By: Marilyn L. Davis


What is Manipulation? 

There’s no nice way to put this. Manipulation is self-serving. Merriam-Webster’s definition is not kind, either: controlling or paying upon by artful, unfair, or insidious means to gain an advantage. 

So, let’s get this out-of-the-way; when we manipulate others, we’re trying to:

  • Get something from them
  • Con them into doing something for us
  • Avoid unpleasant tasks
  • Not be responsible

There are three essential elements of manipulation. They are: 

  • Scheming – To get, get out of, or have someone else do something
  • Calculating – Dishonest, devious, or conniving
  • Controlling – Wily, setting people up to do what we want

What’s In It For Me? 

Most of us have a preferred method of manipulation. When you learn to spot yours, you can decide if your manipulation comes at too great a cost and change the behaviors.

  1. Scheming: When we try to get others to do something that we can do but are unwilling to do it, we do not consider them. There’s no desire on our part to expend the time, energy, or in some cases, the money to carry out something. Manipulating people like this is self-serving. Some then feel smug; they got over on someone and out-smarted them. 
  2. Calculating: “Playing the victim role: Manipulator portrays him or herself as a victim of circumstance or someone else’s behavior to gain pity, sympathy, or evoke compassion and thereby get something from another. Caring and conscientious people cannot stand to see anyone suffering, and the manipulator often finds it easy to play on sympathy to get cooperation.” In Sheep’s Clothing: Understanding and Dealing with Manipulative People by George K. Simon, Jr.  
  3. Controlling: Anger is another tactic, along with disappointment. Most people are either intimidated or afraid of anger in others, especially someone in a position of authority. So intimidating, demanding, shouting, or being angry with the request may cause others to do or not do something to relieve their feelings of tension and anxiety. Intimidating people or demanding certain things makes many people uncomfortable, and they will agree or be quiet to lessen the stress. 

Manipulation: Multiple Approaches

Manipulators are good at what they do. But if one approach doesn’t work, they adopt another. For instance, we might give three-year-old’s what they want when they start pouting on the juice aisle, so they don’t have a temper tantrum because it’s easier than dealing with a tantrum.

However, we would not give in to a thirty-three-year-old exhibiting the same behaviors, but that same thirty-three-year-old may still use tears or pouting to get their way.  

Or the adolescent who continues with, “Please, please, please,” trying to get the latest gadget. Some manipulation is blatant. Other times, people keep reframing the requests – multiple times – trying to get what they want, hoping others will give in to their constant demands. 

There are clues when either you or someone else is being manipulative.  

  • Framing the request in a beneficial way
  • What body language do you use to ask for help?
  • Are there particular words used so people feel obliged to help?
  • Does sympathy for you play a part in the request? 

Do You Pull The Strings? 

Mary Treffert, LCSW, ACSW, writes in “Are You Someone’s Puppet”? that “Manipulation is usually attempted using power, unsolicited helping, rescuing, guilt, weakness, and dependence, to get the desired outcome.” 

The goal is to be in a “one up, I am right, and you are wrong” position. Unsolicited helping/rescuing – doing things for others when they do not, request it, want it, or need it; helping others, so they become indebted, obligated, and owe you.

Do These Manipulation Tactics Work for You?

Can you find yourself in these examples? If you can answer yes, to any of the following, then in those situations, you have been manipulative.

  • If someone confronts me about my behavior, I act helpless or incompetent; confused seems to work well.
  • I then make statements about being “dumb” or “stupid.” 

Then the conversation tends to move away from what I’ve done to how smart I am. It’s almost like they forgot what they were angry about, and I get out of a lecture.

  • I talk a lot about the losses in my life; how I didn’t have the advantages that others did. Usually, people feel sorry for me and give in. Those positions create a specific impression of you to others. If you’re incompetent, then clearly, someone else will have to do something for you. You can’t do it.

“Selective Stupidity” means you might not be competent enough or intelligent enough to do something, so someone else will have to do it for you. When you claim to be incompetent and aren’t, the conversation usually addresses that, not your behaviors, and you get out of the lecture or consequences for them. It usually works in your favor.

