Relationships

How to Spot a Manipulator

The rational way to determine if your partner is controlling you to your own detriment

Alana Palm
Dec 9, 2019 · 22 min read
Photo by eugenekeebler

Many times we are manipulated by another person and come out relatively unharmed — but what about the people who manipulate in a hurtful, selfish way and harm us in the process?

A few years ago, I was entangled with a master manipulator.

I consider myself to be a pretty emotionally intelligent human being, but I still didn’t see what was going on. My manipulator was so incredibly good at manipulating that I couldn’t even see it happening.

This experience almost did me in (literally) due to all the confusion and blame inflicted by my manipulator. I finally did get out of that relationship and was still affected by my manipulator’s words a year later. It took time to sort through all the confusion and figure out what was real and what was a lie.

I have learned a number of strong, painful lessons and have gained an amazing amount of information and insight that have helped me make sense of my experience. Now I have moved forward better and stronger, and I can help others who might be caught in the trap.

It can be difficult to avoid being manipulated altogether, but this article will help you spot a manipulator and avoid falling into his or her trap.

I’m going to explain how a manipulator works, tell you some of my own story, and explain how to recognize and avoid (or move through) a manipulative relationship.

Knowledge is power. Once you’re aware of a manipulator’s tools, tactics and telling signs, you will be empowered to make choices from a place of strength.

How Do People Manipulate Others?

How Do People Manipulate Others?

The Cambridge Dictionary defines a manipulator as “a person who controls people to their own advantage, often unfairly or dishonestly.”

Manipulators will influence or control others to:

  • Buy their products and services (whether we really need them or not)
  • Do what they want us to do (so the manipulator benefits in the end)
  • See them in a certain light by putting on a mask (this is when we’re most susceptible to falling for their facade) then taking it off when we least expect it

We all have influence, but when people influence in a way that is not honest or based on integrity, it can be damaging.

Sadly, some people know they have a powerful ability to manipulate others and they use it in a harmful way. A manipulator is purposely hurtful — and sometimes it can be very hard to get away from one.


When It’s Difficult to Walk Away from a Manipulator

We can walk away from certain people with a gut feeling that something doesn’t feel right. On a deeper level, we know that we are being pressured or manipulated into something. We are usually not too emotionally attached to the situation or product, so we can easily move away from the situation and let it go.

Manipulation can be extremely difficult to walk away from when it involves personal relationships. Unless we’ve experienced it, we often don’t believe that anyone would intentionally hurt others for their own gain. Some people certainly will do this (think psychopaths, narcissists, and sociopaths). It’s possible that some manipulate unconsciously. Either way, unless we are aware of the signs, we may get involved in a damaging relationship that leaves us depressed, confused, and filled with anxiety.

The toxicity can take time to show up, as the manipulator is skilled at creating a facade and making us love them for who they pretend to be. When they choose to uncover and take off their mask, it can leave us very confused and praying desperately for that person we “knew” to come back.

There are ways that you can be better prepared to recognize unhealthy and covert manipulation if it comes into your life. When you know what signs to look for, it makes it much easier to avoid people who are out to use, abuse, and manipulate you for their own gain.

Being aware of their tactics means you have a true choice as to whether you will accept their behavior into your life.


Are You at Risk?

You might wonder if you are at risk of becoming a victim of manipulation. I wondered this, too, but not until after the fact.

The truth is I didn’t even think about it before I went through this because I hadn’t experienced something this destructive in my life.

What I now know is that anyone can be a victim to manipulation, regardless of how intelligent, intuitive, or confident they are. That being said, there are certain types of personalities that predators look for because they are easier to manipulate. I was intelligent, intuitive, and confident on the outside, but on the inside, I had insecurities, looked to others for validation, had lower self-esteem, and desperately wanted to be loved. Sadly, this made me the perfect victim.

Remember though — anyone can be manipulated. Some predators target people with certain insecurities because they find those people easier to manipulate, and particular vulnerabilities in people lend themselves more to manipulation by someone who is out to take advantage of them. I had those insecurities and vulnerabilities, although I wasn’t consciously aware of them.

