How to Handle Manipulative Behaviour & Guilt Trips

ManipulationManipulation refers to making attempts at influencing someone else’s behaviour or actions. As human beings, our emotions often cloud our judgements making it difficult to see the reality behind hidden agendas or motives in different forms of behaviour. The controlling aspects or shrewdness linked to manipulations are sometimes very subtle and may easily be overlooked, buried under feelings of obligation, love or habit. In this article you’ll learn some ways to pick up on manipulative behaviour occurring around you so that you can sort it rather than jump to it.

Understand the characteristic of a manipulative personality

They’re not always obvious because they play a silent game of building up obligations toward them, that end up with you feeling guilty, pressured and obliged to carry out things for their sake even though you’re still wondering how things got to this point. Some of the characteristics of a manipulative personality include:

A martyr style personality, behaves as if he or she is being considerate toward others but is actually messing up considerateness with a need to be significant to you. By “martyring” themselves, they are doing things nobody has asked of them or wants them to do but in the process creates a bind when they do them. In “doing you a favour”, their expectation increases that you have to return the favour. They may also complain constantly about all the things they do for you and wonder rhetorically when you’re going to return this favour…

Excessively needy and dependent personalities, who feel uncomfortable in their own skin, put forth their own opinions and ideas and can often hide behind manipulative behaviour so that it seems as if you are responding on your own accord even though they’ve set up everything to have you respond directly to their neediness.

Narcissists are the archetypal manipulative personality and it’s very hard to deal with this master manipulator.

You. Seriously, at one time or other, every single one of us practices manipulative behaviours in one form or other. It is just that for most people, manipulative actions tend to be one-off or only occasional instances rather than a purposeful map for daily living and interaction with others.

Note the ways in which people try to manipulate one another. There are some key behaviours that can end up in manipulation and it’s helpful to know how to spot them before walking right into them. The behaviours are set out briefly here, with the following steps providing more details along with suggestions for healthy ways to respond:

The Guilt Trip

This manipulative behaviour seeks to make you feel guilty and is aimed at sending you into the land of “should” rather than standing up for your own values.

The assumption statement – this manipulative tactic seeks to turn your behaviour into what the beholder perceives it as, whether or not their interpretation is accurate. Soon leads to a guilt trip because no matter what, your refutation is proof of the assumption.

He said, she said – this manipulative ploy is pseudo-sociology in action. The manipulators takes it upon themselves to tell you what someone else said, was the right thing to do. It’s a handy way of pushing aside the responsibility from themselves while loading it all onto you.

The confronting statement – this manipulative approach is about causing an argument. That way, the provoker will end up making you feel terrible over something you didn’t do or say but for which you ought to feel guilty anyway and they’ll get a huge chunk of sympathy with which to manipulate you all over again.

Self-pity – “But I’m so unloved / sick / victimized etc.” At times each one of us are really in need of some tender self-care but long-term manipulators can make a habit of being the victim or the one needing special attention. Even companies use guilt trips…

Curtail the Guilt Trip

Guilt trips are really high on the list of manipulative tools. If you can get someone else to feel guilty, then you’re home and hosed. The trouble is, people wear out after being made to suffer guilt trip after guilt trip and the manipulator who thinks that he or she is on to a good thing here, risks losing respect, friends and being distanced by those who can’t get away, such as family and co-workers. One of the key things to keep in mind when escaping the guilt trip bind is that the sooner you nip it in the bud, the better and that it’s their guilt trip, not yours. Here are some approaches to the guilt trip:

Recognise it. Guilt trips are usually prefaced with “If you really cared about me, you’d…”, or “If you were more responsible, you’d…”, or “If you were more understanding, you’d…”. In each case, you can substitute the words they add in after with “do as I want”. Another way of inducing a guilt trip is to tell you what you wouldn’t do, for example: “I knew I’d misheard it! After all, you’d never get engaged without telling me first”. In that small phrase, you’ve just been told that the expectations are that you’ll defer to this person before making any decisions.

Turn it back on the guilt giver. Take a return-to-sender approach with guilt trips and don’t let their interpretation of your behaviour determine the situation. In this case, you can give them a little of their own medicine so that they understand how it feels to be made to feel guilty. This approach involves taking what the manipulator has said and telling them how they aren’t respecting, appreciating, caring for, etc. your behaviour toward them and, in the process, you dissolve the need to meet the obligation they’re aiming to impose. For example:

A:        “You don’t care about all the hard work I’ve done for you.”

You:   “I sure do care about the hard work you’ve done for me. I’ve said as much many times. Now it seems to me that you don’t appreciate how much I care.”

A:        “That’s not true! I appreciate it!”

You:    Yes, just as I appreciate your hard word.”

Shorten their hold on you.

When a manipulator tries to guilt-trip you by suggesting that they don’t matter, don’t buy into it. Instead, answer with a quick retort that breaks this hold instantly. For example:

A:        “Okay then, go on that camping trip with your friends while I do all the work looking after the dogs. Don’t worry about me.”

You:   “That’s great! I’m glad you’re happy to look after the dogs while I’m away. Thanks!”

