Do you sometimes feel like you’re constantly controlling people, even when you don’t mean to? Whether it’s with your romantic partner, friends, or family members, manipulating others can be a destructive pattern.
Below are methods from experts on how to overcome your manipulative tendencies and develop healthier relationship habits.
Dr. Monica Vermani, C. Psych.
Licensed Clinical Psychologist, Dr. Vermani Balanced Wellbeing | Author, “A Deeper Wellness: Conquering Stress, Mood, Anxiety and Traumas”
If you find yourself in constant conflict with friends, or worse, if your circle of friends is dwindling before your eyes, or cherished friendships are fading away, this one’s for you.
At times, we may find ourselves in repeated patterns of losing friends or becoming embroiled in conflicts with others. When this is happening, it is important to reflect on and explore why our relationships have become mired in conflicts or seem to be fading or falling away.
Could the problem be you? The short answer to this one is: yes! If you are being manipulative, you could cause relationship conflicts and breakdowns.
Take note of patterns that continually show up in the dynamics of your relationships
When it comes to problematic patterns of manipulation, just like any problem, the first step to treatment and change is awareness! Pause and reflect. Make a note of patterns that continually show up in the dynamics of your relationships.
When you take the time to examine and process the conflicts and breakdowns of relationships in your life, you can begin to understand your part in the dynamics of the often painful conflicts and take steps to change.
Nobody likes to be manipulated. And nobody wants to be that person who selfishly inflicts their will on others, often at a great cost to their relationships.
Rarely do we set out to inflict hurt and harm on people we trust, admire, and respect. Yet we can at times try to get people to do as we want, with little or no regard for their feelings, time constraints, or desires.
Controlling—or attempting to control—others might involve making them:
- feel guilty or shameful
- twisting the truth
- withholding affection or resources
- blaming others
- denying your part in things
- failing to respect personal boundaries
- refusing to take “no” for an answer
- employing pressure tactics like guilt or unnecessary drama to get what you want
Manipulative behaviors are often symptoms of high stress or personality issues, like perfectionism, clinical mood, or anxiety disorders. It can also be learned and is often modeled from a parent or other family member.
Once you see it, manipulation is a pattern you can’t unsee. Once you become aware of the corrosive effect of manipulation on your relationships, you will want to take action to make changes in your life to address your underlying symptoms and improve the quality of your relationships.
Ask people to give you feedback
Don’t expect to change on your own. Sometimes, you need sounding boards, support, and other people to give you feedback. Engaging in therapy is a helpful way to work through underlying triggers and patterns of manipulation.
Anxiety and depression often cause manipulative behaviors, and attempting to control others is often an effort to control symptoms.
In therapy, you can identify underlying clinical disorders, explore the possible source of entrenched learned manipulative behaviors, and begin to create healthier, more compassionate, and positive ways of interacting with others.
Here are seven steps to help you start today to address patterns of manipulative behaviors in your life:
- Lower your standards. We often place impossible standards on ourselves and try to control others to meet unnecessarily high expectations. Compromise, delegate, and trust others and their abilities.
- Treat others as you would want others to treat you. Respect other peoples’ boundaries and differences.
- Listen and learn to accept the concerns of others when they’re feeling disrespected, controlled, or feel you’re acting with no regard for their boundaries.
- Learn to take no for an answer. Accept the fact that what someone wants for themselves may not align with want you want, need, or expect from them.
- Focus on self-care, self-love, and compassion for yourself. Bring in healthy habits like exercise to increase serotonin, hobbies, and interests to expand your own life and bring you joy.
- Accept that you can’t always have things your way. The two reasons we suffer in life are when we don’t accept people as they are, and we don’t accept situations as they are. Acceptance is a practice of compassion, and each one of us needs to master it.
- Engage in therapy to gain insight into the causes of your manipulative behaviors and how these behaviors cause conflict with people you love and learn healthier, more positive ways of interacting with others.
