Santa Monica Counseling, Therapist in Santa Monica, Los Angeles, and Culver City, CA, California - Darlene Lancer, JD, MFT

How to Spot Manipulation

manipulationWe all want to get our needs met, but manipulators use underhanded methods. Manipulation is a way to covertly influence someone with indirect, deceptive, or abusive tactics. Manipulation may seem benign or even friendly or flattering, as if the person has your highest concern in mind, but in reality it’s to achieve an ulterior motive. Other times, it’s veiled hostility, and when it becomes abusive, the objective is merely power. You may not realize that you’re being intimidated.

If you grew up being manipulated, it’s harder to discern what’s going on, because it feels familiar. You might have a gut feeling of discomfort or anger, but on the surface the manipulator may use words that are pleasant, ingratiating, reasonable, or that play on your guilt or sympathy, so you override your instincts and don’t know what to say. Codependents have trouble being direct and assertive and may use manipulation to get their way. They’re also easy prey for being manipulated by narcissists, borderline personalities, sociopaths, and other codependents, including addicts.

Manipulative Tactics
Favorite weapons of manipulators are: guilt, complaining, comparing, lying, denying (including excuses and rationalizations), feigning ignorance, or innocence (the “Who me!?” defense), blame, bribery, undermining, mind games, assumptions, “foot-in-the-door,” reversals, emotional blackmail, evasiveness, forgetting, fake concern, sympathy, apologies, flattery, and gifts and favors. Manipulators often use guilt by saying directly or through implication, “After all I’ve done or you,” or chronically behaving needy and or helpless. They may compare you negatively to someone else or rally imaginary allies to their cause, saying that, “Everyone” or “Even so and so thinks xyz ,” or “says xyz about you.”

Some manipulators deny promises, agreements, or conversations, or start an argument and blame you for something you didn’t do to get sympathy and power. This approach can be used to break a date, promise, or agreement. Parents routinely manipulate with bribery – everything from, “Finish your dinner to get dessert,” to “No video games until your homework is done.”

Manipulators often voice assumptions about your intentions or beliefs and then react to them as if they were true in order to justify their feelings or actions, all the while denying what you said in the conversation. They may act as if something has been agreed upon or decided when it hasn’t in order to ignore any input or objection you might have.

The “foot-in-the-door” technique is making a small request that you agree to, which is followed by the real request. It’s harder to say no, because you’ve already said yes. The reversal turns your words around to mean something you didn’t intend. When you object, manipulators turn the tables on you so that they’re the injured party. Now it’s about them and their complaints, and you’re on the defensive. Fake concern is sometimes used to undermine your decisions and confidence in the form of warnings or worry about you.

Emotional Blackmail
Emotional blackmail is abusive manipulation that may include the use of rage, intimidation, threats, shame, or guilt. Shaming you is a method to create self-doubt and make you feel insecure. It can even be couched in a compliment: “I’m surprised that you of all people you’d stoop to that!” A classic ploy is to frighten you with threats, anger, accusations, or dire warnings, such as, “At your age, you’ll never meet anyone else if you leave,” or “The grass isn’t any greener,” or playing the victim: “I’ll die without you.”

Blackmailers may also frighten you with anger, so you sacrifice your needs and wants. If that doesn’t work, they sometimes suddenly switch to a lighter mood. You’re so relieved that you’re willing to agree to whatever is asked. They might bring up something you feel guilty or ashamed about from the past as leverage to threaten or shame you, such as, “I’ll tell the children xyz if you do what I want.”

Victims of blackmailers with certain personality disorders, such as borderline or narcissistic PD, are prone to experience a psychological FOG, which stands for Fear, Obligation, and Guilt, an acronym created by Susan Forward. The victim is made to feel afraid to cross the manipulator, feels obligated to comply with his or her request, and feels too guilty not to do so. Shame and guilt can be used directly with put-downs or accusations that you’re “selfish” (the worse vice to many codependents) or that “You only think of yourself,” “You don’t care about me,” or that “You have it so easy.”

