The purpose of emotions is to motivate us to take action. Therefore, you can use emotions if you want to make someone do something. Nothing drives human action like emotion.
Emotional manipulation means using emotions to make someone do something that is not in their best interests but in the best interests of the manipulator.
There’s a fine line between manipulation and influence. Influence means persuading someone to enter a win-win deal with you. Manipulation is always win-lose. The manipulator wins, and the victim loses.
Manipulation is always intentional. There’s intent to harm. It can’t be called manipulation if there’s no intent to harm.
Having said that, many times, a person may be unaware they’re harming others. While you may feel manipulated, they had no intention to harm you. In such cases, open and honest communication can go a long way in resolving the conflict.
The goal of emotional manipulation
The goal of emotional manipulation is compliance. The manipulator wants the victim to comply with their wishes. They have no regard for the wishes of the victim. They incur enormous costs for the victim.
Compliance is a natural consequence of a dominant-submissive relationship. The dominant party makes the submissive party comply through the use of:
- Self-esteem attacks
Almost all the emotional manipulation tactics you’ll find in the subsequent section deploy one or more of the above strategies.
Complete list of emotional manipulation tactics
Here’s an exhaustive list of emotional manipulation tactics in no particular order:
Gaslighting means making the victim question their subjective reality and sanity. It consists of denying or minimizing the victim’s thoughts, feelings, and experiences.
If the victim accuses the manipulator of manipulation, the latter says things like:
“That never happened.”
“You’re making things up.”
Denying the victim’s reality helps the manipulator impose their version of reality. It causes deep confusion and frustration in the victim, making them over-rely on the manipulator’s version of reality.
2. Playing the victim
Playing the victim helps the manipulator shift attention from the victim’s actual suffering to their own imagined suffering. If no attention is given to their manipulation, it’s unlikely their manipulation will get addressed. This way, they can continue the manipulation unquestioned.
3. Social isolation
Abusers and manipulators are known to isolate their victims socially. This is because friends and family can quickly raise the alarm when they spot something wrong with the relationship.
By socially isolating their victims, manipulators can carry out their manipulation conveniently.
4. Downplaying concerns
As you’ve seen, manipulators don’t like their manipulation questioned. They can go to extreme lengths to deny their manipulation.
If the victim expresses concern over their behavior, the manipulator downplays those concerns.
In a healthy relationship, people are willing to address the concerns of others.
To downplay legitimate concerns, a manipulator might say something like:
“It’s not that big a deal.”
5. Humiliation and bullying
Humiliation and bullying are self-esteem attacks designed to make victims think low of themselves. When a person is made to think low of themselves, they’re put in a submissive position. When someone is placed in a submissive position, they’re likely to comply.
Love-bombing is the starting phase of many abusive relationships. The manipulator, usually a narcissist, bombards their partner with love, attention, gifts, and compliments.
Once they’ve reeled their partner in with ego-stroking, the manipulator starts the abuse. A relationship moving too fast can be a sign of love bombing.
Projection means projecting one’s subjective experiences onto another person. Projection helps a person not deal with what’s bad in them directly. Instead, they deal with it indirectly by using the other person as a projector screen of sorts.
A manipulator may feel guilty about what they’re doing. Instead of dealing with their own guilt, they may project it onto the victim, saying things like:
“You’re manipulating me.” (Trying to make the victim feel guilty)
The same thing can happen with other negative feelings like jealousy (“You’re being jealous.”) and blaming (“You’re responsible for this.”).
8. Boundary violations
Manipulators are constantly pushing their victims’ boundaries. They want to know what they can and cannot get away with. This helps them manipulate more efficiently and prevent backlash.
If the victim doesn’t assertively maintain their boundaries, they’ll see them getting violated one by one.
9. Magnifying and minimizing
The manipulator magnifies the mistakes of their victim while minimizing their own. These are self-esteem attacks that make the victim feel like a failure.
