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Psychological Manipulation: How It Works, 37 Tactics, Signs & Ways to Deal

Master manipulators are great at gradually intensifying their prowess, that’s why they’re so hard to spot. You might be suffering from psychological manipulation without even knowing it.

psychological manipulation

It’s possible for someone who seems like a pretty decent person to employ manipulative tactics to get what they want. These tricks are often undetectable at first, so it’s important to learn about psychological manipulation and how to spot the signs to protect your own mental health and well-being. Don’t let yourself be dazzled by a master manipulator.

What is psychological manipulation?

Psychological manipulation is a way of manipulating someone’s thoughts, opinions, and emotions. The manipulator’s goal is to oppress their victim and have power over them. [Read: 15 signs of manipulation in a relationship that you should never ignore]

It’s often very subtle and builds up over time, which makes it dangerous and hard to spot. But sometimes, people outside of the situation can see what is going on more clearly.

When you’re on the inside and deeply involved, however, it can be hard to believe that your beau is trying to twist your mind to their advantage.

Psychological manipulation is so damaging because it causes you to question your own sanity and takes your power away from you.

You might even completely lose trust and faith in yourself and rely solely upon the manipulator. Your perception of the world around you has changed, and it’s very difficult to put things back in place afterward.

It’s not impossible, though, and there are ways to overcome manipulation. It takes time, effort, and help, but it can be done. [Read: How to spot manipulative people and stop playing the victim]

Why do people manipulate others?

A person using psychological manipulation feels like they cannot function without control and power. They need to get what they want, have all the attention, and protect their fragile ego.

It’s difficult to say why people end up the way they do, but so much of it tends to stem from childhood. Manipulative people often come from severely dysfunctional families.

More often than not, their manipulation is a learned behavior. They saw one or both of their parents use these tactics to yield results in their favor and are only repeating what they watched.

It’s also possible that they had to use manipulation tactics as children to have their own needs met. They may have had to learn how to get what they needed from their parents because they weren’t automatically provided for. Through that, they learned that manipulation works and continued on with it.

Manipulation has also been linked to people with severe attachment issues or extreme anxiety. This type of person has often experienced a lack of control in the past. [Read: Attachment styles theory – the types and 19 signs & ways you attach to others]

Psychological manipulation is also often listed as a symptom of narcissistic personality disorder and borderline personality disorder.

In short, psychological manipulation is used by a wide array of people for a vast amount of reasons. But the end goal for almost all of them is to control overs as a method of self-protection or self-preservation.

Is manipulation always wrong?

The idea of manipulation is definitely considered to be a bad thing. The action of manipulating means that a person is deliberately influencing someone or something in a way that benefits them.

Generally, the idea puts a bad taste in one’s mouth.

But consider that not all manipulation is a bad thing that yields bad results.

For instance, being consistently psychologically manipulated by a partner or parent in a way that truly hurts your mental health is significantly different from a person in custody being interrogated and manipulated by officers of the law.

Let’s say that the person in custody has been accused of several murders with adequate evidence to connect them to the crimes.

The purpose of the first scenario is ultimately to hurt the victim and gain control. The purpose of the second is still to gain control, but its main focus is being able to get the information needed to ensure that this person isn’t released to repeat the crimes and also to give justice to the victims.

Sometimes, manipulation has a slightly more noble purpose. But when it enters a relationship and is used to belittle, squash, and abuse someone, it’s nothing but malicious. [Read: Manipulative behavior – why it’s toxic & signs you shouldn’t ignore]

Characteristics of manipulators

It’s often hard to spot a manipulator. They disguise themselves well with thick coats of charm and kindness, only revealing their true selves with the shedding of each layer. It can take a while to realize that a person is manipulative or that you’re being manipulated.

However, there are certain characteristics that can help you identify a manipulator more quickly. And it’s not even that hard. All you have to do is pay attention to what they’re doing.

Do they fail to show any consideration for others and only seem to care about themselves? Maybe they aren’t afraid to throw someone under the bus if it gets them closer to where they want to be.

