Writer’s note: Hey, Psych2Goers! A disclaimer : This article isn’t meant for diagnosis or treatment. It is to create awareness among the general public, so if you or someone you know may be struggling, don’t hesitate to seek professional help from Psychiatrists or other trusted professionals.
Dr. Preston Ni, the author of “How to Communicate Effectively and Handle Difficult People” and “Communication Success with Four Personality Types”, states that psychological manipulation can be defined as “the exercise of undue influence through mental distortion and emotional exploitation, with the intention to seize power, control, benefits and/or privileges at the victim’s expense.” He asserted that it is crucial to differentiate healthy social influence from psychological manipulation.
- Healthy social influence: a part of the give and take of constructive relationships.
- Psychological manipulation: one person is used for the benefit of another. The manipulator intentionally creates an imbalance of power, and takes advantage of the victim to carry out his or her agenda.
Manipulative relationships are abusive and incredibly damaging. More often than not, victims of this type of abuse are blind to the manipulation. They rarely suspect that the people who love them the most are using psychological control.
Below is a list of 6 tactics that the manipulative people often use to pressurize you into a position of disadvantage:
Definition: a condition in which two or more people, typically family members, are involved in each other’s activities and personal relationships to an excessive degree, thus limiting or precluding healthy interaction and compromising individual autonomy and identity (American Psychological Association, n.d.).
Amylia (not a real name), a senior in high school, pursues her ambition in becoming a graphic designer by attending a university in the big city. One semester holiday, she decided to not go back home and spent her time by joining a volunteer team. Consequently, she missed attending her cousin’s wedding ceremony. Due to this, her mother was upset and made her feel guilty for not making herself available for the family event.
According to Lewis & Legg (2020), one of signs of a well-functioning family is the strong family bonds, however sometimes you can have too much of a good thing, which can blur the line of personal boundaries. In an enmeshed family, there is no establishment of boundaries, on the contrary, the family members are fused together by unhealthy emotions. Adcox & Morin (2020) state that in an enmeshed family, members would be guilt-tripped if they don’t visit enough, call enough, or if they miss family events. However, in a healthy family, there might be some complaints or teasing, but they are not made to feel guilty.
As stated by a psychoanalyst, Dr. Ann Chanler (2014), enmeshment will compromise our sense of individuality. Our own life goals can be hindered since our identity is wrapped up to be aligned with the other person’s needs. The following may be the signs of enmeshment:
- An inability to control our emotional involvement with another person
- An exaggerated sense of empathy and responsibility for the other person’s feelings
- Guilt or anxiety when not preoccupied with the other person’s experience
- Intense fear of conflict in the relationship
- An inability to feel happy if the other person is unhappy
What are the appropriate steps when you notice such behaviour among your loved ones? According to Lewis & Legg (2020), if you’re experiencing enmeshment and are seeking help, you’ll probably focus on:
- learning to set boundaries
- knowing that it’s OK to take care of your own needs and emotions
- building independence and improving self-esteem
- breaking unhealthy habits
If you feel that your parenting style is unhealthy and are seeking help, you’ll probably focus on:
- starting to develop your own identity
- encouraging your child, especially as they get older, to become independent
- showing your child that it’s wonderful to have relationships outside of the family and that it’s OK to have a mentor who can advise them
- getting involved in hobbies and interests outside of your family circle — and perhaps volunteering
2. Deflection, diversion and eversion
Deflection: means that you’re passing something over to someone else in an attempt to draw the attention away from yourself. It is a psychological defense in which you deflect blame to others.
Diversion: the act of causing something or someone to turn in a different direction, or to be used for a different purpose.
Evasion: a form of paralogia or delusional thinking in which an idea that is logically next in a chain of thought is replaced by another idea closely but not accurately or appropriately related to it (American Psychological Association, n.d.).
A wife confronted her husband about a suspected infidelity. The husband effectively deflected and diverted the issue by responding that he certainly understood how she might be suspicious because he’d been working so hard lately. However, the wife was not consoled, she continued pressing the issue – but the more she tried to pin him down, the more evasive he became, combining his issue-dodging tactic with other tactics.
