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May/June 2010

Feeling Guilty? It May Not Be Your Fault.
Someone Else Could Be Manipulating Your Emotions

By Carol Boulware, Ph.D.


Causing another person to doubt the truth of their own feelings and perceptions is often called emotional manipulation. The manipulator uses a "web of deception" to erode the other person's self-confidence and convince them they are incapable of running their own life. This enables the manipulator to "take control" of their thoughts and behavior, and fulfill his or her unhealthy need to be in control.

If someone in your life is constantly challenging your feelings, ideas and opinions, or regularly calls you things like stupid, weak or incompetent, or has outbursts of anger when things aren't going his or her way, you may be under the influence of an emotional manipulator. He or she could be your relationship partner, a family member or even your boss.

Fortunately, it is possible for you to change the dynamic of intimidation and control between a manipulator and his target without necessarily having to give up the relationship or quit one's job. There are proven methods available to help strengthen, or regain, self-respect and trust of one's own judgment.

If you are wondering if you may be in a relationship with an emotional manipulator, here is a quiz to help you identify any "red flags" that would suggest further examination of your particular circumstances is advisable.

If you can answer "Yes" to two or more of these questions, you could be in a relationship with someone who wants you to feel bad, so they can get what they want.

Self Quiz – Emotional Manipulation

  • Are you beginning to think that you can’t do anything right anymore?
  • Do you worry about keeping the love or approval of a person you care about?
  • Are you often confused about your own thoughts or feelings?
  • Does someone frequently mock, threaten or intimidate you and then say, “just kidding?"
  • Are you continually apologizing to your partner, parents, friends or boss?
  • Do you no longer trust your own memory?
  • When something goes wrong in your relationship or your life, do you automatically blame yourself?
  • Do you feel nervous or fearful when a particular person enters the room?
  • Do you find yourself lying in order to avoid disapproval or criticism?
  • Do you constantly make excuses for someone's behavior?
  • Is there a person in your life who belittles or criticizes you on a regular basis?
  • Are you afraid your partner will leave you if you tell them your true feelings?
  • Do you have a sense that something "isn't right" in your life, or in your relationship, but can't put your finger on what it is?

Why and How An Emotional Manipulator Does It

In much the same way as a schoolyard bully belittles other kids with insults and threats in order to make himself feel superior and powerful, an emotional manipulator uses his own "bag of tricks" to confuse and intimidate his target into losing confidence in themselves and submitting to his will over their own.

Basically, the emotional manipulator creates a false "reality" that he wants his target to believe in.  In order to do this, he withholds the truth in some circumstances and presents lies in others.  His goal is to make the person believe they are so flawed, so confused and inept, that he is the obvious one who should be in control of everything. 

In a family setting, the manipulator might keep the family emotionally off-balance through periodic angry outbursts, often over inconsequential things.  He may create turmoil or conflict between other family members and then step in, as the "peacemaker" and resolve the issue the way he wants it to turn out. 

Manipulators desperately want to feel in control because, deep down, they feel powerless.  It is highly likely that they have a lot of suppressed anger and a history of abuse or other psychological problems that can only be worked through with professional assistance.

Typical Behaviors of an Emotional Manipulator

An emotional manipulator is an intimidator.  He wants his target to feel guilty, ashamed, unloving, confused, mentally unstable, off-balance and weak.  He uses lying, blaming, excuses, withdrawal, playing the victim and many other psychological tricks to make his target doubt their own judgment and be more vulnerable to his will and control. 
A manipulator can appear generous, confident, charming, considerate, even charismatic, at first.  However, their urge to be in control will soon reveal itself in the form of aggressive, abusive, and even violent behavior, in some cases.

Here is a list of the more common behaviors of an emotional manipulator. 

Common Traits and Behaviors of an Emotional Manipulator

  • Never apologizes
  • Uses silence, or withholds emotions, to punish you when he or she is displeased
  • Tells you what you should think or feel
  • Yells and upsets you and others to get his way
  • Has sudden, disruptive outbursts of anger
  • Continually reminds you about your "faults"
  • Shows little or no interest in having sex when you want it
  • Taunts you about small, inconsequential things
  • Is verbally abusive and demeaning
  • Regularly "forgets" to do things he promised to do
  • Often denies saying things he's said in the past
  • Embarrasses or humiliates you in front of friends or family
  • Holds you responsible when things go wrong

You may recognize a few, or all of these characteristics in someone with whom you are in a relationship.  They might be trying to convince you that you are not worthy of respect and trust.  If that is the case, I suggest you earnestly look for the answers to these questions:

  • "Why do I find myself in this type of destructive, demeaning relationship?" 
  • "What can I do to protect myself from emotional manipulation in the future?" 

How to Free Yourself From Emotional Manipulation

Emotions are powerful.  Emotional strength isessential to asserting your personal values, desires, goals and dreams.  Trusting your own gut, your own instincts, your own mind and your own judgment will lead you to positive changes in every aspect of your life.

When you regain emotional clarity and strength, and develop an unwavering sense of who you are, you will be able to set, and enforce, limits on how other people treat you – an essential part of emotional health. 

One of the paths to emotional freedom is an obvious one – walk away from the abusive, manipulative relationship and start the process of transforming your self-image.  However, some situations are complicated, and may not be conducive to a quick exit.  If you choose to stay in the relationship and work on changing the dynamic between you and your manipulator, it can be done – with strong resolve and commitment on your part. 

Whether or not he or she wants to participate initially, your setting the example of taking responsibility to improve yourself for the sake of the relationship may have an impact.  If not, you will already be on your way to improve your self-image, your emotional strength and your quality of life.

Whichever path you choose, you can start your journey with these three steps:  

    1) Get better informed about the relationship dynamics of this disorder;
    2) Discover your true feelings and what you really want in life;
    3) Re-claim your identity as a valuable, capable, loving human being. 

You can research the subject of emotional manipulation at the library or on-line, or start by getting guidance from a therapist who is experienced in helping people living with emotional manipulators become more effective in handling them.

If you live in the greater Los Angeles area and would like professional help, please call Carol Boulware, Ph.D. for an appointment at 310-374-4173 or visit my website at

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