Neurolinguistic Programming Master Practitioner and Trainer, Cat Valentine Coaching
Recognize your manipulative behavior
We are all manipulative at some time in our lives, and it happens when we are driven by fear-based motivation. The first key to stopping is to recognize the behavior.
Very few people either recognize or acknowledge manipulative behavior. There is no such thing as a healthy relationship when manipulation is present – it doesn’t matter whether it is with a partner, family, friends, or colleagues.
There are three core fears and each generates its own manipulation techniques and ways to stop them.
- Fear of being judged, not being liked, being thrown out of the tribe can look like trying to avoid a dressing down by our boss; having a partner/ parent/ friend criticize us.
- People pleasing, being a martyr – a secret hope that all of this will pay off. Doing the jobs no one else wants to do; throwing yourself into someone else’s drama.
- Why does it fail? No respect for your own boundaries – others don’t respect you.
Ways to stop: Do it for you
Stop being manipulative by respecting your own boundaries and learning where to say ‘yes’ and ‘no’. When you stop abandoning yourself, all relationships become healthier.
- Fear of failure creates “the bully effect”. When you have more, you achieve more, and the more you will be happy. You will always be thinking about things like, “I need to be the top dog so that people respect me. If I bend people to my will – they will acknowledge my achievements, and I will be happy.”
- Comparing yourself to others, feeling the need to bring others down, keep them in their place. Superficial things take on monumental importance and you don’t take risks with your career or relationships. This insecurity can lead to accumulating possessions as trophies, using them as a disguise or suit of armor. This strategy always fails because there is no authentic you in these relationships, no authenticity or vulnerability.
Ways to stop: Build your worthiness quota
- Acknowledge your accomplishments without bragging;
- Acknowledge others’ achievements out loud;
- Embrace all success no matter where it’s from.
Rather than seeing life as a competition, start seeing it as a place where everyone can contribute their unique genius.
You don’t feel safe to be on your own or trust those around you. This can show up as procrastination and not making decisions. It’s really manipulative to wait for others to make the decisions that will affect you. Or it can show up as micromanaging and controlling as much as you can.
This strategy always fails because you can’t control other people or external events. Attempting to micromanage everything only leads to an increase in fear. Allowing other people to determine what happens in your life also leads to more fear.
Ways to stop: Accept that your choices impact you and your happiness
Stop the need to manipulate by accepting that your choices impact you and your happiness. If you are someone who refuses to make decisions, start small; when asked your opinion, give it; when asked to choose an option, choose one. If you are a micromanager, delegate. Successful people do the things that only they can do – and delegate the rest.
Licensed Mental Health Counselor | Registered Art Therapist, Better Help
Have the motivation to make the change
Of course, the first step to changing any behavior (including manipulation) is motivation to make the change. A manipulative person may start to realize that the nature of their relationships is quite surface-level.
This has to do with the other person’s ability to be open and honest within the relationship and both parties’ understanding of the intention behind actions/requests/behaviors within the dynamic.
Although manipulation can help get you what you want, often acting as a defense mechanism to avoid realizations about oneself, genuine emotional intimacy and depth cannot be achieved.
I state this as a fact. Why? Because emotionally intimate relationships are formed through the mutual intention to both receive and offer support, both offer and receive gratification and acceptance, etc.
When one party operates from a manipulative standpoint, they don’t share the same intentions. A manipulator’s intention will always be self-gratification and self-preservation.
I believe that a manipulator can conclude that protection is not as gratifying as acceptance and intimacy. Acceptance means that the other person can see the ‘ugly’ sides and continue to want to engage in a relationship (although they might have an interest in wanting to help you change those manipulative behaviors).
Ask what purpose the behavior is serving
Once the motivation to change is there, the second step is to ask what purpose the behavior is serving. Understanding why we do certain things is helpful because we can, more easily, replace the unhealthy behavior with something healthier that allows us to reach the same goal.
