People who are emotionally manipulative often use these 10 subtle tactics (watch out for them)

The thing about being emotionally manipulated is that it’s clearer in hindsight. Unless you constantly have your guard up, you won’t notice that you’re already in the middle of it—whether at the giving or the receiving end. 

Unknowingly being emotionally manipulative still doesn’t change the fact that emotional manipulation, or manipulation of any kind, can be cruel. 

And in some cases, subtle manipulation is even more so—when you don’t notice it happening until it’s too late. When it’s so subtle and gradual that you don’t realize you’re already a victim. 

That. That is terrifying. 

And while we might not stop other people from being nasty and manipulative, we can at least equip ourselves with the knowledge of what to look out for. And if you’re on the giving end of the manipulation and you don’t want to be, pay attention. 

Be vigilant! Here are 10 subtle emotional manipulation tactics to watch out for. 

1) Gaslighting

How this could sound: 

  • “You’re imagining it.”
  • “It’s all in your head.”
  • “I never did that, you’re crazy for thinking I did that.” 

Very Well Mind defines gaslighting as “a form of manipulation that often occurs in abusive relationships. It is a covert type of emotional abuse in which the bully or abuser misleads the target, creating a false narrative and making them question their judgments and reality.”

Obviously, this needs to be #1 on the list. It’s gradual and frightening and it can happen to anyone. 

I personally find gaslighting as one of the most sinister forms of emotional manipulation because it distorts a person’s perception of reality

2) Isolating

How this could go: 

  • Limiting your time with other people.
  • Wanting to be together 24/7.
  • Constantly checking up on you 24/7.
  • Wanting constant updates about where you are. 
  • Getting angry when you don’t let them know where you are. 
  • Getting angry or giving you the silent treatment when you spend time with other people.  

Isolation isn’t always sudden and showy. Isolation can be as subtle as quietly pitting you against your closest people, like making you believe that they hate you

They might do this in an effort for you to take their side.

Sympathy could also be used to isolate people, like throwing tantrums or appearing pitiful to take their side and choose them. 

The point of isolation isn’t to just take up your time, it’s to make you believe you have no one else to lean against. Only them.

3) Shaming

How this could sound: 

  • “I’m embarrassed to be seen with you (when you’re like this).”
  • “Don’t embarrass me.”
  • “Can you be more [normal] for once?”

“Shame corrodes the very part of us that believes we are capable of change.” ― Brené Brown, I Thought It Was Just Me: Women Reclaiming Power and Courage in a Culture of Shame

Shame is powerful. When channeled correctly, it can motivate us to do good. Channeled incorrectly and it could make us fold upon ourselves. 

And shame is also a powerful tool for the emotionally manipulative

For one, it is a difficult feeling to swallow. Second, in the same way that it can be the motivation for us to do good, it can also push us to do things we’re not comfortable with. 

The emotionally manipulative knows this. They know how to utilize shame. 

4) Projection

How this could go:

  • Unfounded accusations of infidelity as a projection of their guilty conscience for having an affair.
  • Projecting insecurities.
  • Lashing out. 

The emotionally manipulative projects, either consciously or not. They put the spotlight on you to avoid processing their own feelings.

Choosing Therapy answers the question, “Why Do People Project?”, saying

“Projection is often a reflection of how someone feels about themselves. People who project onto others avoid taking responsibility for their innermost feelings and desires. Attributing an uncomfortable feeling or trait to someone or something else means they can avoid acknowledging that part of themselves, thus protecting their self-esteem.”

5) Love bombing

How this could go: 

  • Overwhelming amount of gifts even when barely know each other.
  • Extreme clinginess despite the newness of the relationship. 
  • Giving excessive attention. 

Will this list even be complete without love bombing? A favorite of the manipulative

From the outside, love bombing could look like a fairy tale romance. Heck, it could look that way from the inside, too.

That’s the thing unless you reflect and keep a steady head on your shoulders. You might only chalk up the warning signs as romance dialed up ten notches. 

6) Weaponizing compliments

high level communicator People who are emotionally manipulative often use these 10 subtle tactics (watch out for them)

How this could go: 

  • Withholding compliments until you meet a certain “criteria”, like only complimenting you in certain clothes, a certain weight, or certain hairstyles.
  • Saying you’d look better in so-and-so.
  • Comparing you to others or only complimenting others. 

Purposely damaging someone’s self-image, self-confidence, or self-esteem? Emotional manipulation. 

There’s a certain level of being vindictive required to want to wound someone like this. To withhold compliments until you get what you want is the type of mind game that can really do a number on someone. 

7) Infantilizing

How this could sound: 

  • “You’re too young to know any better.”
  • Not asking for your opinion on decisions that concern you. 
  • Dismissing your opinions in favor of theirs. 

The key here is power. Who gets to hold the power? Who gets to be in control? 

Whoever gets to make the decisions, gets control.

And the emotionally manipulative will bank on the tradition of “seniority” that so many of us culturally follow. 

8) Guilt tripping

How this could sound: 

  • “After everything I’ve done for you…”
  • “You’re like the rest of them!”
  • “You’re gonna leave me like everyone else, right?”
  • “Without you, I would die.”

While guilt is not an inherently bad emotion as it can push us to do better, it still is a powerful tool for those who are emotionally manipulative. 

When guilt is weaponized, it can become toxic. 

After all, if someone only agreed to do your bidding because you made them feel bad about it, isn’t that coercion? 

9) Humiliation and shaming

How this could go: 

  • Reminding you of your embarrassing moments.
  • Telling others about your embarrassing moments.
  • Making up rumors about you. 

Personally, I find shame to be the most unsettling. It’s a terrible feeling and it could be damaging if weaponized repeatedly.

It eats you up. It’s silent but it’s there. Moments of shame can keep you up at night and it could even replay at the most random of hours.

10) Silent treatment

How this could look: 

  • Suddenly giving you the cold shoulder when things are not going their way.
  • Walking out of conflict and then pretending nothing happened. 

Choosing Therapy defines this as

“The silent treatment is a refusal to verbally communicate with someone, often as a means of punishment, emotional manipulation, or control. Although this type of behavior is more common in an intimate or romantic relationship, it can also happen with family members, friends, or co-workers.” 

They added that the use of silent treatment can become abusive. 

Final thoughts

This is one thing I keep saying to anyone who’s been at the other end of this manipulation: This is not on you. 

Manipulators prey on the gentle. Manipulators prey on those they know have a heart and know how to love and be vulnerable. 

And emotional manipulation can be abusive, too. So see it for what it is when it happens.

Protect yourself, friend. 

Picture of Lucas Graham

Lucas Graham

Lucas Graham, based in Auckland, writes about the psychology behind everyday decisions and life choices. His perspective is grounded in the belief that understanding oneself is the key to better decision-making. Lucas’s articles are a mix of personal anecdotes and observations, offering readers relatable and down-to-earth advice.

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