Codependents are rarely assertive. They may say whatever they think someone wants to hear to get along or be loved, but then later they do what they want. This is also passive-aggressive behavior. Rather than answer a question that might lead to a confrontation, they’re evasive, change the topic, or use blame and denial (including excuses and rationalizations), to avoid being wrong. Because they find it so hard to say no, they may say yes, followed by complaints about how difficult accommodating the request will be. When confronted, codependents have difficulty accepting responsibility because of their deep shame. Instead, they deny responsibility, and blame or make excuses or make empty apologies to keep the peace.

They use charm and flattery and offer favors, help, and gifts to be accepted and loved. Criticism, guilt, and self-pity are also used to manipulate to get what they want: “Why do you only think of yourself and never ask or help me with my problems? I helped you.” Acting like a victim is a way to manipulate with guilt.

Addicts routinely deny, lie, and manipulate to protect their addiction. Their partners also manipulate for example, by hiding or diluting an addict’s drugs or alcohol or through other covert behavior. They may also lie or tell half-truths to avoid confrontations or control the addict’s behavior.

Passive-aggressive behavior can also be used to manipulate. When you have trouble saying no, you might agree to things you don’t want to, and then get your way by forgetting, being late, or doing it half-heartedly. Typically, passive-aggression is a way of expressing hostility. Forgetting “on purpose” conveniently avoids what you don’t want to do and gets back at your partner – like forgetting to pick up your spouse’s clothes from the cleaners. Sometimes, this is done unconsciously, but it’s still a way of expressing anger. More hostile is offering deserts to your dieting partner.

How to Handle Manipulators
The first step is to know whom you’re dealing with. Manipulators know your triggers! Study their tactics and learn their favorite weapons. Build your self-esteem and self-respect. This is your best defense! Also, learn to be assertive and set boundaries. Read How to Speak Your Mind: Become Assertive and Set Limits or watch the webinar How to Be Assertive. For techniques and scripts for dealing with difficult people, read Dealing with a Narcissist: 8 Steps to Raise Self-Esteem and Set Boundaries with Difficult People. Contact me at for a free report “12 Strategies to Handle Manipulators.”

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56 thoughts on “How to Spot Manipulation

  1. My ex often refused to discuss issues, or denied there were any. He also minimized my concerns or said I was overly sensitive when I tried to bring them up. Eventually I just stopped trying to voice concerns because it never got me anywhere. In the end, after many years of refusing to discuss anything besides work, sports, or the kids, he left me for not meeting needs he refused to express. What type of personality acts this way? His behavior doesn’t seem to fit any of the descriptions above.

      • Manipulation is a bad name. When people realized what they have done has caused others negative effect, if they apologize, the thing will go away; if they didn’t realize or fail to apologize, it will stick and later be labeled “manipulation”,”abuse”, etc. If you use these words to confront the people who hurt you with it, it will only hurt them back and cause more defensiveness or guilt; if you are the one who mistakenly did it, labeling yourself this causes excessive guilt, or defensiveness. Is that the solution? Plus, the definition of manipulation is too loose.
        I think the line is people’s feeling.

        • I Don’t recommend calling people names or labeling them. As you write, it makes them defensive. However, you can set boundaries or be direct in replying and that forces people to be direct also.

  2. I always see myself in ‘controller’ and ‘manipulator’ but I will always explain. I do not ‘take control’ – I just can’t stand it when everyone is sitting around complaining that something is not getting done or something needs to be done or ‘someone should…’ and it’s something I can take care of – I do take care of it. In those situations, if someone else wants to do the things they’re complaining about, I’d gladly step aside. I just hate people complaining about things they CAN do something about.

    • That is very frustrating. It takes a lot of self-control to not take the bait and say “Uh huh,” or “You’re right about that,” or “Sounds frustrating (difficult, etc.)” and leave the conversation. This puts the dilemma squarely back in the lap of the manipulator.

  3. These posts have helped me so much. I have struggled with codependency for the past twenty two years. I have always thought that I was not good enough. Thank you so much Ms.Lancer.