According to Dr. George Simon, in order to avoid answering direct questions and being caught in lies, narcissists may deflect by transferring the conversation unto you. Then, they would divert by effectively steering the subject into something else or focusing attention on some other related or tangential issue. In addition, they would also evade by responding with something unrelated, vague or meaningless. Their goal is to confuse everyone and redirect attention. This way, they don’t have to take responsibility for their behaviour.
Definition: the intense painful feeling or experience of believing we are flawed and therefore unworthy of acceptance and belonging (Brown, 2008).
You read a hurtful tweet from your best friend. She tweeted, “My best friend should consider losing some of her weight. She no longer fits in her old clothes that she is begging me to buy a new pair of clothes for her birthday.”
In Brene Brown’s book, “I Thought It Was Just Me (But It Isn’t): Telling the Truth About Perfectionism, Inadequacy, and Power”, manipulative people might use shame to some extent or other as an effort to control other people. Brown defines shame as “the intense painful feeling or experience of believing we are flawed and therefore unworthy of acceptance and belonging.”
These people are fully aware that they can change the pain of shame into a weapon. That’s why they love humiliation. Frequent insults that highlight disgust, contempt and disappointment are favourites and they prefer to pull them out in front of an audience. The audience can either be online or offline. The aim is to produce the feelings of worthlessness and inadequacy to subdue you into submission. If you fall prey to this tactic, you may become trapped in a vicious cycle of negative thought patterns and feelings.
Definition: the encouragement of infantile or childish behaviour in a more mature individual (American Psychological Association, n.d.).
Imagine you are in a scenario, where your 7-year-old daughter is crouching down to tie her shoelaces. She has just learned how to tie them yesterday from your husband, so it is natural for her to take a longer time to do this than it takes you. However, you are in a hurry to get her out of the door, so you continue to tie her shoelaces in the morning just to save those precious moments.
What do you think of the above behaviour?
By taking over the task that a child is able to finish on her own, it will actually diminish her sense of autonomy, even though you’re doing so for a completely justifiable reason. Eventually, with enough practice when you’re not rushed, she will become an accomplished shoelace-tier, and this will no longer be an issue (Whitbourne, 2018).
Now that you have this scenario in your mind, let’s all fast forward to the time when the daughter has already grown up to a 20-year-old college student. Let’s ponder what will happen if you still continue with your way, finishing things on her behalf. Somehow, you treat her like a child, a term known as infantilization. You are intrusive and constantly tell her what to do and how to do certain things, instead of guiding her. You tend to dig around in the emotional life of your child and make decisions for your daughter as you might feel the need for her to stay dependent on you even if her childhood days are long over, so you can continue to feel important in your daughter’s life (Whitbourne, 2018).
It is undeniable that parents should play a role in the children’s life, however it has a certain limit that should be adhered to. Think of raising children like flying a kite, you would allow your children to go as high or in any direction that they would like, but at the same time when they deviate too far away from the right path, you might want to tug on the string and reel them in and guide them into the right way.
Definition: a situation in which two members of a family in conflict each attempt to draw another member to their side. Triangulation can occur, for example, when two parents are in conflict and their child is caught in the middle (American Psychological Association, n.d.).
Your father always favours your more genius twin brother. He is the “good child”, whereas you are always the “scapegoat”, to be blamed for any wrongdoing. It feels as if your father is pitting you against your own brother. You feel that you should try harder to earn your father’s love and affection by competing with your twin brother. You are confused and wonder, “Am I being manipulated?”
Dr. Ellnor Greenberg (2020) states that triangulation in psychology is the term for a rather heartless form of manipulation in which the manipulator wants to control a three-person interpersonal situation for their own benefit. The manipulator usually threatens to exclude or applies the method of divide and conquer, to purposefully separate you from the people around you.
Triangulation is a strategy that is applied by different kinds of people who all share one similarity: They feel insecure or inundated, thus resort to hurtful manipulation to get more attention, sabotage a competitor, or feel safe in a relationship (Greenberg, 2020).
Triangulation can either be intentional or unintentional. Sometimes, people may do it without having an insight as to what they are doing. They tend to be shy, awkward, or afraid of confrontation.