Do they like to use the weaknesses and insecurities of others against them? Are they just absolutely unable to understand the concept of boundaries? Would they rather blame anyone else than take responsibility for their own mistakes? Do they lack empathy or speak negatively of almost everyone around them? [Read: 24 signs of people who lack empathy]

Generally, manipulative people exhibit extremely self-centered behavior because that’s what they are. Everything they do is done for some type of personal gain.

The most common psychological manipulation tactics

As mentioned, psychological manipulation is often subtle yet extremely powerful. Knowing the most common psychological manipulation tactics will help you figure out if any of them are being used on you.

Being able to identify these life-ruining tricks can help you out of an imbalanced and oppressive relationship dynamic.

1. The home court manipulation

If a manipulator is using their home court advantage, they will always choose to be where they feel in control. [Read: Controlling people – 32 common traits, signs, and ways to deal with them]

They’ll always choose to bring you to places in which they feel more comfortable, familiar, and empowered by being in a space that they feel ownership toward. It might be their home, office, or even their favorite coffee shop. Regardless, it’s a place that they choose and see as theirs.

2. Intellectual bullying

You might find that a manipulator will encourage you to speak first.

Don’t be fooled, they won’t be listening to what you’re saying. They’ll be looking for any weaknesses they can exploit. They’re only asking you questions to easily assess your thought process. Anything that they learn about you now will only be used against you later.

Your manipulator might also steer the conversation toward areas that they know you’re not going to understand. This is a form of intellectual bullying that takes power and confidence away from you. [Read: 16 signs of an emotionally manipulative partner who’s playing you]

3. “Just kidding” manipulation

Psychological manipulation can often appear to be lighthearted and fun, but if it leaves you feeling upset or lacking in control, it’s far from fun.

A manipulative person picks little things they can poke fun at while passing it off as humorous.

This is done to make you feel inferior. By making you feel bad, they’ve taken something from you. They’ve taken some of your confidence and security, which will make their game go further in their favor.

4. The silent treatment

Have you ever been given the cold shoulder or the silent treatment? As simple as it seems, it’s just another form of psychological manipulation.

They’re using their silence as leverage by making you wait. As long as you’re waiting for them, they’re in control. [Read: Silent treatment abuse – how to take a stand and get your control back]

5. Gaslighting

Gaslighting is a form of manipulation where a manipulator makes you question your own logic, memories, and even sanity. By denying events that happened, emotions they made you feel, and implying that there’s something wrong with you, the goal here is to make you feel crazy.

Your manipulator wants you to think that you’re being dramatic. They want you to question whether or not something really happened the way you know it did.

Let’s say they ask you to meet outside your favorite restaurant after work. You go and wait, but they don’t show up. When you call to check on them, they laugh and say that you must be crazy! They never said that! You know they did, but their denial is enough to make you doubt yourself.

Over time, this erodes away at your trust in yourself and leaves you lacking in power. [Read: How to spot gaslighting in a relationship and shut it down for good]

6. Charm

Manipulators tend to keep a lot of charm in their pockets.

It’s easy for them to ooze charm in the beginning because they know it draws people in. If they’re charming, you’re more likely to open up a tad more. This allows them to easily identify your strengths and weaknesses so that they can use them against you later.

7. Coercion

Coercion is literally frightening. If you’re being coerced into doing something, you’re essentially being threatened to do it using your own fears and harm.

You might be threatened with harm to yourself or others if you don’t meet your manipulator’s demands. Some coercive tactics include blackmail, physical violence, sexual assault, and deprivation.

Maybe your manipulator holds your phone hostage until you do what they want, or maybe they threaten to tell your mom about something you really don’t want her to know.

8. Reason

Reasoning is a pretty common thing we all do in everyday life, but a manipulator uses it in a less savory way. [Read: Ways guys manipulate and control their girlfriends]

A person using psychological manipulation will use logic against you. They’ll talk you into doing something that’s against your better judgment by presenting it in a way that makes it sound like a good thing to do.

