Emotional manipulation refers to the attempt to indirectly or directly influence or control someone else’s behaviour or actions, and is commonly found in dysfunctional families.
In estate litigation, I commonly hear my clients complain of being subjected to various forms of psychological and emotional manipulation, particularly in their childhood, that continues into adulthood through various means of abusive, deceptive or underhanded tactics.
The victims have commonly grown in dysfunctional families that have not provided the support for the growth of high self-esteem, the recognition of healthy boundaries and emotional maturity, that are often caused by the unhealed abuse of family members, especially non-loving and unsupportive parents.
Why people engage in emotional manipulation
There are many reasons why people, commonly parents or siblings, feel compelled to control others, places and things to fulfill whatever they believe to be their personal needs, desires and wishes.
Manipulators are typically very controlling people that utilize an array of manipulative tactics.
Manipulators generally take the time to learn the characteristics and vulnerabilities of their victims.
Who better is in a position to know those vulnerabilities than parents or siblings of the manipulated person.
Typically the manipulator has a number of possible motivations that are generally along the lines of the need to feel in control, the desire to gain the feeling of power over others, the need to advance their own purposes for personal gain, and sociopathic tendencies that target the victims financial assets.
There are many identifiable techniques of emotional manipulation, some of which are as follows:
- Lying that is done frequently, subtly and well. The manipulator is often an expert at simply not telling the truth, either by outright lying, or by withholding a significant amount of the truth, or denial of ever having done anything wrong;
- Rationalization and minimization of harmful or irresponsible behaviour which could be as simple as a hurtful insult was only meant “as a joke”;
- Diversion or refusal to discuss the matter. The manipulator may simply not want to hear about the victims concerns, nor talk about them and simply changes the conversation or the topic;
- Threats both subtle, indirect or implied, thus causing the victim to become defensive and anxious;
- Evasion by giving irrelevant, vague or rambling answers that mean nothing and cause more confusion in the mind of the victim;
- Guilt – the guilt trip is probably one of the most common and effective devices used by manipulator that is very effective in keeping the victim in a self doubting anxious and submissive position;
- Shaming– somewhat similar to the guilt trip, but typically involves more sarcasm and putdowns to make the victim feel unworthy and therefore defer to the manipulator;
- Blaming others, especially the victim, so that the victim believes that he or she has done something wrong when they simply have not. The ultimate goal is to make the victim believe that the victim deserves to be treated in the manner that the manipulator chooses. A simple example is to label the victim as crazy or paranoid;
- Flattery – many manipulators can be very charming, even seductive, in order to cause the victim to lower their defences and give more trust and faith in the manipulator;
- Playing the victim – this is where the manipulator falsely portrays him or herself as the actual victim of circumstances in order to gain pity, compassion and sympathy from the actual victim;
- Feigning confusion or innocence – the manipulator continues to tell the victim that any harm done was totally unintentional, even to the point of playing dumb or pretending that he or she does not know of what the victim is talking about. The goal is to intentionally confuse the victim to doubt his or her own accuracy of perception;
- Displaying anger or rage is an effective way to shock a victim into submission. Threats may be used to emotionally blackmail the victim to scare and intimidate the victim into submission, causing the victim to focus more on the anger instead of the actual manipulation tactic.
Almost all of the above tactics are used in combination with the other and are designed to exploit vulnerabilities that exist in the victims such as his or her low self esteem, naiveté, or emotional dependency.
The victim can often become the family scapegoat after years of suffering various forms of emotional manipulation.
Further reading on emotional manipulation
4 Unhealthy Roles Created in Dysfunctional Families
Cutting Ties with the Family and Estrangement