Emotional Manipulation – Sneaky Tactics of Toxic People

By Rachel Puryear

We’ve all heard of toxic people. The widespread interest in this subject is a testament to the collective frustration over how difficult it is to deal with chronically difficult people.

We all recognize the more obvious forms of toxic behavior – when people are pushy, mean, degrading, and otherwise openly aggressive in their efforts to undermine others’ resistance, and get their way.

Emotional manipulation, however, is a more covert kind of toxic behavior. But it’s insidious, calculating, and just as destructive and harmful as the more blatant kinds.

So, what can emotional manipulation look like?

Hand crossing fingers behind the back.

Common Tactics of Emotional Manipulation

Emotional manipulators often appear vulnerable and sympathetic initially, leading empathetic people to naturally want to support and help them. In fact, emotional manipulators are some of the most mercenary and ruthless people you can encounter.

Here are some common (often overlapping) ways that emotional manipulation can present itself:

Playing the Victim

This is probably the number one tactic of emotional manipulators. I have referred to this before as being a crybully – that is, someone who victimizes others by constantly making it seem as though (the emotional manipulator) is the one who has been wronged, when they’re actually the aggressor.

Crying emoji isolated on white background, dramatic with waterfalls of tears.

Crybullies will guilt people into giving them their way, because they have been mistreated so much (or so they claim). This tactic exploits one of the most prosocial traits of others – compassion.

Emotional manipulators themselves, though, are devoid of compassion. They don’t have a conscience about hurting others. They aren’t really victims, they’re victimizers.

Gaslighting and Invalidation

Gaslighting and invalidation are major behaviors of emotional manipulators. The two tactics may appear similar, but they are also distinct.

Gas street lights. By Avi Agarwal.

Gaslighting means telling you, repeatedly, that things are not the way you perceive them to be. That you are crazy, stupid, or lying for pointing out things as you see them – anything to get you to question your own reality. It’s about undermining your perceptions, and making you doubt yourself.

Invalidation means dismissing someone’s feelings as unimportant, trivial, overreacting, being silly, being too sensitive, and so forth. Things like, “it’s not that bad,” “it could be worse,” “it’s not like that,” “you’re just being too negative,” and so forth. Over time, chronic invalidation can greatly undermine a person’s self-worth, and lead to a sense of disconnection and alienation.

Gaslighting is about denying someone’s perceptions to make them doubt their reality, while invalidation is about dismissing someone’s feelings in order to make them feel like they don’t matter.

Fun fact: The term “gaslighting” refers to a 1940s movie “Gaslight,” where a husband uses manipulation tactics to intentionally try to convince his wife she is insane – as part of a sinister secret plot.

Making Their Victim the Bad Guy/Gal, No Matter What

Emotional manipulators behave badly, hurt someone on purpose, and then later act like nothing happened. If you dare ever call out what they did, though; they will tell you that you’re unreasonable, you’re overreacting, and even that you’re the real abuser because you keep giving them a hard time.

This tactic can also include “bearbaiting” – that is, purposely haranguing you until you lash out, but then you’re the bad guy for getting mad.

Or, yet another variation of this tactic is to push your emotional buttons until you get upset and emotional, but then they tell you that you are crazy and being dramatic for having such a reaction.

Big brown bear growling. By Mana5280.

The emotional manipulator’s best defense is an offensive offense. If you try to address needs that aren’t being met from them, or something they’re doing which is bothering you; they’ll never take responsibility.

Instead, they’ll turn around and interrogate you, accuse you of malfeasance, and question your motives. It’s about putting you on the defense, to never let you actually confront their bad behavior.

Unequal Expectations of Emotional Generosity

Emotional generosity is willingness to give emotionally – including compassion, emotional support, listening, and mercifulness. Read a fuller discussion of emotional generosity here.

Covert manipulators will expect all the emotional giving and generosity to come from the other person, but don’t want to give any of it back. They will, of course, try to make their victims feel like this inequity is their own fault.

