Seven Signs Of Manipulative Behavior

Medically reviewed by Elizabeth Erban, LMFT, IMH-E
Updated April 23, 2024by BetterHelp Editorial Team
Content Warning: Please be advised, the below article might mention trauma-related topics that include abuse which could be triggering to the reader. If you or someone you love is experiencing abuse, contact the Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-SAFE (7233). Free support is available 24/7. Please also see our Get Help Now page for more immediate resources.

Manipulative behavior isn’t always easy to spot and manipulation tactics can often be quite subtle and target weak spots. Sometimes the signs aren’t easy to detect, and other times it might be obvious that someone is trying to take advantage of you, but it still may be difficult to stop manipulation from happening. This article will detail some of the many signs that you may be dealing with a manipulative person and how you can find help.

What is manipulative behavior?

Many people experience emotional manipulation. For an emotional manipulator, the goal is often to gain control over another person’s feelings or to cause emotional chaos through coercive control. Manipulators may have subtle ways of controlling a person, causing them to question their own sanity. 

Depending on the personality type of a manipulator they manipulate in different ways. The signs of emotional manipulation in its many forms include:

Do you feel manipulated in some of your relationships?


The first, and possibly the most frequent, tactic that manipulative people use is intentionally making you feel guilty, even over the most inconsequential things.  

You may find that no matter what you do, they will always find a way to guilt trip you and make you feel bad or like a huge burden. This tactic is also designed to make you respond a certain way or feel responsible for something negative, and according to psychiatrist Judith Orloff M.D., it preys on your “desire to please them and be a good person.” [1]

Guilt-tripping can also be verbal or non-verbal, and often takes a passive-aggressive tone. Here’s an example:

Sarah comes home from a long day of work and only wants to relax. She sits down with her husband, who is watching TV. Sarah asks her husband, “Did you make dinner?” Her husband replies, “No, I thought you were going to make it; you’re a better cook after all.” He frowns and continues, “If you love me, you will make us dinner.”

Sarah then feels down, and despite not wanting to cook today, she feels obligated to make her husband happy, and does what he wants. A guilt trip like this is emotionally manipulating for Sarah and may cause her to question her role in the relationship. 

This is just one of many possible examples, and guilt-tripping can show itself in many ways including passive aggression so be aware and analyze the situation – do they try to make you feel guilty?

The victim card

Manipulative people don’t often own up to their mistakes or wrongdoings. If it isn’t someone else’s fault, manipulative people often will find an excuse as to why it is, and it can be compelling. There is rarely any sense of accountability. This is because some manipulators may experience the two types of narcissism, grandiose and vulnerable narcissism. Grandiose narcissists feel self-entitled and have a sense of superiority while vulnerable narcissists may feel entitled but are usually anxious or nervous in nature. Both grandiose and vulnerable narcissists may manipulate others.

Another related issue is that these individuals will often play the role of a martyr. Historically, a martyr is someone who suffers or dies for their beliefs or a cause, but it can also be used more figuratively.

Martyrdom can be similar to guilt-tripping in many ways, too. For instance, if a manipulative person asks for your help with something, and you reply, “I can, but just not right this minute,” they may say, perhaps with a sigh or groan, “Oh, it’s fine, I’ll take care of it. I’ll remember this whenever you need something; I might not be available for you then.”

If you happen to catch this form of manipulation and try to point out this behavior to them, they will then try to make you seem like a bad person and feel guilty. Even worse, sometimes they might try to make it look like it’s all in your head and that you’re just imagining things.

The silent treatment

Another common strategy that manipulative people will employ to emotionally manipulate is the silent treatment. Typically used when people are upset, these individuals will deliberately use it to get a certain response out of you.

By ignoring your calls, texts, and emails, they want you to keep running back and beg for their attention.

When they don’t respond, it can create negative emotions like anxiety and doubt.

For example, many thoughts may race in your head, such as “Did I make things worse?” or “I hope they don’t hate me.”

Manipulators want you to feel this way, so that when they eventually respond back, you have good feelings, like a sense of relief. It’s a way for them to have control over your emotions and well-being.