If you are a sensitive, caring, and vulnerable person like I am, you can learn how to spot manipulative techniques and avoid engaging with that person well in advance of becoming too entangled.

For the sake of integrity, I will only be discussing the techniques that I experienced. There are many more out there that manipulators will use to try and get you under their control — I may choose to address these in a later post.


The Manipulator’s Tools, Tactics, and Telling Signs

Telling lies

This was the first manipulative technique I experienced. Predators lie about almost everything on a pretty consistent basis. They do this in order to confuse their victims.

Many manipulators don’t have a problem with lying because the most important thing, to them, is getting what they want. Whatever will lead them to that end is what they will do.

My manipulator was so good at this technique that I didn't realize I was being lied to. I often trust people enough at the start to believe that they would not purposely hurt another person. You may be the same as me and not even realize that someone is lying to you in order to manipulate you. Here are three ways they lie to you:

1. They say one thing and do another

When you catch them saying one thing and doing the opposite, they always have a reason/excuse for this. They will actually change the story and rework the facts so that they are consistent with the lie.

My manipulator actually wrote a book and in it, there are so many areas where things just don’t make sense. There are contradictions within the same paragraph — everything is very abstract, to create a story that anyone can connect to. I believe this was done to pull people into the drama and also to create a storyline that could be altered to suit the manipulator’s lies when challenged.

If you suspect you are in a relationship with a manipulator, look for examples of them saying one thing and doing something else, and any other contradictions.

2. They only tell you part of a story but are loose with the privacy of others

This is more than just somebody being private — you can sense that there’s something they aren’t telling you.

Manipulators may also divulge information to you that someone else told them in confidence and break the other person’s trust in order to tell you the information.

This draws you in and makes you feel special — but it is also a clear sign that this person can’t be trusted with your private information. If they share someone’s private information with you, you most certainly know that they would be willing to do the same thing to you behind your back.

3. They have an amazing way of twisting the truth into something that serves them (aka “gaslighting”)

Whenever I asked my manipulator why something was done or what was meant by something said, my manipulator always found a way to make it about the way I misinterpreted information or was choosing to believe something about them based on my past experiences. The stories that supported my manipulator’s point of view contradicted what others said. Often, my manipulator had one story that didn’t align with the stories told by multiple other sources about the same situation.

One of the simplest ways a predator can manipulate a person is by saying whatever they are being accused of never happened. They simply deny it.

If you happen to see that they are never at fault, it is a sign that they have gotten somewhere in life by playing the victim or claiming to be misunderstood.

I didn’t know that my manipulator was lying to me until much much later in the relationship because I didn’t know what to look for. Once I saw the lies, it was still hard for me to believe they were actually happening. Eventually, there were so many stories that didn’t add up that I just couldn’t ignore it.

Frequent mood changes

The manipulator will start off a relationship by putting on a facade. They will be on their best behaviour and will convince you that they are your perfect match.

When they know they have you under their emotional control, they will pull back and watch to see how you react. They will purposely make you squirm and do what you can to get the person they “knew” back. They will be very back and forth with their mood, and you won’t know which person will show up at any given time.

When you don’t know what kind of mood your manipulator is going to be in — whether they will be joyful or angry — it can keep you off-balance and make you more vulnerable to being manipulated.

This is a useful tool for the manipulator because they lower your guard and keep you guessing. It also results in you becoming more bonded to them.

In addition to the mood swings, they may also give you intermittent compliments and put-downs. This may be hard to see at first, but it can sound like “you are so beautiful, but if you lost 10lb that dress would look hot on you” or “I love you, but you really get on my nerves sometimes.”

This technique is a type of “negging” or double-bind—you are getting positive and negative reinforcement at the same time. Not only does this make you more attached to your manipulator, but it also results in a lot of emotional difficulties in your mind and heart.

A theory developed in the 1950s sought to see whether this type of double-bind behaviour between two people could lead to schizophrenia in patients. Turns out that it didn’t; however, the research continues to provide insights into the behavior and its effects.