For instance:

A big bullhorn drowning out a much smaller bullhorn.

If you’re sad or upset about something, including where you should be; you’re overreacting, you’re whiny, you need to suck it up – don’t bring them down.

But if the manipulator is upset – even about something relatively small, and even where they brought it upon themselves through poor choices; you had better give them the utmost sympathy, and grin and bear their tantrum.

If you don’t give them their way, they’ll pout and say something like, they thought you were ‘different’, but really, you’re just like ‘all the others,’ who mistreated them so (or so they claim). (See again the part about playing the victim.)

Moving the Goalposts

Emotional manipulators give you impossible demands and expectations. But even if you do meet them, they adjust their expectations accordingly, and always find something to criticize, so that you’ll never be good enough.

They make it seem like you’re not doing enough or trying hard enough. They want you to feel like it’s always your fault, but it’s never theirs. Eventually, it feels like it doesn’t matter what you say or do for them.

Goalposts on an American football field.

If that’s the case, nothing will ever satisfy them, and you will only make yourself crazy trying. Emotional manipulators are like big black holes, and they have no conscience.

Love Bombing

At first, this one feels great, and seems like the opposite of mistreatment. You might feel so lucky to have found someone so attentive, and who makes you feel so special. The emotional manipulator can be so charming, when they need to be.

There’s a reason this is a favorite tactic of con artists, domestic abusers, and cults – it’s designed to distract you from the red flags.

A grenade covered in little red hearts.

It appeals to your need to feel loved and desired, and sometimes – yes – even your ego. It’s designed to get you to let your guard down, be unable to resist the amazing feeling, and fall for them.

No one likes to think that someone who’s flattering them is a liar. Therefore, people are reluctant to question a love bomber, and often ignore nagging doubts about the sincerity of a love bomber.

Once you’re hooked, though, the true nightmare of the emotional manipulator finally comes out. I’ve written more before about love bombing, in greater depth.

Guilt and Shame

This is, of course, classic emotional manipulation. To some extent, using guilt and shame underlies most or all of the other tactics, as well.

While guilt makes you feel bad about something you did, shame makes you feel bad about who you are – and the combination of those can shift the focus from the manipulator’s behavior, in order to make you feel like you are fundamentally wrong.

Adorable small dog, looking guilty and ashamed. By Priscilla Du Preez.

This tactic will undermine your resolve, and convince you over time that you deserve poor treatment, and are always the one in the wrong.

A steady diet of this shit will have a victim putting up with things they never would have imagined they would accept.

Addictive Relationship

You experience highs and lows in the relationship.

The highs are meted out by the manipulator in just high enough doses to keep you hooked, and to make you change your mind about leaving. Manipulators tend to have an uncanny knack about that, too.

Drawing of a pink heart on a cracked wall.

Then come the lows. The highs get fewer and farther between. The lows tear you down to the point where you give up, figure the problem is you, and you gradually become a shadow of your former self.

At this point, the relationship has become an addiction, and resembles how a drug addiction also plays out.


Emotional manipulation is an important subject. It’s one I’ve come to appreciate more about over time, and believe that everyone should know more about it, as well.

It should also be noted that in some situations, people can appear to have some of the above behaviors, but they are not being manipulative. They may be sincere, have good reasons for what they are doing, and may just be trying to be heard and understood; while an actual manipulator or other kind of bully is dismissing them as being the real manipulator. That’s also worthy of discussion, in future posts.

Accordingly, while this post was an introduction to it, there is much more to be said about it. Therefore, future posts will continue to cover it in more depth, and it will become one of the regularly recurring themes of this blog. So stay tuned for more!


Thank you, dear readers, for reading, following, and sharing. Here’s to recognizing covert emotional manipulation and emotional manipulation in general, and then stopping it in its tracks. If you enjoyed this content and want to see more of it, please hit “like” and subscribe, if you have not done so already. xoxo

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