If you’ve ever felt like something is off in a close relationship or casual encounter—you’re being pressured, controlled or even feel like you’re questioning yourself more than usual—it could be manipulation.
“Manipulation is an emotionally unhealthy psychological strategy used by people who are incapable of asking for what they want and need in a direct way,” says Sharie Stines, a California-based therapist who specializes in abuse and toxic relationships. “People who are trying to manipulate others are trying to control others.”
There are many different forms of manipulation, ranging from a pushy salesperson to an emotionally abusive partner—and some behaviors are easier to spot than others.
Here, experts explain the telltale signs that you could be the subject of manipulation.
You feel fear, obligation and guilt
Manipulative behavior involves three factors, according to Stines: fear, obligation and guilt. “When you are being manipulated by someone you are being psychologically coerced into doing something you probably don’t really want to do,” she says. You might feel scared to do it, obligated to do it, or guilty about not doing it.
She points to two common manipulators: “the bully” and “the victim.” A bully makes you feel fearful and might use aggression, threats and intimidation to control you, she says. The victim engenders a feeling of guilt in their target. “The victim usually acts hurt,” Stine says. But while manipulators often play the victim, the reality is that they are the ones who have caused the problem, she adds.
A person who is targeted by manipulators who play the victim often try to help the manipulator in order to stop feeling guilty, Stines says. Targets of this kind of manipulation often feel responsible for helping the victim by doing whatever they can to stop their suffering.
You’re questioning yourself
The term “gaslighting” is often used to identify manipulation that gets people to question themselves, their reality, memory or thoughts. A manipulative person might twist what you say and make it about them, hijack the conversation or make you feel like you’ve done something wrong when you’re not quite sure you have, according to Stines.
If you’re being gaslighted, you might feel a false sense of guilt or defensiveness—like you failed completely or must have done something wrong when, in reality, that’s not the case, according to Stines.
“Manipulators blame,” she says. “They don’t take responsibility.”
There are strings attached
“If a favor is not done for you just because, then it isn’t ‘for fun and for free,’” says Stines. “If there are strings attached, then manipulation is occurring.”
Stines refers to one type of manipulator as ‘Mr. Nice Guy.’ This person might be helpful and do a lot of favors for other people. “It is very confusing because you don’t realize anything negative is going on,” she says. “But, on the other hand, with every good deed, there is a string attached—an expectation.” If you don’t meet the manipulator’s expectation, you will be made out to be ungrateful, Stines says.
In fact, exploiting the norms and expectations of reciprocity is one of the most common forms of manipulation, says Jay Olson, a doctoral researcher studying manipulation at McGill University.
A salesperson, for example, might make it seem like because he or she gave you a deal, you should buy the product. In a relationship, a partner might buy you flowers then request something in return. “These tactics work because they abuse social norms,” says Olson. “It’s normal to reciprocate favors, but even when someone does one insincerely, we often still feel compelled to reciprocate and comply.”
You notice the ‘foot-in-the-door’ and ‘door-in-the-face’ techniques
Often, manipulators try one of two tactics, says Olson. The first is the foot-in-the-door technique, in which someone starts with a small and reasonable request—like, do you have the time?—which then leads into a larger request—like I need $10 for a taxi. “This is commonly used in street scams,” Olson says.
The door-in-the-face technique is the opposite—it involves someone making a big request, having it rejected, then making a smaller one, Olson explains.
Someone doing contract work, for example, may ask you for a large sum of money up front, and then after you decline, will ask for a smaller amount, he says. This works because, following the larger request, the smaller appeal seems reasonable comparatively, Olson says.
What to do if you think you’re being manipulated
How you react to manipulation depends in large part on what kind of manipulation you’re facing.
If you think you or someone you know is in a manipulative or even abusive relationship, experts suggest seeking treatment from a therapist or help from organizations like the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1−800−799−7233. A good support group can help, too, says Stines. “People in toxic relationships need to hear counterpoints somewhere. They are conditioned to think the interactions are normal. Someone needs to help them break out of that assumption.”
For other forms of manipulation, Stines suggests trying to not allow the manipulative behavior to affect you personally. “Use the motto, ‘Observe don’t absorb,’” she notes. After all: “We aren’t responsible for anyone else’s feelings.”
Often, establishing boundaries can play an important role in keeping manipulation at bay. “People who manipulate have lousy boundaries,” Stines says. “You have your own volitional experience as a human being and you need to know where you end and the other person begins. Manipulators often have either boundaries that are too rigid or enmeshed boundaries.”
In a manipulative situation, it can also help to delay your response, according to Olson. For example, refrain from signing a contract at first glance, don’t make a large purchase without thinking it through and avoid making major relationship decisions the first time they’re brought up, he suggests. “’Sleeping on it’” is often the best solution to avoid being manipulated,” Olson adds.