If somebody is giving you intermittent compliments and insults, be aware that this could be manipulation. When you recognize it, you can come from a place of strength knowing that this person is just trying to manipulate you.

Love-bombing and devaluation

Mentioned above as part of frequent mood changes, this pattern warrants its own call-out: manipulators will love-bomb you at the beginning of the relationship.

You will feel that they are your perfect soulmate, friend or mentor. Love-bombing can include buying expensive presents, praising you, displaying excessive charm, and paying lots of attention to you. They will purposely build you up, knowing they will eventually tear you down and watch you squirm.

It is hard to know whether they are legitimately interested in you or just playing with your heart, but some big signs are moving too fast, contacting you constantly, and basically treating you as if you are perfect. It might feel good at the time, but you might be walking into a trap.

They will treat you well when you are doing exactly what they want, and switch very quickly when you aren’t. When I did what my manipulator wanted, I got praise, love, and attention. As long as I was catering to my manipulator’s needs, I was able to sustain a positive relationship. I would get a lot of positive reinforcement, flattery, compliments about how beautiful I was, how loved I was, etc. It definitely lowered my guard because I believed my manipulator truly cared about me.

When I did not do what my manipulator wanted, I received devaluation — the silent treatment, more verbal abuse, and eventually a smear campaign against me. It was disguised as a way to “bring out the best in me” and “make me into the woman I was supposed to be” (so I was told).

This technique had me in a tailspin — I questioned whether my manipulator was right or wrong all the time. Sadly, after a while, I couldn’t tell the difference.

Beware of people who shower you with love, gifts, attention, and amazing experiences — then all of a sudden switch and stop responding to messages, giving you love and attention, or begin convincing you that you’re too sensitive or needy.

This hot-and-cold technique is a fantastic way for manipulators to get people to do what they want. We all want that positive reinforcement, and nobody wants to be devalued or punished. As victims, we will often do what we need to do to keep our manipulator happy and to keep them in a relationship with us.

  • If you hear them delivering cutting comments or sarcasm directed at you and then passing it off as a joke…
  • If you notice your self-esteem is going down and your feeling of weakness and lack of control is going up…

You can be pretty sure that you are being manipulated. You have a choice as to whether you are going to let yourself be treated that way.

They are never wrong (and you are always wrong)

Like a guilty (and I mean 100% guilty) person behind bars who spends years in prison and still won’t admit to their crime, a manipulator will never admit to being wrong.

They do not take responsibility for their actions or words, and they have an amazing way of twisting things so that they are always the victim.

Of course, they will never tell you they’re the victim — they will say “people are treating me badly” or “I’m struggling because of all these terrible circumstances, and I’m choosing to be strong.” It’s always about what is happening to them that they have no control over.

It is never their fault, and they are always a victim of what other people are doing. They will divert the conversation away from their own actions or part in the problem and move the conversation onto a different topic.

They play the victim to gain compassion and sympathy from you and others. Those of us with big hearts are drawn to helping people when they are suffering. We want to help them feel better — and manipulators know this. It is a great way for them to get us to be emotionally attached to them and focused on their needs, instead of our own.

This also means that a manipulator can potentially accuse their chosen victim (you) of wrongdoing, which in turn naturally makes you defend yourself while they mask their covert manipulation techniques. They take the focus off themselves and put it on you.

Often manipulators will accuse you of the very thing that they are doing.

I was accused of so many things — all of which I felt were not true. Later I realized that my manipulator was actually feeling those things inwardly and was projecting the accusations on me, when it was really about them and their internal feelings.

When someone accuses you of being untrustworthy, it is often because they are untrustworthy. They put the blame on YOU for doing something, knowing that it is exactly what THEY are doing. This shifts the focus off of them and on to you. They try to play down their own wrongdoing and place the blame on the victim for overreacting.

They will also appear shocked and confused at being accused of any misdeed. Their bewildered response is so convincing that you may question your own judgment (and they know this).

