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Have you ever felt like you were being turned into a marionette or a string puppet by someone who you know or love?
Being manipulated or having manipulation tactics used against you is typical of psychological warfare, except the battlefield is your home, life, and day to day existence.
While we all want to get what we want, gaslighters, narcissists, and sociopaths tend to take this to the extreme, consciously using manipulation tactics to get what they want—usually at your expense.
Worse still, manipulators are really, really good at it, and you may not realize you are being manipulated. But the signs are there if you open your eyes, become self-aware, and look at your interactions with manipulators through a discerning eye.
It’s time to cut the strings on manipulation tactics and embrace freedom.
What Is Manipulation?
Manipulation is when someone uses subterfuge and underhanded tactics to coerce someone else into doing what they want. Usually, the person being manipulated wouldn’t want to do what they are being forced to do, but the manipulator is focused on obtaining their goals, not dealing fairly with the person they are abusing.
Using manipulation tactics against someone is a form of emotional abuse. There are many different manipulation tactics, including (but definitely not limited to):
Why Would Someone Use Manipulation?
If you are wondering why anyone would do such terrible things to someone who trusts them, you have never had to deal with the fallout of being manipulated. The reason for manipulation is simple: the manipulator wants something, and they want to have it, no matter what it takes to get it.
At a more complex level, some manipulators such as gaslighters, narcissists, and sociopaths may also manipulate someone (aka their victim) because it gives them a sense of control—they are holding the strings.
The objective of manipulation is then not only to get something from the victim (that the victim wouldn’t actually want to do), but to disempower the victim and empower the manipulator. Like vampires, these manipulators suck your willpower and turn you into their personal zombie.
Why It Sucks Being Manipulated
Some victims of manipulation are so coerced they don’t realize the damage it does to them. When asked about the manipulation tactics that had been used against them, they may claim the manipulator had their best interest at heart.
But being manipulated means you become dependent on the manipulator (adding to their power), and you lose your personal agency and independence. Without willpower, you become a prisoner in your own life.
Manipulation can lead to a loss of trust between partners, the end of relationships, and the formation of abusive relationship dynamics. Ultimately, manipulation is bad because it causes:
An Imbalance of Power
You lose your power to the manipulator, who places their own well-being over yours.
Disorientation and Disempowerment
Being manipulated can cause the victim to feel like strangers in their own lives, and they suffer disorientation and loss of personal power (waiting for permission from their abuser to do something), which leads to total disempowerment.
Doubt and Loss of Self-Trust
When you have been manipulated, you will feel like you can’t trust yourself to make decisions anymore. You begin to doubt those around you, wondering if they are also manipulating you as you’ve suffered a violation of trust.
Who are the Manipulators?
Ultimately, who are the manipulators you should really watch out for? Let’s take a look:
A gaslighter is someone who uses manipulation to convince someone they are losing their mind and therefore establish the manipulator’s authority over their victim. While gaslighting isn’t necessarily a psychological or personality characteristic, it refers to specific actions used to make the victim doubt themselves and deny any validation to the victim’s perspective or feelings.
The term gaslighting is from the famous 1938 play by Patrick Hamilton—Gaslight—which tells the tale of a married couple, where the husband tries to drive his wife mad by constantly switching on the stove’s gaslight so she will begin to self-doubt and lose all personal trust.
For more on gaslighting at work, read our guide on the warning signs your boss is gaslighting you at work.
Named for the fable of Narcissus, narcissists are considered a personality type that is obsessed with their own interests and lives. Narcissists lack empathy, so they don’t understand why their actions are harmful or manipulative of their victims. But the question is whether they are truly evil?
Someone becomes a narcissist when they need to feel like they are better than everyone else, when they can manipulate their victim into constantly hero worshiping them, and when they feel entitled to anything they want.
Narcissists act like the world owes them something, which is why they manipulate, as they believe it’s their right or that they know what’s best for the person they are “in charge” of.
