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5 Signs You’re Being Manipulated

DSC02352“Manipulative” is a dirty label assigned to clients. I’ve heard it from bosses and colleagues, read it on charts. However it’s also a very real thing many of us have experienced in our workplaces, classrooms, friendships and dating lives. And since it can be a difficult to recognize this red flag in the beginning of an abusive relationship, I think it’s worth describing on a trauma blog. After all, many people don’t recognize they’re in an abusive relationship until it’s too late and it’s difficult to get out for emotional, economic or logistical reasons. So if you see these happening, take note.

They won’t take “no” for an answer
When this person hears “no”, they hear “time to brush up on my argument skills!”

They use guilt trips
Otherwise known as emotional blackmail, they constantly remind you of how your boundary hurts them, and imply (or outright tell you) that this means that your decision is wrong

You always end up apologizing
If you’ve been in this kind of argument, you know it’s usually tricky to pinpoint what, exactly, went wrong. But take a look at an example:
Susie has a boyfriend who is really unreliable. There are many occasions he shows up hours late for a date, and has been unresponsive on his cellphone so she didn’t know where she was. When she expresses her frustration with the behavior he says, “yeah, you’re right, I’m the worst boyfriend ever. I shouldn’t even be in a relationship. You deserve to date someone better.” Susie always ends up apologizing.
Why did this happen? The next two signs are why.

There’s only space for their needs
When two people are boundary setting, planning looks like this: You need to be back by 1? I can’t leave til 11, so meet at 12
However, when one person gets their needs met by manipulating others, the monologue becomes: I don’t eat lunch til one. You said you wanted to see me, but I guess you didn’t really mean it.

They misinterpret what you say in the worst possible way
You’ll notice in the example of Susie, her boyfriend misinterpreted her complaints about her behavior into an indictment of his character. In the example above, the unheard speaker’s boundary setting means that they don’t want to see their friend. In virtually the only scientific article dedicated to the manipulative personality that I could find, the author refers to a “very fragile narcissism.” There are plenty of articles on PsychCentral about narcissism, and of course one of the key characteristics of a narcissist is their endless need for affirmation. Any constructive feedback is experienced as a threat, which is how the misinterpretation happens.

How to deal with this behavior? An important key is to recognize it. This helps you to refuse to be pulled down the rabbit hole. Remain firm in your boundary and keep the conversation focused on the topic—it’s okay to repeat yourself. Chances are if the boss, friend, coworker, or lover is consistently doing these 5 things, they probably aren’t going to change, since it’s likely the way they’ve learned to get their needs met. But if you have a choice to move on, or at least minimize how engaged you are in the behavior, hopefully the impact on you will also decrease.

5 Signs You’re Being Manipulated

Sara Staggs, LICSW, MPH

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APA Reference
Staggs, S. (2014). 5 Signs You’re Being Manipulated. Psych Central. Retrieved on August 3, 2020, from


Last updated: 10 Aug 2014
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