Lastly, they will convince you of something even if it isn’t true. For example, they will tell you that your favourite place is Mexico when you say it’s Aruba. You know it’s Mexico, but they will tell you it’s Aruba until you begin to believe it.

It’s crazy-making — and it’s a way for them to keep you under their control.

They change their expectations—a lot

They do this for their own purpose and they do it to the people closest to them. You will think that you’re doing everything you can to please your manipulator, and all of a sudden they will change the game. They will move the pieces around in order to confuse you.

Let’s say you are playing a game with someone. They set out the game board, give you two pieces to play with and five white cards. They tell you there’s only one way to win (it’s a secret) and they can change the rules at any time. They give you no other instructions and say “game on”. In playing this game, you are already at a disadvantage because you don’t know the objective or what the rules are, so you don’t know how to win.

This is what it’s like to be in a relationship with a manipulator. Can you win? Maybe. But you are already at a huge disadvantage so it’s an uphill battle. They set it up this way so they can win.

When you don’t understand the game, the rules, the objective, or how to win, it is very difficult to feel that the game is played between two equals. Without the proper information, it is also difficult to feel that you are making informed decisions.

To look at it another way, if a person is going in for a medical procedure and they sign a waiver without being told that they may die while on the table, then they did not give informed consent. If a person’s financial advisor tells them to invest in real estate because it is 100% guaranteed to go up, and they lose all their money, then they have been deceived into doing something they didn’t have full disclosure on.

Now it can be argued that people should know better. However, if we are trusting individuals, we will assume that people are inherently good and that they would never deliberately deceive us. When you lose in any of these scenarios, is it your fault that you lost? No.

Manipulators deceive us in the same way. My manipulator led me to believe that I was special, important and valued. My manipulator declared a 100% commitment to my growth. Apparently I was loved unconditionally and cared for enough to be told the truth so I could grow.

I was presented with a nice, caring, loving, committed individual on the outside—the mask—not knowing that the game we were playing was very one-sided and that I was being deceived.

I didn’t know I was being conned — I believed the best in this person (mostly because I was told these things and trusted them). I was sold one thing and I ended up receiving something completely different. I believed I was getting a healthy, loving relationship — and instead, I received a pseudo-identity and my time, energy, money, privacy, creativity, and health were taken away from me.

All the while, I believed that I was choosing this and that any move I made was my responsibility and my fault. I was constantly in a state of confusion because something didn’t feel right, but I kept thinking it was my problem and I just needed to work harder to make the relationship better.

If you feel confused around a person a large majority of the time, this is a good indicator that they could be manipulating you. Normal relationships aren’t confusing. If you never feel like you know where you stand, it is important to pay attention to that.

Manipulators change their expectations of you because they know you will work harder to play the game and win. Many people hate to lose or admit they are wrong (even healthy people struggle with this), so people will continue to stay in confusing, toxic relationships because they think they can “change” the person through loving them enough, or they will think it’s their own fault if it doesn’t work out.

If you experience your manipulator making you work harder and harder for their love and attention, that’s a sign that they are changing the game on you. Remember that if you aren’t getting all the information, you can’t be held completely responsible for your role in things.

This was a very hard pill for me to swallow, but once I realized how I had been conned, it made it easier to see that I was a victim to my manipulator and I didn’t need to take responsibility for the relationship anymore.

They make you constantly question yourself

Manipulators are the proverbial wolves in sheep’s clothing. They are out to dominate, control, and win. They know how to gain this power in extremely covert ways, veiling their frustration by using very subtle tactics to make you feel like the one at fault for having an issue with them.

This is also called “gaslighting” — when somebody makes you question your reality with their lies and accusations.

It is an amazing tactic that they will use often, so be cognizant of this if you are in a relationship with a manipulator.

I experienced this many times with accusations that I was “a fraud,” “completely out of touch with reality” and “delusional” with my thoughts and feelings. I would ask questions about why certain things were said and would get answers like “oh, that’s just the story you’re making up about it” and “that’s not what I said/meant — that’s just your incorrect interpretation.” These are lines often used by manipulators to make you question yourself.

