Gaslighters, Narcissists, and Chameleons, Oh My!

A Primer on Emotional Manipulators

Manipulative people use various tactics to get their way. No matter the means, their aim is often to be in control. The range of tactics they employ are subtle and hard to prove. If you’re unsure whether or not someone is manipulating you, the first step is to recognize certain nuances in their behavior. This article aims to help you do that. It does so by explaining some tactics manipulators use. If you think you’re being messed with, check if one or more of these types fit your partner’s behavior. What you do with that insight is entirely up to you, although I’d advise prioritizing your own safety and well-being.

Also, emotional manipulation may be a side effect of mental anguish or illness. The stigma surrounding these things is highly palpable. Accessing affordable, quality care is also a challenge. So, keep in mind the kinds of odds stacked against people with (potential) mental health issues. That said, it is possible the person can benefit from professional help. It is not, however, your job to diagnose or to encourage treatment. Whatever you do, remember to take care of yourself, first and foremost.

Note the gender on each type is interchangeable. In other words, none of these behaviors are exclusive to any one gender.


  1. Mr. Gaslight

Gaslighting is used to create confusion and doubt in the minds of others. Most forms of manipulation have some type of gaslighting.

To clarify, the term gaslighting is derived from a play adapted into a film: the 1944 noir, titled Gaslight. In the film, the husband tricks his wife into thinking she’s insane. For example, he dims the lights ever so slightly, and denies doing so. This leads her to question her sanity, along with any suspicions she has or will have of him. He employs gaslighting to deter his wife from discovering a crime he’s committed. Keep in mind that, while most gaslighters try to hide their true intent, they may not have committed an actual crime.

The classic gaslighter is also a charmer. Once his charms start to work, he gradually superimposes his reality onto you. Mr. Gaslight does so by making you question your thoughts and perceptions. He has honed his craft well to avoid taking blame for any wrongdoing, often by drawing attention to you at the first sign of conflict: he may taunt, ridicule, or guilt (even if you didn’t do anything wrong). This person likely knows exactly what he’s doing, which is designing a world where your perceptions don’t matter. Like the husband in Gaslight, adjusting little things like dimming lights is the first step to trivializing you and invalidating your entire reality.

2. Ms. Chameleon

Chameleoning is also type of charming, albeit a subtle one. Like the reptile, Ms. Chameleon changes “colors” from one situation to the next. In her case, it’s not just to blend in, but to get something she wants. Granted, everyone slightly adjusts from one situation to the next. For example, you may be formal and poised in a job interview, while casual and relaxed at lunch with a friend.* Contrarily, the chameleon adjusts her settings to garner favor or disfavor. This is done via subtle mimicry, and tailoring of behaviors and interests to match or clash with your own. When it suits her to be with you, she’ll act in accordance with what she thinks you want. And when it suits her to leave you, she’ll do the opposite. Trying to genuinely communicate with a chameleon can be challenging. But every situation will vary in extremity, so it might not hurt to try and express your concern. I’d advise taking care in doing so, as her habits could be a manifestation of other unresolved issues that only a professional could help resolve.

*Note that introverts and people on the autism spectrum may imitate others, due to difficulties with social situations. This is not to be confused with someone who adjusts her settings in order to control people.

3. Mr. “Love ya’ babe”/Promises, promises

Words are important. When words lose their meaning, communication falls by the wayside. Actions are important too. If words aren’t put into action, a relationship can really suffer. When settling into a relationship, it’s natural to find a comfort zone. Mr. “Love ya’ babe” dwells in that comfort zone. He says “I love you” (or “love ya’ babe, or “love you”, etc.) all the time. While professing love is nice, he rarely shows it in other ways. Talk about an effortless way to have a relationship! This behavior goes hand in hand with empty promises. Whether a promise was said to seduce you initially, calm you down during an argument, or keep you from leaving, it is manipulation. This doesn’t mean your situation is hopeless. If your partner is stuck in the proverbial comfort zone, he might need a proverbial push to get out of it. This could take the form of a conversation, or even couples therapy if you can afford it. Alternatively, try doing something out of the ordinary: take a day trip or get him a little gift. See if that doesn’t stoke the embers a bit. And if it doesn’t, keep in mind that it’s not your fault that things haven’t changed, and it’s not your sole responsibility to encourage change.