A fill-in-the-blank sentence can often be helpful because the reason for manipulative behavior is always about the manipulator, themselves. So, an ‘I’ statement should always be in use.
For example, “I manipulated my partner’s emotions because I…” should be the basic structure. “I wanted to cause my partner to feel sad because I was feeling sad and didn’t want to feel alone in that.”
Take note if your sentence structure involves a “they”. For instance: “I wanted to cause my partner to feel sad because they hurt me and caused me to feel sad.”
While this statement addresses the emotions present (hurt and sad), which is a step in the right direction, it doesn’t use “responsibility” language. It places the blame for the manipulative behavior on the other person. It’s not their fault that they got manipulated. A focus on oneself is the most crucial part of changing manipulative behavior.
John P. Carnesecchi, LCSW, CEAP
Founder and Clinical Director, Gateway to Solutions
Practice being empathetic, compassionate, and grateful to others and yourself
Manipulation, also known as gaslighting, is one of the same. Gaslighting is a word that is being more commonly used to replace manipulation. It means to “manipulate (someone) by psychological means into questioning their own sanity.”
How do you know if you are a manipulator or subjected to one? First, recognize the behavior. Here are a few tactics of manipulation:
- Blatantly lying
- Minimizing other people’s feelings
- Using compassion to confuse you
As you recognize behaviors, you will see they are holding you back from achieving your goals and living a healthy, balanced life. It comes with emotional maturity. You can work through each one to care for your emotional well-being and reconnect with damaged relationships.
So how do you fix manipulative behavior?
- Recognize it. Once you are mindful of your behavior, you can heal yourself for a better you.
- Practice the skill of mindfulness. It is intentionally living with awareness in the present moment without judging or rejecting the moment or without attachment.
- Work on your self-esteem. Often, those who manipulate have low regard for themselves. Praise yourself about your positive attributes and achievements. Speak positively to yourself daily, known as daily affirmations, and practice having a positive attitude.
- Accept your flaws. There is no need to be a perfectionist or always right. When you accept your flaws, turn them into a lesson and improve them.
- Accept people’s boundaries and personal space. Remember, it is not personal. Everyone needs to establish healthy boundaries in their lives.
- Learn to listen to others without criticism and judgment.
- Practice reducing anxiety. Sometimes, anxiety triggers a response to manipulate narcissistic traits. Meditation, yoga, and deep breathing exercise are helpful ways to calm yourself.
- Practice being empathetic, compassionate, and grateful to others and yourself in your daily life.
- Stop, think, then react.
- Seek out psychotherapy with a licensed mental health professional. Therapeutic modules used to reduce or stop these behaviors are dialectical behavior therapy (DBT) and behavioral therapy. Once you take the time to re-evaluate your emotional well-being, take charge and make a change for yourself.
Neuropsychologist and Owner, The Narcissistic Life
The first step toward avoiding being manipulative is recognizing how you have been manipulative. Once you have identified these behaviors, you can work towards understanding why you are acting in this way.
Ask a partner or a friend to help you identify manipulative traits
Patterns of manipulation will typically become habitual, and you may not even notice what you are doing while you are doing it. It isn’t easy to require the brain to avoid these habits, but it is also not impossible.
It can be helpful to ask a partner or a friend to help you identify when you are being manipulative.
Work on your self-esteem
Many people who manipulate others will have some form of insecurity, so it is important to practice self-love. Working on yourself can often positively affect how you treat other people.
Remind yourself that not everything can be in your control
Control is also something that often goes hand in hand with manipulation. You will need to learn to understand that not everything can be in your control at all times. You should try to remind yourself of this daily.
Silvi Saxena, MBA, MSW, LSW, CCTP, OSW-C
Licensed Social Worker | Certified Clinical Trauma Professional, Choosing Therapy
Understand the root cause why you are manipulating someone or a situation
To stop being manipulative means having enough self-awareness to understand that you are manipulating someone or a situation. It’s important to have this kind of self-awareness in general, and having it makes it easier to acknowledge when you may need to work on yourself.
