The manipulator’s playbook: 9 classic mind games to watch out for

Toxic manipulators come in all shapes and sizes, but they tend to display common characteristics. 

There are certain techniques and tactics that they routinely turn to in order to get you to do what they want and twist your perception of reality into their frame. 

I’m going to take a look at many of the most common and damaging ways that manipulator’s bend you to their will.

These are the techniques they use to warp your perception of what is in your own interest. They also use these techniques to cross your boundaries and take advantage of you in many ways. 

You deserve to be able to set your own limits and draw your own boundaries without being gasoline and exploited by unscrupulous people. Let’s get started

1) Pointing the finger

Manipulators love to point the finger. It is always about who is to blame and how other people have supposedly let them down. 

If you don’t give them what they want they are angry that you don’t care enough. If you do give them what they want they ask for more. 

There is just no way to win, and it can feel like you are fighting an uphill battle with a person who simply has no respect for the boundaries and limits of those around them. 

That is at least partly correct, because manipulators are often stuck in an early childhood mindset where they find it very hard to have empathy or interest in others.

2) “I’d say sorry, but…”

Dangling an apology is another common tactic of the manipulator. 

This is where they act like they are sorry but condition it on you reacting or doing something that you have not yet done or did not do in the past. 

By claiming that they would like to say sorry but it is not realistic or advisable given your own behavior, they have shifted the blame and pressure on to you and away from themselves.

3) Playing the victim 

Playing the victim is a popular go-to tactic for manipulators and emotionally exploitative individuals. 

They turn to it because it allows them to shift away all culpability and responsibility for their own actions, making anybody who criticizes or stands up to them into the bad guy. 

If they can define themselves as a victim, then you or anybody else who resists what they want or counters their opinion has become a bully (supposedly).

That automatically invalidates anything you do, getting the manipulator enormous leverage and a feeling of self-righteous victory. 

4) Immature egotism

Behind the mask of the victim mentality is an immature kind of egotism that often defines the true core of the manipulator. 

Unlike those who are outwardly obvious as being egotistical or aggressive, the manipulator may hunt hide under the mantle of the nice guy or nice girl while secretly feeling very aggrieved by the world and entitled to all sorts of attention, affection and interest that he or she does not receive (at least not at the level they feel they deserve). 

This feeds into the victim mindset and can lead to all sorts of behaviors that others don’t expect, partly because they do not realize the depth to which the manipulator will go in order to get their way. 

5) Subject switching

If you start to get too close to hitting home, the manipulator will often change the subject. 

By switching around to what they want to talk about or deviating away from a topic which has become uncomfortable, the manipulator moves things back into their frame of control. 

By defining what they want to talk about and why they want to talk about it, the manipulator essentially is a conversational and emotional narcissist who demands that interactions and situations flow or at least configure into the format that they prefer. 

Ultimately if interactions do not go the way they help or begin to spend out of control they then may move on to the next step which is where they will simply ignore the person or people who are not pleasing their expectations.

6) Low-key intimidation

Manipulators aren’t above some low-key intimidation, either.

They will hit you with “either/or” scenarios or talk about how they are “very disappointed”.

They may also stand close to you, maintain intense or threatening eye contact and have a posture or body language that indicates some level of danger. 

If you don’t have firm boundaries this can make you feel like you’re better off just avoiding any trouble and doing what they say. 

If threats don’t work on you, the manipulator goes into silent mode… 

7) Seduction and sex appeal

Seduction and sex appeal are powerful tools, and manipulators know this.

Male or female, they will sometimes turn to seduction to bring you over to do their bidding.

This is often very in your face, but if you are feeling a bit lonely or vulnerable it can very much work. 

You may beat yourself up afterwards when you notice that a manipulator used you, but at the time they are love bombing you and being incredibly charming it can be very difficult to resist their charms. 

8) The cold shoulder 

When you are not responding in a way that they find agreeable, the manipulator will often turn to the cold shoulder. 

This is where they simply ignore you and move out of your orbit. 

They may refuse to answer your text messages and calls, to interact with you on social media, or to open up with you in any way.

If this was only a casual acquaintance or someone you cross paths with in a business context it might not matter at all however they will do this even in the bounds of an intimate relationship or close partnership.

This causes enormous emotional damage and psychic injury. 

If you are dealing with a manipulator you may find it hard to believe that they would go this far to actually ignoring someone they claim to love or care about, however many manipulators will often go to great extremes to get their way and have you within their emotional control. 

9) The critique, destroy, rebuild cycle

Manipulators generally go through a cycle. 

This cycle starts with critiquing, blaming and deconstructing what is around them and finding all sorts of problems with it. 

On the personal level this may be criticisms of you, society, music, culture or anything else surrounding them. 

It then progresses to more intense demands and even active measures to dismantle and actively destroy people’s wellbeing, engage in jealous sabotage or try to feel powerful via other negative actions. This is what I call the destroy cycle. 

After moving through the destroy cycle and causing an endless amount of drama in their environment socially and professionally, the manipulator will then begin the rebuild cycle which is where they assign people the roles they want them to play. 

The manipulator will essentially try to control and direct what those around them will do or should do. 

If you start to fold into the framework of the manipulator you are in danger of becoming part of their critique destroy rebuild cycle. 

Manipulators in the movies

The following cinematic manipulators are a good look at some tactics from the manipulator’s playbook.

Take the character Kathryn (played by Sarah Michelle Gellar) in the 1999 film Cruel Intentions. She appears sweet and innocent but she uses seduction to get her way and is ruthless in guilting and entrapping anybody who gets in the way of her desires and goals. 

Another example comes from the 1995 movie the Usual Suspects, in which Kevin Spacey’s character Verbal Kint tricks everybody into thinking he is a weakly victim. At the end you realize he is the ultimate aggressor, manipulator and bad guy that has been ravaging everyone throughout the film, Keyser Söze.

Of course, manipulators aren’t just in the movies and are all too well in real life as well. 

By paying attention to the classic mind games I described you can keep them from coming out of the movies and into your life. 

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