Have you ever tried to express a complaint or concern about something to a friend, co-worker, or spouse, and instead of getting advice or comfort you receive a message that your situation is nothing and that they’ve had it worse? If so, you might be interacting with a manipulative person.

Emotional manipulators will try to do things like marginalizing, undermining, or belittling anything that you bring up to them, no matter how severe the issue is. Usually, the goal for this type of tactic is either to guilt-trip you into feeling bad or siphon all the attention, or they merely want you to stop talking.

After all, it’s usually all about them.

Try to recall the last time you were genuinely being listened to by this individual. If it has been too far between, or possibly never, you might be being manipulated.


In contrast to many of the previous signs, which are meant to make people feel bad, one sign of manipulative behavior actually involves the opposite.

Those who are skilled in using emotional manipulation will often try to make you feel great about yourself and shower you with praises and make you feel like you are the most important person in the world. They may eagerly agree with everything that you say to get what they want or to enter your inner circle of trust. 

However, this is disingenuous, and they are just telling you what they think you want to hear. It can get you to put your guard down and make you more willing to do what they ask of you.

Unfortunately, once they’ve gotten what they want out of you, a manipulator may flip the switch and seem disinterested in you or make you feel awful about yourself. This type of behavior can damage your self-esteem.


They might lie to get out of something that they did. For example, they’ll insist that it never happened and that you are paranoid, or they might convince you that you did something wrong, when, in fact, it never occurred to begin with. This is known as gaslighting, and it can also involve twisting your words around or making up stories that cause you to question and doubt yourself. [2]

Sometimes, it can happen over the smallest things. For example, the person who manipulates may try to tell you that you forgot to lock the door when deep down, you know that you did. Then the next day, they will try to tell you that you forgot to do it again, even though you made absolutely sure that you did.

These kinds of incidents can create self-doubt and make you feel like you are out of touch with reality, when your version of the events is correct, and the issues are entirely made up or blown out of proportion.
Do you feel manipulated in some of your relationships?

Pushing buttons

Someone skilled at manipulating will know exactly what pushes your buttons and won’t hesitate to do that if they feel like it will coax a response from you or get you to feel down about yourself.

An excellent example of this is pointing out the eating habits of someone who feels sensitive about their weight. They might also let them know that their clothes don’t fit properly.

Manipulative people will often look for your weaknesses and exploit them when it suits them most, or they can do it frequently to make it seem like there is always something wrong with you.

They may want you to feel insecure, question yourself, and rely on them for validation. With these criticisms, there are also often not any solutions as there really isn’t any intention from the manipulative person to improve anything. Rather, they are there to keep you down and make themselves feel like they have power and control over you. That’s not to say a manipulative person cannot change – they absolutely can. Just make sure that their actions back up any spoken desire to change or improve the relationship.

Are you being manipulated? Therapy can help

Manipulation can take a toll on your self-esteem, can feel like emotional blackmail, and is a surefire way to destroy a relationship. In some cases, it can also be considered abuse. If you’re doubting yourself or experiencing low self-esteem as a result of manipulation, therapy has been proven to improve self-esteem. It can also help with interpersonal skills, like learning how to be more assertive and set boundaries to put some emotional distance in between you and your manipulator. When you establish boundaries you can take a step back and see the big picture.

If you are experiencing trauma, support is available. Please see our Get Help Now page for more resources.

Nowadays, you no longer need to physically commute to a therapist’s office, thanks to platforms like BetterHelp which offer online therapy. Online therapy has proven just as effective as in-person therapy in treating mental health conditions, plus it’s more convenient and often more affordable. 

Counseling from BetterHelp can help you through your specific situation and provide you with advice on what to do going forward. 


Noticing the signs of manipulative behavior can be difficult. However, there are some telltale signs to look for if you believe that you’re being taken advantage of. It feels awful, and it can be challenging to accept that perhaps someone you care for deeply is manipulating you but recognizing the common features of this type of behavior is the first step to getting help and improving your situation. 

Target disruptive behavior in therapy
The information on this page is not intended to be a substitution for diagnosis, treatment, or informed professional advice. You should not take any action or avoid taking any action without consulting with a qualified mental health professional. For more information, please read our terms of use.
Get the support you need from one of our therapistsGet started