Manipulation tactics usually come from places of insecurity and lack of healthy boundaries (and honoring other people’s boundaries.) So, understanding why you feel you need to manipulate a situation and digging deep to understand that root cause is essential.
Common reasons could include past trauma, a lack of closure, a history of interpersonal conflict, and being exposed to parental discord, to name a few.
When you begin to understand what that “why” is, you can start to work through that and learn that you don’t need to manipulate situations or people to get what you want. It also means working on communication and trusting that others will listen and hear you.
Hold yourself accountable to a standard that doesn’t involve manipulation
Once you can work through that, you can learn to see the ways in which things may feel manipulative so you can work to make more conscious decisions and actions. You have to want to hold yourself accountable to a standard that doesn’t involve manipulation and do the inner work.
Working with a therapist to help you dig deep and uncover hidden or subconscious areas for improvement can be a good way to heal.
Kire Stojkovski, M.D.
Medical Doctor, Farr Institute
Use positive and productive statements
A person who exploits others immorally or unethical then tries to control either their actions or situations is manipulative. This can be done by practicing falseness and selfish schemes to achieve it.
Manipulation is considered a bad behavior that needs to be stopped because it leads to mental health issues or failed relationships.
Fortunately, there are several ways in which a person can stop being manipulative. They include:
- Exercising – Performing exercise will help in improving your moods and stop you from becoming manipulative.
- Respecting others – This means accepting other people’s decisions even when the decisions made do not favor you in one way or another. Learn not to force issues on others. Be kind, be polite, and be thankful. Also, give them their personal space.
- Building up your self-esteem – People with low self-esteem are the ones found to manipulate others the most. There are ways in which you can improve your self-esteem. These ways include:
- Using positive and productive statements
- Avoiding criticizing yourself but instead learning to praise yourself in any of your achievements
- Groom yourself neatly by improving your personal hygiene. It could also boost your confidence.
- Paying attention to others and listening to their opinions -This will enable you to understand their feelings and know their decisions and choices on what they want.
CEO, Abundance No Limits
Look for positive company and self-healing
Manipulation is an exercise of giving or keeping people in a negative influence. It can also be called an act of controlling someone to take advantage of yourself. The means are generally dishonesty and distrustful.
Why do people manipulate? Strong people with clever minds tend to manipulate weak people for their benefit. These benefits may include some work-related, money, or some illegal dealings. The person who falls prey to all this is the one affected. It can be physical, mental, or emotional stress.
The only reason a person is manipulated is because of their own. It occurs because of peer pressure or circumstances around the person. The manipulator discovers the person’s weakness and blackmails them into working for them.
- Try to be yourself, don’t pressure yourself to perform well.
- Stay away from negative people.
- Ease your anxiety and negativity.
If you conquer any problems, talk to someone, maybe family or friends, before the situation worsens.
Lee Ann Grigsby
Founder and CEO, Chaos to Calmness, LLC
Accept that you cannot use this skill anymore
Being manipulative is a skill we all learned when we were very young. As a mother, wife, and business owner, I use this all the time.
I had a complete mental breakdown when my grown children got a mind of their own and decided that they wanted to be careless and free. The day they stopped letting me manipulate them into doing what I thought was best for them. I became very unhealthy mentally.
What led to that mental health episode was fear. I convinced myself that the world was coming to an end. I cycled so far out of control. It took me three years to do internal work on myself to become a healthy individual. I had to get professional health for my own well-being.
To stop being manipulative, follow the steps below:
- Recognize you are doing it.
- Have a plan on what to do when you recognize you are being manipulative.
- Accept you cannot use this skill anymore.
- Accept that you may not know what the outcome will be.
It can lead to some negative events when individuals do not follow steps 1 to 4. All because they cannot control what is happening.