While narcissists may have a tendency to see nothing wrong with taking what they want, in extreme cases, they may also be sociopaths. A sociopath is often called the condition without any moral reason.
If someone sees nothing wrong with the most ghastly deeds against their fellow man and will gladly manipulate them to do what they want (no matter the cost to the victim), they are likely a sociopath.
A sociopath has no concept of right or wrong. They simply do what they please, without any regard for authority, law, or morality. Sociopaths have no conscience when it comes to their actions.
Similarities between Gaslighters, Narcissists, and Sociopaths
While these are three distinct personalities, there is some overlap between the behavior of a sociopath, a narcissist, and a gaslighter. Look out for these signs:
Manipulation Tactics to Get What They Want
Gaslighters, narcissists, and sociopaths all use manipulation tactics to ultimately get what they want from you. They may even use the same tactics, merely applied to differing levels.
A Lack of Genuine Empathy and Caring
These three personality types have one serious character flaw in common—they lack empathy and can’t genuinely care about the people they manipulate. While some of us may blind ourselves into manipulating others with the excuse of doing it for that person’s benefit too, these three personalities simply do it because they can.
Charm and Manipulation Walk Hand in Hand
Who can say no to a charming person who seems to have your best interest at heart? With their charm and methodical manipulations, narcissists, gaslighters, and sociopaths easily destroy boundaries and back their victims into corners. They’ll smile while they knife you in the back, and they’ll send you a get well soon card afterward too.
Lying Comes Naturally to Them
For most of us, lying is not natural, and we have “tells” that give away we are lying. These three “bullies” are experts at lying, and they do it for fun. Worse still, they believe their own lies, making them dangerous to be around.
Twisting the Truth
Not only do these personalities lie, but they also twist the truth to serve their purposes. When dealing with any of these three “bullies,” you need to be careful of their version of the truth.
There are several manipulation tactics that gaslighters, narcissists, and sociopaths use to get what they want and establish their power over you. Knowing what to watch out for can help you steer clear.
20 Manipulation Tactics Used by Gaslighters, Narcissists, and Sociopaths
Like some of the gun-happy cults that have featured on TV, gaslighters, narcissists, and sociopaths have an arsenal of weapons (aka manipulations) at their disposal.
When one doesn’t work, there are several others they can use to finally get what they want—your obedience and complete compliance with their wishes.
1. Love Bombing
“But I love you so much, which is why I got you this new watch, because I only want the best for you.”
Love bombing is a fundamental tactic that these three “bully” personalities learn to use as a manipulation strategy to achieve their objectives. To use the love bomb tactic, the manipulator will find a way to use their victim’s vanity against them.
In a love bomb attack, the manipulator showers their victim in excessive profusions of love and expensive gifts or extreme displays of affection, which all make the victim feel beholden to their manipulator. They buy your love so you will trust them and do as they ask.
When you try to get out of the snare, they switch it up with statements like, “Didn’t I get you everything you wanted, but you won’t do this one thing for me?” Love bombing quickly turns into guilt tripping.
2. Guilt Tripping
“But you have so much, and you don’t show any gratitude to me.”
Guilt tripping is the evil twin of love bombing, and this tactic is very useful to a manipulator who relies on your own sense of moral justice, turning this against you.
When you are made to feel like you are ungrateful for all the things someone has done for you, they gain power over you as your self-confidence takes a knock and you become vulnerable to outside manipulation.
The narcissist, gaslighter, or sociopath may remind you of all they have done for you (in the love bombing), and follow this with an implied or articulated recrimination, making you feel like you’re ungrateful.
If you typically see yourself as a grateful person, you will experience stress and vulnerability when they make you see yourself as something you’re not.
3. Psychological Projection
“I’m not the one doing the manipulations here. Can’t you see how you’ve pushed me to get what you want?”
Trying to have a meaningful discussion about manipulation with the manipulator is like catching a slippery eel in your hands. They easily leave a slimy residue on you, while slithering away unaffectedly. How do they do this? Through psychological projection.