9. Regression

To put it simply, regression is childish behavior. It’s the act of straying away from mature behavior and resorting to whining and tantrums instead.

A person using regression as a manipulation tactic will cry, pout, or throw fits until you decide to give in and give them what they want. They use this tactic because it usually gets a quick and easy response.

You might have shown them that you tire of this tactic quickly and will do just about anything to get them to stop. [Read: Immature men – 27 manchild signs & why you should stay away from him]

10. Self-abasement

By definition, self-abasement is the belittling or humiliation of oneself. This means that the manipulator who is usually putting you down will put themselves down instead.

They’ll present themselves as ashamed or undeserving of respect. Basically, they’re throwing themselves a pity party to get the reaction they need at the time. They might need your forgiveness or support, or they might just want you to feel sorry for them so that you’ll give them more attention.

11. Responsibility invocation

Manipulators will not hesitate to use your sense of obligation against you.

Responsibility invocation is a guilt trip. A manipulator might convince you to go to a restaurant when you have work to do by telling you that they’ve already made the reservations. The ultimate goal is to make saying “no” a lot more difficult than it should be. [Read: 15 ways to say no politely & feel kickass]

12. Hardball

Hardball is coercion on steroids. It’s nothing but physical abuse, whereas coercion is mostly the threat or fear of physical abuse.

This psychological manipulation tactic harms both your mental and physical states. Your manipulator might hurt you until you agree to whatever it is they’re asking for while making you feel like you deserve it.

13. Pleasure induction

Pleasure induction seems harmless. You might be unsure of a certain activity, but you’re talked into it by being told that it’ll be fun.

It’s against your better judgment at the time, but you end up caving and doing it anyway because it’s driven into you that you’ll have a good time.

14. Social comparison

Comparing yourself to your peers is detrimental even when you’re the one doing it to yourself. Comparison is the enemy and shouldn’t be how you define your own success or attractiveness. [Read: How to feel more confident in your body & fall in love with YOU]

If your manipulator is using your own comparative insecurities against you, it likely feels even worse.

They could do this by pointing out the fact that someone else your exact height only weighs 120 pounds, so why do you weigh so much more?

A manipulative person could mention that someone on TV massages their partner’s feet every night, so you must not love them since you don’t do that.

15. Monetary reward

The idea of a monetary reward as a manipulation tact is simple.

It’s your manipulator offering to give you money to do something you otherwise wouldn’t do. Extra money is great and all, but it’s particularly harmful if a manipulative person is playing on your financial needs at the time. [Read: Manipulative people – how to spot them and stop playing the victim]

The signs you’re experiencing psychological manipulation

Now that you know some of the main tactics of psychological manipulation, you need to know the little behaviors that go along with them. Keep an eye out for these signs. Ask yourself if someone around you is trying to trick you by using them.

1. They often criticize you for no reason

Criticizing someone for very small things that don’t really matter can be a very powerful method of manipulation. It diminishes the person’s self-confidence and causes them to doubt themselves. [Read: Why you should run if you see these red flags early in the relationship]

2. They try and isolate you from your nearest and dearest

Narcissists often do this. The manipulator knows that you’re far more pliable when you’re away from those who are closest to you, so they try to isolate you from them.

A common tactic is to tell you that your friend has been talking about you behind your back or saying that your family doesn’t have your best interests in mind. All they need to do is plant a seed of doubt to create tension and distance. 

3. They use gaslighting to make you question your sanity

If you’ve ever questioned whether or not you’re going crazy because of the actions of someone else, you’ve likely been a victim of gaslighting.

This is so effective as a tactic because it causes the victim to lose faith in themselves, and they don’t have the power to know when the person they’re with is acting in a negative way.

When that happens, the manipulator can say or do whatever they want, and you won’t have the confidence to know that it’s wrong. [Read: How do narcissists subtly control you and why you allow them to]

4. They often tell you that you’re too sensitive

A huge part of psychological manipulation is using a person’s feelings and worries against them. When you become upset about something, they tell you that you’re far too sensitive.

