Manipulative people have an uncanny way of making us believe they are charming, supportive, and kind — until they aren’t.
Recognizing the traits of a manipulator can be challenging when you first meet one.
Although you’ve likely experienced manipulative friends or family, it can take a while before you realize what’s behind the charm.
You know things are starting to feel weird, but you just can’t put your finger on it — until you get caught up in the web of subtle deceit, mind games, and control.
What Are Manipulative Behaviors?
Why are people manipulative and calculating in their relationships? It boils down to the manipulative person’s desire to control others and get what they want, even if it means using harmful tactics.
Master manipulators have learned how to use subtle and passive behaviors to pressure, guilt-trip, and cause anxiety in those around them to achieve their goals.
They can also use more aggressive ploys like bullying, intimidation, and emotional abuse to strongarm people into acting or responding in a certain way.
These manipulative tendencies, whether passive or openly threatening, are damaging to the relationship and the mental health of the other person.
If you want to avoid the pain and suffering of entangling yourself with a manipulative man or woman, you need to be proactive and know what you’re dealing with.
11 Characteristics of a Manipulative Person
You can spot their true colors early in a relationship with a manipulator if you know what to look for.
Here are 11 manipulative personality traits that are red flags.
1. They hone in on your weaknesses.
Manipulative personality types are adept at finding your Achilles heel and ferreting out your insecurities. They are keen observers of your behavior and will ask probing questions to uncover any dark secrets or flaws you might possess.
They might also cozy up to you because you are sensitive, warm, and generous — qualities they know they can twist for their purposes. Manipulative people view your kind heart as a weakness, not a positive character trait.
Initially, it might feel flattering that this person is taking such an interest in you. They might offer words of sympathy and support to divert you from their ulterior motives.
2. They exploit your weaknesses and your generosity.
Knowing how kind and generous you are, a manipulator will ask too much of you and take advantage of your time and resources.
Once this person has discovered your soft underbelly, they come in for the kill. Manipulative people use your weaknesses to bend you to their will.
They might covertly threaten to blackmail you by intimating that they possess embarrassing information about you. They are masters at using your insecurities as a tool to force you to give up some part of yourself to serve their interests.
Or they will use your private information and confidences against you should you try to push back or take a stand against their behavior.
3. They use guilt trips.
One of the favorite traits of a manipulator is the guilt trip. “If you care about me, you won’t leave and go to that party tonight. A real friend would come over right now and help me clean the house.”
This tactic works exceptionally well on people who are insecure or people-pleasers, and the manipulator often seeks out this type of person because they know they are easy prey.
But manipulators use guilt trips unsparingly and indiscriminately, even with those who call their bluff. Manipulators like to divert responsibility away from themselves, and they take a weird pleasure in making others feel bad or uncomfortable.
If you call out their guilt-tripping shenanigans, they act indignant and offended. You are the one who isn’t stepping up to help. You are the selfish, unkind friend, spouse, child, or associate.
4. They play the victim.
Guilt trips are just one of the many ways manipulators play the victim. A manipulator acts like a victim not only to get their way but also to gain attention.
- They will always “one-up” you if you share a challenge or problem.
- Your pain is never as great as theirs.
- Your difficult childhood doesn’t hold a candle to the manipulator’s early suffering.
Most of these people learn very early in life that if they act helpless, wounded, and incapable, they can get others to step up and take action. They can be excused for manipulative behavior or laziness because they are victims and “just couldn’t help it.”
5. They bend the truth.
Manipulative people are masters at obfuscation and half-truths. They twist their own words to lend an element of doubt or confusion to a situation.
They leave out important information or pretend they meant one thing when they said another. “Oh, I didn’t know our lunch appointment was definite.” “You didn’t tell me not to share the information. You just said it was personal.”
A good manipulator knows how to cover their tracks and confuse their language to the extent that you begin to doubt yourself. “I thought you would confirm our lunch date, so I assumed you didn’t want to meet today.”
The manipulator can say it all with a straight face and a calm voice — better than any two-faced politician. Once they see you questioning yourself, they know they have you under their thumb.
