The number of manipulative people in the world is probably a lot higher than you might imagine. Of course, maybe I have that perception because the majority of my clients are in manipulative relationships and I just don’t see too many other types.
Back around 2010, I realized I was a manipulative person for most of my life. I used masterful communication skills to get my selfish needs met by those closest to me.
In every relationship I’ve ever been in, I found ways to manipulate my partner. It took several breakups and finally a divorce for me to realize that my behavior was the reason for all of the heartaches that kept appearing in my life.
Manipulation comes in many forms but there are a few commonalities between the people that do it. My manipulation took the form of judgment. I found things to judge about my romantic partners over the years and I would do my best to make them feel bad for their behavior. It didn’t even matter if their behavior was “bad”, it only mattered that it didn’t live up to my standards.
I would judge everything that made me think I wasn’t going to end up with I wanted in life. In other words, if my girlfriend wanted dessert, I would immediately think she was going to get fat and that I was going to lose my attraction to her. So I’d make some comment or give a disapproving look. This would make her feel bad because the person who was supposed to love and support her was now putting her down.
After many failed relationships I became quite good at criticizing my romantic partners. I found clever ways to make them feel guilty about their behavior so that they would stop doing whatever made me upset. After a few days however they would often go right back to the behavior I disapproved of, triggering me to become judgmental and manipulative all over again. This kept the cycle of emotional abuse going.
When someone’s actions are not self-initiated, their behavior is not self-empowered. When you’re told what to do, the new behavior you begin may not last because it feels forced upon you.
When it’s self-empowered, where you come up with the idea to change, it usually lasts a lot longer, if not indefinitely.
Manipulators take away your power
With less power, you have fewer tools and resources to heal and grow. Manipulators chip away at your emotional foundation making you think you are less of a person and that you should feel bad about being the cause of the downfall of the relationship.
This is so far from the truth.
Whenever you’re made to feel wrong or guilty by the person who is supposed to love and support you, they are most likely trying to fulfill their own selfish needs. For most of my life, my needs involved my partner trying to comply with my standards (something they could accomplish occasionally but never all the time). This meant that I was almost always in a triggered state. I would think “Why won’t she do what I want her to do?” And then I’d behave badly trying to make her do what I wanted.
The victims of manipulative people get so used to this type of behavior that they actually start to believe that they are bad, inferior, or even stupid because they get convinced they can’t do anything right. And the longer the manipulation goes on the harder it is to convince themselves otherwise. It’s like living with an overbearing, intolerant parent that criticizes everything you do. You can’t even pour yourself a glass of water the “right” way because you get criticized for your technique. All of your behavior gets judged and micromanaged to the point where you are miserable.
The biggest problem for the partner of a manipulator is that they don’t know exactly why they feel bad or how the manipulator does what they do. Manipulators are extremely adept at word-craft and they know exactly what to say to instill in their partner guilt, shame, and anxiety. They know how to put their victim into a weaker state so that the manipulator will appear to be the strong, smart one that the victim can look up to for the answers.
A manipulator’s goal is to show you the right way to behave so that you become ideal to them. If they prefer blondes and you’re a redhead, you may eventually become blonde in the hope to get their attention or love. Many victims usually don’t know why they feel bad because they don’t even know they are being manipulated. To top it off, manipulators often appear as kind and generous to the outside world. They treat everyone else with respect and appear genuinely nice. So even if you tell your friends about the manipulation, your friends may say things like, “What? I don’t see that at all! He does that? I don’t believe you.”
The manipulator wins when all your friends believe you are crazy and see your partner as the one who has to deal with your craziness. Your friends and family don’t live with your manipulator so they don’t witness the subtle bad behavior they do behind closed doors. If you live with a manipulator you probably know what I mean. You may not know how they are manipulating you, you just know that you often feel guilty or upset at the end of many conversations with them.
Why? Because you listen to the manipulator when they talk. You actually believe what they’re saying because you want to believe that they still love you and that you’re important to them. They’ve put you down so much that you get more sucked into their words hoping for praise and proof that you are worthy. You hold on to the manipulative relationship longer than it is healthy because you know soon they will lift you up and tell you what you want to hear. Unfortunately, love, kindness, and understanding are often followed up with a comment about something you’re doing bad or wrong. It may be immediate or in a few days but it can almost always be counted on.