It hurts you, but you’re told that it shouldn’t. If you’re regularly told that you’re too sensitive, see it as a red flag. If it hurts you, it hurts you. Nobody else can tell you how you feel or that the way you’re feeling is wrong. 

5. You’re usually where they feel the most comfortable

If the person you’re seeing always wants you to go to their house, meet in restaurants they’ve always gone to, or always go in their car, you need to question why.

They’re keeping you out of your comfort zone so that they’re able to firmly remain in theirs. This psychological manipulation tactic gives them the upper hand and takes away your power. [Read: Controlling vs. caring – the thin line controlling people love to cross]

6. They always have to go one better

If you’ve got a headache, they’ve got a migraine. You’re tired, but they’re exhausted. If you have a cold, they have the flu.

Does this sound familiar?

It might sound like just a harmless way for them to seek pity, but it’s actually a pretty harsh way for your manipulator to control the power. This type of manipulation makes you feel unimportant and invalidated and focuses all your attention on them. 

7. Nothing is ever their fault

If you find yourself apologizing for things that aren’t your fault but theirs, you’re being manipulated.

Someone who regularly uses psychological manipulation will never apologize because they see it as a weakness. They feel that if they apologize, they’re admitting wrongdoing and freely handing power over to you. [Read: Traits of toxic people that can hurt and emotionally damage you]

8. They often swing between charming and repulsive

This is something for which narcissists are famous.

They show you the very best side of themselves to keep you by their side, but they slip into their darkest side when you’re good and comfortable, and they have you where they want you.

When they think that you’re close to being unable to take it anymore, they show you their good side again so that you doubt your decision to leave. Their good side is so good that it makes you nearly forget that anything bad ever even happened. [Read: Blowing hot and cold – the stages to explain why manipulators do this]

9. They often say mean things and tell you they’re joking

There’s nothing funny about someone you love or care about making mean remarks about you.

However, if this happens regularly and they defend their words by saying, “I’m only joking,” consider that this is just another way to manipulate you. The whole point is that it erodes your self-confidence and robs you of your power. 

10. They’re often a victim

People who use psychological manipulation often have a victim mentality. Nothing is their fault. It’s always someone’s else fault, and the world is always horrible to them.

This is designed to make you feel sorry for them and do whatever they want you to do. 

11. Your problems aren’t important

If you’ve got a problem, you obviously want to talk to your partner about it. A partner using psychological manipulation is the exact opposite of interested. [Read: How to tell if someone wants to hurt you because they don’t care about you]

Instead, they talk about their own problem and push yours away. It’s just one more way for them to minimize your issues, deplete your importance, and keep the attention on themselves.

12. They’re always on a guilt trip

Making you feel guilty is their specialty!

They know that you’ll drop anything and everything and go running to them if you feel guilty. A manipulator can make you feel guilty by blaming you for things that are unreasonable or holding you responsible for their negative feelings.

13. Passive-aggressive tactics

Passive-aggressiveness is often very subtle and sarcastic, but it’s an incredibly effective tactic in terms of manipulation.

They might say something like, “I was going to call you and tell you about it, but I didn’t think you’d pick up because you’re always too busy for me.” This is another tactic that makes you feel guilty and forces your focus on them. [Read: How to deal with passive-aggressive behavior calmly & with class]

14. They deny whatever they told you

This dreadfully popular form of gaslighting is extremely powerful.

You know they said it. You were there, you heard it, and you KNOW it happened, so why are they telling you that they didn’t say it, and why do you feel like you should believe them? It causes you to doubt yourself in a big way.

15. Their actions never match their words

They say one thing but do another. A lot of people who aren’t using psychological manipulation often do this type of thing, of course, but it’s the intention behind it that makes it different.

When it’s a common and intentional practice used in conjunction with other tactics on this list, it’s pretty damning. [Read: How to manipulate a manipulator and escape their manipulative grasp]

16. You simply never feel good enough anymore

Most of these acts focus on destroying your worth.