They subtly change the topic of the discussion so you feel like the bad guy, instead of seeing them as the bad guy. They cleverly deflect the real focus of the discussion by making it about you.
By accusing you of something similar to what you have tried to point out, they cause doubt and insecurities, making you vulnerable to their manipulations.
4. Dodge, Evade, and Redirect
“I can’t believe you’d accuse me of that. I notice you are very emotional and worked up. Is there something going on with you?”
Removing the focus from themselves, the manipulator makes your discussion die a quick death by saying you look emotional or that you are under stress (which they “supposedly” don’t want to add to).
While you are busy doubting yourself because they so cleverly evaded the original comments, they easily paint themselves in a new light by feigning concern about you.
5. Making You the Villain
“I’m sorry you feel that way. But I can’t put up with your abuse any longer.”
If you decide to accuse your manipulator of being manipulative, they will seamlessly change the conversation so you appear to be the abuser instead. Whether they accuse you of abuse up front or cleverly suggest it by projecting their tactics onto you, they achieve their goal of unsettling you and making you vulnerable.
6. Smearing Your Name
“Did you hear what Ben said about you?”
A classic manipulation tactic is to pretend that people are talking about you, and they are the ones who know what’s being said. Meanwhile, they are the ones spreading lies and misinformation about you.
Ultimately, you end up going to them for information and kicking people out of your life, when it’s the manipulator who has been orchestrating the whole smear campaign.
7. “But I’m the Victim”
“I really didn’t have any other choice. Don’t you see that Sandra doesn’t like me?”
We all want to cheer on the underdog, protect the victim, and encourage someone who is being bullied. However, these three “bullies” easily make themselves out as the victim in any situation.
If they lose their job (and become financially dependent on you), it’s because of a new boss, the lack of training, or because they had to take care of you while you were sick. It’s never their fault.
Because you see them as the victim, you feel sorry for them and will do as they ask.
8. Isolate and Dominate
“They don’t care about you like I do.”
Cutting off people who usually surround you is a sign that someone is trying to isolate and dominate you. By accusing other people in your life, the manipulator makes you doubt people and feel alone. The result is that you will easily become dominated because you stand alone.
9. You’re It—The Scapegoat Game
“What did you do wrong? Why can’t you get even simple things right?”
This is a typical example of the “bullies” blaming you for everything, making you into the scapegoat. With constant blame and negative comments, the manipulator becomes empowered as they wear down their victim’s self-esteem.
10. Control and Coerce Through Lies
“That’s not what you said.”
With lies, the manipulator causes doubt and uncertainty in their victim, creating fear and confusion. In a vulnerable state, the victim is open to further manipulation. Once the manipulator can convince you that you are forgetful or prone to not hearing, they can easily tell you lies and insist that these happened and are true.
The end goal is to make you rely on the manipulator to remind you of things which will place doubt at the back of your mind.
11. Changing the Finish Line
“I expect better than this from you.”
Imagine being set a task, and once you accomplish the task, you don’t get a reward, but end up in a nasty fight instead. These manipulators are adept at setting a goal and then moving that goal or changing the goal entirely.
Their manipulations are aimed at keeping you on the back foot at all times so they can enjoy power over you, making you desperate for their approval.
12. The Silent Sulk
“I don’t have anything to say.” (But really, they do.)
Like a child that sulks, a manipulator may resort to this tactic until they get what they want from you. Instead of talking about issues like a mature adult, they keep quiet and sulk, letting their emotions speak for them. A silent sulk is aimed at making you feel guilty and convincing you that you’re the one who did wrong (since the sulker is obviously in such distress).
13. Working through Intermediaries
“—silence—” (Bob will do the talking for me.)
In addition to the silent sulk tactic, they may use a third party or a close friend (who’s sympathetic to them) to relay their message. Instead of discussing things like grownups, the manipulator makes it impossible for their victim to really say what’s going on, since they use a biased third party to do their dirty work.
