Is there someone who makes you feel like you’re always to blame? In this Shape article, Mindpath Health’s Brandy Porche, LPC, discusses how to spot the warning signs of when someone’s messing with your emotions — and what to do about it.

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When someone is emotionally manipulated by a partner, family member, or friend, it may not immediately trigger a lightbulb “aha!” response — it may take some time before you begin to recognize the relationship as unhealthy or toxic.

Emotional manipulation is sneaky (think: someone making you feel bad about a decision you made, so they can instead get you to do what they want) because it can show up in all kinds of behaviors that aren’t overtly negative. The nuances of emotional manipulation make it difficult to pinpoint when someone is being manipulated or its impacts.

“Emotional manipulation is the complete disregard of someone else’s feelings while strategically trying to persuade them to feel otherwise,” says Brandy Porche, LPC at Mindpath Health.

This type of manipulation can occur in all relationships, including familial, romantic, platonic, and even professional. It’s a form of controlling others by deceitfully pressuring them to feel or act in a way that doesn’t align with their values and emotions.

“If you have voiced a concern but still feel frustrated, anxious, and pacified, you [may] have been emotionally manipulated,” says Porche. “You will know when [the relationship] is unhealthy when it affects your emotions and thinking negatively.”

Common types of emotional manipulation

Some forms of emotional manipulation are more obvious than others, however, the goal tends to be to gain control over someone else’s feelings for the other person’s benefit.

Bullying: Emotional bullying can involve name-calling or constant criticism, such as “are you stupid?” and “how could you think that was a good meal to cook?”

Guilting: Using guilt to control or make someone feel less-than is another method of emotional manipulation. Someone saying, “you don’t really love me if you choose to hang out with your friends instead of me,” or “your choice to not be a doctor is killing mom” are forms of guilting, says Mascardo.

Giving the cold shoulder: A manipulator might also frequently withdraw from the relationship. “This is the common practice of ignoring or ‘icing someone out’ who has acted in a way you [the manipulator] find undesirable, such as stonewalling (not speaking to) or withholding affection,” says Therese Mascardo, PsyD, LCP.

Being passive-aggressive: A partner might make comments such as “haven’t we already seen your family enough?” or gaslight the other person by calling them “crazy” as a means to indirectly shift the narrative to make them question their sanity or way of thinking.

Love-bombing: Love-bombing, or grand, over-the-top gestures to make a person feel special, is another particularly harmful form of emotional manipulation because it disguises itself as a positive act. By showering their partner in affection, compliments, attention, and gifts, a person is able to build love, trust, and connection with, say, their partner. But once those things are established (or at least seem to be established), the love-bomber (aka emotional manipulator) is able to have more control over the other person.

Savior complex: Another example of emotional manipulation? Being in a relationship (again, whether that’s platonic, romantic, or professional) with someone who tends to “play the hero” or makes remarks, such as “you have everything thanks to me,” says Mascardo.

What are signs of emotional manipulation?

  • There is a clear lack of boundaries.
  • There are feelings of resentment or anger.
  • You feel drained or constantly tired.
  • You’re acting in ways that aren’t aligned with your values to satisfy the other person.
  • You begin to isolate yourself from friends and family.

How can you protect yourself?

The first step is to identify the problem and practice healthy boundaries. In other words, setting up boundaries — essentially expressing your authentic thoughts and feelings in hopes of establishing a better, more equitable relationship — can be a pretty effective way to shield yourself from emotional manipulation.

Next, create distance. That could mean taking a trip away or attending weekly therapy sessions. While this step can look different for everyone, the goal is still the same: to take some time separate from the other person (be it your partner or friend) to reflect.

Consulting your support systems, such as family, friends, or a therapist, can also help identify toxic patterns and potentially prevent you from getting into an emotionally manipulative relationship altogether.

Chances are if something feels off in a relationship, it probably is, and it’s necessary to listen to that gut feeling so that you can evaluate the situation and make changes accordingly.

Read the full Shape article with sources.

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