  4. Hi,

    I think I may be a bit codependent. I don’t always run around trying to be helpful to everyone, but I do accept a lot of things in relationships that other people find unacceptable. By “accept” I mean, do not LEAVE the relationship. I will always find some way to understand why they did a hurtful thing, or I seem to have this magical ability to forget things that happened, especially childhood treatment. Plus, I am not perfect either and I can understand how people can end up doing rotten things.
    I have spent a lot of years feeling like a victim. I probably was a victim a lot when I was little. I can’t remember any of that, I just know that my family are not supportive emotionally, in fact; most of them are bullies and backstabbers and gossipers.
    I find that I also gossip a lot.
    I also find that I feel like I want to fix or control my partner in relationships. By “fix,” I mean make them stop hurting me or understand what they are doing and SEE me. By “control” I mean I don’t want them to behave in certain ways, but I feel really guilty admitting that to them.
    I seem to end up with people who are very narcissistic or have borderline personality, since my immediate family have both of those things as well as addiction problems. I guess it makes sense that I go for that and they go for me.

    Anyway, I feel like it is a pretty hopeless way to be. From what I’ve been reading, people like me ARE selfish AND bad, just as I have always thought about myself. It seems to be TRUE.

    It is pretty hard to face that your entire motivation for being kind to anyone is selfish, but I probably have not ever done anything for anyone that was not about myself.

    I feel like my brain is unable to filter anything in a non-self-absorbed way.

    I remember feeling like I had a lot of empathy for people, but I probably was just feeling my own feelings and feeling sorry for myself.

    Do codependent people ever learn to TRULY be selfless or TRULY love anyone without feeling threatened?

    All the self-help sites are on about “loving yourself” and whatever else, but that doesn’t seem very plausible to me. How exactly does that work?

    Mostly, I spend my days doing things to avoid people and having feelings, because when I do interact with people I almost always draw people with problems just as bad as mine or worse to me. People tell me things they have “never told anyone else.” I don’t know what I am doing to keep pulling in the same type of person, but it’s hard to stay out of codependent situations when it seems like I have been trained to attract dependent people and they are trained to find me.

    Is it possible to be happy when I am like this? Do people get over themselves in any real way? Is there more genetic reason to this type of activity than we think?

    • You’ve asked very good questions. We never fully “get over” being codependent; however, we can learn to love ourselves and live healthier lives surrounded by people who love us without the old drama. When old tendencies or feelings re-emerge we replace them with new attitudes and behaviors. It requires work, time, and the support of knowledgeable mentors who themselves have changed. Start by doing the exercises in my books, go to CoDA meetings, and find a therapist to work with.

  5. I fear my situation is too long to explain here. However, I do know that I am a Codependent person. I thought I was doing well for several years, excluding my children of course.
    Now I’m frightened of a situation I am in, or not in. I don’t know at this point.
    What I do know is that I have been threw 2 rather abusive marriages. (Physically, mentally, emotionally, sexually, etc.)
    I was doing so well, I was.
    Then someone who became what I felt to be my bff. Bestest Friend Forever came into my life. We had a bond (explain privately). I spared nothing in sharing, expressing, telling, TRUSTING, confiding ANY thing to him. Every part of my mind, life, experiences, anything. I held not a thing back.
    He says all the same was as with me.
    (Much more to story not sharing publicly).
    Bottom line is that here I am ALONE. He has something going on elsewhere. (Again I cannot share). Yet, he will not talk to me. Not about us. At all.
    So much I haven’t said.
    Point being I am beyond as devasted, indescribably, shattered, destroyed, I can’t barely she’d a few tears at a time, yet, my heart feels as if it’s about to burst at any given time.
    I have NO ONE to talk to anymore. I TRUST NO ONE.
    I stumbled across you online punching in “Emotionally Unavailable”.
    Here I am. I haven’t spoken the entirety, nor intimate details.
    I am lost, broken, shattered, torn, etc. Holding it in for lack of him to tell it to, and NO longer trusting anyone.
    I seriously DO NOT know what to do. I’m on meds. I see a psychiatrist. Started going to church again. Checking out your blogs and watnot.
    Still trapped. Ready to explode. ??????????

    • I know that loss and abandonment can be very, very painful. It’s vitally important that you get frequent support. I recommend CoDA meetings and reading recovery literature. Start doing the exercises in my books. The separation is reviving abandonment from childhood. Be sure that your shrink knows how to do trauma therapy so that you can recover from that. Talk to him or her about how to get more support between sessions. See my other blogs on self-nurturing and trust and my Youtube on 3 Recovery Exercises, which you can practice daily.