4. Ms. Cracks-the-Whip

She uses her charms to hook you, then turns maniacal once you’re reeled in. She may seem easygoing at first. Although, once you’re committed, if not before, she will try to control and change you. This is when her methods become less subtle. Her type is often possessive, and instantly suspects the worst whenever you’re not with her. For example, if you go out with friends, she texts or calls often just to check in. She constantly disapproves of things you like that she doesn’t also like. She might throw away possessions of yours she doesn’t approve of. Ms. Cracks-the-Whip is an all-too-common manipulator. If you can’t seem to find a partner who isn’t like this, you’re not alone. More people need to be aware that such behavior is not okay. And, if you are a Crack-the-Whip type, realize that obsessing over someone can end up driving them away.

5. Mr. Mind Control

Whether mind control is possible or not, Mr. Mind Control believes in it. And, guess what? Yup, you’re the lucky test subject! He thinks he can make you better. He hopes you think so too. Non-supernatural tactics he uses include the power of suggestion. He even brings friends in on it, secretly telling them to suggest things to you. All the while, you have no idea the suggestion actually came from him. It’s as if he’s pulling your strings. Negging, making a negative comment after giving a complement, is another tactic he employs. Sometimes his mind games are so subtle you think it’s your imagination (gaslighting, again). Regardless of how he does it, playing with someone’s head is a red flag. If he’s willing to change, he needs to do away with his mad scientist/mad puppeteer side.

6. Ms. Comedian

Most people look for a partner with a sense of humor. Both healthy and unhealthy types of humor exist. There’s all different types of humor and reasons for resorting to it. For example, Ms. Comedian might be great at lightening the mood. She might also be great at avoiding uncomfortable conversations. So, here’s the signs to recognizing an unhealthy sense of humor: joking about everything even when asked not to, insinuating you’ve spoiled the fun by being serious, and even taunting for bringing up something uncomfortable. Normally, joking around is a sign of a thriving relationship. Unfortunately, it’s the opposite when used to block communication. Trivializing what you consider important is rude. It also indicates your date or your significant other doesn’t take you seriously.

7. Mr. Ball of Contradictions

As a general rule, Mr. Contradiction denies anything misaligned with his current mood. What, you expected he meant anything he ever said or did? Pfft! How dare you resort to reason and logic! When he contradicts himself-and he will contradict himself-try and mention what he originally said or did. Try writing down what he says or does. Then re-read it, or show it to him, when the contradiction arises. He won’t like this, so do keep safety in mind during confrontations. It’s true, everyone tells white lies, or changes their mind from time to time. But when there’s a recurring disconnect, you may be dating a ball of contradictions. If he’s making you question your memory of what he said or did, that’s also gaslighting. Double the fun!

8. Ms. Narcissist

Most manipulators have somewhat of a narcissistic personality. Some are more obviously into themselves than others. For instance, any time a conversation is about you, the narcissist turns things around to be about her, or puts her own spin on it. Like clockwork, if you mention an accomplishment of yours, she mentions a greater one of hers. When talking about your day, she interrupts you constantly, or brings attention to how bored she is. Narcissists usually lack genuine interest for anyone but themselves. It may go as far as her taking complete control: you may not get to choose where to go out, what movie to watch, what house to live in, and so on. If she does officially have NPD (a diagnosis of Narcissistic Personality Disorder), it is treatable. Once again, be realistic when trying to help someone. Narcissism can be the result of a variety of other issues. Regardless of its roots, self-centeredness can be like a moving train. Whatever you do, imagine that changing someone all by yourself could be compared to stopping a moving train all by yourself.

9. Mr. Hissy Fit

Manipulators try to avoid an outlash at all costs, because they prefer to remain undetected. This is because undetectability equals greater deniability. When all else fails, tantrums are an ace up their sleeve. Mr. Hissy Fit acts like one or a combination of the above manipulators. That is, until you figure out his game. Once you see through his tricks, he resorts to throwing a classic temper tantrum. In other words, when the subtler techniques fail, he relies on having fits. If you push the issue, things may escalate to violence or threats of some kind. Hopefully it doesn’t come to that, but do be careful.

Thank you for reading.

©2017 Shaina Rails, All rights reserved

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