Note: Going for therapy with an unbiased professional counselor isn’t the same as this guerilla tactic of control.
14. Negative Reinforcement
“If you do this for me, I’ll stop doing something you don’t like.”
Negative and positive reinforcement are part of conditioning methodology, and when a narcissist, gaslighter, or sociopath uses negative reinforcement, it’s to get what they want.
While it’s normal for us to negotiate to get what we want, these three members of the dark triad don’t just want what they want, they also want to ensure you don’t get what you want.
With negative reinforcement, they apply pressure until you do what they want, then they remove the pressure.
15. Snide Remarks to Push Your Buttons
“Well, I guess you’re happy with yourself now.”
When you try to stand up for yourself, the manipulators resort to this form of manipulation to make you feel upset and get a rise out of you. Instead of listening to you or hearing your side of the story, they voice clear assumptions that paint you as the bad guy.
For them, the reward is your emotional reaction, since they took away your ability to act.
16. Dismissiveness and Withholding Praise
“All the other dancers did so well. You will have to practice more.”
It’s natural to look to others for some form of approval or validation, yet you will find none of this when you look at a manipulator. Their praise always has a sting in the tail, or they will praise others while withholding it from you.
Some will offer to help you improve (suggesting they know better and can do better, while placing you in a lower position of power in the relationship).
17. Stalking and Possessiveness
“I called to make sure you were safe, since I don’t like it when you go out late at night.”
Ever had someone pretend to love you, only to end up stalking you? These manipulators often do just that. They refuse to let you go anywhere without them, and if you do, they make you feel guilty about it. You are their new favorite toy, and they don’t like to share.
Initially, they may hide behind concern for you, but soon, they will simply take it for granted that you are theirs and they own you.
18. The Overly Critical Gaze
“—silently looking at you with a raised eyebrow—”
When you do something that takes away their power or doesn’t meet their approval (which they won't give you anyway), they may simply stare at you in a threatening way. The silent stare has more power than some words do, and when you’ve become used to being manipulated, a stare is often enough to make you become obedient again.
Note: This is also a form of negative reinforcement as the stare is unpleasant to you, so when you do what they want, they remove the unpleasant thing by no longer staring at you.
19. Psychological Blackmail
“But I love you, and I’ve done so much for you. How can you do this to me?”
By using expressions of love, the manipulator convinces you they deserve to be loved and obeyed. They blackmail you, especially if they are in a position of power (such as being the earner at home) and threaten to withhold their support if you don’t love them back.
Psychological blackmail can be overt or covert, and they may come all out and threaten to stop helping you if you don’t do as they want, or they may simply remind you of the things they do for you and what you don’t do for them.
20. The Savior Tactic
“Don’t worry; I’ll do that for you.”
A truly evil way of manipulation is when the manipulator rushes in to save you. By pretending to be the savior in any situation, they make their victim feel indebted to them.
However, in hindsight, you may find they were the cause of the problem to start with. They created the drama so they could rush in and save you—painting them as the eternal hero.
Final Thoughts on Manipulation Tactics
Manipulation tactics are devices used to coerce victims into sacrificing their individuality and free will for the sake of a controlling person who wants to take their partner’s power away. Some of the favorite manipulation tactics that are used by narcissists, gaslighters, and sociopaths include:
Have you been the victim of these manipulation tactics and more? Perhaps it’s time to think long and hard about the people in your life and whether they are good for your mental health, really have your best interests at heart, and if they are worth having in your life.
It’s important to learn how a lack of self-awareness influences manipulators to use manipulation tactics and dominate their relationships. Become self-aware too, so you can discover who is manipulating you and why, or help you stop if you are a manipulator.
And if you're looking for more resources on manipulation, be sure to check out these blog posts:
- 15 Weird Things That Narcissists Do to Manipulate People
- 75 Manipulation Quotes to Stop Gaslighters & Toxic People
- 15 Ways to Turn the Tables on a Gaslighter in Your Life