11 ways to spot a emotional manipulator, according to psychology

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It often seems like everyone out there is trying to scam, deceit, or manipulate us. Now, that definitely isn’t true because most people are just like us. They’re just trying to get by and live their lives the best they can. 

Still, it’s always good to be out on the lookout and know what and who might be preying on us. 

For that reason, let’s turn to psychology and what it says are ways to spot an emotional manipulator.

1) They often play the victim card to gain sympathy

Emotional manipulators like to adopt the victim role to evoke your sympathy and support. 

Psychologically, this tactic leverages the empathy of others, so you find it harder to question or challenge their behavior.

No one wants to call out a victim, right? And they know that very well. They count on it to get away with everything they want. 

Frankly, it’s not easy to counter this type of behavior. But if you at least recognize what’s happening and what they’re doing, you’ll be better equipped to deal with it if the push comes to shove. 

2) They use guilt trips to make you feel responsible for their emotions

Guilt is another powerful tool to make others feel responsible for the manipulator’s emotional state. 

This psychological maneuver preys on the target’s sense of duty and can make you comply by simply wanting to relieve your guilt.

My mom still does this to me from time to time. The thing is, I’m so used to it that it doesn’t work anymore. 

I simply know what she’s trying to do. 

And that’s your best bet, too, when you’re faced with an emotional manipulator. If you know their tactics, you have the inside knowledge, and you’ll sooner or later disarm them so they move on to another mark. 

Or, hopefully, even stop with this behavior for good. 

3) They make you doubt your own feelings and perceptions

Emotional manipulators also want you to doubt your emotions and perceptions by making you rely on their version of reality. 

This psychological strategy erodes confidence and encourages dependence on their perspective.

They downplay the significance of your feelings or even twist the narrative, making you question whether your emotions are correct or reasonable.

For example, you express concern about something they said that hurt your feelings.

They, in turn, reinterpret the conversation, claiming you misunderstood them or took their words out of context. They may say, “I was just joking. You’re being too sensitive.”

And this leads us to gaslighting. 

4) Gaslighting is a common tactic, where they make you question your sanity

Gaslighting is a form of psychological manipulation that aims to make you doubt your own sanity. 

The manipulator denies or distorts facts, causing confusion and undermining confidence in your own judgment.

For instance, you confront them about a hurtful comment they made. They then say, “I never said that. You must be imagining things or exaggerating. Are you sure you’re remembering it correctly?”

There are countless examples, but I’m sure you can recollect a couple from your own life even. 

If anything, you don’t need to look past our politicians to get gaslit every day. 

5) They use passive-aggressive behavior 

Another “popular” method that involves expressing hostility indirectly is passive-aggressive behavior. 

It allows the manipulator to vent frustrations without taking direct responsibility. This helps them keep a facade of innocence while exerting control and without confronting the issue head-on.

From a psychological standpoint, this behavior can stem from a combination of insecurity, a desire to keep control, and a reluctance to engage in open communication.

If you see someone often being sneaky or indirectly expressing their feelings instead of talking openly, you need to figure out what’s really bothering them. 

Try having a straightforward conversation to sort things out and prevent getting caught up in their deceptive behavior.

6) They’re quick to criticize but reluctant to accept criticism themselves

Emotional manipulators often have fragile egos and struggle with criticism. Many of them have a fear of inadequacy, prompting them to deflect blame and avoid facing their own shortcomings.

And that kind of makes sense, right? No one wants to be seen as incompetent. But, in this case, it’s a problem for others, too, because they won’t take any feedback from others unless it’s praise. 

In fact, they’re like Teflon when it comes to deflecting responsibility. 

7) They’re experts at deflecting responsibility for their actions

Manipulators never take responsibility for their actions and shift blame to others to get away with it. 

From a psychological standpoint, this defense mechanism protects their self-image and shields them from feelings of guilt or shame.

Here’s an example from my past when I worked in an office at a major company. A colleague of mine made an honest mistake anyone could make. 

I always thought she was an emotional manipulator trying to pull everyone’s strings. And so, when I saw her downplay the significance of her role, suggesting it had little effect on the overall outcome, my doubts about her were proven. 

Many of her future actions were far worse, and that just cemented my decision to never work in an office again.

I simply didn’t want to deal with all the office politics and backstabbing bullshit anymore. 

8) They use emotional outbursts or tantrums to control situations

When emotional manipulators resort to emotional outbursts or tantrums, it’s a technique aimed at gaining control over a situation. 

Psychologically, these outbursts create a chaotic environment, keeping others on edge and more susceptible to their influence.

The constant turmoil keeps targets off balance, so they can’t assert themselves or question the manipulator’s actions.

For me, the worst thing about manipulators is just how unpredictable they are at times. Sure, after a while, you know they’ll do something, but you don’t know what. 

And that’s how they keep you on edge. You’re always expecting something to happen. But, here’s another nasty thing they resort to whenever they get the chance. 

9) They isolate you from friends and family, making you more dependent on them

Imagine being in a fresh relationship with someone. Everything seems great at first, but as time goes on, they start talking bad things about your friends and family and trying to convince you they’re envious of you. 

But why would they do such a thing? You see, emotional manipulators isolate their marks to get more control over them. 

Psychologically, this isolation reduces external influences, making the victim more reliant on the manipulator for emotional support and validation.

You start talking to your friends and family less and less because you don’t trust them anymore. 

On the other hand, you’re now so reliant on the manipulator that they have complete control over your thoughts and decisions. 

10) They use subtle sarcasm and backhanded compliments

I’ll be frank. I love sarcasm. I think it’s an important and fun branch of humor. Kill me, okay?

What I don’t like is when manipulators use humor and subtle digs to undermine confidence while preserving a veneer of innocence. 

Psychologically speaking, this tactic exploits social norms, making it challenging for the target to confront the manipulator directly.

Manipulators often use sarcasm to assert intellectual or social superiority to establish a power dynamic.

This helps them feel in control, while the target feels inferior and less likely to challenge the manipulator’s behavior.

11) They exploit your vulnerabilities and use them against you

And lastly, manipulators identify and exploit weaknesses to gain control over others. This strategy capitalizes on the human instinct to protect vulnerabilities, making the victim even more susceptible to manipulation.

So, for example, they’ll keenly observe and identify your vulnerabilities, whether they’re emotional, psychological, or personal insecurities. 

Understanding your weaknesses gives them leverage in manipulating your emotions and actions.

They’ll go as far as to threaten to expose or deepen these vulnerabilities to control your behavior. To most people, this will induce fear or anxiety about potential consequences.

No one wants to be that exposed, right?

Final thoughts

In the end, it’s not that hard to spot an emotional manipulator. As soon as you know what to look for, you can’t unsee it ever again. 

Of course, only one of the behaviors I outlined doesn’t necessarily mean a person is a manipulator. But if it’s serious enough, they just might be. 

It’s a tough world out there, be careful, my friend. 

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Adrian Volenik

Adrian has years of experience in the field of personal development and building wealth. Both physical and spiritual. He has a deep understanding of the human mind and a passion for helping people enhance their lives. Adrian loves to share practical tips and insights that can help readers achieve their personal and professional goals. He has lived in several European countries and has now settled in Portugal with his family. When he’s not writing, he enjoys going to the beach, hiking, drinking sangria, and spending time with his wife and son.

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