If someone is emotionally manipulating you, they’ll display these 8 subtle behaviors

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Emotional manipulation is an indirect, yet damaging form of abuse that leaves victims feeling confused and powerless.

Even worse, while overt forms of manipulation are easier to spot, subtle techniques are more challenging to recognize for what they are: a means to control you.

If someone is emotionally manipulating you, they’ll display these 8 subtle behaviors.

Don’t fall for their cunning ways.

1) Downplaying or ignoring your feelings

“I wasn’t flirting with that person, you’re being overly sensitive as usual.”

“I never said that; you’re putting words in my mouth.”

“I wouldn’t have to yell at you if you wouldn’t make me feel so angry.”

Do any of these statements sound familiar?

When someone is emotionally manipulating you, gaslighting is a popular means of attack.

The technique involves denying or minimizing your feelings and experiences, to the point where you may even begin to question your reality.

By constantly twisting the facts, they dismiss your concerns and make you doubt yourself.

In the long run, you’ll begin to call into question everything from your perception of events to your memory and even your feelings and emotions.

Don’t let it get that far.

2) Playing the victim

Emotional manipulators often portray themselves as the victim to garner sympathy.

A common tactic is to exaggerate their struggles and portray themselves as enduring constant hardships.

They amplify minor inconveniences, painting a picture of themselves as perpetual victims of circumstance.

They don’t overspend; they’re constantly bombarded with ads, how could they possibly resist?

Their car didn’t get a flat tire; it broke down and they were stranded and helpless for hours on end.

You get the idea.

By exaggerating their suffering, they seek to evoke feelings of sympathy, making you more inclined to cater to their desires.

Emotional manipulators might also resort to guilt-tripping to get their way.

They repeatedly remind you of all they have sacrificed or suffered on your behalf, fostering a sense of indebtedness.

Then, you have no choice but to do things their way.

Finally, they may play up their vulnerabilities or past traumas, appealing to your compassionate side.

Whichever option they choose, don’t let them get away with it.

3) Projecting blame

Manipulators often deflect blame onto others to avoid taking responsibility for their actions.

They may blame you for their problems or mistakes, making you responsible for their well-being.

For a brief period of time years ago, I had a boss who was… not well-suited for the job.

He enjoyed the perks of a leader but dodged the responsibility.

If a deadline was missed or a project failed, he would direct his wrath onto us, his underlings, when his poor management skills were usually to blame.

Rather than admit to his failings, he would berate us for being incompetent and lazy.

Needless to say, he didn’t last long in that position.

When someone manipulates you into accepting blame for their issues, your confidence takes a hit.

Protect yourself.

4) Giving you the silent treatment

The silent treatment is a devious form of emotional manipulation, especially in the context of a romantic relationship.

Unfortunately, it’s also a frequent tactic used by manipulators to punish you for perceived wrongdoings or to gain control of a situation.

They ignore you hoping that their silence will eventually make you cave.

When one partner refuses to engage in dialogue, it creates a profound sense of emotional distance and isolation, leaving the other partner feeling rejected.

Wanting to reestablish intimacy pushes you to capitulate to your silent partner’s demands or apologize for something you’re not responsible for.

This actively undermines the foundation of trust and communication a healthy relationship should be based on.

Plus, your boo might take things to the next level.

Which brings me to my following point.

5) Withholding approval

Another manipulation tactic similar to the silent treatment is withholding approval.

Manipulators can use affection or validation as a bargaining chip to control your behavior.

You do something that aligns with what they want? You get showered with praise.

You do something that goes against your partner’s wishes? They treat you like a pariah.

When you fight with a loved one and they don’t get their way, it’s natural for them to sulk for a bit.

However, they should never punish you for doing something they don’t agree with by withholding their support.

If that’s their go-to response, having a serious talk is definitely in order.

6) Subjecting you to mood shifts

If someone is emotionally manipulating you, you might notice that their mood fluctuates excessively.

They exhibit erratic behavior as a means of keeping you off balance and unsure of how to respond.

One moment they’re overly affectionate, the next they’re incredibly cold.

By creating a sense of instability in the relationship, they hope to instill a sense of dependency and vulnerability in you.

They’re trying to control you by making you chase after their approval, something you shouldn’t have to do if the relationship is on solid ground.

I had a childhood friend whose father was the poster parent for this type of behavior.

When she got good grades and behaved, he showered her with gifts and attention.

When she got home late or hung out with children her father didn’t approve of, he acted aloof and gave her the cold shoulder.

If you care about someone, you want them to feel secure in your relationship no matter what.

Too bad not everyone got the memo.

7) Isolating you from your support system

Emotional manipulators may try to isolate you from friends, family, or other sources of support to better exert control over you.

Their ultimate goal is to make you feel dependent on them, so they subtly sabotage your other relationships.

While you may think that such tactics would be obvious, that’s not always the case.

A skilled emotional manipulator will claim to act in your best interest, so you might be inclined to believe them or give them the benefit of the doubt.

A few popular strategies they employ to undermine your relationships:

  • They discourage you from spending time with your friends and family, claiming they don’t understand you or are just using you
  • They instigate conflicts between you and your loved ones to create tension
  • They say they want to spend more time with just you, so they keep you away from everyone else
  • They put people from your immediate support system in a bad light, suggesting they are unreliable 

At the end of the day, remember that you know your closest friends and relatives much better than the manipulator does.

Don’t let them ruin your other relationships.

8) Overstepping boundaries

Your first line of defense against an emotional manipulator is to set a boundary.

Problem is, they often disregard these boundaries to further their own agenda.

They may intrude on your privacy or pressure you into activities you’re not comfortable with.

And if you try to reestablish the boundary?

They give you an ultimatum.

You either do it their way, or they disappear from your life or hurt themselves.

This isn’t particularly subtle, so it’s usually a last resort.

If you notice all the previous points on the list and act in a timely manner, you won’t give them the chance to get this far.

Final thoughts

Recognizing these subtle behaviors is the first step to protecting yourself from emotional manipulation.

Trust your gut, call out any manipulation tactics you notice, and reach out to your loved ones for support.

If the person emotionally manipulating you continues in their devious ways, consider distancing yourself from them.

You deserve to be treated with respect, and your autonomy is non-negotiable.

Don’t let anyone convince you otherwise. 

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