What is Psychological Manipulation?

Psychological Manipulation is a type of influence that attempts to change the behavior or perception of others through underhanded, deceptive and abusive techniques. This advances the interests of the manipulator, generally at the victim's expense, in methods that may be considered abusive, devious, deceptive, and exploitative.

In order to be successful, the art of manipulation involves two things - concealing aggressive or subversive intentions and behaviors while knowing the psychological vulnerabilities of the victim well enough to know what will be the most effective psychological weapons or tactics to be used against them. This is most often accomplished through covert-aggression or carefully veiled aggression - which may be so subtle that it's not easily detected.

Psychological Manipulators know what they want and fight hard to get it.

The tactics Psychological Manipulators use are very effective methods of power and control, because they're almost impossible to be seen as aggressive on the surface, at the unconscious level, the victim feels backed into the corner. Once a victim is backed into a corner, it is more likely that they'll back down or give into the manipulator's demands.

Why Do People Manipulate?

There are many motivations behind manipulation - as varied as the manipulators themselves. Perhaps the manipulator needs to gain something purposefully or feels that they have to advance their own causes or plans - no matter what the cost to others may be. Maybe they need to feel powerful and in-control of their relationships with others. Maybe feeling powerful over others increases their own self-esteem. Maybe the person does not have the social skills to obtain what is wanted or needed by traditional means. Some Psychological Manipulators are psychopathic, having trouble empathizing with or understanding the feelings of themselves or others, and placing their own desires foremost because of it.

How Do Manipulators Manipulate?

There are many techniques that manipulators can use to gain power and control over their victim. Here is a breakdown of some manipulation techniques.

Brandishing Anger - manipulators use anger and rage to shock their victims into submission, although real anger is not necessarily experienced by the manipulator. The anger is simply a show to get whatever he or she wants by cowing the victim into submission.

Covert Intimidation - The victim is thrown on the defensive by manipulator using subtle, indirect, or implied threats.

Denial - The manipulator refuses to admit that he or she has done anything wrong.

Diversion - Rather than giving a straight answer, the manipulator will often change the subject, often without the change being noticed.

Feigning Confusion - The manipulator plays dumb - pretending she or he has no idea what the victim is talking about, or is confused by the topic at hand.

Feigning Innocence - The manipulator suggests that anything harmful was done unintentionally or that it didn't happen. This makes the victim question their judgement and/or sanity in feeling hurt or betrayed.

Evasion - Providing vague, rambling, incoherent responses to the victim. This often leads to confusion over the matter at hand, as well as making it less likely that the victim will be inclined to pursue further conversations on the topic.

Gaslighting - A form of psychological abuse involving the manipulation of situations or events that cause a person to be confused or to doubt his perceptions and memories. Gaslighting causes victims to constantly second-guess themselves and wonder if they're losing their minds.

Guilt-Tripping - The manipulator suggests to a conscientious victim that he or she doesn't care enough, is too selfish, or has it easy. The victim generally feels guilt or shame as a result, and is thrown into a submissive, anxious, and self-doubting state.

Lying - By the time the truth is apparent, it may be too late to do anything about it. Many manipulative personality types are experts at lying and may do so in subtle ways that are hard to detect.

Lies of Omission - This is lying by withholding a part of the truth, usually with the intention of making something seem innocuous, or less harmful than it really was.

Minimization - The manipulator asserts that his or her behavior is not as harmful as is suggested.

Playing the Victim - The manipulator portrays themselves as a victim of circumstance or other people in order to gain pity, sympathy, or compassion from their conscientious victim.

Projecting the Blame - Scapegoating in subtle ways, blaming the victim or other people for the negative actions or consequences of their actions. This helps to portray the manipulator in a more positive light, and can actively harm the victim's relationships with other people, who may not even have been involved.

Rationalization - An excuse from the manipulator for inappropriate behavior. Rationalization involves giving reasons as to why their behavior was justified and appropriate. When coupled with Guilt-Trips or Scapegoating, the manipulator will often wind up looking like a victim, evoking sympathy from the real victim.