  6. Any suggestions for more reading for someone being manipulated by a relative with both OCD and codependent tendencies who calls up and talks about “why should I stick around”….no definite suicide threat, but the ideation is there? She also tries to invoke guilt and get me further involved in her life by doing things for her so that they don’t set off her OCD symptoms. Fortunately the extent of this is limited by it being a long-distance relationship. It’s a struggle to maintain both boundaries and contact, when it would be a lot easier to close the door on this relative completely. I am at wit’ s end on how to walk this line more calmly

    • Don’t do the things she wants you to do unless you want to. Just empathize with her self-pity and when you’ve had enough get off the phone. If she threatens suicide, give her a hotline number and tell her to call a professional.

  7. What about this scenario? I do not own a home, so I asked a friend if I could bury my elderly cats in his yard when their “time comes”. He said yes. This year, I lost my 13 year old boy cat to mouth cancer. Only 1 1/2 months later, my 16 year old female cat – who has never been way from the boy, is dying of kidney failure. My “friend” agreed to allow me to bury my boy cat in his yard. Now my girl cat is dying, he says I may not bury her next to him. When I told him I will exhume the boy and bury them together, he told me he would “rather I not”! This person has expressed romantic feelings that were not reciprocated. It’s horrible. Thoughts?

    • Although you must feel betrayed and angry and disappointed. He was not being manipulative in saying no, He was being assertive and direct, but he was putting you in a bind. It’s not clear that there was subterfuge or what he might be manipulating you to do. In my initial response, I actually overlooked the part about not being able to exhume the male. You should assert yourself and insist upon giving you permission to do do so or bury the female! I wouldn’t back down easily.

      • I disagree. It is subversively manipulative or punitive. It was agreed upon and now the agreement has been violated. He has put her in a situation where moves are denied. She cannot bury one cat or dig up another. It may be direct in verbalization but is highly manipulative in every other way. It has left her a victim needing to find a way to appease him or feel what he wants her to feel. Very manipulative.

  8. I feel manipulated by my husband… I asked him to move out for a few months because he was becoming verbally abusive and speaking to me as if he hated me. He has just been diagnosed with depression and says he wants to work on himself before he can see me again, but then messages me saying he needs a hug, or asks me to ask for his forgiveness in where I went wrong in the relationship. He calls me and says he misses me and I tell him I miss him too, then he attacks me for not responding to a text message and has a long rant about how I can’t tell him I love or miss him.
    I know he’s depressed and struggling but I’m slowly going crazy!!!

  9. I was raised by codependent parents. I am in my mid 30’s and find I have issues with codendency and frequently use these tactics of manipulation. I don’t know what’s right or ok anymore. I don’t know how well I can change without the correct tools of communication in my grasp.

  10. Hello. How can I help my sister who has been “off and on” in a relationship (which she constantly denies is a romantic relationship, even though she has stated that she doesn’t believe in platonic relationships…) . When they’re “on”, they’re inseparable, and the family must accept him. When they’re “off”, she hates him passionately, and the family had better not never contact with him. This has been going on for about 10 years. Each time they’re back “on” my sister seems to easily brush aside the fact that their relationship is unhealthy, trauma filled, burdensome to others, and just plain crazy. She has BPD & codependent features. Advice?

  11. I am on a group conference call where we share our personal experiences from a place of authenticity and honesty. Recently the facilitator told me how I was being judgmental and dumping on the group, and how she wants a “positive” group…it was all “you this” and “you that ” and how she had wanted to talk about it for the last 2 weeks and this was the first chance she had to bring it up….I felt completely attacked for things I said in a private “share” and I honestly didn’t even remember exactly what I said. This is the 2nd time she has 2 weeks after an event told me how she “You are judgmental and negative” in my personal share. isn

  12. This article has been tremendously helpful to me in trying to repair my relationship with my mother. My mother has been dealing with codependency most of her adult life and now after 20 years of living far away, my husband, baby and I are living in the same town. I am struggling quite a bit in how to communicate authentically with her. She constantly helps us and brings us gifts and is overly expressive with her feelings, guilt trips, flattery, etc. I have to constantly set boundaries and request clear communication, but we keep getting into arguments. Any resources you could point me to? Thanks in advance.

