Emotional Manipulation

Think of some of the hallmarks of healthy relationships—communication, understanding, vulnerability, and trust are probably on the list. And this doesn’t only apply to romantic relationships but friendships, family, and workplace interactions.

Emotional manipulation preys on these traits and turns them onto their heads. A manipulative person, intentionally or unintentionally, uses another person’s emotions and empathetic tendencies to get what they want.

Being a victim of emotional abuse can cause trauma that you carry with you. But you can break free from it as soon as you recognize it.

What Does Emotional Manipulation Do?

Emotional manipulation occurs when one person controls another person’s emotions to achieve their goal. Our emotions and feelings are fundamental in our interpersonal interactions and our maintenance of relationships. 

When we involuntarily remove any aspect of our autonomy, that’s abusive. Emotional manipulation can make it seem like we still have this emotional autonomy, but someone else is behind the reins. 

To the Victim

Emotional manipulation is one aspect of emotional abuse. It can cause a person to question what they believe or feel is wrong. It can give them a warped sense of what a relationship is supposed to look like. 

Manipulation can make you feel like you’re constantly doing the wrong thing or making the wrong choice. Sometimes, you might not feel like you’re showing the right emotion or doing enough to “serve” the other person. Being constantly manipulated can set off episodes of anxiety and depression.

Your feelings are valid and should never be used as bait or held against you. 

For the Manipulator

Why do manipulators do it? The answer is: control. It might be for just that moment or the entirety of the relationship, but in the end, they want to feel like they have a leg up. 

Some have guessed the intention behind manipulation is due to previous emotional abuse. If people haven’t been able to open up about their feelings safely, they will often try sneakier ways to do so. 

People can be manipulative without knowing they are due to trauma or mental health disorders like addiction, anxiety, or depression. However, even without ill intent, it’s still manipulation.

Emotional Manipulation Tactics

Some signs or tactics of emotional manipulation might be more subtle than others, and an emotionally manipulative person might not use each tactic. Some easily identifiable tactics look like bullying, including:

  • Criticism
  • Public humiliation
  • Passive aggression

However, it would help to look for common signs of covert manipulation, such as gaslighting, withdrawal, or love-bombing. 


It seems to be an internet buzzword, but it’s a real phenomenon. Gaslighting makes another person question their reality—whether it’s something they feel, think, see, or experience.

Some signs of gaslighting include:

  • Countering—Claiming something didn’t happen. 

“That’s not how it happened. You made that up. You’re crazy.”

  • Trivializing—Telling you that you’re wrong to feel like you do.

“You’re completely overreacting. It wasn’t a big deal.”

  • Withholding—Denying that anything is wrong or worth talking about

“It’s not important. Drop it.”

  • Diverting—Drawing attention away from the problem with an attack

“What about you? What about that time ....”

  • Discrediting—Lying to others to make you seem less trustworthy

“She makes up stories all the time. You can’t tell when she’s telling the truth.”

Gaslighting is one of the most common tactics of emotional manipulation.


You’ve probably done this or been a victim of it. It’s the silent treatment. Rather than discussing with someone what troubles them, they punish you by not speaking. In turn, you do everything you can to win back their favor because silence is a statement.

Withdrawal can also seem like withholding affection or not doing chores or favors.


If an abuser feels their target slipping away, they’ll do what they can to return to them. It often includes a grandiose display of affection and favors called love-bombing. 

Love bombing involves apologies, gifts, and over-the-top affection. They’ll start doing the things that you’ve always wanted from them. However, love bombing never lasts for long and is only done to manipulate a person into sticking around.

Martyrdom and Guilt-Tripping

A manipulative person will try to act like a martyr to make you feel like you’re asking for too much.

“I’ve done so much for you, and this is how you act?”

They might talk about how much they’ve suffered and how little you have compared to them. In turn, they might take this suffering to guilt you into doing something for them.

Most people utilize this tactic without even knowing it. We want to feel cared for, but we also want others to notice. Have you ever mentioned a problem without any follow-up in hopes that someone will ask you? That, unfortunately, is manipulative behavior.

How to Deal With Emotional Manipulation

If you’ve noticed that these sound like you might be a victim of manipulation, there are ways to deal with it.

Put Up Firm Boundaries

You’re allowed to tell someone what you won’t tolerate.

“If you speak to me like that again, I’m leaving.”

“I will end this friendship if you lie to me.”

Acknowledge That They’re Being Manipulative

Let them know that you see what they’re doing without attacking them. 

“You’re right, you have done a lot for me, but I told you I’m busy that day and can’t help.”

“No, I did bring this up to you before. We could look through our texts to see for certain.”

How to Stop Being Manipulative

Emotional manipulation is harmful, even if we don’t know we’re doing it. It doesn’t feel good to think you’ve hurt those you care for. Luckily, manipulation is a habit that you can break. 

Improve Your Self-Esteem

We might try to control others because we feel we lack control. You might manipulate others to make them love or think better of you.

Remember that internal validation is more important than external. Work on your feelings towards yourself before worrying about how others perceive you. You might find that others are drawn to you when you have higher self-esteem.

Remember, “No” Means “No”

You're allowed to be open and ask for things from others. Know that you might not get the outcome you want, but it’s up to you to handle your feelings.

Work On Being More Vulnerable

We subconsciously manipulate people because we feel we can’t be direct about our needs. People aren’t mind readers. You can gain more trust in your relationships by being honest about your feelings and how the other person’s actions impact you.

Break Free Of Emotional Manipulation at Sequoia

Emotional manipulation doesn’t exist in a bubble. It is often the result of trauma or abuse and can lead to more trauma and abuse for both the manipulator and the victim. It’s often a by-product of mental health and behavioral disorders.

If you want to break free of the things that make you emotionally manipulative, reach out to Sequoia Behavioral Health today. We’re an inpatient treatment facility that can set you on the road to a brighter life for you and your loved ones. Call us today.