People who are highly manipulative but charming on the surface often display these 5 subtle behaviors

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Have you ever encountered someone incredibly charming, only to later discover a manipulative side you hadn’t anticipated? 

You’re not the only one. 

As noted by manipulation expert and author Dr. George Simon, “Skilled manipulators can be quite seductive charming.” 

What’s more, as much as we think we are above being gullible, research has shown we simply aren’t very good at recognizing when people are not being real with us. 

The American Psychological Association states that “people’s ability to detect lies is no more accurate than chance or flipping a coin.” Worse yet, it seems that this is true for even the people who should be able to identify deception: interviewers, judges, and even psychologists.

With this in mind, today we dive into five behaviors typical of charming manipulators. 

Let’s get to it. 

​​1) They feign vulnerability

We talk a lot about vulnerability here at Hack Spirit. And for good reason: it’s through our willingness to be open and exposed that we forge genuine connections with others.

Yesel Yoon, a Clinical Psychologist, encapsulated its essence perfectly in a Psychology Today post when she wrote: 

“Vulnerability fosters intimacy and understanding. This helps create stronger emotional bonds between you and others. We all desire to be close to the right kinds of people, and being vulnerable allows us to gain this kind of closeness.

However, in the hands of a manipulative individual, this fundamental human trait is twisted into a tool for deception. 

They craft tales of personal hardship or past traumas, not as a bridge to genuine intimacy but as bait. 

These fabricated vulnerabilities are designed to pull at your heartstrings, to make you lower your guard in a false sense of camaraderie and trust. 

How to avoid getting sucked into this

Navigating this deceptive tactic requires a balance of empathy and skepticism. Here’s how you can protect yourself without closing off your compassionate nature:

  • Observe consistency: Watch for consistency in their stories and behavior. Manipulative individuals may slip up, revealing contradictions in their narrative, which can alert you to their deceit.
  • Look out for a goal: Often, manipulators feign vulnerability in an effort to coax personal information or emotional responses from us, only to turn around and use these revelations against us. Pay attention to the flow of conversation; if it feels like they’re mining for vulnerabilities rather than sharing in a mutual exchange, it’s a red flag.

2) They exploit insecurities with compliments 

So, let’s say, for instance, you’ve always been a bit self-conscious about your nose. Maybe it’s a small insecurity that you don’t often voice, but it lingers in the back of your mind. 

Then, someone comes along who, seemingly out of the blue, starts complimenting how unique and striking your nose is, claiming it adds to your character and makes you stand out beautifully.

Initially, it’s probably incredibly uplifting. These are the words you’ve longed to hear, addressing insecurity in a way that makes you feel seen and appreciated. 

However, if the person behind these compliments has a manipulative intent, this isn’t a simple act of kindness. They’ve likely pinpointed your vulnerability and are using flattery to weave their way into your good graces. 

By aligning their compliments so closely with your insecurities, they create a bond that feels deeply personal and affirming, setting them up to mold you as they please. 

How to avoid getting sucked into this

When someone uses our insecurities against us, even in the guise of flattery, it can lead to an unhealthy reliance on their validation. Here’s how to maintain your autonomy:

  • Build internal validation: Work on affirming your worth independently of others’ opinions. Celebrate your qualities and achievements, recognizing that your value isn’t tied to any single physical trait.
  • Understand the motive: When compliments seem overly targeted at sensitive areas, consider the giver’s motives. Are they consistently supportive, or do their praises seem tactically timed to gain your favor?

3) They play the victim 

Picture a colleague or friend who constantly finds themselves amidst a storm of misfortune. Every story they share is tinged with adversity, every achievement overshadowed by someone else’s wrongdoing. 

You would feel bad for them, wouldn’t you?

Of course, you would; it’s only human to empathize with someone who appears to be struggling against all odds. 

However, it’s crucial to recognize that things are not always as they seem.

Playing the victim is a manipulative tactic often employed by individuals with narcissistic tendencies. As noted by author Julie L. Hall “Exaggerated victimhood is a common feature of narcissistic grandiosity.” 

By portraying themselves as perennial victims, they seek to elicit sympathy and manipulate the emotions of those around them. 

Like feigning vulnerability, this portrayal of hardship can come across as disarmingly charming. 

When used skillfully, it plays on our natural instincts to comfort and protect, making us feel better about ourselves and also making the manipulator appear more relatable and endearing.

