Manipulation comes in many forms, and they’re more common than you might think. From the occasional passive-aggressive comment to full-blown gaslighting on the regular, virtually all of us are manipulative to a degree.
If you’re here, you may be feeling like it’s time to check yourself. So, we asked the experts what manipulation can look like, manipulative behaviors to watch out for, and of course, how you can work to stop being manipulative.
What does manipulation look like?
Manipulation is a mental tactic used to fool someone into doing what you want. “You’re kind of trying to trick them into behaving a certain way, whether it’s giving you something, doing something for you—but without coming straight out and saying it, and instead trying to get them to do it without them knowing it,” explains therapist and relationship expert Ann Barham, MFT.
According to therapist and relationship expert Ken Page, LCSW, everyone can be manipulative from time to time, sometimes without even realizing it. “We are all human, and all of us manipulate because it’s a human defense mechanism,” he says.
There are so many behaviors that can be considered manipulative, with varying degrees of severity. The key is, you’re being manipulative if you want something from someone and feel you have to finesse it out of them rather than just expressing what it is you’re thinking, feeling, wanting, or needing. Manipulation stems from not being able to take responsibility for your own feelings and handle them in a mature way, Page says.
“If you think you’re being manipulative, you probably are,” he adds.
9 ways you might be manipulative without realizing:
1. You’ll go to great lengths to get your way.
Manipulation is all about trying to get a certain outcome. Do you have a hard time not getting your way? This can lead a manipulative person to do whatever it takes to get what they want, even at the expense of other people. Rather than taking no for an answer, you’ll maneuver the situation to go your way.
2. You have a hard time directly voicing your needs.
According to Barham, manipulation can arise from an inability (or at least a reluctance) to simply say what it is you’re feeling or needing. For example, she says, perhaps rather than asking your friend to babysit for you, you say, “Gosh, I really wish I could go out tonight, but I have to stay home with the kids. It’s so hard being a single mom.”
3. You project onto others.
It’s not uncommon to project our own insecurities and self-loathing onto another person. According to Page, this is called projective identification, and it’s almost always an unconscious form of manipulation. Say you have trust issues, so you think everyone is untrustworthy. With projective identification, those you project on may end up internalizing your assessment of them and feeling that it’s true.
Very obviously, lying is manipulation in true form—and you should know when you’re doing it. If you find yourself stretching, avoiding, or ignoring the truth on a regular basis, you are doing so for a reason. Hiding your truth is what manipulation is all about.
5. You make people feel guilty.
Manipulators are masters at guilt-tripping, Page says. To make someone feel guilty in an effort to either make them feel bad or do something, in particular, is a prime example of manipulation. Of course, it’s OK to express hurt and disappointment, but if you’re doing so to get something out of it, that’s not an earnest behavior.
6. You don’t keep promises.
Yes, promises without follow-through are manipulation. Perhaps you did mean it when you said it, but now it’s just not worth your time or effort. Or worse, you may have never intended to keep the promise. Either way, making promises to friends, family, or romantic partners that you don’t keep is a way of manipulating them into staying in your life.
7. You do nice things—with expectations.
Doing nice things for other people certainly is not a bad thing. But if you’re only doing them because you expect it to come back around and serve you, that’s manipulation. Not only are you not being genuine with those you’re supposedly doing nice things for, but you’re really only doing them for you.
8. You punish people when you don’t get your way.
Maybe your punishment style is withholding affection or posting something passive-aggressive on your Instagram story. Whatever the case, if you respond really negatively to things not going your way and take it out on others in the form of punishment, that is definitely manipulation.
9. You’re overly persuasive.
And lastly, do you find yourself frequently persuading people to do what you want or to behave in a certain way? Manipulative people can be very persuasive and have a keen understanding of the mental tactics that can wear people down.
13 types of manipulative behaviors:
Why people become manipulative.
So, how does one become manipulative? According to Barham, “these people are convinced if they were to really ask for what they wanted and needed that the answer would be no.” It can often arise from not having your needs met growing up, and even having manipulation modeled for you by your family.
Manipulation is in many ways a defense mechanism, Page says. “The more you’ve had trauma, the harder it is to face that trauma, to work with that trauma, and to not self-abandon, and not to go into PTSD responses.”
For certain personality types—such as sociopaths and narcissists—manipulation is simply part of the package, Page adds, but generally, there is a spectrum, and in most cases, the more trauma, the more potential a person has to take a manipulative turn for the worst.
How to stop being manipulative.
The first step is acknowledging how you’ve been manipulative and, from there, asking yourself what pain underneath could have caused it, according to Page. “The next question is, How might I be able to take care of myself in the face of this pain? And the final stage is to interact from a healthier place.”
A therapist can help you with this, which both Barham and Page recommend. If you’re in a relationship, Page notes, couples’ therapy is also a good idea. And be sure to “talk to your therapist about why you feel you’re not deserving of people to show up for you,” Barham adds.
Because patterns of manipulation become habitual, it can be very difficult to rewire that circuitry—but not impossible. Barham suggests being frank with the people you’re closest with and asking them to (nicely) say something if they catch you manipulating. She also adds that a big part of the work will be accepting that you can’t always get what you want.
Be mindful of your interactions with people, Barham adds, and ask questions like, What is it I’m trying to achieve here? and, Am I being direct about it?
If you’ve realized you are manipulative or at least can have manipulative tendencies, you’ve already made a huge step by acknowledging it and (hopefully) wanting to get better. With some inner work and healing, you can mitigate those behaviors and get your needs met without trickery.
This mantra from Page says it best: “Say what you mean, mean what you say, and don’t say it mean.”