If you are too “incompetent” to do something, then someone else will have to do it for you, and once again, you’ve manipulated people. If they find out that you are capable, they will often 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”. Dr. Lisa Holland

How Does Your Manipulation Present? 

from addict 2 advocatePouting Postures get noticed and help create the image that people should feel sorry for you.

Do you ever act ignored, forgotten, wounded, and unloved? Demonstrate self-pity by crying or talking about all of your losses? Try to appease people who have expectations of you by saying, “Anything you want,” when you do not mean it. Are you hoping that they’ll move on and leave you alone.

Talk about how concerned you are for situations and people but do not show this with actions. Try the “Guilt Trip” with statements like: 

  • “You’re lucky; I’m not.” 
  • “You had a loving family; I didn’t.” 
  • “People help you; I have to beg.” 
  • “I didn’t get to go to college; you did.” 
  • “I was abused, and you weren’t.” 
  • “You weren’t neglected like I was.”

If those manipulative ploys don’t work, you’ll re-frame or re-phrase the request or even show a contrived front, hoping that a different way of asking will work and make others responsible. Are you trying to make people think you’re considerate, understanding, or caring, when in fact, you’re only trying to manage their impression of you, without any effort on your part to follow through on these “concerns.”

  • I present depression in front of some people and then can magically appear okay to others. 
  • I know who responds to my sad posture, and it usually works to get something out of them. Sometimes, I “butter up or suck up” to people, not meaning the words.

Did You See Yourself?

If these kinds of statements describe you, it’s because you’ve manipulated others into feeling sorry for you, and that’s why they’re giving in. 

Psychotherapist Susan Forward popularized the term “emotional blackmail,” which is a powerful form of manipulation. Blackmailers are usually close to the victim and threaten, either directly or indirectly, to punish people if they don’t get what they want. 

They may know the victim’s vulnerabilities and their deepest secrets. Many people who use emotional blackmail are friends, colleagues, and family members with whom we have close ties that we want to strengthen and salvage” – parents, partners, bosses, or lovers.

Manipulators Find the Victim’s Vulnerabilities

 No matter how much the blackmailer cares about the victim, they use their intimate knowledge to win compliance. Forward and Frazier show four blackmail types, each with their mental manipulation style: 

  1. Punishers – ‘My way or the highway’ is the punisher’s motto. No matter what you feel or need, punishers override you. 
  2. Self-punishers cast their targets in the role of the ‘grown-up’ – the only adult in the relationship… you are supposed to come running when they cry.”
  3. Sufferers take the position that “if you don’t do what I want, I will suffer, and it will be your fault.”
  4. Tantalizers are the most subtle blackmailers; they offer nothing with a free heart.

Am I Honestly a Manipulator? 

Ask yourself, “What are my preferred methods of manipulation? Who do I use this method with, and when does it work? Think about your favorite ways for manipulation and ask yourself who you tend to use this ploy with; is it:

  • Family
  • Friends
  • Co-workers
  • Sponsors/accountability partners
  • Love interests 

Your list should include everyone that you have a relationship with so you can decide the “who,” “where,” and “when” of your manipulation.

Decide if You Like Your Outcomes from Manipulation 

If you like the outcomes when you manipulate others, you probably aren’t going to change. Why should you? You might wonder why you would stop something that gets people to do things for you – because their help comes at a price. 

However, if you do see that you don’t like manipulating others or having uncomfortable thoughts when you manipulate, you can change. Listen when people are telling you about your manipulation.

Listening is how you’ll learn the harm you have caused and what you can do to change. If you decide to stop manipulating, you’ll need to understand: 

  • Your preferred method of manipulation
  • Know who you use this with
  • What are the circumstances and situations where you use manipulation
  • Know why you use it

An incentive to stop using manipulation is that you alienate them when people realize you can do something. They no longer trust you or believe you when you genuinely need help. It’s rather like the little boy who cried wolf too many times, and it wasn’t true, and then when it was legitimate, no one believed him. When you are manipulating or emotionally blackmailing people, you risk ultimately pushing people away. 

They may finally realize that you are capable of doing whatever it was that they did for you and resent you in the end. You attempted to “make them feel bad” about your life. Again, they will probably get tired of bailing you out and start distancing themselves from you. 