Seduction - Using charm, praise, or flattery to lower the defenses of the victim so that the manipulator gains trust and loyalty.

Shaming - Sarcasm and insults can be used by the manipulator to increase self-doubt and fear in the victim, to make the victim feel unworthy. This may be accomplished by anything from a very subtle fierce look or unpleasant tone of voice to a rhetorical comment. This may make the victim feel badly for daring to challenge them, which also fosters a sense of inadequacy in the victim.

Vilifying the Victim - A powerful method of putting the victim on the defensive while masking aggressive intention.

Vulnerabilities Exploited By Manipulators:

The following are a list of vulnerabilities that may exist in the victims of manipulators. By no means comprehensive, these traits tend to be common in people who are often victimized by Psychological Manipulators.

  • A desire to please and earn the approval and acceptance of others.
  • Naivete - the victim doesn't want to believe that anyone is cunning or ruthless and may be in denial of own victimhood.
  • A fear of negative emotions.
  • Over-internationalization - believing what the manipulator says to be true, which can result in self-doubt or shame. 
  • Excessive empathy - the victim tries really hard to understand the point of view of the manipulator and believes the manipulator has a justifiable reason to be hurtful.
  • Over-conscientiousness - victim is too willing to give the manipulator the benefit of the doubt.
  • Low Self-Confidence - victim lacks the ability to say no, doubts themselves, lacks confidence.
  • Emotional Dependency - the victim has a dependent or submissive personality. The more submissive or dependent, the more vulnerable the victim is to exploitation.
  • Low emotional skills - when the victim does not understand his or her emotional self well, they misinterpret feelings

Spotting Manipulation:

In an article by Fiona McColl about manipulation, she identifies several methods of spotting manipulation. If you think you are being vicitmized, these are common signs to look for.

1. Bullshit apologies are often noticable. If your inner gut is telling you that an apology is bullshit, it probably is. Further if you are honest with an emotional manipulator about your feelings, he or she may turn their angst and stress upon you, until YOU wind up comforting THEM.

2. I'll do you a favor, I guess is an example of a common manipulation tactic. A manipulator will propose or agree to assist you with a task, and follow the acceptance up with sighs and subtle behavior to let you know they do not want to follow-through on the agreement.

3. Manipulators are awesome at turning a phrase, by which I mean that they may say one thing, then later deny that they did not say anything at all! Also common is the telling of the truth in such a way as to mean something other than what, on the surface, has been said.

4. Guilt is a common tool for manipulators. Because manipulators often do not directly express their needs and wants, they use tactics, such as guilt, to get someone to act the way they want them to act. Typically this is manifested in terms of the victim needing to care for the manipulator's needs, at the expense of your own. 

5. Fighting dirty is not uncommon because manipulators do not like direct comfrontation. Often they are passive-aggressive and let you subtly know that they are not happy. 

6. Being upstaged by the manipulator's pain - you have a headache, he has a migraine. Calling them on this behavior often results in someone becoming defensive and combative.

How To Combat Manipulation:

1. Hold them accountable! Manipulators often are not held accountable and thus have poor boundaries with others. They do what it takes to get their way. If you tell someone how they hurt your feelings and then that person turns that around to be about them and their suffering, bring the conversation back to the original point- that your feelings are hurt.

2. Take notes! Take notes about conversations and important points, so that you can refer back to those notes later when a manipulator claims a conversation went a different way or never happened.

3. Walk away! Sometimes, the best thing to do is to just walk away. Revisit the situation later, and don't get sucked in to the drama.

Related Resource Pages On Band Back Together:


Borderline Personality Disorder

Compulsive Lying

Dependent Personality Disorder

Emotional Abuse


Narcissistic Personality Disorder


Additional Resources:

Casseopia.com - contains an article about emotional manipulation that covers how to sopt manipulation and what to do about it.

Lifeesteem.org - contains information about how to spot if you are easily manipulated.

Psychological Harrassment - Further information on the tactics of manipulators and how to spot them, as well as how to deal with them.