  13. Any advice for dealing with a codependent/passive-aggressive friend? We live quite far away from each-other, so we usually rely on phone calls and social media to stay in touch. Sometimes we would vent to each-other and just talk to relieve stress; yet whenever I’d try to ask for her ear she’d clearly ignore me. Although she shuts me off at times like those, if I don’t respond to her calls right away, she lashes out at me saying that I don’t care enough to check on her. Sometimes she would just drop off the face of the earth without contact and come back days later, expecting me to make a big deal out of it. If I didn’t, she would complain.

  14. This article reinforces a negative stigma of “co-dependency” when all Melody Beattie wanted to do was give a name to the tendencies of people who learned to devalue themselves at a young age due to emotional abuse. I would love to see this article rewritten from a point of view of compassion for the co-dependant. This article seems to confuse tactics needed for schizoid/narcissistic personalities – who have no empathy, with co-dependants who have learned to anticipate emotional abuse, have no boundaries, and are often paired up with a manipulator who is ten times worse in communicating real wants and needs. Misinformation, misdirection.

    • In Codependency for Dummies, I go into a longer explanation of the kind of manipulation which codependents do, which is passive and defensive, but it doesn’t require that one is abusive or have malicious intent to manipulate. We all manipulate at times to influence others or get our wants an needs met. It’s only when it undermines someone else or harms honest communication that it’s a real problem, and sometimes codependency leads to that, too. When we manipulate instead of being direct, we’re usually disappointed with the outcome and it breeds resentment in others.

  15. What to do when mom calls son crying because they can’t pay their $3000 property taxes on their 2 houses because of excessive credit debt due to shopping addiction. Sold an airplane someone gave them a year ago. Bought a nice used Cadillac this past summer. Have 2nd mortgage on one house (due to 100,000 in credit debt) that one son paid for 6 years and the other rented home for 10 years. All dad ever talks about is how awful his life is and need a new cell phone, Ipad, Mobil home so they can travel. Son can’t hardly stand to be around them even though they are very sweet and caring. He had paid cell bill for 15 years but it is never enough.

  16. Last September my wife and I were married. It was a destination wedding for the majority of our guests. The night before at the rehearsal our priest went around and asked those close to us if they had any marriage advice for us. My sister, who is single, wasn’t in the wedding and someone I don’t speak with regularly, apparently told the priest “she taught me how to treat women”. I only realized her comment after the wedding when I watched a video taken of the event. The acoustics in the church were poor and my mind must have been elsewhere then but I am now mad about her comment. Thoughts? I refuse to address it to her now unless we fight.

    • Explore exactly why her comment made you angry, why you aren’t closer with her, and what’s your part in that? It might be taken as a compliment – that you treated her well. Forgiveness often starts with self-forgiveness. How might that apply?

  17. I thought that this was an excellent and spot-on blog! I, too, have always been codependent – and still working on it. This has a lot of insight in it and makes some very useful points.

    Thanks so much for sharing this – it is great!

  18. my boyfriend acused me of manipulating him, i was shocked because between us he is the person who uses excuses to escape like oh i was not able to call you because i was sleeping. Everyday same excuses. The fact that he promised a lots of things but not even one was done if i will ask him he will blame me telling that because i was mad. He enjoyed hitting me whenever we are together. Is it a manipulative behavior.

  19. This is interesting, because the author is speaking to people who have been manipulated who are usually people who also manipulate, because that’s how they learned to cope. I always find it interesting and potentially damaging to the reader and to relationships when these articles try to paint it like the manipulator is trying to harm you or get back at you, when they usually don’t even realize what they are doing.

    • There’s a big difference between passive manipulation many codependents do out of fear and aggressive, hostile manipulation. Manipulation in any form is destructive to relationships, and the first step in change is awareness and learning how to be more assertive and direct.

  20. Good article and description of the hostile manipulation tactics. One thing that is a misconception is that these people are doing it unwittingly or unconsciously. A person who uses tactics like denying, undermining, mind games, assumptions etc as Darlene describes are *intentionally* trying to get one over on you. My ex does all of these things and I have been embroiled in custody battles for years now. Believe it, they know exactly what they are doing. You will not see it at first, but once you do your view of human nature is changed forever, and you realise just how naive and what easy prey you were for these characters.

