By: Jamie Klemashevich
Last time, I shared about how we often confuse love with “niceness.” Love speaks difficult truth, and love does not enable manipulation. Loving a manipulator often means being more direct that you want to be, and it may involve having some difficult conversations to set your boundaries. We will get into that more in part three. Today, I will introduce you to the most common tactics of manipulation, what I like to call “The Manipulator’s Playbook.” My hope is to help you identify manipulative tactics so that you can respond thoughtfully rather than reacting.
The Manipulator’s Playbook
- Act natural. Seem normal. – This is very important. If a manipulator acts suspiciously right off the bat, you will be on guard. Manipulative people tend to be good at “playing it cool” for a very long time.
- Start small. – Major manipulation takes time. Manipulators will get their foot in the door by convincing you to do small things differently, then using that as a reason you should do bigger things. “Well you did X, so why is it such a big deal to do Y? Do you not care about me anymore?”
- Don’t take no for an answer. Everything is a negotiation. – Manipulators do not accept it when you say “no.” For whatever reason, “no” means something else to them. It may mean that you are hiding your true desires or that you just need more convincing. If you use a “nicer” version of the word “no,” it is easier to get you to change your mind. You just told the manipulator that you are unsure and can be convinced.
- Use common social rules to get what you want, even if what you want is inappropriate. – Common social rules (in the U.S. at least) dictate that we should respond to someone who talks to us, that we should help someone in distress, that we should do whatever it takes to keep another person from hurting. This can be problematic. Even Jesus did not take away the angst of everyone who came to him (see Mark 10:17-27). A manipulator will try to talk to you, even when it is not appropriate, knowing that it would seem “rude” for you to not respond. The manipulator will consider it your “social duty” to take care of them and to act however they want you to act so that their own distress is minimized. You become an object used to fill their loneliness, to satisfy their needs, to reduce their distress. You have become their idol.
- Blame others for your distress. – Manipulators know that genuine, kind people do not want others to feel bad. The manipulator will make their distress your fault. “If you would just XYZ, then I wouldn’t be angry/anxious/depressed.” The goal is to make you out to be a villain unless you cater to their wishes. Again, this can be simple. “You can’t even say hi?” You may have very good reasons for your actions, but a manipulator will think that there is no appropriate reason for denying them what they want. Of course, when we hurt others we must evaluate our actions to see if we sinned against them. However, it may be a person’s unrealistic expectations or demands that are causing them pain rather than your actions. It is not sin to reject a potential romantic partner. It is not sin to set appropriate boundaries.
- Make them doubt their own perceptions. Make them believe that they cannot trust themselves, but they can trust you. – This is known as “gaslighting.” It starts small. “Are you sure you’re remembering that right?” “It’s just the way you were interpreting what I was doing.” If the manipulator can get you to distrust your own feelings and intuition, then they have gained control.
- Find vulnerabilities and exploit them. – A manipulator can sense your vulnerabilities and exploit them. If you are a perfectionist, then they will convince you that if you just did these things, you would be doing it right. If you are afraid of being mean, they will call you mean any time you don’t do what they want. If you love your kids, they will convince you that you are putting your kids at risk by not doing what they want.
- If they start to notice your manipulations, BACKTRACK. – Once you know the game is happening, the manipulator is in trouble! They will back off and try to normalize their inappropriate behavior. They may try to make you feel crazy for thinking they were ever crossing boundaries in the first place. “I was just trying to be friendly.” “I thought that, as my friend, you would want to help.” “I just wanted for things to be ok between us.” These things may be true. However, someone who is consistently crossing boundaries is still acting inappropriately no matter their motives.
It is important to realize that we have all fallen prey to manipulation, and we have all been the manipulators. People desire to control others for many reasons. Perhaps they do not want to feel painful feelings like rejection or abandonment. Perhaps they control others to relieve their own anxiety. Perhaps they want to keep a loved one from traveling down a path of destruction. There are very real reasons for manipulation, but there are no justifications. It is grasping for control that belongs to God alone. If you recognized through this list that you may be in a manipulative relationship, please seek help through counseling. If you recognized through this list that you are the manipulator, please seek help through counseling. God can redeem these situations! The first step is to recognize these behaviors and seek help.
Jamie is a PLPC and PLMFT who has
been counseling at Restoration since
Jan. 2018. When she isn’t counseling,
Jamie can be found studying for her PhD,
running, and playing with her dog.