I actually started questioning who I was so much at the core that I lost control of the me that I knew before meeting my manipulator. This was very scary for me because I felt my personality was being changed. I was told I was being changed “for the better” — and in many ways, I believed I was.

It wasn’t until I depended on my manipulator daily to tell me who I should be that I knew I had a huge problem. I can take responsibility for choosing to give my manipulator so much power and control, and I was also in a place of being manipulated so much that I didn’t have as much of a choice as I wish I did. The good news is now I know the difference and can move forward armed with more information (and so can you).

The shock factor is used to make you submit

They will use rage and aggression to put you in a state of shock. You don’t see it coming (or if you do, you don’t know when it will rear its ugly head).

They do this in order to stun you and also to give themselves (and you) an excuse for their behaviour. The anger is also a tool to quell any further conversation on the topic. The victim is scared, but at this point, they become focused on navigating the rage directed at them, not on the initial topic. Manipulators use this technique because they know it works well.

They also use the tactic of “guilt-tripping” their victim by saying “You don’t care about me,” “Your life is so easy,” or “You’re being selfish.” These accusations help to keep the victim confused and on edge. I would go into a conversation with my manipulator, believing that a loving, productive correspondence was going to take place and I would get blindsided. My manipulator would accuse me of not being honest or trustworthy, not really caring, not being in the relationship for the right reasons, or that I was just using them to get ahead.

I realized later that I was being accused of doing everything that they were guilty of at the time. I couldn’t see that back then — at the time I was stunned, confused, and numb, and basically decided that I could prove I wasn’t all those things.

It made me work harder to maintain the relationship and the issue at hand wasn’t even dealt with because of this outburst on my manipulator’s part.

This is exactly what they want!

They make you reliant on them

The gaslighting, negging, and double binds all serve to make the victim more reliant on the manipulator’s opinion to know when they are doing well and when they are not.

In breaking me down and building me up, my manipulator had me working to get praise after I was torn apart. I felt that my manipulator was the only one who could give me the praise I needed because they were the one telling me all the things I needed to improve on. When I got the compliment, I felt that I was in good standing again and wouldn’t receive the abuse I was subjected to when I wasn’t at my best.

I felt for my manipulator because they had been suffering in their past, and I wanted to show I wasn’t like those other people who would hurt and abuse them. My manipulator told me exactly what I needed to do to become the amazing person they knew I was deep down inside, and so I went back for validation instead of going outside the relationship for affirmation. My manipulator’s opinion was the only one that truly mattered because they had the answers, and who “knew” what I had to do to be a great human being.

I felt that my manipulator was the only person that could make it better — as long as I was pleasing and agreeable, I would get that love and trust back in return.

This is another interesting way manipulators keep us under their control. They make us dependent on them and keep us isolated from family and friends who could see the situation from an outside perspective and know that something was awry.

I would have gone to others, but I didn’t feel they would understand — only my manipulator understood the depth of our very complicated relationship.

As I mentioned above, I relied on my manipulator to tell me who I was because I thought it was in the name of love and of wanting me to be the best version of myself. I was told that I could have everything I wanted in life if I followed some specific rules and used the tools taught by my manipulator. I wanted this life, so I gave permission to someone else to tell me what I was doing that worked and what didn’t.

My responsibility in all this was giving someone too much power over what I thought about myself.


A Lesson Learned

I’ve learned an astonishing amount in the last few years.

I know exactly why I was caught in that relationship — I was insecure, looking outside myself for validation, and I chose to go back to the very person who was manipulating me. I stayed in it hoping for more validation, approval, and love. I wanted to feel important, special and needed.

Also, I didn’t know what was happening to me.

That has been the hardest part since I got out of the relationship— understanding why I didn’t know better and making sure I can spot the signs in the future.

If you are struggling with a potential manipulator, pay attention to who they are. Sometimes they are so good at what they do that it’s hard to fathom that somebody would treat another human being that way.

