What Does Emotional Manipulation Look Like? 7 Lines People May Use To Control Others To Be Aware Of
Some people are really good at hiding their true selves and intentions. Emotional manipulators, for instance, know how to play people in a way that gets their needs met. Unfortunately, you can't always figure out you're being used until it's too late. But there are some things you can pay close attention to. According to experts, there are certain lines emotional manipulators use all the time in order to control others.
"Emotional manipulators are individuals who are typically highly insecure and attempt to threaten or damage our own healthy emotional experience," Mary Beth Somich, licensed professional counseling associate, tells Bustle. They may do this by belittling others, manipulating them, or demonstrating behaviors that compromise the mental health and self-esteem of those around them.
Before you even reach that point, emotional manipulators know how to use specific tactics to lure people in. For instance, flattery is almost always used. As psychologist and cognitive behavioral therapist Dr. Cali Estes, tells Bustle, "They'll come across as sweet, loving, attentive, and affectionate almost immediately. It'll seem like the perfect person has just walked into your life."
But once they've sucked you in, their true colors will start to show. So here are some lines emotional manipulators use all the time to control others, according to experts.
1. "I Told You My Secrets, It's Only Fair To Tell Me Yours"
Intimacy is created by people opening up, being vulnerable with each other, and connecting. But when you're dealing with an emotional manipulator, that sense of intimacy will be false. According to Estes, as part of their "process," manipulators will typically share something about themselves that makes them appear vulnerable. For instance, it might be a traumatic story from childhood or something horrible that happened to them back in college. Even if it's fabricated, you wouldn't be able to tell because they're so convincing.
"This is where they tell you that you are now part of their 'inner circle,'" Estes says.
From there, they may ask you to share a secret about your life because you're friends and it's only fair. But once they have this information, Estes says, you are now in their web and they can use this against you.
You should never feel obligated to share your private thoughts or secrets with anyone, even your partner. If anyone makes you feel bad for not opening up right away, it's OK to be suspicious about their motives. If you don't want to share, you don't have to.
2. "This Always Happens To Me"
"The central theme of all stories of emotional manipulators is 'poor me,'" Christine Scott-Hudson, licensed psychotherapist and owner of Create Your Life Studio, tells Bustle. "Every tale they tell will be largely about what everyone else has done to them."
If you talk to them long enough, you'll likely notice that nothing is ever their fault. According to Scott-Hudson, some may do this early on as a way to establish "intimacy." A "poor me" story will make you see them as mistreated, victimized, and vulnerable. While it's not a bad thing to care, just pay attention to it. If it's a pattern, they may be manipulating you.
"Emotionally healthy people see their role in problems and do not OK the victim role," Scott-Hudson says. "Those who play the victim role are often looking for their next victim."
3. "I Thought You Of All People Would Understand"
Emotional manipulators are skilled at making others feel guilty. "If you're an empathetic person, it may be natural or normal for you to feel others' pain and want to take care of them," Maryann W. Mathai, licensed professional clinical counselor, tells Bustle. "Unfortunately, emotional manipulators often play the victim and prey on compassionate caretakers who have poor (or no) boundaries."
If you've given them all you've got and are not attempting to put up boundaries, they'll make you feel guilty by saying things like, "I thought you'd be more understanding," or "You said you'd always be there for me and now you're not." This is their way of making you doubt yourself, when all you're trying to do is to establish a more healthy dynamic. If they refuse or try to make you feel even more guilty, Mathai says the best thing to do in this situation is to protect yourself and leave.
4. "I Never Said/Did That"
"Emotional manipulators are unaware of the harm they cause others, so they'll either deny that they did it or try to justify it," Mathai says. "For the few who apologize, their apologies are backhanded, disingenuous, or blaming." For instance, if they say something hurtful in the heat of the moment, they won't really apologize. Instead, you'll be given an, "I'm sorry I called you that, but you made me really mad." Not only do they not take responsibility for their own actions, but they'll likely also try justify their poor behavior by blaming you. The most important thing to do here is to look for any patterns. One time can be forgiven. But if they constantly deny their behavior and blame you, it's considered gaslighting and that's a form of abuse.
"The more you're confused or overwhelmed, the easier it is for manipulators to control you," Mathai says.
5. "You're Just Being Irrational"
"Toxic people make you feel that you are the problem when in fact you are not the problem," Dr. Sherrie Campbell, Ph.D., psychotherapist and couples counselor, tells Bustle. They'll find ways to convince you that you're being irrational, wrong, or the only one that needs "fixing." When someone is doubting themselves, it's easier to control or manipulate them. They then can basically get away with anything they want. One thing you can do in this situation is talk to friends and family. Keep them in the loop and don't internalize the negativity someone keeps throwing at you. Realistically, not everything can be your fault. Talking to other people can help you keep a healthy perspective on the situation so you won't continue to be manipulated.
6. "Are You Sure You Want To Do That?"
Manipulation can be very subtle. For instance, they may say something like, "You like that show?" or "Are you sure you want to wear that out?" in a way that suggests there's something wrong with your choices.
"You can never see what's wrong with what you're doing, but you feel their judgment," licensed clinical psychologist, Aimee Daramus, Psy.D., tells Bustle. "When you ask them what's wrong with it, they might claim that you're too emotional or that you're making too big an issue out of it, thereby denying the validity of your feelings."
Emotional manipulators feed off of insecurity. When you're unsure of yourself, it gives them space to give their thoughts and opinions on what you "should" be doing instead. It's important to recognize that judgement is a form of disrespect.
"If you want to keep someone in your life, let them know that they're welcome in your life when they decide to respect you," Daramus says. "Refuse to be around them when they're preying on you for their needs, but keep letting them know they can come around when they're willing to treat you right."
7. "If You Do This For Me, I'll Know You Really Care"
"You should also look out for someone who makes statements that carry guilt or shame with them," Justin Baksh, LMHC, chief clinical officer of Foundations Wellness Center, tells Bustle. For instance, a statement like, "If you do this, I'll know you love me," is something people use to make you feel guilty enough to do what they want. They may use this as a way to persuade you after you've already said no. This goes back to setting boundaries. If you already said no once, they should respect that. If they keep pushing or have to resort to manipulation tactics, those are major red flags.
It isn't easy to spot when someone is trying to control and manipulate you. So pay attention to any patterns that raise red flags and always trust your gut. If something feels off, protect yourself and exit the situation in whatever way feels safest to you.