Most of the people who land here do so on the back of bad relationships and traumatic childhoods. Life hasn’t been kind to them, and they’ve learned to think poorly of themselves along the way. In many cases, this has created individuals who get trapped in toxic cycles with manipulative people. Low on themselves, they allow dangerous people in to pull their strings and coerce them.
Breaking this cycle of manipulators is hard. Their controlling behaviors undermine our central idea of self, and create this idea that we have to accept what they do to us. It’s not true. We can break through the pattern and find a better way to live and relate to the people who populate our lives.
The sneaky ways manipulative people steal your power.
A manipulative person rarely takes power, out in the open where everyone can see it. They convince us to give our power away, little by little, over time. By lying to us, and convincing us that we are worthless, powerless, or otherwise unlovable, we give them to reign over our lives. We let them choose how our relationships look and even what our life feels like with them.
Every manipulator is different. Some manipulators use guilt and others will stage elaborate stories and lies which play out over time. No matter how it occurs, you end up powerless on the other side and they end up on top of whatever pile they value most.
- Lie, lie, lie: Lies are the first and most common way that people learn how to manipulate others. Manipulators tell the people around them what they want to hear, even if they know it’s not true. It’s about getting what they want and they know that lies can help them skirt accountability and force people to give them their desires.
- Constant guilt: Guilt trips are a favorite among manipulative and controlling people. If they can make their partners and loved ones feel a sense of guilt, they are able to make them the bad guy. Some will use guilt trips to avoid accountability and fights. Others will use it to change behaviors or to destroy the self-esteem of those who question them.
- War tactics: Triangulation occurs when a toxic or manipulative person pits people against each other. They might spread lies through a friend group or family system, turning everyone against the one person they desire to destroy. When everyone turns on that person, the manipulator is able to assume power.
- Bombs of love: Lovebombing is another classic in the world of manipulators and controllers. This is a tactic in which someone smothers a person they want to control with love. They say loving things, they provide a lot of gifts. It’s all done in an effort to get back into their good graces and to ease the person they want to manipulate into a false sense of comfort.
- Grand expectations: A lot of manipulators move subtly. They do tricky things that feel good at the start, but then make us feel worse on the other side. One way they do this is by creating grand expectations. They set the bar too high for everything and never let their partners, friends, or family measure up. They criticize everything and find fault in a way that makes the other person weaker and more malleable.
- Setting the story: Projections are toxic. This occurs when one person posts their guilt or their insecurities onto another person. For example, a cheating partner accuses their spouse of cheating (before they get caught). Projection creates conflict, but it also manipulates the other person and forces them to question their behaviors and intentions.
- False flattery: It feels nice when people flatter us or go on and on about our looks or how great we are. The problem is that flattery is blinding. It feels so good that we don’t often realize that there is a manipulator on the other side of that over-the-top flattery who is trying to take something away from us (that we wouldn’t otherwise want to give them).
Over time, these behaviors layer up. They ebb and they flow in such a way that many of us don’t even realize it’s happening…until it’s too late. We wake up one day and realize that the life we’re living is not shaped by us. No. You risk waking up one day and realizing that someone else has called all the shots or forced you into a world you don’t value or recognize.
How can you take back your power from a manipulative or controlling person?
It doesn’t matter who the manipulator is in your life. You have a right to protect yourself from their string-pulling. You are allowed to take back power and take control of your own thoughts and actions. No one else has a right to call the shots — especially when they do it in such a dishonest way.
Learn how to stand up for yourself, but not before you figure out the signs, take charge of your emotions, and plan your approach. Don’t see their behavior as a reflection of you. It’s not manipulators have their own shadows to deal with. Protect yourself from them in these 5 steps.
1. Know the signs (inside and out)
Before you can do anything to protect yourself from manipulation, you need to know what it is and how it happens. It’s not always as simple as telling you one little lie. Manipulations can be conscious or subconscious, and they can include “long-cons” that last days, weeks, months, or even years.
The definition of manipulation is any form of “coercive or unethical behavior driven by the goal of exploiting or controlling another person for your own personal gain.” That doesn’t really capture the breakdown of manipulation or how it undermines the autonomy of another person.
You see that when you become aware of the 4 stages of manipulation:
- Idealization: The manipulator gets close to you fast, and teaches you to trust by emphasizing similar beliefs or interests. They make you believe that they are just like you, or that they would act as you would (good and bad).
- Isolation: Once the manipulator has lulled their victim into a false sense of comfort, they isolate them in such a way that their lies can take root. They are skilled at convincing their victims that everyone else is bad and that they are the only ones who can be trusted.