When your self-confidence has been dragged down to its lowest level, you’re just not going to feel like anything you do is good enough. You never feel like you’re pleasing your partner. In fact, you might feel like you’re actively displeasing them, which often makes you feel even worse.

How can you deal with psychological manipulation?

Sometimes those with the most open and loving hearts end up being manipulated at no fault of their own. The fact of the matter is that there are cruel and vicious people all around us, and we just don’t live in a fair world. [Read: How to hone & increase your positive emotions in a negative world]

Realizing that you’ve been a victim of psychological manipulation can be an overwhelming experience.

Victims often require help understanding what’s happening and why it’s happening. They need help learning how to cope, figuring out their options, and choosing which of those options is best for them.

Don’t be afraid to lean on friends and family for support. Therapy is always a fantastic option that will really help solidify the points below. These are some of the most important things for you to understand and do when you’re at a loss for how to deal with psychological manipulation.

1. It’s not you

The most important thing that you can do is accept that this is not your fault.

Their behaviors are their behaviors. They chose them. You didn’t. They acted on them. You didn’t. There isn’t a thing that you did that caused them to be manipulative.

The likelihood that they’ve always been this way is pretty high. It didn’t start with you, and it probably won’t end with you. [Read: How to stop being toxic – 19 steps to not be bitter or blame others]

2. Don’t expect an apology or change in behavior

A hugely identifiable characteristic of manipulative people is their inability to accept responsibility.

They much more enjoy being able to put the responsibility for their actions onto others. They love to pass the blame to anyone else, and they’ll pretty much never admit that they’ve done wrong, even if it’s proven that they have.

For that reason, you shouldn’t expect them to acknowledge it, let alone apologize for it or change it. The chances are that they won’t, which is another thing that isn’t your fault. It’s just who they are.

3. Don’t try to play them at their own game

First of all, you know how their manipulation is making you feel. You probably feel low, worthless, and generally destroyed. As tempting as it might be and as much as you might want to cause them the same pain that they have caused you, don’t. [Read: 20 ways to stop being selfish & hurting others]

Second, they’re a master at their craft. They’ve probably been using their preferred tactics since childhood, so they’ve had a ton of practice. They know the ins and outs. They’ll be able to tell that you’re doing it before you even do it.

They will win.

4. Set boundaries for your health and safety

After you accept that the manipulative abuse isn’t your fault, the second most important thing you can do for yourself is set boundaries.

If your manipulator is a big fan of employing childish behavior when they don’t get their way, set a boundary there. Let them know that if they start to exhibit that behavior, you’ll walk away from the conversation.

Just make sure that you’re comfortable following through with the boundaries you set for yourself. [Read: How to set boundaries in a relationship – 15 rules for healthy love]

5. Sometimes, the best strategy is the exit door

You can only change yourself. You can’t change the other person.

The best that you can do is have an honest conversation about how you’re feeling and how you believe that their behavior is affecting you. You can let them know that you believe that your relationship is important and you’d like to work on it.

How they respond is up to them.

If they choose to respond with worsened behaviors, it might be time to just walk out.

6. Know that things will get better

The road to recovery is a long road, and it’s usually an easy route. The further away you get from your manipulator, the better you’ll feel. [Read: 16 lessons to recover from a breakup one day at a time & move ahead]

You’ll have bad days, but you’ll have good ones, too.

Make sure that you’re doing things to take care of yourself. Do things that you enjoy. Be with people that matter to you and support you. Consider counseling if you feel like you need extra help figuring out how to heal.

Give yourself time. As the months tick by, you’ll start to slowly regain your confidence and your power. In the future, you’ll know the signs and be able to spot them far more quickly.

Being able to spot the signs and characteristics of psychological manipulation gives you the power that the manipulator is seeking. Stay on your toes so that you don’t fall victim to their abuse.

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Vinod Srinivas Serai
Vin Serai
Vin Serai is the founder of LovePanky.com, and has delved deep into the working of love and relationships for almost two decades. Having dipped his feet in almo...