Editor & Content Ambassador, Romantific
Manipulation is abusive and unhealthy for someone’s mental, emotional, and physical state. Out of the victim’s patience, it leads to the manipulator harming itself sometimes. That’s why it’s crucial to know your actions, don’t overboard, and remember your limitations.
Stop comparing and insisting that you are always right
As a business owner, controlling your perfectionism helps you stop being manipulative. That’s why stop comparing and insisting that you are always right with everything.
Accept and be liable for your actions
Don’t be pretentious and accuse others of your failures and struggles. We should accept and be liable for our actions, whether right or wrong. Sometimes financial incapacities make the manipulator manipulate someone to feel the guilt and give in on what the manipulator wants.
Be thankful for what you have right now, and stop being envious of those who achieve life victory. Lastly, picture yourself with that situation. You can’t stop manipulation unless you don’t experience it yourself, so think carefully about it.
CEO and Founder, RebateKey
Everybody has a tendency to become manipulative. However, it’s not ideal, especially if you’re a leader or holding a managing position.
Be aware of your tendencies
The first step to reducing being manipulative is by being aware of it. The reality is many people do not know that they are being manipulative. Know when you are being manipulative, what triggers it, and how you do it.
Most of the type manipulative behaviors are subtle and are directed at certain people more than others.
Respect other people’s views
Many people manipulate because they believe that their views are better or are more “correct” than their peers. Knowing that there’s more than one way of doing things and respecting others’ individuality helps you become less controlling.
Improve your trust towards others
Manipulative behaviors can also stem from perfectionism and insecurities. A person manipulates and wants things to be done in a manner they like because they don’t trust others.
Improving a person’s trust towards others and learning to be more secure in them allows a person to relax and drop the need to manipulate others.
Being a manipulative person can ruin your relationship with people. May it be at home or work, controlling and constant nit-picking on how other people speak, work, or think might hurt their feelings, make them feel less of a person, and crush their spirits.
If somebody or you have noticed that you are starting to become manipulative, you might want to reflect on these things:
Remember that the world doesn’t revolve around you
The number one insecurity of a manipulative person is that they think highly of themselves. They try to gain control over a person or a situation because they are only concerned about their feelings.
If you feel like you are about to lash out at someone and start commanding them what to do, take a deep breath and remember that the world doesn’t revolve around you.
It’s not always their fault
People make mistakes, and more often than not, we never intend to commit those errors. If you see someone doing something wrong, blaming it on them and making them feel horrible over it will not fix the problem- it will only make it worse.
Be kind to everyone
Being mean and rude to others may cost you a good relationship, but being kind to everyone is free. Learn to always respect others and be kind.
Co-founder, Dope Dog
Do not play the victim
Playing the victim is the most common trait of manipulative people. Instead of playing the victim card, try to take responsibility for your actions. This will help you stop manipulating and gain the trust of others.
Stop explaining your point of view
Another trait is to convince people to see things from their perspective. But instead of explaining your point of view, try to see things from others’ perspectives to gain a better understanding of the situation.
Be confident in your non-manipulative ways
Sometimes, when trying to convince others through non-manipulative ways, you can have doubts. But believe in your ways and have confidence in yourself. Practice them until you have enough confidence.
Challenge your fears
During the pandemic, I noticed that we all needed to feel a greater sense of control, sometimes leading to manipulative behavior.
They felt as if they needed to be in control of every situation, making them manipulative and losing the respect of their employees. I have a colleague who was becoming manipulative without even realizing it.
Manipulative behaviors are controlled by fear, so I decided to challenge my colleague’s fear. In this case, they were afraid that their business would fail because of the conditions surrounding the pandemic.
When I pointed out that their business was thriving, but they were losing the loyalty of their employees, they were able to look at their fears more logically and the behavior that was coming from them.
They realized the fears were not realistic and harmed their work relationships. They modified their behavior, and because they don’t feel the need to manipulate others, they feel much more at peace and happy at work.
