8 traits manipulators always look for in their victims, according to psychology

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What makes the perfect victim?

It’s an important question to ponder if we don’t want to make ourselves a walking target.

Of course, the one who seeks to abuse and manipulate is the only one at fault.

Nobody wants to be taken advantage of, but that doesn’t mean we can’t do things to protect ourselves.

And that all starts with taking a closer look at the traits manipulators may well hone in on.

Because as we’re about to see, many of these qualities are positive, yet manipulators can twist them to use them to their advantage.

Let’s take a look at them.

1) A trusting nature

Some of us are deeply suspicious, perhaps even cynical when it comes to others.

That’s no way to live. The research shows that skepticism and distrust can seriously impact our relationships.

Meanwhile, studies highlight a whole host of benefits that come along with a trusting nature, including higher intelligence, better health, and overall life satisfaction.

But as Psychology Today reminds us, you can be too trusting.

“Certain people are unusually prone to trusting others even when there are clear indicators that they are untrustworthy. This is often attributed to personality traits such as high levels of agreeableness or openness.”

Unfortunately being unquestionably trusting can mean the more likely you are to believe the lies and manipulation tactics used against you.

You may overlook red flags and warning signs, making yourself an easier target.

Being trusting is positive, just as long as it doesn’t creep into being gullible.

2) An empathetic and caring heart

Ultimately manipulators get their claws into people by playing on their emotions.

So it stands to reason, that the more sensitive, kind, and understanding you are, the easier that is for them.

They go in search of the people who want to help and are willing to put themselves out to do so.

Mental health professional Jamie Cannon says the power of our emotions is the reason why it’s the manipulators’ preferred weapon against us:

“The number-one reason manipulators prey on your emotions is because that is the quickest and most efficient way to get what they want from you—and to maintain that relationship for the long run. If an abuser is able to worm into your emotional patterns and influence them, there is a much higher chance you will react the way they want.

“You will be more likely to question yourself, instead of them. You may eventually become accustomed to the self-doubt, which will make their game all the easier to run.”

3) Being unguarded

Vulnerability is vital to our relationships.

We’re told all the time by experts who remind us that deep and meaningful connections rely on it.

Yet there is a balance to be struck.

How much we reveal of ourselves and our emotions should always be proportionate.

Getting to know someone takes time.

This is why trust is built slowly. We learn whether someone can be relied upon and are honest through their consistent actions.

In the meantime, we don’t need to put up walls, but it pays to be mindful of rushing in.

Some people fall victim to manipulation in romantic relationships because they are so desperate for the fairytale.

They want their happily ever after and try to shortcut it. But falling hard leaves them exposed whilst they keep on their rose-tinted glasses. 

They’ve let their guard down because it feels nice. But they get tripped up by acts of love bombing that are later shown to be insincere.

4) Being forgiving of mistakes

Giving people the benefit of the doubt is one thing. But it’s quite another when we don’t draw a line in the sand.

I struggled to navigate this difference for many years.

I like to think of myself as an understanding person. The more we seek to see the best in people, the more we can appreciate where they’re coming from.

But that can create a slippery slope where we end up putting up with behaviors that we shouldn’t.

Here are two important things I learned the hard way through being taken advantage of:

  • Forgiving is not the same as forgetting
  • We can understand and forgive a behavior AND simultaneously remove someone from our lives.

Forgiveness isn’t a free pass to come back. Especially when it’s likely the same thing will happen all over again.

We have to know when to offer forgiveness, and when to do so whilst still walking away. That demands clear and defined boundaries.

5) Having shaky boundaries

Some of the traits on our list such as being trusting, unguarded, and caring are positive qualities that we understandably wouldn’t want to ditch.

And we don’t need to as long as we have the backup to protect ourselves in the form of healthy boundaries.

I like to think of these as an emotional bouncer who kicks troublemakers out of the club.

They are the bad cop who won’t take any nonsense and who backs up your good cop.

Without them, you may have difficulty saying no and setting limits with others.

That’s why manipulators look for individuals who are unable to assert themselves and establish healthy boundaries.

As therapist Edwin Bli reminds us:

“Boundaries act as a set of guidelines that define how you expect to be treated and how you will treat others. They serve as a framework for healthy interactions and help protect you from manipulation, mistreatment, and toxic dynamics.”

6) Having low self-esteem

Sadly, manipulators sniff out people who they think will be most susceptible to their bullshit. That often means people with a poorer self-image.

It’s easier to take control over someone who is lacking in confidence and self-worth.

It doesn’t take much to create self-doubt within them so that the manipulator can gain the upper hand.

As author and life coach Darlene Ouimet points out “Controllers, abusers, and manipulative people don’t question themselves. They don’t ask themselves if the problem is them. They always say the problem is someone else.”

When you have low self-esteem you are more likely to shoulder the blame and believe you are the problem.

7) A desire to please

Whenever we have a need for approval it puts us at the mercy of others.

Some people may go to great lengths to please others, even at their own expense.

Manipulators use this fear of rejection to control and coerce their victims.

If you look for the bulk of your validation outside of yourself then chances are you also have people-pleasing tendencies.

There are plenty of ways the people pleasing tends to backfire, and one of which is exposing yourself to manipulation.

Not only that, some experts argue that people-pleasing in itself could be considered a form of manipulation.


Developmental psychologist Sasha Heinz, PhD claims “We’re managing our own anxiety that people won’t like us by trying to control their opinions of us.”

8) History of abuse and manipulation

Sometimes the victim and perpetrator roles come so effortlessly because they are so well practiced.

For example, research has highlighted how trauma survivors are more likely to be at risk for future abuse.

As strange as it may sound, subconsciously we seek our familiarity, even when it’s not a positive experience.

Because we recognize it, in some ways it makes us feel safe because we know what to expect. 

Social worker and trauma-informed psychotherapist Joanna Iwona Potkanska says it turns into a habit.

“We tend to remain in patterns that are familiar to us. We often do not realize that the relationships we are in are abusive, especially if we grew up in dysfunctional families.”

It’s not easy to break free of toxic cycles.

However, experts say that learning to see how past experiences can start to normalize negative behavior will help you spot the warning signs.

Standing up to manipulation means first recognizing it

You know what they say, knowledge is power.

Being on the lookout for the tricks manipulators like to use helps you to be vigilant.

It is always a good idea to build self-esteem, firm up boundaries, and seek to understand yourself better.

But never blame yourself for falling foul of manipulation. These people are often skilled at twisting reality and taking advantage.

Knowing what to recognize is the best place to start.

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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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