What I’ve realized is that this type of behaviour comes from a lot of brokenness and internal issues on the part of the manipulator. Sometimes they don’t even have a desperate brokenness— they just want to hurt, control, and abuse others.

Knowledge is power. If we are equipped with the knowledge to face people like this, we can stand in the power of that instead of giving our power away to them.

The only reason we would ever put up with that type of behaviour toward us is if we don’t understand it, or we feel that we deserve it on some subconscious level.

The more we see our own worth, the more we will stand up to people like this and not let them treat us that way. I let myself be treated this way because it aligned with my beliefs about myself. All the love-bombing, compliments, and attention made me feel good. I felt that I needed it so badly that when I got the opposite — the put-downs, accusations, and silent treatment — I did whatever I could to get the love and attention back.

This is where looking for validation outside of ourselves can get us into a lot of trouble. Had I not been that type of person looking for someone else to fill the holes in me that felt empty, I wouldn’t have stepped into that type of relationship. Those are holes no human being can ever fill — that’s God’s job.

On a positive note, now that I’m aware I can choose differently in the future. I’m equipped with knowledge and power now that I didn’t have back then. I’m much more confident in who I am and in spite of being treated this way I have risen above, chosen to forgive, and moved forward.

If you do find yourself in a situation with a potential manipulator, you can the following tools to protect yourself:

Don’t feed into the drama

Some of us crave drama in our mundane lives because we either like the excitement or we have lived a life of drama, so it feels normal to us. In this type of situation, we need to recognize and choose not to partake in someone else’s drama.

Set boundaries and keep your distance

Many of us can put up walls to protect ourselves. I don’t believe a wall is the best imagery because it does not allow people to come in or out. I like to imagine a fence: I imagine a welcoming, white picket fence with a gate that can be opened and closed. That way I can choose to let people in as I wish and keep them out as I wish. This is a healthy type of boundary.

You have the right to have healthy boundaries. If you find your manipulator is breaking those boundaries, follow through on any consequences you feel are appropriate in the situation. Sometimes this can be a conversation and sometimes it could be a full out omission of them from your life.

Take time to think things through

Many manipulators will get your emotions so deeply involved in the situation that it is hard to think straight. Keep a journal and take the time to make notes on your experiences and think through everything.

Manipulators keep you under their control by focusing on your empathetic nature, how much you care about them and want to help them. Thinking critically (which is something they don’t want you to do) will help make sense of feelings that come up when you are dealing with someone who is as confusing as a manipulator.

Develop your own strong identity and take care of yourself

Being confident in who you are will allow you to better repel people who want to manipulate. Manipulators find it challenging to conquer a confident person, so being self-assured and knowing yourself at the core will help you create emotional distance between you and someone who wants to treat you badly.

A therapist can provide excellent support for this. Remember that the manipulator will try to isolate you from others in your life, so make it a priority to stay connected to family, friends, and your community at large.

You might also find the forums at Psychopath Free to be a useful resource.

Continue to stand in your own power and build yourself up in whatever way causes you to feel the best about yourself. Know what you deserve and practice inviting people into your life who build you up, not tear you down.


I hope this article has helped you gain insight, see more clearly and ultimately avoid falling into the trap of a manipulator. If you are in a relationship with a manipulator and need help, reach out to a trained therapist or friend you trust.

I pray you feel strong and prepared as you navigate people who are only out to destroy others for their own gain. They’re out there (sadly), but we can protect ourselves from them!

Better Humans

Better Humans is a collection of the world's most trustworthy writing on human potential and self improvement by coaches, academics, and aggressive self-experimenters. Articles are based on deep personal experience, science, and research. No fluff, book reports, or listicles.

Alana Palm

Written by

Educator| Life Coach | Writer. Sharing Experiences & Empowering Others to Embrace Faith, Self-Worth, Joy, Peace & Freedom. Connect: www.linktr.ee/wakeupjoyful

Better Humans

Better Humans is a collection of the world's most trustworthy writing on human potential and self improvement by coaches, academics, and aggressive self-experimenters. Articles are based on deep personal experience, science, and research. No fluff, book reports, or listicles.

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