Manipulation, also known as coercion, destructive mind control, undue influence or controlling behaviour is a combination of influence techniques used over a period of time with a very particular motivation in mind. The manipulator is trying to build compliance in their victim, controlling their thinking, decision-making, emotions and behaviour.
Like anything else, if you don't know what you're looking for, you won't be able to see it. You may feel the emotional changes though, sometimes feeling great, sometimes feeling awful. But again, if you don't recognise what somebody is doing to you, you won't be able to do anything about it.
The only way to protect yourself from manipulation is to understand the subtleties of it so that when it's coming at you in real time you know what you're dealing with and you can take the necessary steps to avoid the effects of it.
So what does manipulation look like?
I'm going to write in general terms so that the ideas can be applied whether you think you might be in abusive relationship, a toxic family, a cult, a coercive group or a bullying situation in work.
Very often, the first thing a manipulator will do is to make friends with you. They know that if you think well of them, it's much easier for you to trust and believe them. They will typically offer you exactly what you want, whether that's somebody to understand you, somebody to offer you a job, a solution to a problem, company, help, advice or whatever. There will make you seem that you are in exactly the right place at exactly the right time with exactly the right person.
This is often accompanied by lots of attention on you. They want to know all about you, who you are, your past, your interests, your wants and your needs. It's often very easy to share information with this new person because it seems like they have similar interests, they make you believe that they are very like you.
There is often lots of encouragement, compliments and even flattery. Think of flattery as excessive or insincere praise. Something to keep in mind in such a situation is whether you think this person knows you well enough to be actually saying the things they are saying. Is what they say actually true? They may be making you feel good but is it appropriate? Do you feel a strong affinity with this new person within hours or even minutes of meeting them? If so, let this be the first warning sign for you have manipulation. The relationship is going very fast.
Another point... do you know as much about them as they do about you? If not, beware!
The relationship can go on at this level for a variable period of time. Your first impressions are being manipulated. You feel you are in a wonderful group or a wonderful relationship, there's no sense of problems or difficulties, and you want this to go on forever.
Of course, at some point, things change.
All the care and attention you've been receiving becomes conditional. You have to start doing some things or saying some things or not saying some things. The manipulator has started to influence your behaviour. You may think these are minor things, and indeed, they may be minor things, but the fact is, you have started to change. The changes are little so it really feels like a non issue. You're happy to make some minor changes in order to maintain this wonderful relationship.
Over time the changes required become more significant. Punishments start to kick in when you don't do as expected. You typically don't think of these as punishments, simply the manipulator gets upset. In general, the relationship is really nice and it's normal not to want the other party to be upset. Over time you learn what the other person likes and doesn't like and you begin to make decisions based on this. If you know they don't like it, you avoid doing it. Why would you do something that takes away the nice times, right?
The problem is you think that you are making your own decisions about what you do or don't do in relation to this other person. The actual situation is they are training you how to make decisions in relation to them. They are basically programming you in how they want to be treated.
Many of the things they want may be unreasonable or downright selfish. But they redefine them as things that are important for the relationship. Again, because things have been so good up to now, you go along because you want to keep the relationship going.
Over time, the rewards get less and less and the punishments increase. Instead of doing things to generate the nice times, you end up doing more and more things to avoid the bad times. You start tolerating situations that you would never have tolerated before. Many people say that if they were ever treated in such and such a way they would walk away from the relationship. However, in a manipulative relationship the opposite actually occurs. When the bad behaviour kicks in, the poor victim steps up to the plate and tries harder to please the manipulator. They want the compliments and not the criticism. This is due to the dependency that is inherent in the manipulative relationship because of the power imbalance. There's always a power imbalance in a manipulative relationship. It's never a relationship of equals, no matter how much the manipulator insists that it is. This particular dynamic explains why people stay in abusive relationships for years and why battered spouses go back to their abusive partners and why some relationships are on-off relationships for six, seven or even a dozen goes. The victim feels so bad when they're not with the manipulator that the only way to relieve the suffering is to go back.
You are always wrong, the manipulator is always right. Whenever anything goes wrong, you always get the blame. This is not typical of a normal, healthy relationship. Manipulators twist and distort the facts and/or the story in order to shift the blame to somebody else. This is not random. The manipulators consider themselves superior beings who don't make mistakes. If something goes wrong it's because some minion is not following instructions properly. Along the same lines, the manipulator does not take responsibility for things they do, unless, of course, it's a great result. If they treat you badly, it's because you forced them to or they were were simply responding to something that you did to them.
What the manipulator says and what the manipulator does very often are different things. They may promise you the sun, moon and stars but that complete lack of responsibility on their part means that they have no sense of obligation in providing what they said they would provide. This one can be easy to spot in some situations (think politicians!), but if you are emotionally involved it can be very difficult to see because the manipulators are experts at excuses, justifications and shifting blame. They have a gob for all occasions.
That mouth of theirs is also frequently used for lying. They will omit information, distort information and tell outright lies to your face. They can be very good at lying and one manipulator said that he lies as often as he breathes. Sometimes they will even lie when it would actually be better for them to tell the truth. And what happens when they get caught out in a lie? Yep, you guessed it! They lie some more! If you are living with the manipulator, then you are living under a cascade of lies every day, whether you realize it or not. Even the idea that they care about you or that they love you is a lie. It's deception. And it may be a lie that your whole life is based on!
