Emotional or psychological manipulation (also known as “mind-effing”) is defined as behavior that is intended to change the attitude or behavior of other people by using devious, deceptive or even abusive means.  If you’ve ever found yourself in a situation where someone does something to harm you and during the course of the discussion about what happened and you find yourself apologizing to THEM, you’ve been emotionally manipulated.  Or if you’ve had someone offer to help you, only to hem, haw, sigh and whine so much about it that you wish they never offered to help in the first place, you’ve been a victim of this psychological form of control.

An Emotional Manipulator (EM) will use a host of indirect and underhanded tactics to try and get you to do what they want.  A few examples are:

  • Lying (either directly or by omission)
  • Spinning the facts in an effort to change your perspective, such as omitting information, downplaying facts, or employing the “non-denial denial,”  an example of which is when you ask if they forgot to pay the car payment, they say “Don’t be ridiculous!”, effectively denying culpability without actually ever saying the words. 
  • Covert or overt intimidation:  Overt intimidation is using direct threats of punitive behavior as a way to get you to do what they want.  Covert intimidation is implied, indirect or subtle threats.
  • Guilt tripping:  Emotional manipulators are masters of the guilt trip. You might as well pack your bags before you say no to one of their requests, as they will have you feeling so bad about your decision that you’ll wish you were away on an actual trip-away from them, that is.
  • Projecting Blame/Playing the Victim:  An emotional manipulator will rarely, if ever, take responsibility for their behavior and choices.  They’re quick to scapegoat others and somehow always position themselves as the victim. 

I saw a good example of this sort of behavior when I watched Robert Zimmerman, Jr., brother of Trayvon Martin shooter George Zimmerman being interviewed on Piers Morgan.  This seemingly mild mannered man expertly used various manipulative tactics in his effort to somehow make his brother the victim in this horrific crime.  Robert tried to come across as if he had genuine concern for the suffering of the Martin family, but like all manipulators, his interest began and ended with his own agenda.  EMs are the classic wolves in sheep’s clothing, for they will not hesitate to cause you discomfort or harm if it will help them get their way.

To be clear: almost everyone engages in some form of manipulative behavior from time to time, but one can be defined as an emotional manipulator when it is the habitual way in which they interact with others.   Manipulation is not to be confused with persuasion.  Persuasion gives you the right to choose your own response to a specific situation.  In manipulation, there is only one “right” choice:  theirs.  And there will be hell to pay if you don’t choose it.

The people who are most susceptible to being manipulated are usually altruistic, conscientious, honest or naive people who may lack confidence in their decision making ability or self-confidence.  According to George James, a licensed marriage & family therapist, there are clear emotional cues that should alert you to the possibility that you’re being manipulated.  “People can sense when they are being manipulated when they notice they are feeling guilty or like they need to do something, even though they don’t want to.  In addition, you may feel as if you are walking on eggshells with your partner, feeling that if I don’t do what they want, there will be a negative consequence from your partner.”

Although we cannot change the way another person acts, we can change the way we respond to their behavior.  If you find that are consistently getting into situations in which you are being manipulated, you can minimize its effect by establishing stronger boundaries, which will in turn increase your self-confidence.  Setting boundaries is not manipulative (although some people will tell you when they are trying to manipulate you that it is).  Healthy boundary setting differs from manipulation because in setting boundaries, we let go of our attachment to the outcome.  Boundaries help us to protect ourselves and it is our right that we communicate directly to others when they are acting in ways that are not acceptable to us.  Ultimately, if you find that you aren’t able to redefine the way you relate with your partner, you may need to redefine the relationship itself, including but not limited to actually leaving it.

After all, contrary to what an emotional manipulator believes, the word “No.” is a complete sentence.

Sil Lai Abrams is EBONY.com’s Relationship Expert and the author of No More Drama: 9 Simple Steps to Transforming a Breakdown into a Breakthrough and a board member of the National Domestic Violence Hotline.  Follow her on Twitter: @sil_lai and connect with her on Facebook. Want Sil Lai’s advice? Email [email protected] to have your love questions answered in a future column!