Manipulators are actually very good at telling you what you want to hear. They are brilliant at knowing what to say to engage you emotionally by mixing caring, kindness, and looking out for your best interest with criticism and blame.
They might even tell you that they know they have a problem and need help (validating your concerns, making you feel understood) but they do it with the intention to make you feel invalidated and worthless. It’s a clever and complex formula that reels you in, chews you up, spits you out, then keeps you crawling back to them in hopes they will see the worth in you.
Often, and unfortunately, the only way you can feel worthy and loved is by seeking those things from the very person taking them away from you.
Would you like to learn just how you might be being manipulated? I’ll take you behind the scenes of manipulative communication.
A Break Down of a Manipulative Language
A manipulative person is an absolute wizard at using words to carry out their deeds. Almost always, language is their primary tool. The good news about that is that brings us much closer to realizing when there’s a manipulation taking place. The bad news is they’ll draw you in so easily with their wordplay that you’ll likely get manipulated anyway.
Let’s break down what a manipulator might say and see if we can figure out why we get duped time and time again.
Words of a manipulator:
“I realize I hurt you, and for that, I’m so sorry. I never want to hurt you. I now know I have something to work on in myself. But please understand that when you cry and say things about me, I’m going to naturally defend myself.
“I know you feel bad but the reason you feel bad is because you think I’m doing things that are against you when that is so far from the truth. I do things to protect you, to protect us, because I want us to live a happy life.
“I want you to be happy, that’s all I ever want. I understand that you are in pain, but I’ve been in pain a long time too. I’m just trying to figure out what you want me to do.”
You may or may not see it but this is a very selfish, conniving, and manipulative statement. Consider this a tiny snippet of a longer, drawn-out dialogue by a manipulative person. Some will talk endlessly, forcing you to listen until they know they’ve successfully achieved their objective with you. By the time they’re done speaking (unless you are observant and aware of what they’re doing) you’ll likely fall into subservience.
Let’s break this down line by line and extract some possible deceptions.
A breakdown of manipulative communication
“I realize I hurt you, and for that, I’m so sorry”
Many manipulators know the drill: Understand your pain first and foremost, then tell you what you want to hear.
When you feel like someone understands your pain, you allow your guard to come down just a little so that you’ll be open to the next thing out that comes out of their mouth.
“I never want to hurt you.”
It’s very common for manipulators to make a sweeping statement like this. “I never” and “I always” are two examples of sweeping statements, but there are more of course.
This particular comment may actually be true. They may not want to hurt you. But look out for the “but” coming up shortly.
“I now know I have something to work on in myself”
This is an excellent placating statement. It’s even more of what you want to hear (they love telling you what you want to hear – it activates your vulnerability).
When they see you acknowledging and appreciating their comments, it gives them a foot even further in the door for more “discussion”. When a manipulative person admits they have work to do on themselves, it may sound like a step forward but it’s usually only a delay tactic that buys them more time to keep manipulating.
“But please understand that when you cry and say things about me”
There’s that “but” I mentioned. The but negates the previous statement “I never want to hurt you” before it. You may not catch it consciously.
This but was placed farther into their comment making it appear to be connected to something else. There’s also the mix of hope and shame the manipulator is trying to instill in you. They admit they are working on themselves giving you hope that they really are changing, but you should feel shame for crying.
This one sentence is a subtle form of invalidation. What you really hear at the subconscious level is, “you are insignificant”.
The manipulator is shaming you for expressing yourself and blaming you for crying. And this is only a tiny component of their master plan.
“I’m going to naturally defend myself”
Here the manipulator is turning it around and making the situation about themselves. In other words, ‘You should feel sorry for me.’
This further works at breaking down your walls making you think you did something wrong. It’s a subtle disintegration of your sanity and emotional stability.
“I know you feel bad”
A cleverly placed, yet very artificial, validation to make you think they are being empathetic. If you accept the validation as true, you may feel like you can become vulnerable again.
“…but the reason you feel bad is because you think I’m doing things that are against you when that is so far from the truth”
This is deceptively brilliant wordplay. They are telling you the reasons you feel bad even though they really have no idea what you’re thinking. You have your own reasons, but can be brainwashed into believing what they say you’re thinking and feeling.