Read How to Deal with Toxic Family Members

Shift the assumption statement away from you.

One of the things that is so riling about having another person tell you what it is that you’re thinking or doing, is that they are not taking you seriously or treating you as a whole person. Instead, they are attempting to overlay how they’d like you to behave and this comes right back to how they’d like you to behave so that it benefits them.

Assumption statements can be harder to pick up on but it’s essential that you do so in order to deflect them quickly and effectively. Some examples include statements using “suppose”, “guess”, “wish” etc. “I suppose you’re going to leave me alone again” or “I wish you’d understand how hard it is for me, after all I’ve done for you, to have you not want to stay longer with me each Christmas.”

The problem with the assumption statement is that there is no question; a manipulator doesn’t like asking questions because it causes them to feel a loss of control. In a healthier relationship situation, questions would elicit what you’re doing and a conversation could proceed from this understanding; a manipulator would prefer to make the assumption as to what you’re doing because it then allows them to be in control of the person they’ve described you as, rather than the person (the real you) they need to listen to.

Break the supposition away from your actions by ignoring the manipulative negative implication and return the manipulator to reality by clarifying your equally valid value attaching to what you’re doing. For example:

A:      “I wish you’d understand how hard it is for me, after all I’ve done for you, to have you not want to stay longer with me each Christmas.”

You: “I’m not leaving you alone. You’ve got your favourite movie on tonight, the dog’s with you wanting attention and I’ll be back on Tuesday, as usual.”

A:      “If you’ve got more important things to do, then it’s best you don’t waste time visiting me.”

You: “I’m glad you understand how busy things are for me right now. It’s an expensive time to fly and I’ll be able to spend more time with you when I come next May.”

Move away from the mind games of what the manipulator thinks other people say or do.

The use of third party “authority” is thoughtlessly rampant in much of everyday life because we like to defer to these generalisations as a way of backing up our own vague and often unexplored preferences. While most of us know it’s a bad habit, in the hands of a manipulator it become a weapon.

Whenever a manipulator resorts to quoting what your aunt May, cousin Josh or darling Katie down the street would do or are saying, see warning lights flashing. This tactic is used to try and compare the perceived lack in your responsiveness with the manner in which other people apparently would behave more appropriately than you (read: they’d do it for the manipulator whereas you’re holding out). While some of this has to do with the manipulator fantasising that the grass is greener in someone else’s life, it’s far more about being a tool that lets the manipulator abdicate his or her own responsibility for making the statement.

A:      “Mary says it’d be better if you didn’t leave me alone all the time. She says it’s harmful for me.”

You: “I didn’t realise Mary was a psychologist. I must speak to her about the possibility of her spending more time with you.”

A:      “Everyone thinks you’re not being kind to me when you refuse to buy me a second diamond ring.”

You: “Everyone? I must meet these people who are so flush! I’d love to buy you another ring but I’m glad you have a beautiful one to keep you occupied until our budget can withstand any more large purchases.”

Avoid the confrontation and dispute manipulation.

Determine whether someone is deliberately using a ploy or “game” to bring about a dispute or conflict into the open. This frequently happens amongst friends or in relationships, when one member wishes to have influence or to attempt control over the other. Confrontational statements are designed to upset you immediately and to cause an argument to occur. For example:

“How dare you leave me alone tonight!” or “I thought we agreed that this would be the best solution and now you’re deliberately doing something entirely different.” or “Why do you always have to do everything your way? What about me?” It can even be brought up jokingly but with the intent to mock or pour cold water on your hopes. Rather than engaging in an argument with this manipulator, learn to simply say “no” and by pointing out clear facts. For example:

Be calm, rational and pleasant when you say no. Don’t try to up the ante by grimacing or snapping back. It’s also important to keep your response simple and friendly.

Use your body language to back up your meaning. Shake your head and give your “no face”.

Be polite. When a manipulator asks you to do something, try “I’d love to but I’m too busy in the upcoming months. Sorry.” or “Thanks for asking, but no.”

Read 25 Signs of Emotional Abuse

Sidestep self-pity.

The manipulator who finds everything unfair and falls to pieces, is attempting to gain your sympathy in order to use it to further his or her own needs. In this case, the manipulator will rely on a sense of “helplessness” and will seek financial, emotional or other forms of help from you.

Look out for attitudes and comments like “You are the only one I have” and “I have no one else to talk to” etc. In dealing with a meltdown of self-pity, be compassionate but wary as you don’t want to establish an obligation as a result. Some ways to respond to such a manipulator include:

A:      “You are the only one I have.”

You: “Oh you’re flattering me again but you and I both know that’s not true! You’ve got Betty on Sundays, Muriel on Thursdays and the bowls club all day Saturday. Why, when I tried to call you last Wednesday night, you were out playing cards with your neighbours.”

A:      “I have no one else to talk to.”

You: “Remember yesterday when Grace came over to talk to you all afternoon? And Sally’s said she’s more than happy to listen over the phone whenever you need a sounding board. I’m happy to talk to you for the next five minutes but after that, I have an appointment I cannot miss.”

