Woman dealing with manipulative behavior from her spouse

Spotting the Signs of Manipulative Behavior in Yourself and Others

Have you ever been in a relationship that just felt difficult? Or, perhaps you know a person who makes you feel pushed, or rushed, or even being in the same space with them feels compromising – as if there’s always an underlying agenda.

Manipulation comes in many forms. And sometimes these forms are so subtle that they’re difficult to recognize. But the signs are always there, even if you can’t tell for sure – as if you always feel that the motives of the other person are heavier, or more evident.

It’s not easy to spot the signs of manipulative behavior in others – or in yourself. Thankfully, by looking for manipulative cues, you can begin learning how to unmask a manipulator, and even understand if you’re the one being manipulative.

Are you concerned that you or someone you know is being manipulative? Reach out to the Lukin Center for Psychotherapy and talk to an expert today.

Examples of Manipulative Behavior

How Manipulation is Used by Different Behavior & Personality Disorders Infographic

As mentioned, manipulation can be recognized in many forms. However, manipulation is not always aligned with a malicious intention or agenda as commonly thought. In fact, it’s often associated with underlying mental health issues, and more commonly associated with selfish intentions, attachment issues, or other types of need fulfillment.

Need Fulfillment

According to Clinical Psychologist Elissa Gross, Psy.D. of the Lukin Center, “Sometimes when an individual has any type of post-traumatic stress disorder, or they’re afraid of being abandoned, they may manipulate others in such a way to try and make them feel happy, or to prevent someone from leaving them,” Elissa explains.

Often, insecurities can be so pronounced in a person that they will engage in a form of “benign” manipulation in order to feel safe, needed, or even loved. For example, if you’ve ever steered the conversation away from a sensitive subject that makes you feel uncomfortable, or you’ve gone out of your way to make someone stay with you, these are also forms of need fulfillment manipulation.

Emotional Manipulation

When it comes to emotional manipulation, this often falls into a more malicious category. And this form of manipulation is often found in people with several personality or behavioral disorder types such as:

  • Narcissistic personality disorder
  • Borderline personality disorders
  • Anti-social behavior
  • Sociopathic behavior

Though all of the aforementioned conditions and behaviors aren’t always aligned with malicious intentions, they are associated with getting something that you want.

Regarding emotional manipulation, Dr. Gross offers, “There are quite a few charming people who seem to know exactly how to make you like them, how to trust them, or how to make you feel special. Though they may not be trying to hurt you, these people are almost always setting someone up to be manipulated, or to get something they want, much in the same way as a salesman or con artist would,” she says.


Gaslighting is also a form of malicious manipulation, and this regards the attempt to make another person question themselves, their intentions, or even question their own minds.

For example, according to Dr. Gross, “Someone might say something obnoxious, mean, or even hurtful, and then pretend they never said it, or attempt to convince you that they weren’t being serious and that you shouldn’t be so sensitive. And this can make the other person question their judgment or their sense of reality,” she explains.

Manipulation, whether for personal gain or motivated by malicious intentions often occurs for selfish reasons, and asking the other person (or yourself) what the real intentions behind the behavior are can let you know if you’re being manipulated, or if you’re the one being manipulative.

How Can You Tell if You’re Being Manipulative?

If you’re concerned that you’re being a manipulator, there are a few behavioral cues you can look to for determining your true intentions.

Dr. Gross claims, “If you find that you’re always trying to be somewhat of a social chameleon, or adjust your behavior and mannerisms to a specific person whether to impress them or make them like you, this is a sure sign of manipulative behavior,” she says.

Additionally, being overly worried about what another person or a group of people think about you can also be a sign that you’re leaning into a manipulative behavioral pattern. For example, “When you find yourself too invested in what the other person might think or feel about you, then you might want to start asking yourself what your real intentions are because this can be a catalyst for manipulative behavior,” Dr. Gross conveys.

At the end of the day, we can only be ourselves. And the healthiest way to get along with others socially is to be who we truly are and to use empathy in place of manipulation to navigate social challenges. And according to Dr. Gross, “You can be interested in someone and want them to like you. But we can’t make anybody like us. And sometimes just being ourselves works and sometimes it doesn’t, but that’s life. Basically, all we can do is be who we really are.”

Downfalls of Manipulative Behavior

Like manipulation itself, the downfalls of manipulative behavior can also manifest in many ways. And according to Dr. Gross. “For an average person who engages in manipulation, not for malicious intentions but in hopes of getting their way, there’s a high likelihood that they will feel guilty about it, uncomfortable, or develop a sense of being a fraud and worry that their intentions will be found out,” she says.

Manipulative behavior can also make you question your own motives or even your own interests. For example, if you’re engaging in behavior or activities that you may not regularly be drawn to, perhaps you’re doing this to impress someone, or to feel part of a group of people. But over time, you may become disinterested or even angry at the thought of doing such things. Essentially, not being true to your own interests, passions, and activities, can become draining and force you to question who you really are.

“If you find yourself doing a great deal of people-pleasing, this may be the point where you should question your motives and look inward to what is really driving you to behave in such a manner,” Dr. Gross offers.

The more malicious manipulator may also cause others to question themselves or reality, and this can also result in forms of psychological trauma, or push someone towards developing mental health conditions. And as Dr. Gross offers, “Many people may develop a fawning response when exposed to manipulation over extended periods of time because they feel like they’re under constant attack, and the only response they have is to “play dead” and hope that the person doesn’t bother them,” she explains.

How Can Therapy Help to Correct Manipulative Behavior?

Therapy and treatment for manipulative behavior often depend on the underlying issues that cause this type of behavior. For example, conditions such as borderline personality disorder can cause anxiety to manifest in close personal relationships, or in any relationship with others. And this may be the reason why an individual with borderline personality disorder acts manipulatively in order to feel safe and secure. In this situation, the underlying mental health issues will be addressed in order to help a patient feel secure.

In addition, working with a therapist can help you to develop skills for interacting with others in a healthy way and to understand the reasoning behind your manipulative behavior. By learning and understanding your own triggers, or by being able to stop and assess your motives, you may be able to mitigate the instance of using manipulation for satisfying personal needs.

Is being manipulative ruining your personal relationships? Contact the Lukin Center for Psychotherapy and talk to an expert today.