Eclectic Mix of Old and NewMy Profile

  17. Sue B

    I’m no psychologist but I wonder if people exhibiting these traits would be classed as a having a Border Personality Disorder? I say this because it sounds much like one of my husband’s family who has been diagnosed. Although we’ve stepped back, after being hurt one time too many, there are times when we still have to “bail” him out from situations. We have learned to say no most of the time and this is finally getting through. Unfortunately that just means he goes to someone else for what he wants.

    • It would be so much easier if we could apply a single label to this kind of behavior Sue, but I did a lot of research before writing this post and the truth is there are as many reasons for why people become manipulators as there are tactics they use to get their way. In fact, I started to compile a list and stopped counting at 200! Not surprisingly, for many, it’s a learned behavior that stems from childhood, but again, it’s far more complicated than that, which is why I didn’t address causes in the article since the focus is on those who find themselves victims of manipulators. Thanks for sharing your story and for contributing to the conversation!

      • Sue Bride

        I see what you mean Marquita, and I suppose it’s also a matter of degree. It’s up to the manipulator to recognize and accept they have problems and seek help. We can’t make them, only learn to deal with them so your article is very valuable.
        Sue Bride recently posted…4 Tips for Silencing Your Inner Blogging CriticMy Profile

        • Absolutely Sue, and while the behaviors I listed are among the most common they only represent the tip of the proverbial iceberg. I think we all know that the only one we truly have any control over is ourselves, so why not focus our energy on building a healthy, nurturing environment instead of constantly being on the defensive. Thanks again! 🙂

  18. I recognize all the traits, Marquita. Many years ago I made a new friend and she was a master manipulator and wanted to “own” my time. I didn’t know how to say no and eventually I just stopped taking her calls. I didn’t handle the situation well, but I didn’t know what to do at the time. However, it was a major relief to have her out of my life. That was long ago and the whole relationship still makes me uncomfortable even thinking about it.

    • There is no question Jeannette that these relationships are far easier to get into than out of, and sometimes you have no choice but to learn the hard way. Thanks for stopping by and contributing to the conversation! 🙂

  19. Great stuff here and it resonates with many relationships I have experienced over the years. I would agree one is not likely to show the manipulator their faults and the manipulator change. No, I have found the tact is changed and another game begins. I have also found that these relationships need to be arms length ones or not one at all. thanks

    • Well said Marvin! As difficult as it can be, sometimes you just have to bless people on their way out of your life as a form of survival. Life is just too short not to nurture our own environment.

  20. Mina Joshi

    Your Post brought back some memories of when I was young and naive and easily manipulated. The first time, I answered back and refused to be manipulated was hard but I felt so good standing up for myself that I never looked back.

    • You are so right Mina, it can take time to build the courage to stand up to people like this, but once you do and see how empowering it feels, as you said, you never want to look back. Thanks for sharing with us!

  21. Mandy Allen

    Goodness, what a revealing post. I must admit I don’t have anything to do with people like this. I am straight to the point and just leave when I see it happening. I haven’t time to play games! A recent example was at work when someone tried it on and I just left. There are plenty more places to work, I don’t need to stay int hat environment. Thanks for sharing!

    Enjoy the journey!

    • Good for you Mandy, and you are precisely the kind of person that would make the typical manipulator turn tail and run the other direction! Thanks for sharing your thoughts with us, always appreciated. 🙂

  22. lenie

    Marquita, this is perfect. No doubt everyone has a master manipulator in their lives, I know I do and since I am unable to totally cut ties, I am able nonetheless to lessen exposure.
    I’m looking forward to the next post on learning how to say ‘NO’.

    • Hey Lenie! So good to see you back and I’m looking forward to reading your latest blog post my friend. I’m really glad you enjoyed the article. I know this is an issue that many people have to deal with, and I’m hoping the next article on how to say “no” will help to overcome some of the stumbling blocks in dealing with these difficult relationships.

  23. Marquita, very nice examples and tips about the games people play. This games work for them until we know and accept our true self and live from the inside out. Then it is up to us to decide if we play with them or not. Great post to think about. Good if we love and accept ourselves then we can either stay away from them or play the games as kindness.
    Erika Mohssen-Beyk recently posted…Why Is Meeting With Like – Minded People Powerful?My Profile

  24. Mark

    So very well said M!

    And thank you for helping us learn, how to spot and effectively deal with these masters of disguise!

    Because as you pointed out, far too often, we allow these emotional and resource drainers, to constantly take advantage of our kind heart-ed generosity.

    And the sad part is, they consistently get their way, yet we often feel guilty, even though we often go out of our way to help them out! How ironic is that?LOL!

    Thanks for sharing another extremely helpful blog post!
    Mark recently posted…A Major Reason Why Your Online Business Shouldn’t Just Copy What The Gurus Do!My Profile

    • Thanks Mark! You are right about the nature of manipulation being a cycle that is difficult to break, but awareness is an important first step so I appreciate your sharing and thoughtful contribution to the conversation my friend.

  25. Phoenicia

    This post speaks volumes to me.

    I read your list of common traits of those most susceptible to manipulating and am sad to say each one registers with me. A shy child and teen who was bullied is the perfect target as this person is on the sidelines, invisible, desperate to fit in and feel “normal”. I shudder when I recall the unhealthy friendships and relationships I tolerated. I was grateful that someone allowed me to hang out with them so put up with whatever behaviour they dished out. I suppressed whatever negative emotions arose – surprised I did not combust! I truly believe the saying that people will treat you according to how you allow them to. As individuals we teach others how to treat us. If we have no self worth, we give others the right to treat us as though we are unworthy. It has taken me years to like myself and almost my whole life to love myself. I have had to face many battles in order to be where I am today.

    Thank you for covering this topic.
    Phoenicia recently posted…Consistency brings results!My Profile

    • Beautifully said Phoenicia! And for anyone reading your insightful words who may have suffered a similar experience, if you haven’t already read Phoenicia’s story in our free eBook Women Breaking Barriers I urge you to download it because you will be encouraged and inspired. Thank you for contributing to the conversation! 🙂

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