Your real reasons will likely be invalidated anyway, but it’s important you catch this tactic when it happens. It’s this kind of manipulation that starts to cause you to distrust yourself.
By telling you what your reasons are, the manipulator can get past your defenses and practically control your thoughts. They are causing you to bypass your own reasoning. You may even begin to lose your free will at this point as thoughts are now planted directly into your subconscious mind.
“I do things to protect you, to protect us, because I want us to live a happy life”
It’s all about how they are doing something wonderful for the both of you, subtly implying that you are destroying the relationship.
At the same time, they’re telling you exactly what you want to hear: “I want us to live a happy life,” so that your defenses stay down just long enough to get some more programming in.
“I want you to be happy, that’s all I ever want”
This may actually be true, as long as you are happy within the confines of their control.
“I understand that you are in pain”
More artificial validation making you feel like they care and understand. At the same time, it’s causing you to doubt yourself for thinking they were doing something insidious.
Manipulators are notorious for knowing how to make you lose trust in your own thoughts and decisions which is why their victims often stick around long after it’s healthy to do so. After all, at least they (the victim) is with someone who “understands” them.
A manipulator will often drill into you that they understand and love you more than anyone ever will. Be careful not to think that you are not worthy of anyone else’s love or that you don’t deserve better treatment. These are almost always false thoughts implanted by a manipulative person.
“…but I’ve been in pain a long time too.”
Another “but” This but invalidates their last artificial validation. This back and forth of validating and invalidating is a component of crazy-making (aka gaslighting). The manipulative person causes you to feel good and bad at the same time. It can get to the point where you aren’t sure what you feel so you rely on the manipulator to guide you to what you should feel.
“I’m just trying to figure out what you want me to do.”
In other words, ‘it’s all your fault! If you could only be clear about what you want me to do, I’d do it. If you tell me exactly what I’m doing wrong, I’ll stop doing it.’
This is something the victim of manipulation will never be able to do. The manipulator has practiced how to talk this way their entire life. They’ve learned to put you in impossible positions to make you feel almost completely useless without them there to guide you. You’d have just as much luck telling them what they need to do like you would telling a scientist how to split an atom when you’ve never looked through a microscope.
You can’t tell someone what they’re doing to you when they’ve got your brain twisted from what they’re doing to you.
What to do when they try to manipulate you
If you have to deal with a manipulative person, the best thing you can do is to listen closely or don’t listen at all.
Listen closer when you want to hear the moment they invalidate you, make you feel bad about your behavior, and/or tell you how to think.
Or don’t listen at all so you don’t get engaged in their story because words are their specialty and you can’t win against someone who’s been practicing their craft for years.
The best piece of advice I can give you when it comes to dealing with manipulators is to stop listening for what you want to hear from them. Almost all of us want to hear that someone loves and supports us and that they have our best interests in mind. But manipulators know you want to hear those things so they’ll mix kind words in with all the other poisonous stuff I mentioned in this article.
It’s a toxic emotional soup.
If you really want to get through a conversation with a manipulative person, focus on yourself.
Ask yourself the question, “Does this feel right to me?” And if it doesn’t, you may need to make the hard choice of getting out of that relationship.
If you feel bad more often than you feel good and you can’t figure out why, you might be in a manipulative relationship. And if you’ve been in that type of relationship for a long time, you are likely jaded and worn down to the point where you can’t trust your own thoughts anymore. This is good to notice about yourself because self-mistrust is a huge red flag that you’ve been programmed by a manipulator. It doesn’t mean that they are a manipulator, they might just have tendencies.
But there are some very clever communicators out there so you need to be aware. Stay in tune with your feelings so that you can pick up the moment you start being manipulated. Their words will almost always sound right when you hear them talk, but they just won’t feel right.
In almost every conversation you have with someone you suspect is a manipulator, ask yourself, “Does this feel right to me?” When the answer is ‘no’, trust that answer. This is the first step into realization that maybe you aren’t losing your mind and that you may actually be being manipulated.
Tune into the Love and Abuse podcast to learn all about manipulation and emotional abuse.