A Handy Guide For Dealing With Manipulative People

Last week I encountered three sets of manipulative people. As a result of being raised in a controlling, cultish group (AND THANKS TO TONS OF THERAPY!! :D) I can now easily identify unhealthy, hurtful human behavior.

But it’s FAR more difficult to establish strong, healthy boundaries. Sometimes “believing the best” about people needs to be tempered with “believe what you know to be true about them,” too.

Here are my top three tips for dealing with “repeat offender” manipulators:

  1. Manipulative people make their requests sound like a great, special offer just for you when the reality is, you are the one doing THEM a favor. Whenever a manipulative person asks me to do something for them, I remind myself that I am under no obligation to say yes. And furthermore, I should not feel the need to apologize for saying no. Additionally, I do not owe them any explanation for saying no.
  2. Arguing with a manipulator is like arguing with a drug addict. You’re not arguing with the person, you’re arguing with the drug. Everything a manipulator says serves their own personal agenda. Instead of making it a personal discussion, deal with them as if you are simply dealing with their vice. You are talking to their drug/vice addiction. You wouldn’t apologize to an addict for not giving into their requests, right? If their request violates your personal boundary, the answer is always no.
  3. Manipulative people are accustomed to getting their way. Not only do manipulators want you to say yes to their requests, they want you to say yes NOW. Manipulators usually get angry or vindictive when they don’t get their way. To avoid the drama and maintain your boundaries, defer your answer to a later time. Say something like: “I’ll have to get back to you on that.” When you do say no, say it in the least personal way possible; ie. via voice-message, email or text.

And remember! Don’t apologize for your no. (HINT: This is the hardest part). But if you remain true to your boundaries, you’ll have your dignity, self-respect AND increased happiness.

Any other ideas for dealing with manipulative people?
What are your experiences?

  • Anna

    I think you hit the nail on the head with the boundaries thing — it seems like manipulative people either have no understanding of boundaries or it’s in their nature to try to break them down in other people. It seems the best line of defense against someone who is manipulative is guarding your boundaries against them. Eventually they’ll learn that they can’t get anything out of you and move on.

    As the old saying goes, you can’t control how someone behaves… but you can control how you react :)

  • http://blossomliketherose.blogspot.com/ sarah

    I like what you said about manipulators needing a ‘yes now.’ I read last night, and it has held true in my own life, that if the person is pressing you for an answer before you get to talk it over with your significant other (assuming it affects them, but manipulative people seem to affects everyone in the family), then the answer is an automatic no.

  • TJ

    Thanks for this! I have a question, though… what are the signs of a manipulative person. How do you know you are being manipulated? I have a feeling I have manipulated my way through my share of situations, and I have also been unknowingly manipulated. What is the line between asking something in a generous way and actually manipulating? I tend to be too blunt and hurtful if I am being really honest and straightforward. Hard balance. Or not?

    • http://www.elizabethesther.com elizabeth

      You are being manipulated if:
      1. the “offer” is not in your best interest/at least reciprocal
      2. you feel guilty for saying no
      3. the manipulator has a track record of offering “favors” that come with many strings attached

      • TJ

        Thanks! So if you need something from someone, you just ask for a favor, instead of presenting it like there is something in it for them as well. And you make it clear it is ok if they cannot help you. Yes? New concept for lots of people!

  • http://somewiseguy.com ThatGuyKC

    This is dead on. Thank you for profiling manipulators. I need to work on not apologizing.

    • http://www.elizabethesther.com elizabeth

      I need to work on that, too! :)

      • http://phariseefreed.blogspot.com/ Susan

        Me, too.

        • TheresaEh

          me also

      • Liz S.

        Yup. Me too! Of course, it hasn’t been that long since I stopped regularly apologizing for my very existence, which now seems quite silly to me but I still catch myself from time to time… so…I’ll get there. :)

        • Karen

          Liz, I can absolutely relate to this. I too feel that I’ve apologized for my very existense. What’s that all about?

  • http://www.JanetOberholtzer.com Janet Oberholtzer

    Good stuff!
    Creating boundaries has been a process for me (thanks to therapy!)
    Sometimes I still struggle with how/where/what/who/etc. So this is good info to think about … and be aware of in relationships. I have a few relationships that frustrate me and I think it’s because I haven’t been intentional about setting wise boundaries. So thanks for this!

  • http://www.joyinthisjourney.com Joy @ Joy In This Journey

    Great advice for dealing with individuals, EE.

    But when I think about manipulative controlling groups, I think the manipulation looks different. At least in my experience, they are more open about consequences for not complying. It’s a little more about power and submission, right and wrong, rather than just getting their way. And I’m not sure yet the best way to appease the wrath while still pursuing my own path. Experiments continue, let’s just say.

