5 phrases only manipulative individuals use, according to psychology

If you’ve ever lost yourself between the pages of Patricia Highsmith’s classic novel The Talented Mr. Ripley—or maybe even seen the exquisite 1999 film—you might be familiar with one of literature’s greatest manipulators.

In the book, Highsmith paints a picture of Ripley as a smooth operator who can read most people like a book.

With the utmost skill, the character tailors his language, his gestures, his entire demeanor to fit the vibe of every social situation. He’s the guy who is forever wearing different masks.

By the end of it, he has masterfully created a web of manipulation that will leave you praying you never meet a person like him in the real world.

But maybe it’s too late—maybe you have a Ripley of your very own. 

Maybe they aren’t quite on his level, but still, they come pretty close. Maybe they know how to pull your strings, too. 

If you want to keep watch for manipulative folks in the world, here are five psychology-backed phrases they are likely to use on you.

Starting with one that really irks me: the insult veiled as a compliment.

1) “Have you put on weight/changed the way you do your makeup/changed your style?”

Veiled critiques are often the manipulator’s flavor of the week, month, year.

A British study investigated manipulation in female friendships, finding that manipulative people will deploy “subtle” tools like criticism to “undermine another person’s confidence.”

Imagine strolling on into a cafe. Your confidence is sky high.

Then you meet your pal and hug them hello, and the very first thing they say is: “Have you done something with your hair or lost some weight?”

On the surface, it certainly feels like a compliment, but once you have let it sit with you a while, something else takes over: an unnameable, uncomfortable feeling.

In one seemingly casual sentence, this so-called friend has highlighted the classic areas where society nudges us to seek external validation. Yep, we know we can never measure up. 

Let me say that manipulators totally get this paradigm, so they use it to play right into our vulnerability. 

They aim for the jugular—or in other words, our self-esteem. They want to see it crumble.

Suddenly, you find yourself desperate, scrambling. 

You ask yourself, “Wait, was I on the heavy side before?” or “Is my hair a complete mess?” 

See. You are instantly on the defensive, second-guessing yourself in a way that you weren’t just a few minutes ago.

As the study implies, the manipulator is deliberately shifting around your emotions and taking a subtle yet dangerous swipe at your confidence. 

It’s a move they pull out to keep you on shaky ground, making you more susceptible to their problematic influence and control.

2) “I guess my feelings don’t matter.”

The aforementioned study on female friendship dived into another common tactic of manipulation.

This one happens to be a really immature one, it’s: “sulking to get [their] own way.” 

Ever run into a person who can turn a simple conversation into a full-blown emotional fiasco?

This might pop up when you are having a casual, everyday chat, and suddenly, they throw in the waterworks, dropping in that you are totally neglecting them by saying: “I guess my feelings don’t really matter after all.”

The sulking routine is a manipulative person’s means to take charge of the situation and get you to play right into their drama.

This sort of behavior means they are not just expressing discontent, they are 100% trying to elicit one feeling, and that is guilt with a capital G.

In their narrative—which spoiler alert, is one-sided and totally reeks of bias—they have written you in as the antagonist, or their adversary.

In doing so, they are manipulating you so that you are made to question your intentions and actions.

You might even catch yourself apologizing, or trying to mend their hurt feelings, all while they soak it all in.

The endgame is that they want to get you to do what they want, whatever that may be.

My hot tip is this: don’t stick around long enough to find out!

3) *Silence*

Brace yourself for a big one: the silent treatment.

A US study found that if someone ices you out with the silent treatment, they are almost definitely trying to manipulate you.

In fact, the researchers explored how silence was typically used as a tactic to manipulative spouses and prospective partners.

They could say “Don’t talk to me” but often, they may not say any words to you at all.

Instead, you might simply be met with an icy, unsettling silence. One that lingers.

This sneaky (and frankly, unoriginal) tactic is often employed by highly manipulative people.

By doing this, they make it all about shutting you out. This way, they are able to take control and dominate the emotional playing field.

Then you are left stumbling, vulnerable and disoriented, making you crave their understanding, communication, and acknowledgment. 

This is something they tend to thrive on, and soon enough, it becomes one big old mind game.

4) “I hope you know you’re the best person in the world.”

Okay, so I will low-key admit that I love a compliment (or three). And come on, I’m not the only one, right?

But sometimes, compliments are the number one thing in the arsenal of a manipulator. Why?

Because it’s yet another tactic of diversion—a means to pull focus from the bigger issue at hand.

An Australian study looked into this phenomenon quite recently.

Researchers examined manipulation occurring in professional scenarios and found that the most manipulative people tended to provide “reassurance and compliments to influence people’s behavior.”

Basically, whenever someone unleashes an onslaught of flattery, it can be a clever distraction that captivates your attention. Just for a moment.

When you hear kind words about yourself like “I hope you know you’re the best person in the world” it can be really, really challenging not to get swept away by how it makes you feel—usually, good. 

Your ego is sky high, and you are soaking in all the newfound admiration.

But this is what the master manipulator wants! They don’t want you probing with challenging questions or exploring the reality of the situation.

Nope, they want to keep you blissfully unaware.

5) “I know you’re just going to abandon me.”

When someone repeatedly tells you their sob story of their life, about how they are constantly left behind, you cannot help but have your compassionate instincts kick in.

It’s only human, after all. You don’t want to be just another person who leaves. 

You want to be better than the rest of them, right?

And that’s precisely how a manipulative person wants you to feel after they throw a line your way, like “I know you’re just going to abandon me.”

Of course, the research has something to say about this.

A study in the journal Phenomenology of Social Impairments found that people might deliberately use “manipulative strategies to ensure that their needs are met” and this might arrive in the form of them hinting you will leave them.

Yep, they will straight up resort to fishing for reassurance. 

It is a centuries-old move (I think?) to make you feel very much responsible for their emotional wellbeing.

Ultimately, it is a manipulative strategy to make you stick around, whether you want to or not. Spoiler alert: they don’t actually care what you want, or need.

This person is simply triggering your fear of being the bad guy, making it harder for you to walk away when they start acting out.

Final thoughts 

So, what is it that ties these tactics together? Control. 

Just like the talented Mr. Ripley, these manipulators use all the emotional tools at their disposal to shape the narrative and exert their control over you.

If you are receiving lines of admiration and praise, examine whether it is genuine or not. Because behind the compliments, they could likely be diverting your attention from something way more serious. 

And then there’s the silent treatment. Instead of talking it out, they fall silent. And not just for a little while.

Finally, if they are trying to undermine confidence, with insults disguised as compliments, be aware and don’t fall for the trap.

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Tina Fey

I'm Tina Fey, the founder of the blog Love Connection. I've extremely passionate about sharing relationship advice. I've studied psychology and have my Masters in marital, family, and relationship counseling. I hope with all my heart to help you improve your relationships, and I hope that even if one thing I write helps you, it means more to me than just about anything else in the world. Check out my blog Love Connection, and if you want to get in touch with me, hit me up on Twitter

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