When They Finally Leave You

If they start distancing themselves, you can get mad. They have abandoned you; because they were tired of dishonesty and manipulation. They felt used, exploited, and betrayed in some cases or put in financial hardship because they helped you through manipulation. Know Who Buys into your Manipulation Two of America’s quintessential “Dumb Blondes” were Marilyn Monroe and Jayne Mansfield. 

Monroe stated to a reporter once, “If I play a stupid girl and ask a stupid question, I’ve got to follow it through; what am I supposed to do, look intelligent?” Marilyn Monroe understood who bought into her reputation and when her manipulation worked, “Arthur Miller wouldn’t have married me if I had been nothing but a dumb blonde.” ~ Marilyn Monroe

Unfortunately, each time manipulation works, you can start believing your lies. You have created this image – helpless, stupid, incompetent, or worthless. Those labels can then become another cost you pay for what you get from others. With this as your reputation, it will be 

challenging to gain job promotions, advancements in other social settings, or respect from some people. 

That seems like a hefty price in the long run. Ask yourself if you value the relationship enough to stop manipulating. If you do, begin to be honest in requests to that person or group. Ask those people to discuss your manipulation with you. You can tell them that you know you have been manipulative and wanted to change this behavior, but you need some response from them. Be ready to have an honest conversation with them and be prepared to hear how they felt without defending your actions. 

Please discuss what you’ve done, why it wasn’t proper, and what potentially could have been more appropriate to do. These conversations can help you learn about your behaviors and then change and adjust them.  

 You gamble when you manipulate people. Your actions might alienate them. People feel betrayed, preyed upon, or get angry when they realize someone has manipulated them. Click To Tweet

Start Being Honest In Your Relationships

 If you want to stop being manipulative, a better way to deal with this problem is to be honest with yourself and others.

Sometimes people are manipulative because they need something or want something, but they don’t know how to get it healthily. It would help if you learned how to get it honestly.

You can learn to say:

  • “I would like it if you did this.” 
  • “Can you help me with it?” 
  • “I have a want. I would like you to help me get it.”

Owning that you have a self-serving motive in your request may not sound like the best alternative. However, your honesty may be refreshing to others, and they might be more inclined to help. But they are assisting with a legitimate request and not a manipulative request.

50% for You, 50% for Me is Not Manipulative 

 A working rule of thumb is to assess the percentage of self-serving motives in your actions: 50% of this request will benefit me, and 50% will help them.

Starting at 50/50 is a fair exchange, and you can build on that. Try to find the balance in your self-serving motives. 

You also have to learn to accept that sometimes people will tell you: 

  • “I can’t help you with that.” 
  • “Not now.” 
  • “No, that is not something that I can do for you at this time.”

Changing Your Manipulation Will Take Work

Sometimes, these responses can seem abrupt if you aren’t used to hearing them. But if you are going to have relationships based on mutual respect and honesty, these responses are appropriate for the person who needs to tell you, “no.”

Accepting that at this time, they are not in a position to help you does not say anything about how they feel about you, how much they value you, or whether they like you. It only means that they cannot help you at this time. Every change in behavior takes practice, and you may not, to begin with, you may still try to manipulate.

If that happens, and you are aware of it, stop yourself and get honest: 

  1. “I was still attempting to manage or control the situation.” 
  2. “I’m trying to change my manipulation, so can I ask again and not give you the sob story”?
  3. ” Can I own my self-serving motive and get it out in the open and then ask for your help”?

Better Outcomes Without Manipulation 

Once you start getting better outcomes without manipulation, it strengthens your resolve to discontinue using manipulation. Keep striving for honest, authentic communication, not manipulation. Even if your method isn’t listed, isolating and changing your process will get you more honest outcomes and help you become more emotionally mature.



Writing and recovery heal the heart 


Bio: Marilyn L. Davis


Marilyn L. Davis is the Editor-in-Chief at From Addict 2 Advocate and Two Drops of Ink. She is also the author of Finding North: A Journey from Addict to Advocate and Memories into Memoir: The Mindsets and Mechanics Workbook, available on Amazon, at Barnes and Noble, Indie Books, and Books A Million.  

For editing services, contact her at 

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