- Devaluation: You wouldn’t accept endless lies if you had a high opinion of yourself or a low opinion of the person who manipulates you. So, manipulators work hard to devalue you and your view of reality. They implant doubt so that it becomes easier for you to accept their manipulative games.
- Destruction: Maniupators need a certain degree of fear and subterfuge to operate. They need their audiences to believe that they are a good, upright person who would never pull strings. They need their victims to believe they are in danger if they reveal any truths they suspect. Many make threats or work hard to destroy the reputations of those who threaten their manipulative stories.
After seeing this pattern, your heart may be broken — but you become empowered. Seeing the way in which a manipulative person pushes people around enables you to anticipate their behaviors and protect yourself from them.
2. Take a step back and reconsider
Have you realized that someone is manipulating you? It’s frustrating. Once you see it, you can feel used. It can make your reactions explosive. Blowing up is rarely ever the right answer, though. Sure, all emotion has its time and place, but using your rage against someone who has manipulated you is never the closure or validation you think it will be.
Manipulators use your lowest emotional moment against you. If you blow up on them, yell, and scream, they will turn it into an opportunity to paint you as the villain. So what’s to be done? You have to take a step back and consider what the best option is.
Think about what you want to do. What is the most positive way to resolve the situation? How likely are you to get a positive outcome? What is the best way to protect your emotions? Walk through how you really feel and what the ideal outcome would be for you. Then, consider how you can really get there while maintaining your peace.
3. Never feed the fire
Make no mistake, manipulative and controlling people don’t like to have their behaviors pointed out. When you peel back their masks, you make them powerless. How are they supposed to pull the strings of other people if you point a light up into the rafters where they wait with a twisted smile?
They are going to fight any chance of exposure, which is how they will potentially view any approach you make at resolution. This means they’re going to lunge for conflict. What are you going to do when they inevitably pick a fight?
The answer: you must avoid petty conflict at all costs. There’s no point in getting into a fight with a manipulator — you’re not going to change their behavior. You can only protect your boundaries from them.
If a manipulative person seeks a fight, it’s because they think they can hide their indiscretions behind it. They already have a plan. So don’t play by their rules. Walk away from fights and welcome only civil and progressive conversation that’s solutions-focused.
4. Separate from the self
Manipulative people are experts at turning their behaviors into someone else’s fault. Many make their partners or spouses responsible for their emotions or their mistakes. It creates a tense and resentful environment in which one person is doing all the emotional labor and the other is engaged in endless acts of punishment.
You can’t let the manipulator in your life cast you with this burden. You can’t allow them to make you the bad guy, or to guilt you with their own emotional mistakes.
Separate their behavior from your view of self. Never allow their manipulations (or their excuses) to become a reflection of your self-worth as a parent, a lover, a partner, or a friend. Instead, choose to see how they act, and the decisions they make, as a reflection of them. It is never allowed to be a reflection of you.
5. Prioritize your boundaries
Here’s what you have to understand in order to take back your power from a manipulative person. No one has a right to call the shots in your life. No one. Not your husband, not your parents. Not your besties, not the president. Nobody. You are in charge of deciding what you do, how you feel, what your life looks like, and how you make it look that way. Sink or swim…you’re the only one paddling.
At some point, you’re going to have to take a stand. You’re going to have to stop looking for someone to magically become better and start prioritizing your happiness over their bad behavior or their desires.
You’ve got to draw the line. You have to set iron-clad boundaries and refuse to move on them, no matter how manipulative someone is.
There’s a harder part of this truth to accept…
You have to decide what to do when someone refuses to acknowledge your boundaries. Most manipulators don’t care where you draw the line. What is the value of your peace? Are you willing to suffer because someone else thinks they have a right to push you around? Or are you going to do something about it?
Decide where the manipulator in your life really belongs and then put them in a place where they can’t inflict emotional damage on you anymore.
There is nothing in this world that justifies the corruptive power of manipulative behavior. Controlling others brings us no joy. And giving up our power certainly won’t heal someone or change them. Humans are at our best when we are honest, open, and upfront with our feelings and desires. What’s more, we find that others are receptive to this honesty and happy to help us meet our needs.
Don’t settle for dishonesty. Know that you are worth more. Know that you can communicate honestly and have the courage and strength to navigate life with someone who cooperates with you — instead of manipulating you.
It is a seed that will start with you. Plant it now. Embrace the idea that you deserve more, that there is more, and let that idea bloom. Pursue a higher state of communication and connection in your closest relationships.