  21. I am really struggling with manipulations since birth.
    Just yesterday a customer calls me. All he needed say was that we should repeat some work. Instead he goes about sourcing and getting other customers for me of which he now asks for a little favour of the work.
    My live has been full of these things. A woman getting pregnant so I can pay for her life bills. My mothers food always felt more expensive than hotel. Because from food there was this un stated thing I give her money in return.
    Finally I told her not to give me any more food. I just didn’t want it any more.
    My past is full of these cursed people from hell.

    • It’s not just these people. You must overcome your codependency so you’re not “prey.” You don’t know how to set boundaries. Start reading and applying the lessons in Codependency for Dummies and go to meetings, and get some counseling.

  22. I asked my son to leave because his silent treatment hurt too much. I am a person that always wanted a family but everyone is dead now. I live alone and trust no one anymore. When I finally left the state to live where there where no more memories James decided to have people spy on me — to teach me a lesson.
    They manipulate me, deceive me and hurt me…all because they thought I was too codependent. I just left. Trust No one.

  23. So my dog had to get emergency surgery which ended up costing 2000$ and my father said he would put it on credit since I cant withdraw more than 500$ out of my savings (my money comes from fasfa and government grants to pay for college) and I promised I would pay it all back but he refuses to take it because I wont have money for this semester. The problem is now he uses it to guilt me to do everything or just to attack me. I cant even turn on the news without him mentioning it. I mean he has a history of doing similar things and honestly now that its a new statement period I plan on just giving him another 500$ because I need to pay him.

    • When someone tries to manipulate you, confront it directly. It’s fine to say, “I thought the money was a gift. I didn’t know that you had expectations (or strings attached.) Perhaps I misunderstood. So was it a gift? Because if it was a loan, then I will pay you back as I can.” That should shut him up!

  24. I am coming to the bitter end of a 15 yr relationship. The first decade we seemed to cruise. No real arguments. I suppose we are both a bit co-dependent and I take care but they manipulate. For the longest time it was fairly low level stuff, but as I became disillusioned with career and travel goals to stay behind and be with them I think I began to change in a not so nice way. Now I am being accused of emotional abuse and much more horrible words. Make no doubt I can legitimately be accused of these things & I am trying hard to get back to the old me. My question: Can years of manipulation actually do that to someone or was it always there?

  25. I had a troubled relationship with a woman with strong BPD traits. At the start of the devaluation phase, she brought forward (two times and out of nowhere) that she had this work colleague who was manipulative. She said he portrayed an image of nice guy but he was manipulative at the end of the day. That was weird.
    Months after the breakup I had this epiphany that she was probably describing herself through this (supposititious?) colleague.

    Anyway, I temporarily gave up dating while I am address my own issues. Therapy, instrospection, and journaling have helped me a lot.

    Thanks for sharing your knowledge, I really appreciate!

  26. My bf is 28, seems to be co-dependent as he’s a people pleaser and feels guilty when he disappoints. We had a fast moving relationship. Within 4 weeks he was sleeping over every night at my family’s home. His parents seemed ok then later blew up. They guilted him with money spent, tuition and a car. Then he was told he is only allowed to sleep over twice a week. I voiced to my bf I was not happy about the amount of influence they have. Similar monthly fights occurred but the most recent ending with he is no longer allowed to sleep over at all anymore and he agreed despite knowing how I feel. He says he is tired of fighting them. What do I do?

    • You need to accept the situation if you want to continue this relationship as it is. He is dependent upon his parents and not ready for an adult relationship. The question is why are you in it and expecting him to change? It also sounds like you’re in a similar place, living with your family.

  27. We have had a two year drama with my sister: about every six weeks she makes another attempt to “connect” in the most inappropriate ways. She has gossiped and lied about my husband and I, and tried to drive a wedge in every family relationship.
    A year ago, we begged her to get professional help because her emotional triads had worn us out. Almost every interaction was email or text, so a record of the craziness is tangible (unfortunately).
    More recently, my sister has been grooming my mum to side with her, act as go-between, and deliver messages. My mum easily wants to defend the underdog, so obliges. How do we negotiate peace?

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