Frequently Asked Questions
How do I know if I am manipulative?
Recognizing manipulative tendencies within oneself is an essential step toward personal growth. To determine if you are manipulative, consider the following:
• Intentions: Reflect on your intentions when interacting with others. Are you focused on achieving a particular outcome or controlling the situation? Manipulators often have hidden agendas and try to influence others for personal gain.
• Emotional exploitation: Manipulative individuals use other people’s emotions to their advantage. Analyze whether you exploit others’ feelings, such as guilt or fear, to achieve your desired outcomes.
• Dishonesty: Manipulators often use lies or half-truths to sway others. Reflect on your honesty during conversations, and consider whether you bend the truth to influence people.
• Gaslighting: Manipulators might make others question their reality or doubt themselves. If you frequently cause people to feel uncertain or insecure about their experiences, this may be a sign of manipulation.
• Victim mentality: If you often portray yourself as a victim in situations to gain sympathy or control, it could be a sign of manipulation.
• Projecting blame: Manipulators rarely take responsibility for their actions and instead shift the blame onto others. If you often find yourself doing this, it’s worth examining your motives.
How do I express my feelings without being manipulative?
To express your feelings without being manipulative, practice these principles:
• Be genuine: Speak from the heart, and share your emotions honestly. Authenticity helps build trust and avoids manipulation.
• Practice active listening: Show empathy by listening to the other person’s perspective without judgment. This encourages open communication and reduces the need for manipulation.
• Establish boundaries: Communicate your limits clearly and assertively. Setting boundaries helps avoid manipulation while maintaining healthy relationships.
• Avoid passive-aggressive behavior: Communicate your feelings openly and honestly, rather than using sarcasm or hidden messages to express yourself.
• Stay focused on the issue: Discuss the specific problem at hand without bringing up unrelated past events or attacking the person’s character.
• Be open to compromise: Understand that relationships require give-and-take, and be willing to find solutions that benefit both parties.
What are things manipulators say?
Manipulators often use specific phrases to control or influence others. Some examples include:
• “You’re too sensitive”: By dismissing your feelings, manipulators can deflect responsibility and undermine your confidence.
• “If you really cared about me, you would…”: This phrase is a guilt-inducing tactic that plays on your emotions to get what they want.
• “No one else has a problem with this”: Manipulators use this statement to make you feel isolated and as if you’re the only one who disagrees, creating self-doubt.
• “I was just joking”: This excuse allows manipulators to say hurtful things and then dismiss any negative reaction as an overreaction.
• “You always…” or “You never…”: These absolute statements can be manipulative, as they generalize behavior and can make the other person feel attacked or defensive.
• “I’m only doing this for your own good”: Manipulators often use this phrase to justify controlling behavior, convincing you that their actions are in your best interest.
• “Don’t be so dramatic”: By downplaying your emotions or concerns, manipulators can undermine your feelings and assert control.
Do manipulative people care about others?
Manipulative people can have varying degrees of care and concern for others. In some cases, manipulators may care about those around them but lack healthy communication skills or emotional awareness. This can lead to manipulative behavior without necessarily intending to harm or control others.
However, in other cases, manipulative people may prioritize their own needs and desires above those of others, using manipulation to achieve their goals without concern for the well-being of those affected.
Is being manipulative a mental problem?
Being manipulative in and of itself is not a mental problem or disorder. However, manipulative behavior can be a symptom or characteristic of certain personality disorders or mental health issues. For example, individuals with Narcissistic Personality Disorder or Antisocial Personality Disorder may exhibit manipulative behavior as part of their condition.
It is important to note that not all manipulative people have a mental disorder, and not all people with mental disorders are manipulative. Manipulative behavior can arise from various factors, such as learned behaviors, coping mechanisms, or a desire for control.
If you’re concerned that manipulative tendencies may be related to a mental health issue, it’s essential to consult with a mental health professional who can provide a proper assessment and recommend appropriate treatment if needed.
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