Mindpath Health’s Brandy Porche, LPC helps us understand what emotional manipulation is and how to spot the warning signs.
When someone is emotionally manipulated by a partner, family member, or friend, it may not immediately trigger a lightbulb “aha!” response — it may take some time before you begin to recognize the relationship as unhealthy or toxic. Emotional manipulation is sneaky (think: someone making you feel bad about a decision you made, so they can instead get you to do what they want) because it can show up in all kinds of behaviors that aren’t overtly negative. The nuances of emotional manipulation make it difficult to pinpoint when someone is being manipulated or its impacts.
“Emotional manipulation exists on a spectrum from relatively harmless to extreme cases,” says Therese Mascardo, Psy.D., a licensed clinical psychologist and founder of Exploring Therapy. It can be as subtle as a child pouting or pretending to cry to coerce their parents into giving them more TV time to con-artists tricking people in an effort to gain favors or finances (see: The Tinder Swindler), explains Mascardo.
So, how do you make the distinction between emotional manipulation that’s harmless and those cases that are detrimental to your mental health? Here, mental health professionals explain everything to know about emotional manipulation, including the signs, impacts, and how to protect yourself from a manipulative relationship.
What Is Emotional Manipulation?
“Emotional manipulation is the complete disregard of someone else’s feelings while strategically trying to persuade them to feel otherwise,” says Brandy Porche, L.P.C., a licensed professional counselor at Mindpath Health. This type of manipulation can occur in all relationships, including familial, romantic, platonic, and even professional. It’s a form of controlling others by deceitfully pressuring them to feel or act in a way that doesn’t align with their values and emotions.
“If you have voiced a concern but still feel frustrated, anxious, and pacified, you [may] have been emotionally manipulated,” says Porche. “If you feel one way and someone is trying to convince you to feel another way, you are [likely] being emotionally manipulated. You will know when [the relationship] is unhealthy when it affects your emotions and thinking negatively.”
Common Types of Emotional Manipulation
Some forms of emotional manipulation are more obvious than others, however, the goal tends to be to gain control over someone else’s feelings for the other person’s benefit.
Bullying: One example of emotional manipulation is emotional bullying, which can involve name-calling or constant criticism, such as “are you stupid?” and “how could you think that was a good meal to cook?”
Guilting: Using guilt to control or make someone feel less-than is another method of emotional manipulation. Someone saying, “you don’t really love me if you choose to hang out with your friends instead of me,” or “your choice to not be a doctor is killing mom” are forms of guilting, says Mascardo.
Giving the Cold Shoulder: A manipulator might also frequently withdraw from the relationship. “This is the common practice of ignoring or ‘icing someone out’ who has acted in a way you [the manipulator] find undesirable, such as stonewalling (not speaking to) or withholding affection,” says Mascardo.
Being Passive-Aggressive: Meanwhile, more obvious examples of manipulation typically involve the manipulator being passive-aggressive and indirectly communicating negative feelings, says Mascardo. In this case, a partner might make comments such as “haven’t we already seen your family enough?” or gaslight the other person by calling them “crazy” as a means to indirectly shift the narrative to make them question their sanity or way of thinking.
Love-bombing: Love-bombing, or grand, over-the-top gestures to make a person feel special, is another particularly harmful form of emotional manipulation because it disguises itself as a positive act. By showering their partner in affection, compliments, attention, and gifts, a person is able to build love, trust, and connection with, say, their partner. But once those things are established (or at least seem to be established), the love-bomber (aka emotional manipulator) is able to have more control over the other person. (See: Subtle Signs a Partner Could Become Physically Abusive, and How to Get Out)
Savior Complex: Another example of emotional manipulation? Being in a relationship (again, whether that’s platonic, romantic, or professional) with someone who tends to “play the hero” or makes remarks, such as “you have everything thanks to me,” says Mascardo.
What Are Signs of Emotional Manipulation?
There is a clear lack of boundaries.
“The manipulator will repeatedly violate your boundaries and minimize your concerns,” says Mascardo. For example, if you establish that you don’t want to do something or go somewhere, a manipulator will try to push you to do the very thing you don’t want to, which is crossing a boundary you established.
There are feelings of resentment or anger.
“When you notice feeling resentment or anger, it’s an indicator that there’s something off about your relationship and that your boundaries are likely being violated,” says Mascardo. “You may not feel safe to bring up your concerns, or you may fear that by speaking up, you’ll be abandoned or rejected.” Using the example from above, someone will feel angry at the person who manipulated them into doing something they didn’t want to do.
