5 signs a manipulator is subtly trying to chip away at your self-worth

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The other day, I was sitting in the local creperie—my all-time favorite spot for writing and thinking—sipping my flat white and thinking about just how far I’d come in my personal life.

It had been exactly three years since my lockdown relationship with a man who we shall call Matt.

And let me tell you, I got incredibly tied up with this walking red flag of a man.

Seriously, this fella drew me into his world with everything he had. And I followed along, not realizing he was lying until it was way too late.

Believe you me, I learned from that heartbreak. And thank goodness I did, because now I know how to spot manipulators before they can strike.

One of my favorite writers in the field of manipulation, George K. Simon, wrote: “The most effective manipulators are skilled at exploiting the vulnerabilities and insecurities of others.”

Simon, who penned the book In Sheep’s Clothing: Understanding and Dealing With Manipulative People, makes a pretty life-changing point here.

Manipulators like Matt are folks who have mastered the uncanny ability of influencing others to serve their own specific interests.

And those vulnerabilities and insecurities? Well, we all have them whether we like it or not.

Whether it’s a fear of rejection, a desperate longing for validation, or doubts about our own talents, these vulnerabilities all have the potential to be exploited by someone. Consider it our Achilles’ heel.

But you know what? By understanding our vulnerabilities and insecurities, we can better protect ourselves against manipulation.

If you’re looking for more ways to spot a manipulator like Matt in the wild, and how they might be subtly eroding your self-worth, read on for more.

1) They are surprised by your achievements, reinforcing their low expectations in you

You’ve just hit a milestone at spin class or CrossFit, and you’re feeling as you should feel: on top of the world! Good for you!

As you waltz out of the gym, a new spring in your step, you’re anticipating some positive feedback from a certain person in your life—who knows, maybe even a word of congratulations?

Instead, you’re met with the exact opposite of what you’re expecting.

They raise their eyebrows and throw you an utterly disbelieving, “Wow, I fully did not expect that from you.”

What could it all possibly mean? Well, if someone reacts with sheer disbelief to your wins, what they are trying to say is, “I didn’t think you had it in you.”

It’s almost as if they have set a very low bar for you, and anything beyond that is met with doubt.

Take it from me—someone who has been there before with the whole Matt situation—this behavior is a clear marker of manipulation. Please don’t overlook it.

But what’s behind all of it? What are their motives here?

Well, by reinforcing their ultra low bar for you, manipulators are able to condition you and make you more malleable to their whims.

With this, you grow to become more and more dependent on their validation, constantly striving to prove them wrong and eventually earn their favor.

2) They conditionally offer you respect, suggesting ways you could earn it

If someone offers you up respect that is conditional, there’s a high chance they are manipulating you.

By suggesting ways you could improve to earn their respect, they are insinuating that you’re not quite up to par just as you are.

It’s like they are making you question your abilities and your worth as a human being.

But here’s the clincher: you do not need their conditional respect to validate yourself.

You happen to be valuable just as you are, so don’t catch yourself bending over backward to meet someone else’s unreachable standards or expectations.

3) They downplay your worries, urging you not to not vocalize them

Every time a person brushes off your concerns about their dynamic with you, they are telling you that your feelings don’t matter.

Instead of offering you a healthy dose of understanding and support, they casually dismiss your concerns.

By minimizing your negative experiences, they cause you to question whether you’re overreacting or being irrational.

Remember, you deserve to be heard and respected—that is a non-negotiable in any relationship or friendship.

4) You get unfavorable comparisons from them, implying that you should be more like others

So, this particular person is a little too fixated on pointing out the myriad ways you fall short compared to others. 

Through pitting you against others in a negative light, they’re slowly scraping away at your self-esteem.

With each comparison, they are reminding you and reiterating that you somehow miss the mark.

As is the case for anyone else, this will leave you feeling inferior, insecure, and maybe even worthless.

5) They backhandedly compliment you

You know what they say about manipulative people: they can charm the birds from the trees. Ain’t that the truth?

In your case, the birds might be you and the trees might be a place of emotional stability and self-confidence.

As we know, every manipulator comes with charms. For real, that’s how they are able to get away with so darn much. 

But look a little deeper, and you’ll see that the manipulator in your life might be lacing their charms and compliments with insults, too.

This might take the form of them seemingly praising your appearance with: “Somehow you make that outfit work for you.”

If you have done the right thing and not accepted it as a straight compliment, where does this leave you?

Well, you might start questioning yourself—and these seeds of doubt that can gradually take hold of you without you even realizing.

This scenario exemplifies a backhanded compliment, a classic tactic of manipulators. 

In this case, they show how incredibly talented they are at burying their criticism underneath praise, leaving you second-guessing yourself more often than you ever have before.

But why do they fall back on such nasty tactics? Well, it’s to assert their control over you, of course.

By gradually chipping away at your confidence, they gain the upper hand.

Eliza Hartley

Eliza Hartley, a London-based writer, is passionate about helping others discover the power of self-improvement. Her approach combines everyday wisdom with practical strategies, shaped by her own journey overcoming personal challenges. Eliza's articles resonate with those seeking to navigate life's complexities with grace and strength.

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