    But maybe you didn’t plan to go there?

    • http://www.elizabethesther.com elizabeth

      Great point, Joy! I should follow-up with a post about group manipulation and what that looks like. Thanks for the inspiration! :) p.s. I agree–group manipulation is harder to resist than individual manipulation

      • http://phariseefreed.blogspot.com/ Susan

        Group stuff is always hand-in-glove with intimidation either subtle or overt.

  • cindykay

    I experienced incredible freedom when it dawned on me one day that I don’t owe phone salespeople an explanation. I always thought I needed good reasons for saying no, but then, they always had a reason why that reason wasn’t a good reason, so then I often ended up saying yes (and getting in trouble with my husband.) Now I just say no.

    This works in a lot of other areas too. I have found even with non-manipulative people my No goes over better if I don’t apologize or give reasons. Many people seem to respect me better if I don’t act as if they are going to give me a detention for making excuses.

    • http://www.elizabethesther.com elizabeth

      YES! Your NO is IMPORTANT! :)

      • barbi

        I use “I’m really sorry, that won’t work.” No further explanation allows no opportunity for the requester to show me how it could work.

  • Smoochagator

    This post is SO INCREDIBLE AWESOME. I’m bookmarking it and sending it to everyone I know. These three truths are invaluable.

    • http://www.elizabethesther.com elizabeth

      thanks, Smoochy!

  • http://www.sohappytolove.blogspot.com Heidi Stephen

    wow – your first point….that is SO true !!
    this is SUCH a helpful list…thank you. I am constantly trying to learn to set boundaries in these sorts of relationships wihtout being the one left feeling guilty.

  • http://thefloodedfishbowl.com Rae

    It is extra hard when the Manipulator is also someone with Borderline Personality Disorder and telling them no means a full scale attack which increases the manipulation to another level of full blown emotional manipulation followed by attacks that begin with triangulation by the Manipulator to further manipulate the original No-sayer into saying yes. UGH! And on and on the cycle goes.

    • TheresaEh

      I grew up with one, and called her mom.

      • Kimberly

        As did I. I hope you had a healthier mother’s day weekend than what I managed to pull off!

      • Judes

        I was married to one for ten years.

      • Tammy

        Mom with BPD as manipulator…wowza…you just described my life. I refuse to submit myself to her whims “You can beat your head bloody against a wall, but Im naming my child Louis and its a shame you dont like it”.

        She crashed her car in a drunken bloody mess to prove to me that she would break through my boundaries. She cursed me as she came out of her coma and 3 years ago permanently banished me with a curse on her lips. I live a great life without her in it. Im a deeply loving person, not a gal you would imagine is incommunicado with her parents.
        I taught my kids to be wary if you ever hear an old lady say “All I want is _____” (as if only requesting one thing obligated everyone to accommodate them)…that may have to be a “no”.

  • http://www.indiatoappleton.blogspot.com Nancy

    As I started reading your post, I was thinking the same thing that ended up being your #3. :) If I feel I’m being hounded, guilted, or otherwise manipulated, I avoid being sucked in even with more words than necessary. I usually just say, “That’s not going to work for me this week,” or whatever applies to the manipulator’s deadline.

  • Amy Kate

    How timely…just spent 3 days with my primary manipulator. In the 12 years of knowing her, the “I’ll get back to you with my decision” tip is invaluable to me…so that I can step back and evaluate my feelings and the consequences of my “yes” or “no.” She chides me for not wanting to talk on the phone. I couldn’t put my finger on why I prefer texting or emailing her…but you did…so that I don’t become tangled in the expectation and emotion. I can make a more objective and healthy decision. Thank you for your post …good to know I’m not mean or unloving…just taking steps to be healthier.

    • Christie

      Wow, you just helped me figure out why I prefer to communicate with my oldest sister this way. I never thought it about like that, but she is very overbearing and I am the youngest and VERY non-confrontational and easily frazzled. Communicating by text or email or chat is MUCH easier because I can gather my thoughts and she cannot tell if I start to lose composure. Nice! :)

  • http://heartsoulexchange.blogspot.com/ Heart n Soul

    Wow … great thoughts!

  • Judes

    Wow! I was married to a mega-manipulator and this is great advice – I spent years trying to work this out and probably never came up with anything as concise and accurate as these three points. My 11 year old daughter is struggling with this when she spends time with her father so I will share your guide with her. Thanks EE.