Narcissistic triangulation, on the other hand, happens intentionally. It uniquely serves the needs of someone with narcissism because it enables them utilize both parties as a source of narcissistic supply (Crystal & Legg, 2021).
How to respond to such a tactic?
Try to have a direct conversation and speak to them privately. State that you are aware of their behaviour. Apart from that, try to protect your emotional well-being by building a network of supportive friends and loved ones (Crystal & Legg, 2021).
6. Playing the victim
Definition: fabrication or exaggeration of victimhood for a variety of reasons such as to justify abuse of others, to manipulate others, a coping strategy, attention seeking or diffusion of responsibility.
“I don’t know what I’ll do if you don’t help me.”
“You don’t care about me.”
“Why do you treat me like this?”
“Nobody helps me.”
Ever heard of the above phrases? These are some of the phrases that could be uttered by a narcissist.
According to Darlene Lancer, JD, LMFT (2019), a narcissist would resort to playing the victim instead of blaming you. They use the “poor me” tactic in order to evoke your guilt and sympathy so you will comply with whatever they want you to do. When you confront them about their behaviour, they would dismiss you and claim that their suffering is the result of circumstances or the other person. How to recognize this? Narcissists would say that they have no other option and accuse that you are actually the one manipulating them. This helps them to escape blame while gaining support from more unsuspecting victims.
Overall, a narcissist’s goal is to control. This degrades the victim’s sense of autonomy, role identity and diminishes social standing. Once weakened, the manipulator can easily exert his or her control on their victims. The key of recognizing an unhealthy relationship with a manipulative person is identifying patterns, because many of these tactics are covert, it may take years to see the insidious patterns of abuse, especially if you have a history of abuse or being an overly forgiving person. However, when you know these strategies and can name them, it would be more difficult for a narcissist to use them on you.
Apart from that, it is important to take note that not everybody who behaves in the above manners may be purposefully trying to manipulate you. Some people simply have very poor habits. Nevertheless, when your rights, interests and safety are jeopardized, it’s absolutely necessary to identify these manners (Ni, 2015).
Victims of chronic manipulation and emotional abuse may find relief in therapy. You can work with a therapist to recognize manipulation, escape from an abusive relationship, and minimize the risk of being trapped in a manipulative relationship again. In therapy, you’ll develop healthy boundaries and work through any reluctance you have to impose those boundaries.
Adcox, S. & Morin, A. (2020, August 26). How enmeshed families function. Retrieved May 17, 2021, from https://www.verywellfamily.com/can-a-family-be-too-close-1695789#:~:text=Parents%20confiding%20in%20the%20children,involved%20in%20the%20child’s%20life
Brown, B. (2008). I thought it was just me (but it isn’t): Telling the truth about perfectionism, inadequacy, and power. New York: Gotham Books.
Chanler, A. (2014, October 12). Tangled up In enmeshment? Retrieved May 16, 2021, from https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/contemporary-psychoanalysis-in-action/201410/tangled-in-enmeshment
Greenberg, E. (2020, August 29). Have you been the victim of narcissistic triangulation? Retrieved May 16, 2021, from https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/understanding-narcissism/202008/have-you-been-the-victim-narcissistic-triangulation
Lancer, D. (2019, July 2). Covert tactics Manipulators use to control and confuse you. Retrieved May 16, 2021, from https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/toxic-relationships/201907/covert-tactics-manipulators-use-control-and-confuse-you
Legg, T. J., & Raypole, C. (2021, February 25). Narcissistic Triangulation: What It Is and How to Respond. Retrieved May 16, 2021, from https://www.healthline.com/health/narcissistic-triangulation
Ni, P. (2015, October 11). 14 signs of psychological and emotional manipulation. Retrieved May 16, 2021, from https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/communication-success/201510/14-signs-psychological-and-emotional-manipulation
Simon, G. (2009, March 16). Evasion and diversion as manipulation tactics. Retrieved May 16, 2021, from https://counsellingresource.com/features/2009/03/05/evasion-and-diversion/
Whitbourne, S. K. (2018, October 16). This is how narcissistic parents treat their children. Retrieved May 16, 2021, from https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/fulfillment-any-age/201810/is-how-narcissistic-parents-treat-their-children