You feel drained or constantly tired.
Manipulative relationships have the tendency to be emotionally and mentally exhausting because you’re constantly compromising your own feelings and desires to adhere to the manipulator’s wants, explains Mascardo. More often than not, you’re feeling drained from your relationship instead of feeling fulfilled. And if the relationship does not feel good, the feelings are usually fleeting and short-term, says Mascardo. Typically, you can tell if a relationship isn’t in good standing if the manipulator is constantly trying to gain power or control of your thoughts and actions. (But if you know how to protect your energy, you might be better able to fend off emotional manipulation in the first place.)
You’re acting in ways that aren’t aligned with your values to satisfy the other person.
Typically, this happens as a result of the manipulator controlling your thoughts, feelings, and actions. One hypothetical situation could be a friend threatening to stop being friends with you if you don’t help them with a time-consuming task. So, despite expressing that you have a lot of things to do as well, you end up assisting them and, in turn, end up having less time for your tasks. (Related: How to Deal with a One-Sided Friendship)
You begin to isolate yourself from friends and family.
“Emotionally manipulative relationships benefit from isolating you from your support network,” says Mascardo. A manipulator may get you to think that you two only need each other, which is just another harmful form of control. “The manipulator may criticize your friends or punish you for spending time with your family and loved ones.”
What Are the Impacts of Emotional Manipulation?
“If you are in relationships where you are constantly emotionally manipulated, you will eventually learn to stop trusting yourself and your feelings because you are always being manipulated out of your genuine feelings and response,” says Porche.
Those feelings of insecurity and lack of trust within yourself can also impact the trust and connection of future relationships. Constantly enduring emotional manipulation can be traumatic and if dealt with for a long period of time, it can even lead to other mental health issues. “At worst, an emotionally manipulative relationship will make you lose your overall sense of well-being, sense of self, and lead to anxiety or depression,” adds Mascardo.
How Can You Protect Yourself Against Emotional Manipulation?
The first step is to identify the problem and practice healthy boundaries. “Many people are rewarded for being people-pleasers, even if it hurts them to do so,” says Mascardo. “But learning about how to establish and maintain boundaries is a necessary skill for any healthy relationship.” In other words, setting up boundaries — essentially expressing your authentic thoughts and feelings in hopes of establishing a better, more equitable relationship — can be a pretty effective way to shield yourself from emotional manipulation. (Not sure how to do this? This expert-backed guide on how to set boundaries can help.)
Next, create distance. “When you’re in the midst of an unhealthy relationship, it can be hard to see what’s wrong from up close, so try taking some space (emotionally and physically) to gain some perspective on things,” recommends Mascardo. That could mean taking a trip away or attending weekly therapy sessions. While this step can look different for everyone, the goal is still the same: to take some time separate from the other person (be it your partner or friend) to reflect.
Consulting your support systems, such as family, friends, or a therapist, can also help identify toxic patterns and potentially prevent you from getting into an emotionally manipulative relationship altogether. “It’s much harder to get consumed in an emotionally manipulative relationship if you have a healthy community around you that you regularly receive feedback from,” says Mascardo. “In my experience, people will be hesitant to weigh in on your relationship unless you invite them to do so. You can say something like, ‘As you know, I desire a healthy relationship, and I value your honest opinion to help me avoid blind spots. What things do you notice in my relationship that might be yellow or red flags?'”
Going to therapy — aka “working with an unbiased professional who has no personal ties to your relationship” — can also serve as a useful tool, says Mascardo. “Since it’s not a therapist’s job to be your friend, they can be more honest with you about red flags in your relationship, and give you concrete support for how to break free from harmful patterns.” (Related: How to Know When a Relationship Is Over, According to a Therapist)
And finally, both Porche and Mascardo emphasize the importance of trusting yourself. Chances are if something feels off in a relationship, it probably is, and it’s necessary to listen to that gut feeling so that you can evaluate the situation and make changes accordingly. “So much of what I work on with clients in the therapy room is learning to listen to their inner voice,” says Mascardo. “It’s often an unlearning process because we’re often taught that to survive, we must suppress our instincts, ignore our feelings, and distrust ourselves. Trust your gut.”
To read the full article in Shape and learn more about the signs of emotional manipulation click here.