  • Agnes

    My tip would be, if you already know what you want and what you’re prepared to do, your own schedule, commitments, etc., i.e. knowing YOURSELF, then when people try and manipulate you, you will only agree to what you’ve already agreed with yourself. If that makes sense. For example, when I was in my teens I made a decision not to drink shots. Then I had a boyfriend who seemed determined to get me to drink shots, to the point of lying and saying ‘’Kate’ bought you a shot, it would be rude not to drink it’ when he was the one who bought it. Bottom line, I WASN’T WILLING TO DRINK SHOTS so I told him I didn’t care how rude it was not to drink it, the ‘person’ should have asked me before buying it. Admittedly, I have a lot of experience dealing with a manipulative mother, so I don’t bother being too overly polite, which may not be for everyone. BUT, no one has the right to push you into anything if you’ve said no, and if they try, THEY are dammed rude, not you. I will say though that I struggle really hard with this in group situations, to the point that I will always run away if I encounter it in a group. Much scarier.

    • Tammy

      YES!! This thread and a few other things I have read this morning have given me a new goal. My parents (as previously stated) dont speak to me. I’m their scapegoat. Mom & Dads 50th anniversary will be June 9th 2012…I fully expect to have some bizarre guilt situation put upon me at the 11th hour to put on a show for their friends.


      Im going to make reservations to be out of the country and unreachable. Im thinking a tour of Catholic Churches of eastern Poland (Im not kidding).

      • http://www.elizabethesther.com elizabeth

        Sounds like a fascinating tour! :)

      • http://blossomliketherose.blogspot.com/ sarah

        That’s fantastic! I’ll have to use this one. Maybe not to Poland though, I’m a little sick of travel, period.

      • Tammy

        Daughter tells me that she would prefer shopping in Paris to Churches of Eastern Europe “you can do that trip with old people” hahaha Either way were out of the country…I feel better already…now I dont have to stress their manipulation for the next 14 months

  • http://brokentelegraph.com Tiffany

    Ugh. I get manipulated ALL. THE. TIME. I am the worst at standing up for myself. If you were crafty enough you could ask for one of my kidneys and I’d look for a tub filled with ice. I have NO ability to say “no”.

    Thank you so much for writing this post. It shows me that saying “no” is okay. Moreover it is something I SHOULD say more often.

  • Kelly

    If you are in closer relationship w/a manipulator (my husband is one), it’s important to be aware that they can change their tactics if something they are trying doesn’t work. Someone who uses anger may switch to guilt or “logic” when you start setting boundaries against the anger.

    It is the spirit of manipulation that we need to be able to recognize, that feeling that we are not being offered the freedom to make our own choices. This is a freedom that we need to receive from God and claim for our own in the face of manipulation.

    At one point, when I was learning to walk away from my husband when he was in a rage, he told me that I was sinning against him when I did this. But in prayer, God reminded me of David and Saul. Saul’s behavior towards David was extremely dysfunctional, and God absolutely supported David’s need to get away from Saul, to protect himself. David proved that his heart was pure, that he had no intention of hurting Saul, but he was free to make choices that kept him safe.

    Liz, I like your emphasis on not apologizing for saying no. Few of us like to hear the word no when it comes to personal requests, and as we learn to say it, we also have the opportunity to learn how to hear it gracefully, how to react and respectfully discuss the issue (if need be) when we have been told no, ourselves.

  • http://www.likeawarmcupofcoffee.com Sarah Mae

    I was told something by a counselor who dealt with those who had relationships with alcoholics and his advice changed everything for me. He said you are just tossing a ball back and forth when you try and explain your position or let them keep manipulating you, but you can stop the ball by not throwing it back. If the person on the phone starts to “go there” you can say, “I’m sorry, but I’ve got to run, talk to you another time” or whatever. Don’t throw the ball back.

    This helped me so much with my manipulative, alcoholic mother who ALWAYS made me feel guilty – I never did anything right. This played out through college, until that counselor told me the ball tip-changed everything. I had the ball and the control. It was so freeing. “Sorry mom, love you, got to run now” click.

  • Karen

    Dear Elizabeth, I am starting to be healed from a long friendship that was unhealthy. (Thank you Lord for wonderful counselors) I found out that my “friend” was truly not a friend, but a manipulator/controller. I haven’t even been around this person for quite some time, but even now she feels that I am the problem and she has no personal responsibility. I appreciate your insights on how to deal with these types of people. I wish they would just accept the truth about themselves and save some future people some heartache.

  • Heather

    Boundaries, boundaries, boundaries! I love Boundaries. I am the peace maker in my family so setting boundaries and maintaining them has not come easy. As many others noted…a great counselor works wonders!