Beware of people who twist and distort facts to make them appear more attractive.

Generally these people will lie to the ends of the earth in order to get what they want. This often happens in the work environment, simply to get others on their side or gain favour with management and higher authorities. When responding to a fact distortion, seek clarification. Explain that this is not how you remembered the facts and that you’re curious to get a better understanding of their view of them. Remain polite and feel entitled to say that it’s to clarify your confusion. Ask them simple questions about when both agreed to an issue, how they believed the approach was formed etc. When you meet on common ground again, take this as the new starting point, not their distorted one. For example:

John (manipulator): “I asked Cassie to have all these finished by today. He’s never on time with these reports.”

Boss:  “Is this true John?”

Cassie:           “It isn’t my understanding boss. John, when did you suggest that this was my task alone? My last understanding was that this was to be a joint effort, with you signing off on my work before we presented it to the board. When you didn’t arrive yesterday and I couldn’t reach you. I felt that I had little choice but to continue and finish what I could but it was clear I didn’t have a handle over the X, Y, Z issues that you’re best at defining. And I’ve handed in my last six reports all two days before the due date. I take timeliness very seriously.”

Another example:

A:        “You never back me up in those meetings, you’re only in it for your own gains and you’re always leaving me to the sharks.”

You:    “That’s not true. I believed that you were ready to talk to the investors about your own ideas. If I had thought you were erring, I’d have stepped in but I thought you did a brilliant job by yourself.”

Beware of people with selective memories.

This is a manipulation tool for wriggling out of obligations they don’t want to meet, while still managing to remember obligations that they expect you to meet, or have met (in front of the boss).

Don’t fall victim to those who use love as a bargaining tool.

Such a manipulator will commonly use phrases like “I know you love me, so…” or “Because I love you, do X, Y, Z for me…” in order to trick you into accepting what they desire. This often occurs in married relationships and also between friends. People who display this type of attitude will often make you feel indebted or that you owe them something. Instead of letting them manipulate your love for them, try to point out how what you’re doing is proof of your love for them and bonus points if you can be compassionate enough to weave in recognition of their love for you too:

A:        “If you loved me, you’d take me on that business trip. I don’t care about your boss’ miserliness, that’s your problem, not mine.

You:    “I do love you and that is the very reason I don’t want to inflict my boss on you. You’d have a horrible time having to be super polite around him and he would resent having you there and would possibly even try to demote me for not taking the business trip seriously enough.”

Another example:

A:        “You think that this garden is more important than me.”

You:    “Actually my dear, I tend the garden with care to ensure that you have somewhere fun and safe to play war games with your mates. I want it to be perfect for you, just as you try to paint the house in colours that you know I like.”

Read Silent Treatment is Emotional Abuse

Figure out those who feign illness.

Unfortunately, some people use illness as a way if manipulating others. There are people who feign small illnesses and symptoms on a small scale and then there are people who suffer from Factitious Disorder (DSM-IV), previously known as Munchausen’s Syndrome. Faking illnesses is the intentional production of false and exaggerated physical symptoms designed to achieve an ulterior motive. People who do this may be trying to avoid responsibilities, have more leisure time, obtain medical benefits or are lazy enough to want someone else to do everything for them.

If the person is persistently using this method, it is possible that he or she needs medical help from a psychiatrist or psychologist for Factitious Disorder. The difficulty for you lies in the fact that a person suffering from this might actually have some illness but can function fine most or all of the time despite the illness, but chooses to exaggerate its effects (also known as malingering).

If the disorder is causing them to behave this way, try not to be judgemental. It is often developed as a way of reacting to stress and has habituated into a pattern. The best thing to do if you suspect this condition, is to suggest that he or she sees a mental health professional to deal with their worry and anxiety. Don’t be combative about their “faking illness”.

Beware of individuals who create false rumours.

Individuals in this category will tell you the opposite of what you wish to hear. They may do so hoping that you will correct them and as such force out the real story from you. Very private people often fall prey to this type of tactic because it’s targeted at eliciting information from you directly when you’ve been reticent so far.

Ignore emotional outbursts that play on your emotions.

Some people will use crying, sorrow, screaming and other forms of emotions to further their own ends or simply to get what they want. This is common among children and teenagers who will “test the waters” to see how far they can go with this form of manipulation. Read some good parenting books on dealing with manipulation in children and teens. Their behaviour is more about boundary testing and can be dealt with appropriately with good parenting skills.

If your child suffers from disruptive behaviour disorders, seek help from a mental health therapist. Such disorders as oppositional defiance disorder, conduct disorder and separation disorder can have elements of manipulation in them but need special attention to overcome, using the help of specialists and your compassion.

Listen to yourself.

In all of the possible manipulative situations outlined above, whether or not the signs are easy for you to spot, it is very important to listen to yourself and how you feel about the situation. Do you feel oppressed, pressured and obliged to do things for this person that you’d rather not do? Does their behaviour seem to impact you endlessly, so that after one form of assistance, you are expected to grant yet more help and support? Your answers should serve as a true guide to where your relationship with this person is headed next.


This article, written by Donna Cunningham, originally appeared on


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