Of course, there’s nothing wrong with pointing out mistakes so you can learn from them. But an emotional manipulator blows those mistakes out of proportion. Their reaction to those mistakes is overblown.
The manipulator discourages any attempts by the victim to build their own self-esteem. This means blocking their success, self-improvement, and personal growth. The manipulator does their best to keep their victim “under” them.
Besides minimization, denial, and dismissing, the manipulator can use deflection to shift attention from their manipulation. If the victim brings up the subject of manipulation, the manipulator will change the subject and say something unrelated like:
“It’s so hot today.”
12. Guilt tripping
Guilt is a powerful human emotion and a self-esteem destroyer. By making their victims feel guilty for minor things, manipulators are more likely to gain compliance.
Shaming can be much more potent than guilt-tripping because the former attacks a person’s identity. Shaming is the worst self-esteem attack there is. When a manipulator shames their victim publicly, they have them under their thumb.
Besides discouraging, a manipulator may restrict their victim’s success and self-growth. These restrictions are inappropriate and stem out of insecurities rather than concern.
Objectification means treating a person like an object devoid of feelings, thoughts, or personality. It’s a form of dehumanization that is degrading to the victim.
Another self-esteem attack, infantilization means treating an adult like a baby. The idea is to make the victim feel small and powerless, like a baby. Infantilization behaviors range from making comments like “Don’t be such a baby!” to offering help for simple things a person can do themselves.
17. Passive aggression
Often a manipulator has to keep their manipulation covert. Because if they’re overt, they can get caught. Passive aggression is covert aggression, where damage is done to the victim under the radar.
Examples of passive aggression include behaviors like:
- Agreeing to do something but not doing it
- Deliberate forgetting
Judging and criticizing are common tactics manipulators use to lower their victims’ self-esteem. When done in public, they’re tantamount to shaming.
Ultimatums are threats used by the manipulator to make the victim comply. These are usually in the form of:
“If you don’t do X, I will [insert something threatening].”
20. Reinforcements and punishments
Reinforcements and punishments are used in healthy relationships to influence one another. But they can also be used to manipulate.
If you upset your partner and they don’t talk to you, it’s healthy punishment. They’re withdrawing connection to let you know they’re cross with you.
But if they withdraw connection to make you do unreasonable things, that’s manipulation. If they only treat you well (positive reinforcement), when you meet their unreasonable demands, that’s manipulation.
Triangulation means involving a third party in a dispute between two people. The manipulator may personally know this third person they’re involving. They know this third person will take their side. It’s a way to corner the victim and show them they’re wrong using social proof.
22. Credit and debt inflation
Reciprocity is the basis of all human relationships. The “I’ll scratch your back if you scratch mine” mentality has helped our species thrive for eons.
Reciprocity is about an equal and fair exchange. When you give someone X, you expect them to give you X back. Not X/2 or X/4. If there’s an imbalance in reciprocity, the relationship breaks down.
Credit inflation is a manipulative technique used to create a perception of reciprocity where there is none. It means inflating what you’ve done for the victim so they feel obliged to give you more than they’re willing to give (win-lose).
A credit-inflating person will say something like:
“I’ve done so much for you.” (“You should do more for me too.”)
Credit inflation leads to debt inflation. The manipulator leads you to believe you owe them much more than you actually do.
23. Preying on insecurities
A big challenge of every close relationship is trust. The more vulnerable you are, the more trust can develop in a relationship. But the more you trust someone, the more you give them the power to break that trust.
When you don’t trust anyone, there’s no trust to break. You may save yourself from deception, but you’ll also throw away the intimacy baby with the trust bathwater.
A primary tactic of the manipulator is to make their victim trust them and get close to them. This way, the manipulator gains access to the victim’s insecurities and weaknesses that they can then prey upon.
Hi, I’m Hanan Parvez (MBA, MA Psychology), founder and author of PsychMechanics. PsychMechanics has been featured in Forbes, Business Insider, Reader’s Digest, and Entrepreneur. Feel free to contact me if you have a query.