You and Emotionally Manipulating People

People feel emotionally and physically terrible when they realize they have been manipulated. They’ll say, “I feel so stupid, why didn’t I see this, or I thought I was going crazy.”

Most all of us have been emotionally manipulated at least once in our lives, and it usually feels the same for most everyone…bad.

People who manipulate others do it for a variety of reasons that are not always obvious or reasonable. One constant however, is that they want you to question yourself. The more unsure you are of yourself, the higher the probability they can manipulate you.

So, how can you recognize and protect yourself from emotionally manipulative people?

You put aside logical reasoning and rely on your emotional information.


Because reasoning with an emotional manipulator will not work – it keeps you stuck in a never ending cycle of explining and questioning. The key is to learn to rely on the information from your emotions.

A few weeks ago I gave a talk to the South Carolina Collaborative Law group on emotional manipulation. I’ve provided my notes from that talk and a 1-6 emotional-manipulation-check-list (a gut-check as one person called it) to help guide you.

To get the bigger picture, I think its best to read my notes first then look through points 1-6 to pull it together (there is some overlap in wording).


Dr. Lisa Holland’s notes from the June 16, 2011 presentation to the SC Collaborative Law Group

“Psychological Manipulation is a type of social emotional influence that aims to change the behavior or perceptions of others through deceptive and underhanded tactics.”

When you evaluate a case, you rely on your training and past experience, but when it comes to recognizing an emotionally manipulative client, your best tool is your own emotional information.

Here are some ways to recognize people who are emotional manipulators and also recognize your own emotional information:

  • Emotional manipulators are very charming. In the beginning you will like them. In general they are especially nice around others, but behind closed doors they are quite the opposite with you. They are skilled at the use of deception.

∗You may feel confused. You question that their thinking and actions don’t seem   congruent or make sense.

  • They deliberately plant seeds of guilt by focusing on your perceived inadequacies. Their goal is to elevate themselves and reduce you. They listen closely to learn what affects you and then use this information as ammunition against you. Words are their weapon of choice.

∗You may question yourself and feel defensive.

  • They are always right and have a deep sense of entitlement. They do not see the other side of situations or have empathy for other people’s plight. Little irritations are BIG problems for the emotional manipulator.

∗You may feel frustrated and can’t seem to understand “their” reality.

  • They thrive on your reactions. Some may flirt with you and accuse you of overacting, guilt you by reminding you that they aren’t perfect, or put you down and call you sensitive when you react.

∗You may feel trapped and try to create distance by avoiding their call

Note: These are not diagnostic criteria, but some common traits of people who manipulate others in business situations. Since emotional manipulation can be subtle and logical reasoning can lead to more confusion; the first step is to pay attention to your initial feelings of in-congruence.

(1). Recognize in-congruence (something just doesn’t feel right) it’s the first clue that will start you questioning yourself.

(2). Track what you feel. If your “in-congruent emotion” is a one time thing, it’s probably no problem. However, if you continue to feel in-congruent emotions around this person, you may be experiencing “priming” a psychological construct where continued exposure produces a certain response.

(3). Do not try to reason with them or use logic to explain yourself – it won’t work. Emotional manipulators use deception as a method of communication, their tactics are not reasonable.

(4). Check your heart rate, notice if it increases during anticipation and in the moment. It will elevate with heightened emotion and calm when you relax. A heightened emotional state also makes it hard for you to think clearly. Try to keep yourself calm and let reasoning and logic support YOUR emotions. For example, you might remind yourself to stay calm, that the other person is trying to create unnecessary conflict.

(5). Don’t waste time trying to fix the situation or person.

(6). Make a decision to leave the situation or stay and protect yourself.