They will not only use your weaknesses against you, they will use your strengths against you, too. You like to help others? They will keep you very busy in this department. You consider yourself an organised person? They'll have you doing all their paperwork, tidying and cleaning. You are creative? They will ask for your opinion and then present the ideas to others as their own.
They have a photographic memory of all your errors, slippages, wrongdoings, sins, slip ups and mistakes. They may even remember these things in chronological order. However, when you try to bring up anything that they may have done they have zero recollection or deny that it even happened. This last item is called gaslighting (from the film and the play of the same name) and the idea is that they deny that things happened or they claim that things happened when in reality they did not. They will often insist they are right even when there is contradictory evidence. This has the effect of making the victim doubt themselves even to the point of questioning their own sanity.
The constant chatter of the manipulator, the way they link things together that don't actually go together and the repetition of ideas important to them means that your ability to think clearly and logically gets shot to pieces. On top of that they keep you busy so you don't have time to think and reflect on your situation.
The constant criticism of you, at the level of identity (instead of "That was a ridiculous thing to do!" it's "You are ridiculous for doing that!") you lose your sense of who you are. You don't know who you are or what you like or what you want. Your life has been turned upside down and now revolves around the manipulator. Even people outside tell you that they don't recognize you any longer, that you have changed since you started this relationship. In a cult setting, the members may initially have a very strong sense of who they want to become, but eventually they, too, lose themselves in the group and need to group to have any sense of themselves.
Here we have the usual tactics of shouting, name-calling, swearing, ridiculing, the silent treatment and the physical abuse which includes not only hitting you but also hands around your neck, punching the wall near your head, throwing objects at you or around you, breaking things in front of you in anger or threatening to do any of the above.
Passive aggressive behaviour is often cited as evidence of manipulation but this term is often misused. Snide or snarky comments are often considered passive-aggressive with these don't really come under the category of indirect. You get the message directly from a snarky comment. Passive aggressive behaviour includes deliberately making mistakes, hiding or breaking your stuff, claiming they forgot to do things, doing a task poorly on purpose, turning up late for functions and doing things behind your back to scupper your plans. In these situations what the victim hears the manipulators say and what they perceive as reality do not lineup. This causes anxiety for most people.
People talk about walking on eggshells around the manipulator and this arises because of the unpredictability of these types. One day you can bring up a subject it's okay, the next day you bring it up and a war breaks out. You're never sure what mood they're going to be in when they come in the front door. On the one hand you want them to come back to the house because you miss them and on the other hand you know you are going to dread it when they're actually present.
You feel like you are on an emotional rollercoaster most of the time. Some people are not aware of this until after they leave the relationship and when they look back they realize their life was banging around from one crisis to the next. And all these crises were caused by the manipulator.
People in abusive relationships often receive conflicting messages about their emotions. You're too emotional. Your emotions are running you. You need to learn to control your emotions. I don't want to be around you when your emotional. But hey, don't you care that I had a bad day at work. You mustn't love me anymore. You don't include me in the relationship these days, you're so cold and inconsiderate!
To complete the picture, you have to also consider the manipulators. What kind of people manipulate others exclusively for their own benefit but pretend that everybody is winning? There are people for whom relationships are based on domination and exploitation. They give the impression of being friendly, loving charming and considerate. In reality, their calculating, callous and cruel.
A relationship with somebody with a personality disorder is very different from somebody who is a bit strict or somewhat controlling because they are anxious, insecure or simply believes that life should be lived this way. If you are dealing with a psychopath or a narcissist then you must understand what's going on because the rules are different. If you try and play by the normal rules of society you're in for a lot of suffering (as you already know!).
These people have little or no emotions. No empathy, guilt, remorse, shame, fear, consideration, embarrassment and are incapable of love in the way that normal, healthy people are. This means that they never feel bad about anything they do. Let me repeat that. They never feel bad about anything they do. That means they can abuse, take advantage of, con, swindle, rob, deceive, torment and otherwise ruin other people's lives and literally not care about the destruction they have caused.
It's hard for most people to get their head around the idea that there are some people on this planet who do not have emotions. It's even more difficult to consider that the person you love or loved and that you thought loved you back, might actually be abusing you and taking advantage of you for their own selfish gains.
However, if you are in such a relationship, at this point in time, the only way to undo the damage, take control of your life again, and not get caught in the future is to learn. You have to learn about these types, how they think, what motivates them, what tactics they were using, why those particular tactics, what effect the tactics had on you and your sense of self, and how they affected your perceptions, your decision-making, your beliefs, your emotions and your behaviours. There are no shortcuts. It takes time, attention and effort.
Get professional help. It will save you a lot of time and money.
There is lots more information here about mind control, the signs of emotional abuse, how to recognize a psychopath, more details about abusive relationships, and things you should know about getting over an abusive relationship.
Would you like to talk to someone about your situation?
If you think you are or have been in a cult or a destructive relationship, or a friend or family member might be in a cult and you want to talk to someone, send me a message on the Contact page and we can arrange to talk. All communication will be treated in the strictest confidence.
You have the theory but how do you actually apply it? This book spells it out...
Do you think that you might be in an abusive relationship? Are you realizing that the group you are in may be a cult?
Do you think you are being taken advantage of emotionally, physically, sexually or financially in your relationship? Do you want to leave but you can't seem to get away?