How to avoid getting sucked into this

Being drawn into the narrative of someone who habitually plays the victim can be emotionally draining and potentially harmful. Here’s how you can protect yourself:

  • Seek objectivity: It’s easy to become emotionally involved in these cases, but try to view their stories from an objective standpoint. Ask yourself if there might be another side to the story or if certain details seem embellished to evoke sympathy.
  • Increase the cognitive load and observe: Manipulators often resort to lying in an attempt to increase sympathy. However, as noted by The APA, “Truth tellers can rely on their memories to tell their story backwards, often adding more details, but liars tend to struggle.” Ask questions, prompting them to repeat the stories they told. If you notice inconsistencies, there may be an issue. 

4) They guilt trip

“After all I’ve done for you, you’re choosing this over helping me?” or “I can’t believe you’re being so selfish when you know how much I need you.”

Sound familiar?

These phrases are guilt-tripping in action. It’s a form of emotional blackmail where someone uses guilt-inducing statements to influence our decisions and control our actions. 

It’s a subtle, often overlooked weapon used by manipulative individuals, especially once they sense they have us securely in their net.

The repercussions of guilt are profound and far-reaching. A 2018 study highlighted these damaging impacts of guilt, revealing that it can significantly erode self-esteem and lead to a sense of isolation. 

This manipulative use of guilt can trap us in a cycle of self-doubt and obligation, making it challenging to assert our needs and desires.

How to avoid getting sucked into this

Navigating a guilt trip requires a blend of self-awareness and assertiveness. Here’s how you can steer clear of it:

  • Recognize the signs: Awareness is your first line of defense. Acknowledge when guilt is being used as a tool to sway your decisions. Phrases that often accompany a guilt trip include, “I thought you cared about us” or “After everything I’ve done for you, you owe me this.”
  • Affirm your boundaries: It’s crucial to establish and assert your boundaries. Politely but firmly communicate that while you understand their feelings, your decisions are made based on what’s best for you at the moment.
  • Seek support: If guilt trips are a recurring theme in your relationship with someone, it might be helpful to seek support from friends, family, or a professional. They can offer a fresh perspective and help you navigate the situation more effectively.
  • Distance yourself: If attempts to assert your boundaries and communicate openly are met with persistent guilt-tripping, it may be necessary to distance yourself from the relationship. This is not an act of selfishness; it’s an act of self-preservation.

5) They isolate you, bit by bit

Often having charmed us, skilled manipulators build walls around us, distancing us from the people we trust and rely on. 

It’s not an overnight change; it’s a slow, methodical process that’s easy to miss.

How do they do this?

Well, they may start subtly, perhaps by making negative comments about our friends and family, suggesting they don’t truly understand us or have our best interests at heart. 

They may create scenarios that cast doubt on our loved ones or monopolize our time with seemingly urgent needs or crises, making it increasingly difficult for us to maintain our external relationships. 

Over time, these tactics can lead to canceled plans, declined invitations, and, ultimately, adrift from our social circle. It’s a gradual process, often cloaked in the guise of concern and care, making it challenging to detect until much of the damage has been done.

The real danger lies in how this isolation can erode our sense of self and reality. Stripped of our usual support network, their voice becomes the loudest in our lives, distorting our perceptions and making us question our judgments and decisions.

By the time we realize what’s happening, we might already be cut off from our support system, unsure of how to bridge the gap.

How to avoid getting sucked into this

Preventing this gradual isolation requires a proactive approach to maintaining and strengthening our connections. Here’s how we can safeguard ourselves:

  • Stay in touch: Make a conscious effort to stay in touch with our friends and family. Regular check-ins, even if brief, can keep our relationships strong and provide a safety net against isolation.
  • Diversify your social circle: If you don’t have a wide social circle already, create one. Cultivating a broad and diverse social network can provide a balanced perspective and reduce your reliance on any single individual. It also makes it more difficult for someone to isolate us.
  • Trust your Instincts: If you feel like you’re being pulled away from your loved ones, it’s essential to trust your instincts and reassess your situation. Our gut feelings can be powerful indicators of when something isn’t right.

The bottom line 

That just about wraps it from me, folks. 

Dealing with skilled manipulators is never easy, but by watching out for behaviors like the ones above and acting accordingly, we can avoid getting sucked into their web. 

As always, I hope you found some value in this post. 

Until next time. 

Mal James

Mal James

Originally from Ireland, Mal is a content writer, entrepreneur, and teacher with a passion for self-development, productivity, relationships, and business.

As an avid reader, Mal delves into a diverse range of genres, expanding his knowledge and honing his writing skills to empower readers to embark on their own transformative journeys.

In his downtime, Mal can be found on the golf course or exploring the beautiful landscapes and diverse culture of Vietnam, where he is now based.

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