If you’ve ever felt like something is off in a close relationship or casual encounter—you’re being pressured, controlled or even feel like you’re questioning yourself more than usual—it could be manipulation.
“Manipulation is an emotionally unhealthy psychological strategy used by people who are incapable of asking for what they want and need in a direct way,” says Sharie Stines, a California-based therapist who specializes in abuse and toxic relationships. “People who are trying to manipulate others are trying to control others.”
There are many different forms of manipulation, ranging from a pushy salesperson to an emotionally abusive partner—and some behaviors are easier to spot than others.
Here, experts explain the telltale signs that you could be the subject of manipulation.
You feel fear, obligation and guilt
Manipulative behavior involves three factors, according to Stines: fear, obligation and guilt. “When you are being manipulated by someone you are being psychologically coerced into doing something you probably don’t really want to do,” she says. You might feel scared to do it, obligated to do it, or guilty about not doing it.
She points to two common manipulators: “the bully” and “the victim.” A bully makes you feel fearful and might use aggression, threats and intimidation to control you, she says. The victim engenders a feeling of guilt in their target. “The victim usually acts hurt,” Stine says. But while manipulators often play the victim, the reality is that they are the ones who have caused the problem, she adds.
A person who is targeted by manipulators who play the victim often try to help the manipulator in order to stop feeling guilty, Stines says. Targets of this kind of manipulation often feel responsible for helping the victim by doing whatever they can to stop their suffering.