6. They make subtle digs.
Manipulators won’t overtly degrade you or call you names. They have much more understated ways of getting under your skin and making you feel bad.
They say things that might seem innocuous on the surface, maybe even helpful or kind, but you can feel the negative, hurtful undertones behind the comment.
These passive-aggressive comments and subtle digs feel like bee stings when they occur, but they have the cumulative effect of a slow-killing poison.
“Oh, I see you decided to wear that dress after all.” “Do you need help with the bills? I know it can be confusing for you.” “How do you feel about your daughter not getting into that college she wanted to go to?”
If your manipulator knows you well, she uses what she knows to find the most painful place to stick the knife without appearing to be cruel or unkind — but with full knowledge of exactly how it’s impacting you.
When you suggest their words and actions are hurtful, they deny, deny, deny. “You are way too sensitive. I didn’t mean it that way at all. I’d never try to hurt you.” Yeah, right.
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7. They have childish reactions.
Manipulators are childish bullies at heart. Perhaps they didn’t have mature relationship skills modeled for them as children. Or maybe they have a touch of narcissism and have figured out that using and abusing people gets them what they want.
Either way, they seem to be stuck in the early teen years when they don’t get their way. They may pout, sulk, cry, whine to others, give you the cold shoulder, or act impulsively.
The emotional maturity of these controlling, manipulative people is typically low. If you respond to their manipulative behaviors with maturity and calm, it can make them lash out even more in frustration and anger.
More than anything, they want to get your attention and cause you so much distress and discomfort that you’ll acquiesce to their demands.
8. They blame others.
Part of a manipulator’s victim game is blaming others for problems, failures, or moral lapses.
The manipulator can masterfully point the finger at anyone but themselves, even when it’s painfully obvious who is at fault.
Even when they are caught red-handed doing or saying something wrong or inappropriate, there’s always someone else who made them do or say it.
Or they suggest that everyone else sees the situation incorrectly and that only the manipulator understands the “real” truth.
Manipulators will take credit for everything that goes right in their lives or around them, but they refuse to accept any responsibility when things go wrong.
9. They don’t respect boundaries.
Manipulative people do not respect your boundaries. As long as they don’t meet much resistance, they will continue to say and do things that cross the line. Sometimes they cross the line even when you ask them to stop.
They may take up too much of your time, show up uninvited, ask to borrow money or things repeatedly, insert themselves into your life inappropriately and do many other things that are out of line with your values and personal limits.
Certainly, they lack respect for you by doing this, especially if you have been clear on your boundaries, and they cross them anyway.
Manipulators don’t seem to care that they might offend or bother you. They feel offended that you aren’t immediately available to meet all of their needs.
10. They are masters at “triangulation.”
Manipulators tend to love drama and often use friends, family, and work associates to foster it.
They know how to set up scenarios and interactions that result in intrigue, rivalries, or jealousy. They seem to enjoy disharmony and chaos and will go to great lengths to encourage and promote it.
They will often gossip to you about other people you know or say unkind things about you to your friends and family. Stirring the pot is an art form for manipulative people, and once turmoil has descended, they will sit back and enjoy the show.
You and your friends or family members are left to clean up the mess — or you are suddenly left with no one except the manipulator by your side.
11. They practice strategic helplessness.
Why should Mr. or Ms. Manipulator do something difficult or tedious when they can get you to do it? After all, they just don’t know how to screw in that light bulb, and their back is far too sore to take out the trash.
Poor, poor manipulator — everything is so hard for them. When it comes time for them to be responsible or lend a hand, this ordinarily competent person is suddenly helpless, weak, and unsure.
Meanwhile, you’re carrying the load while they are congratulating themselves on pulling the wool over your eyes once again.
Do you recognize any of these manipulative personality traits in someone you know?
If you allow a manipulator to remain in your life, you’ll surely see the quality of your life diminish. This person will infect you with their toxic words and behaviors until you lose self-esteem and inner peace.
Take action now to let go of this person (or spend less time with them) before they cause you any more harm.