11 mind games high-level manipulators love to play, according to psychologists

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High-level manipulators aren’t your garden variety con men and smooth players. 

They have a few tricks up their sleeves that can fool even seasoned skeptics. This isn’t always what you might expect or even be prepared for. 

Many highly manipulative tactics are not easy to spot on the surface and it’s important to read a bit below the surface and look at subtle details. 

Let’s dive in and take a look at the most devious mind games used by top-notch manipulators. 

1) “I don’t remember!”

Selective amnesia is a very sneaky manipulator’s tactic that they will pull out of the toolbox when they think they can get away with it:

They pretend not to remember something that happened or something they did. Or they remember a different version of it that favors them or lets them off the hook. 

As mental health author Elizabeth Walker explains:

“Certain personalities are easily associated with selective amnesia; 

For example, a selfish person may manipulate certain people or circumstances by telling revised versions of an event while embellishing it with specific information to further his agenda.”

2) Slow-burn gaslighting 

Gaslighting is the practice of making you doubt your own eyes and ears or twisting what happened to make you feel guilty for the manipulator’s behavior.

But it’s not always obvious or easy to spot. 

Slow-burn gaslighting is the practice of slowly undermining your worldview, perceptions and judgments starting with small things and incrementally working their way up to big things. 

Like a frog boiling in water it can be very hard to perceive as it’s happening, but make no mistake:

The manipulator is slowly reframing your perceptions in order to control you. 

3) Low-key love bombing

On the flip-side from gaslighting is love-bombing: being inundated with acceptance, praise, inclusiveness and love all with the ultimate goal of getting you under control and hooked on the high. 

This is often how people are brought into new cults and religious groups. 

But love bombing isn’t always obvious:

It can be very low-key and slow-burning. 

The high-level manipulator doesn’t just hit you with over-the-top praise or suddenly welcoming you into some harmonious, lovely group. 

They do it bit by bit, slipping in compliments and very specifically calibrated flattery that reinforces you at your weakest points…

“Initially, you might feel safe, secure and swept off your feet because grand gestures are a self-esteem boost and make you feel important and desired,” explains psychologist Alaina Tiani, Ph.D.

On the subject of flattery: 

4) Precision-guided flattery

The high-level manipulator is extremely perceptive:

He or she identifies your areas of insecurity and then strategically reassures you that you’re good enough in these areas. 

At a later time they can flip the script on this and use these same insecurities against you despite their initial support:

It’s all a way to get close to you. 

Your vulnerability is ammo for them, not real intimacy and empathy. 

5) Frequent projection

The manipulator engages in projection all the time, often as part of their gaslighting efforts. 

They may also slip this in in a very subtle way at first so that you will find it hard to call out unless you have a lot of experience or psychological training. 

For example, they may be sulking around you and casting dirty looks your way and when you make a comment asking what’s wrong or checking in on them they lash out:

“Me? I’m fine! Why are you in such a stressed mood?”

As Cynthia Vinney, Ph.D. outlines:

“People protect their self-esteem by denying characteristics, impulses, or feelings they find threatening while seeing those same characteristics in someone else.”

6) The cold shoulder

The cold shoulder, also known as the silent treatment, is another tactic of the high-level manipulator. 

Giving the silent treatment is nothing special, of course, but the key here lies in the impeccable timing: 

High-level manipulators are good at pulling away and starving someone of attention just exactly when they know that somebody is into them. 

As soon as they gain your trust and affection they distance themselves. It’s a sick mind game to play, but they are certainly skilled at it. 

7) The “poor me” schtick

Playing the victim is another common manipulator tactic, but the high-level manipulator takes it to new levels that will completely sideswipe you if you’re not prepared. 

One of their cleverest strategies is to act like they don’t want pity all while subtly ensuring that you notice how hard of a time they are having. 

They wait for that guilt to eat away at you until you come crawling up to them and get under their control. 

Mission accomplished. 

“By acting like the vulnerable and wounded party, the person has an opportunity to inflict guilt,” explains psychotherapist Erin Leonard Ph.D.

“He or she may use hardship as a reason to exploit a person’s kindness.”

This ties into the next point: 

8) Passive-aggressive guilt-tripping

Passive-aggressiveness is like a porcupine:

It seems harmless when you approach, until it gets annoyed at you and its spikes jam through your hand. 

The top-G manipulator will guilt-trip you in a very passive-aggressive way, acting like it’s no big deal and then coming in very heavy with anger and blame the next time you see them. 

You can never predict what emotional track they’ll be on the next time you interact with them:

So you start falling into a pattern of pleasing and complying with them if you’re not careful. 

9) Triangulation (not as cool as it sounds)

Triangulation is another very nasty trick that the high-level manipulator will occasionally use, especially in romantic relationships. 

It’s essentially a form of bullying to get their way and make somebody else feel intimidated or crazy.

As Darius Cikanavicius explains

“Triangulation is when a toxic or manipulative person, often a person with strong narcissistic traits, brings a third person into their relationship in order to remain in control.”

Whenever an issue comes up or some kind of problem in the relationship, the manipulator references their “new friend Andy” or “Dr. Davis” their new psychotherapist. 

This person says it’s not what you say! In fact they agree with the manipulator. Turns out you’re the problem!

What a coincidence right? 

10) Creating classic double binds

Manipulators love to create a frame within which you are limited and controlled by them. 

At the economic level this is done in stores, online and in many other areas by creating a funnel, or mechanism to steer people toward one or several predetermined outcomes. 

In a grocery store, for example, snacks are put right at the checkout to tap into the brain’s instant-gratification instinct and impulsivity. 

By creating situations where both outcomes are bad, the manipulator will do their best to lock you into situations where you lose either way: 

They sometimes do this as a form of punishment if you don’t comply with their other demands and desires.

As Dr. Sweets Williams explains:

“A double bind is a situation where a person has a choice typically between two options, but whichever way they choose, they lose out…”

11) Minimizing crises and problems

High-level manipulators don’t tend to have a lot of empathy, at least not for anybody other than themselves. 

They tend to downplay and minimize the crises and struggles of others. 

It can be as simple as impatience over the struggles or bad mood of somebody else, or as devious as casting doubt on somebody’s struggles:

“I doubt your friend is actually addicted to cocaine. He’s just entitled and wants to go around wasting his life.”

And so on… 

As psychology writer Monica Brown observes:

“Gaslighters downplay the significance of the target’s feelings or concerns, making them feel as though their emotions or experiences are invalid or unimportant.”

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