28th October 2016
Manipulative people have mastered the art of deception. They may appear respectable and sincere but often that’s just a facade; it's a way to draw you in and ensnare you in a relationship before they show their true colors.
Manipulative people are really not interested in you except as a vehicle to allow them to gain control so that you become an unwilling participant in their plans. They have several ways of doing this, as many of you will recognize. They will often take what you say and do and twist it around so that what you said and did becomes barely recognizable to you. They will attempt to confuse you, maybe even making you feel as if you’re crazy. They distort the truth, and may resort to lying if it serves their end.
Manipulative people can play the victim, making you seem to be the one who caused a problem which they began but won’t take responsibility for. They can be passive aggressive or nice one minute and standoffish the next, to keep you guessing and to prey on your fears and insecurities. They often make you defensive. They can also be extremely aggressive and vicious, resorting to personal attacks and criticism, dogged in their pursuit of getting what they want. They bully and threaten, and won’t let up or let go until they wear you down.
Following are nine traits of manipulative people, so you'll know what to watch for when one comes your way. Understanding these basic operating mechanisms can help prevent you from getting pulled into a manipulative relationship. Staying alert, staying in touch with what you know to be true about yourself, and anticipating what is to come will enable you to avoid a conflict and maintain your own integrity.
1. Manipulative people either lack insight into how they engage others and create certain scenarios, or they truly believe that their way of handling a situation is the only way because it means that their needs are being met, and that's all that matters. Ultimately, all situations and relationships are about them, and what others think, feel, and want really doesn’t matter:
“Controllers, abusers, and manipulative people don’t question themselves. They don’t ask themselves if the problem is them. They always say the problem is someone else.” —Darlene Ouimet
2. Manipulative people do not understand the concept of boundaries. They are relentless in the pursuit of what they want and have little regard for who gets hurt along the way.
Crowding into your space—physically, emotionally, psychologically, or spiritually—is of no concern to them. They lack understanding about what personal space and identity mean, or just don't care. They can be likened to a parasite—in the natural world this is often an acceptable relationship. In human behavior, however, feeding off of someone at their expense is depleting, exhausting, weakening, and demeaning.
3. A manipulator avoids responsibilities for his own conduct by blaming others for causing it. It’s not that manipulative people don’t understand responsibility is. They do; a manipulative person just sees nothing wrong with refusing to take responsibility for their actions, even while making you take responsibility for yours. Ultimately they may try to get you to take responsibility for satisfying their needs, leaving no room for fulfilling yours.
4. They prey on your best qualities. Manipulative people prey on our sensibilities, emotional sensitivity, and especially conscientiousness. They know they have a good chance of hooking you into a relationship because you are a kind, feeling, caring person, and, of course, because you want to help. They may cater to your goodness and kindness at first, often praising you for the wonderful person you are. But over time, praise of these qualities will be minimized because you are being used in the service of someone who really doesn’t care about you. They really just care about what you can do for them.
5. If you want an easy way to discern manipulators from empathetic people, pay attention to the way they speak about others in relation to you. They will often talk about you behind your back the same way they talk to you about others. They are masters at “triangulation"—creating scenarios and dynamics that allow for intrigue, rivalry, and jealousy, and encourage and promote disharmony.
6. Never waste your time trying to explain who you are to people who are committed to misunderstanding you. If someone doesn’t get you, don’t hang around waiting until they do. Don’t make it your mission to get them to understand and like you—they’re not interested in you as a person.
7. Characterize people by their actions and you will never be fooled by their words. Always remember that what a person says and does are two very separate things. Observe someone closely, without making excuses for them—usually what you see is what you get.
8. If the individual put as much effort into being a good person as they do into pretending to be one, they could actually be a good person.
This is an essential point: Our initial encounter and perception of someone strongly colors our developing relationship with them. If we understood from the beginning that a person is not who they seem to be, and is just hiding behind a facade of what appears to be socially acceptable behavior, then perhaps we would be more wary of getting involved with them.
9. Regularly examine what you believe. We don’t do this enough. As life progresses, our beliefs and attitudes may change, and we need to know how these changing ideas affect us. When we are not sure what we believe, it’s all too easy to allow someone else who is sure that their beliefs are right—not only for them but for you as well—to attempt to manipulate your thinking:
“When it comes to controlling human beings there is no better instrument than lies. Because, you see, humans live by beliefs. And beliefs can be manipulated. The power to manipulate beliefs is the only thing that counts.” — Michael Ende
Abigail Brenner, M.D., is a psychiatrist in private practice. She is the author of Transitions: How Women Embrace Change and Celebrate Life and other books.
© Psychology Today 2017