Bullying has no place in a healthy home or workplace. It often shows up in its less blatant, more passive-aggressive form in families and social and work situations. Psychologists call it emotional or psychological manipulation. By any name, it can cause serious harm to everyone involved.
Bullying, particularly among children, and its harmful effects on confidence, self-esteem and well being are well documented. It's usually easier to recognize than emotional manipulation. It warrants stating here that parents, and other responsible adults, must work with our children to empower them with the supports and tools they need to stay safe. If you're reading this and perhaps thinking that this doesn't pertain to you because you move through bully-free zones, you may want to double-check your filters just to make sure. Master manipulators excel at taking advantage of others. So, it isn’t always easy to tell when you’re on the receiving end of their tactics.
If you ever find yourself prey to an emotional manipulator, it’s important to remember the shame does not fall on you. Most manipulative individuals are hurt people, struggling with their own insecurities, doubts and problems. As one wisdom teacher puts it:
"Some people try to be tall by cutting off the heads of others." — Paramhansa Yogananda.
This, of course, does not excuse such behavior or make it acceptable. Emotional manipulation is not to be confused with influence, which has a constructive role in our relationships and interactions. Emotional manipulation, on the other hand, crosses the line of integrity into unsavory territory. Simply put, manipulation occurs when someone tries to change your behavior, thoughts and feelings through misleading or immoral actions. The first step toward stopping manipulators is learning to spot their common characteristics and the ways manipulation happens. Emotional manipulators are:
Shrewd and skilled at convincing you to give up something of yourself in order to serve their self-centered interests. At first, emotional manipulators may seem concerned, and even kind, as they gather information about you. However, this quickly changes to control.
The first step toward effectively stopping emotional manipulation is learning to spot it when it’s happening. Here are five telltale signs that someone is trying to manipulate you or others:
Denial of the truth. One of the most common ways individuals use emotional manipulation is to deny the truth. This one is a bright red flag. Emotional manipulators often make a promise or a statement but deny it later. They will pretend that the truth doesn’t exist, and might conveniently blame your faulty memory for it. It’s difficult to prove the truth without a recording, email, or other physical evidence. In some cases, the manipulator will try to fight the evidence by saying it’s fabricated. An emotional manipulator can make you feel as if it’s your fault you’re not remembering the previous conversation the same way. They may even try to make you feel guilty and ashamed, so you don’t pursue the subject anymore.
Use guilt. Emotional manipulators frequently use guilt to control others through passive-aggressive tactics. Since they have a knack for finding your weak spots, it’s easy for them to make you feel guilty. They often will pretend to be the victims so that you feel sorry for them. If you refuse to go along with the charade, they will accuse you of being insensitive and mean.
Use others to hurt you. They can, and often do, use other people as messengers or mediators to control you. Emotional manipulators will use these people to send you hurtful messages or to blame you for their issues. Many of us are familiar with the colloquial expression for this, which is getting “thrown under the bus.” By involving another person or other people, emotional manipulators are able to blame someone else for their being misinterpreted or misunderstood.
Anger and threats. They use their tempers to frighten and coerce people. Threats and angry outbursts are used to make the other person feel uncomfortable and upset. This doesn’t necessarily show up as violence — but it can, so be careful. Emotional manipulators also use anger to interrupt or shut down a conversation they don’t like. For example, the manipulator may have an emotional outburst to end the conversation or storm out of the room. Anger can escalate to physical violence, so it’s important to pay close attention to the situation and be prepared to seek help if necessary.
Belittling tactics. Passive-aggressive bullies may try to belittle you, so they can manipulate you more easily. They might criticize you and point out your flaws, sometimes framing it as a concern. The main goal of this tactic is to make you feel inferior, so you’re easier to control. Remember, manipulative and bullying behavior often stem from a sense of inferiority and inadequacy.
Now that you know the warning signs, here are five powerful techniques to arm yourself against emotional manipulators (and bullies):
Set boundaries and learn to say no. Decide what standards of behavior you expect of yourself and will accept from others. Next decide how to respond when others don’t respect your boundaries. Learning how to say “no” diplomatically but firmly is often effective and powerful communication tool. There are exceptions to every rule so it’s important to be aware of your environment, its risks and your safety. Standing in your own space and asserting your fundamental human rights include the right to set your own priorities. You also have the right to say no without feeling guilty.
Seek help. Remember, friends, loved ones and allies can help you. They can help you develop strategies to stop the bullying. Find a good friend or colleague with whom you can practice role playing exercises to help you stand up for yourself. Discuss what’s going on and seek trusted advice and guidance.
Sometimes the mere act of airing your fears and concerns can help fortify you to face your manipulator safely with firmness, compassion and diplomacy.
Walk away whenever possible. This may not be an option, particularly if your manipulator is in your home or office. However, many experts agree that removing yourself from the path and/or interactions with toxic individuals in general is the best course of action as much as physically possible.
Confront and push back safely. The most important thing to keep in mind about manipulators is like bullies they pick on those whom they perceive as weaker. So long as you remain passive and compliant, you make yourself a target. But remember many manipulators are cowards on the inside. When their targets begin to show backbone and stand up for their rights, the manipulator will often back down. This holds true in schoolyards, as well as in domestic and office environments.
One way to redirect your manipulator’s pressure away from you and turn the focus on them is learning to restate their unreasonable demand or solicitation as a question. This can help reveal if they have enough self-awareness to recognize the inequity of their own machinations. Examples of probing questions you might ask depending on the situation might include:
Develop and communicate confidence. A confident person is more difficult to bully and doesn’t make an easy target. Become more intentional about working on your confidence so you’re more prepared to deal with manipulators in whatever settings they may show up. Your words, actions, and body language can telegraph your self-confidence. Walk confidently, stand up straight, keep your head up, and remain calm. Practice speaking more confidently and expressing yourself without fear aloud with a friend. It may feel awkward at first, but these can be empowering activities.
Finally, on a compassionate note, studies show that many emotional manipulators (like bullies) have been victims themselves. This does not mean you should give them a pass. It’s simply a reminder that their behavior often has nothing to do with you. After you have made every reasonable effort to stop the manipulative pattern and perhaps even attempt to preserve the relationship and there is still no change, you need to let it go. Releasing toxic people, emotional manipulators included, from our lives with compassion — free of anger and resentment— is one of the greatest gifts you can make to yourself.