13 subtle signs you’re being emotionally manipulated, according to psychology

Avatar by Paul Brian | June 28, 2024, 9:41 am

Have you ever been friends with somebody who always seems to want something from you? 

It’s hard to put your finger on, but they always seem to have an agenda. And that one salesperson from the computer store, and the girl or guy you just started dating…

Is it all in your head, or are you being emotionally manipulated and played with by this person?

Psychology has the answers:

Clear indications that you’re being subtle emotionally manipulated even if it’s not always completely obvious. 

Learn to spot these signs and you’ll never waste your time again. Let’s dive in! 

1) They subtly reframe reality

The go-to tactic for an emotional manipulator is gaslighting. But it’s not always obvious. 

In many cases it takes the form of subtly reframing reality to fit their version of what’s happening. 

This may include for unimportant matters and details, subtly shifting how you see things and turning to them for your version of reality. It’s deeply toxic and harmful and is also often done by those we trust such as therapists and partners.

“My former therapist encouraged me for years to ‘reframe’ the pain of deep neglect and verbal, emotional, and financial abuse I was subjecting myself to in my marriage,” recounts Megan Wildhood

“What she was actually doing was encouraging me to enable my abuser to perpetuate his abuse while making me responsible for my abuser’s behavior and calling it self-care.”

2) They criticize you through jokes

Humor and laughter are wonderful things, but they can also be weapons. In the hands of an emotional manipulator, a joke becomes a can of mace they can spray in your face.

They particularly like to do this in front of others, but it may also be one-on-one:

Low-key jokes that you know you aren’t supposed to find annoying or care about but which take jibes at your insecurities and idiosyncrasies. 

It could be the way you eat or your spiritual beliefs. Maybe it’s your politics or your style. You’re always hearing another smartass comment from this person that makes you feel denigrated. 

3) They offer you conditional approval

Those who emotionally manipulate you in a subtle way often offer you conditional approval

They’re very kind to you, as long as you do things more or less their way.

When you step out of line? You get the silent treatment, they withdraw affection, they become mean-spirited, or worse…

They don’t really love you, they just want to control you.

This is “an attitude of acceptance and esteem that others express toward an individual on a conditional basis, that is, depending on the acceptability of the individual’s behavior in accordance with the others’ personal standards,” notes the American Psychological Association (APA).

4) They toss you explosive ideological gambits

Another clever and highly toxic tactic of the emotional manipulator is to toss out a grenade and see what you do. 

They demand that you agree with their politics…

They make a joke about Group X who they think are ridiculous…

They mock a certain type of music they think you might like and see if you react…

This is just about messing with your head and seeing if you’ll say anything. Say nothing and your self-respect lessens. Say something and you’re the weirdo who likes reggae or country or socialism or a right-wing politician. 

It’s a losing game. 

5) They criticize you by ‘negging’ you and singling you out

Negging is a tactic that was first popularized in the “pickup artist” manosphere and in books like “The Game,” a 2005 book about learning how to seduce women for sex.

Negging is all about giving criticism in a way that makes you insecure but is still ambiguous. 

When somebody does this to you (male or female), it’s a way to gain more power over you.

As Cuncic explains

“Negging is often done as a way to gain power and control in a relationship, but it can also be a sign of deeper issues such as insecurity, low self-esteem, or even narcissistic tendencies.”

6) They criticize your friends and colleagues to isolate you

You may have friends who aren’t the best folks out there. Your friends may be mostly amazing. 

Either way, the net result is that you end up more isolated from your friends and feeling wary of whether or not you can trust them. 

That’s the goal. 

They want you insecure, isolated and weakened.

They want you subject to their will and their designs. 

7) They conveniently ‘forget’ mistakes they made and things they don’t like

Selective amnesia can be a serious condition in those who have suffered abuse and trauma. 

But it’s also an intentional choice by narcissists and emotional manipulators who want to twist your emotions

When somebody always seems to forget what they did, it’s not a mistake: it’s a tactic. 

“The selective amnesia of narcissists extends beyond personal interactions,” explains Empathic Warrior.

“In professional settings, they might conveniently forget commitments or blame others for their mistakes. It’s a way to maintain their facade of infallibility while shifting blame onto unsuspecting colleagues or subordinates.”

8) They flatter and love bomb you in ways that fill your insecurities

Love bombing is a common tactic among manipulators. They play with your emotions in a clever way, finding your insecurities and exploiting them. 

This seems like it would be obvious to notice, but it’s not always the case. 

In many cases you are flooded with positive emotions and approval and then try to chase that high. 

You want more of it. 

But the person who tries to get you to rely on that ends up controlling your emotions. 

9) They make you pity them when you call out their bad behavior

Playing the victim is a well-known tactic of the emotional manipulator: but it’s not always obvious. 

It can come in quite an indirect and roundabout manner, but if you look closely you’ll see how this person is working guilt and gaslighting into the mix. 

You’re being told that your reasonable reaction to the other person’s behavior is out of line or victimizing them in some way. 

As relationship expert Darlene Lancer, JD, LMFT writes:

“Criticism, guilt, and self-pity are also used to manipulate to get what they want: ‘Why do you only think of yourself and never ask or help me with my problems? I helped you.’  Acting like a victim is a way to manipulate with guilt.”

10) They emotionally blackmail you if you don’t give them their way

When you don’t give these people what they want, they emotionally blackmail you. 

They try to make you take ownership for their emotions and be responsible for how they feel. 

You become their emotional caretaker in their eyes, and anything less is unacceptable. 

It can take a lot of strength to resist this. 

“Emotional blackmail involves using another party’s fear, guilt, or sense of obligation to pressure them to comply with a demand,” explains psychology analyst Mary West. “Signs may include withholding affection or threatening retaliation to get compliance.”

This ties into the next point:

11) They make you ‘take ownership’ for their mood swings

You are asked to take ownership for the mood swings and anger or sadness of this person. 

You somehow have become responsible for this person’s negative or disempowered feelings.

It’s a fight you can’t win. 

No matter how much you try to be understanding or relate to these people you end up in the losing position.

You’re the problem, you’re the bad guy: or so you’re told!

12) They triangulate to sandwich you between a rock and a hard place

Triangulation is a nasty trick that many emotional manipulators keep up their sleeve. 

It’s where they bring a third “voice” or person into the issues that are happening in order to prove you are wrong, bad or out of line. 

The end result is that you feel worse about yourself and end up in a very difficult situation. 

As psychology writer Arlin Cuncic, M.A. explains:

“Triangulation is an approach used by many different people who share one thing in common: insecurity.  As a result, they’re willing to manipulate others in harmful ways to get what they want or feel a sense of security in a relationship.”

13) They deny they are engaging in any manipulative behavior whatsoever

The final and very important point here is that an emotional manipulator will never admit that’s what they’re doing. 

“What me, twist things?”

They’re the picture of innocence. Of course. 

Your job is to realize that this ruse has gone far enough. You deserve respect and sincerity. 

And this ain’t it.