How to Detect Emotional Manipulation

by Sylvie Tremblay, MSc

Because emotional manipulation often starts so subtly, it’s easy to assume you’re just imagining it. But if you have any doubts about someone, listen to your gut. Emotional manipulation is a form of abuse, and it threatens your mental health just as much as your safety.

Classic Red Flags

Your relationship moves too quickly

“Manipulators can’t sustain the nice guy thing too long,” says Toni Coleman, a licensed clinical social worker and relationship coach based in McLean, Virginia. “They can’t stand it!” You may feel pressured into spending lots of time together and getting close before you're comfortable.

They're jealous and controlling

A manipulator wants your world to revolve around them. They might be jealous, accuse you of leaving them out or try to isolate you from your friends and family.

They’re always critical

Emotional manipulators gain control by weakening your sense of self-esteem. They’re quick to chime in with a negative comment at a joyful time and they don’t seem genuinely happy for you.

They're never wrong

Emotional manipulators typically feel like victims, and they’ll talk about how they're wronged by everyone. "That’s how they manipulate you," said Coleman, “You don’t want to say anything to wound them any more, because they’re such a nice person.”

They fly off the handle

“You think everything's going fine, and all of a sudden they’re upset,” said Coleman. “They’re accusing you of something, and you don’t even know what they’re talking about!”

They put your needs second

You might start a conversation talking about your thoughts and concerns, but it ends up being all about them.

They use emotional blackmail

Manipulators may put themselves down to get you to turn the conversation back to them so you conveniently forget the concerns you were discussing. They may even threaten to harm themselves unless you act like everything’s ok.

You walk on eggshells

You can’t think of what you did wrong, but you feel the need to apologize to make them feel better anyway. After a while, you might find that you’ll ignore your own needs to avoid a confrontation.

Your friends and family have doubts

The occasional personality clash is normal, but if your trusted loved ones all voice the same concerns, they’re probably right.


  • Understand the difference between persuasion and manipulation. Dr. Judi Cinéas, a licensed clinical social worker based in Florida, explains that persuasion becomes manipulation when it:

    • is based on lies or a hidden agenda
    • forces you to act against your best interest

    • makes you act in a way that feels uncomfortable or wrong

How to Protect Yourself

“Trust your instincts. When you find yourself in a situation where you’re constantly second guessing yourself, stop and listen to your own voice. There’s no better guide than that." – Toni Coleman, LCSW, CMC.

Most emotional manipulators aren’t violence and dangerous – although aggressive behaviors, like “revenge porn” and stalking are on the rise – but the best way to get out of a manipulative relationship is to make a plan. Decide beforehand whether you want to leave the relationship entirely or take a temporary break, and stick to it.

If you’re worried that your manipulator might turn violent, don’t face them alone. Talk to them over the phone, or recruit a friend or loved one for your face-to-face meeting, said Coleman. Don't be afraid to get professional help. A therapist can help you safely leave a relationship and work with you to reestablish boundaries.

Never stay in a relationship hoping to “fix” an emotional abuser. “When you’re in one of these relationships for too long, you don’t have your compass anymore,” said Coleman. “You’re in a victim role without realizing it.” If you don't want to break up entirely, ask for some time apart.

Emotional Manipulation in the Workplace

While it doesn’t work the same way as in a personal relationship -- after all, you can’t break up with a coworker -- emotional manipulation can also happen at the office. Some workplace manipulators love to build you up so you end of doing more than your share of the work – “Oh, you’d be so much better at this than me!” – said Cinéas. If you’re feeling manipulated by a coworker, talk to a trusted colleague, your boss, or human resources.

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About the Author

Sylvie Tremblay holds a Master of Science in molecular and cellular biology and has years of experience as a cancer researcher and neuroscientist. Based in Ontario, Canada, Tremblay is an experienced journalist and blogger specializing in nutrition, fitness, lifestyle, health and biotechnology, as well as real estate, agriculture and clean tech.