    More than 18 months ago, I was placed in the middle of an argument between my two brothers. I chose NOT to engage but I did share with my manipulative brother, that many of his actions over the past 20 years had caused much resentment and pain for me. I suggested that we get together (I live 750 miles from them — my saving grace and helps with setting boundaries) and have an open, honest and loving conversation to talk about the issues. After what I thought was a grown up conversation, he told me he would get back to me. The next day I got an email from him telling me he would no longer be in my life to cause me pain and he wanted me to let him how much money I had spent on his children over the past 20 years and my counseling so that he could pay me back. He needed to know immediatly so he could decide if he would sell his house or bring his daughter home from college to have the money to pay me. Lastly, he informed me I was not allowed to have a relationshp with his kids who are young adults. Oh brother (no pun intended) was my only thought. I simply responded that it was unfortunate he was continueing to hurt the family by telling us we could not have a relationship with our nieces and nephews.

    OK, So I apologize for the LONG story, but next Tuesday, I am going to his daughters HS graduation (oh by the way, he responded that I could talk to the children, just not about family drama — REALLY? As if I would. =). In any case, I have a bit of anxiety thinking about the interaction between us after more than 18 months of not speaking. I plan to be cordial but nothing more. Any thoughts or advice?

    P.S. he is a very legalistic Christian who is fabulous at judging others and views his family as perfection. =)

  • http://deodate.wordpress.com/ Andie

    This is absolutely perfect and soooo helpful. I have one person in mind that I need to deal with all of the time. Thanks Elizabeth, I need to print this one out!

  • april yedinak

    I am catching up on my blog reading and found this fascinating post. It was definitely thought provoking. Especially the part about trying to argue with a manipulator. I have learned this the hard way with my own parents. I recently cut off contact for many reasons, but when trying to ‘bow out gracefully’ all I got were a bunch of arguments about how grateful I should be to have a family. Unspoken was the knowledge that they only were using and abusing me my whole life and like an addict they were dependent on my compliance with their demands. I feel a little bit firmer in my resolve after reading this, especially coming from someone I respect and admire who I know has had a messed up past also. Thanks for sharing.

  • Ann

    This is so helpful. I am sure I have been guilty of manipulative behaviour both at work (in Sales) and with my first husband. But I still didn’t spot that my sister was manipulating me – and has been all her life! Now I’m learning ‘don’t throw the ball back’, keep discussion to e-mail and have the phrases ‘That’s just no on’/’Don’t go there’/ and ‘No Way!’ in my vocabulary. Thank you and all the correspondents!


  • Nataljk

    Hello! This is very helpful for me and I thank you so much for sharing your wisdom!  I’m in the midst of an extremely manipulative relationship that has been going on for over 2 years, I keep trying to escape but  find myself back in the same firm grasp of my partner in the one-sided relationship. He has so so many tactics and I have been so conditioned to giving in to his agenda. I don’t notice that I am being manipulated when I’m there and it’s happening. Now that I have been turned inside out by this one person, and my family is concerned for me have I finally come to fully understand that I am the victim of manipulation. One of the most successful tactics he will use is depression and even the threat of suicide. In my gut I question whether it is genuine, but then I feel bad for
    thinking such things and the fear is also built up that he may actually
    take his life which keeps me in his firing line as I want for him to feel better. He blames me for his unhappiness and uses this to gain the support and sympathy of people so they are against me. He also is someone who works hard on the image people have of him; a really nice caring sweet guy who would never hurt anyone. If I were to tell people what he is really like (even though I wouldn’t do that) they surely would not believe me. Whenever we are in social situations he must at some point take control over the situation and isolate me from my friends or prevent me from having a good time (by having my time consumed with trying to nurse him or take care of his needs) by playing the depression card. I’ve tried my hardest to please him but he is never satisfied with my efforts and I am always made to feel I am in the wrong and need to make it up to him. If I ever confront him for his behavior he immediately has a response that challenges what I’m saying and instead puts him in the position of the victim. Reading this,one would wonder how I have put up with this for so long and even I question myself as to how I could be so naive but the manipulation has always been subtle and for this reason, successful. I am not aware that I am being manipulated at the time that I am because he is a skillful manipulator who has studied my weaknesses and insecurities and knows just what to do to get his way without me knowing what he’s up to. The impact this relationship has had on me is horrible, everything I am has been put into trying to please a bottomless pit. The only way one person could get someone to do that is through manipulation, I would not consciously walk into it. These kinds of relationships are dangerous. I am at the end of my tether and all I want is to be free. I am going to put your suggestions into motion as well as others and I do hope that good comes out of this and I can be master at recognizing manipulative tactics and help people who are also trapped by the same thing. I’m very intrigued to read bout all the different kinds of manipulation, I hope you dont mind me sharing this! Thanks for reading!