Covert manipulation can be part of a cycle of abuse inside a dysfunctional relationship. This behavior is not limited to romantic partnerships. It can happen in any relationship when one person seeks to get their needs met through coercive or deceptive methods of control.
Over time, covert manipulation can damage your self-esteem, self-trust, and self-worth. If you’re always walking around feeling guilty, like you’re not doing enough or second-guessing yourself, it might be time to take a closer look at your relationships.
If you have perfectionist, people-pleasing, codependent or empathic tendencies, you might be more vulnerable to believing someone else’s lies about you and/or your behavior. Covert manipulation tactics can be sneaky, but when you raise your awareness, it is so much easier not to get caught up in this painful cycle.
This week, I’m breaking down the most common manipulation tactics so you can spot them, understand what’s really going on, and make a conscious choice to no longer engage in this painful dance.
When we are being covertly manipulated, we can feel that something’s off, but might not be able to name it. You might have this feeling, as I’ve heard from many of my clients, “I know something’s wrong, but I don’t know what. Why am I so angry/unhappy? Am I crazy?”
Manipulators purposefully mask their own aggressive or dominating intent with psychological and emotional sleight of hand.
What do they want? Whether it’s overt or covert, they want to avoid being confronted for their bad behavior. Their tactics are designed to make you doubt your perceptions. They don’t want to take responsibility for anything. If they are getting their needs met, they don’t want things to change.
If you are a victim of this cycle of abuse and manipulation, it is exhausting and detrimental to your overall wellness. Covert manipulation and controlling behaviors aren’t always easy to recognize as they can present in a variety of ways.
Raising your awareness is the first step to breaking free, so keep reading to learn the most common behavioral patterns of covert manipulators.
Complaining can be benign, but if there is a pattern of complaining in a way that leaves you feeling guilty for not meeting their needs, pay attention. If you are someone who often feels overly-responsible for other people’s feelings or outcomes, you might feel compelled to take action if someone is complaining to you…and they might be using that to their advantage.
Beware of someone trying to “butter” you up before making their next request. If someone you don’t know well is over-complimentary or flattering, this could also be a red flag. Take note. Is there someone in your life who will compliment you and then ask for something in a way that implies you owe them in some way?
This can look like someone blaming you for the way they are feeling or for what they did, and then suggesting the corrective action you need to take to help them feel better or give them what they want. You are not responsible for someone else’s feelings or behaviors. It can be challenging to break out of this pattern of blame, but remember, the other person is responsible for their side of the street and you are responsible for yours.
This can look like the other person having a revisionist history of a past argument or conversation. You might hear things like, “I never said that,” or “That’s not what happened.” Welcome to gaslighting, a dangerous manipulation tactic in which the other person denies your reality. I have more resources for you on the personality types that employ gaslighting and what to do about it inside this week’s guide right here.
Bribery is a covert method to exert control by offering a reward (or threatening a withdraw of a reward) for your compliance. I’ve seen this in family systems often, for example, with adult children who have family members offering them financial support, but with conditions, like, they have to choose the right career or spouse or college, etc. Money is never just money when it comes to family dynamics and relationships. If support is conditional, and you feel like you need to fall in line to get it, consider the emotional and psychological cost to you. How can you ever be fully self-determined if your financial wellness is based on complying with what someone else expects you to do with your life?
Be mindful of someone who’s always using self-deprecation and self-blame to manipulate your feelings. This can sound like, “I’m such an idiot” or “I’m such a terrible person” to get you to forgive them for bad behavior without having to take responsibility for it. Someone successful at covert manipulation always seems to know the right buttons to push. They are skilled students of human nature. If you are someone with excessive guilt, an empath, or a highly sensitive person, you don’t want anyone to feel bad about themselves, right? Don’t let your loving and generous heart get taken advantage of by someone whose default setting is fake self-blame to get you to do what they want.
- Passive-Aggressive Behavior
Passive-aggression is another undercover manipulative behavior. This can look like sarcasm, slamming doors, eye-rolling, etc. If someone is acting out in a passive-aggressive way, they are not speaking or communicating their thoughts, feelings, or intentions directly.
- Blame, Shame + Guilt
We covered blaming above, but this is the trifecta, people. If someone in your life is blaming you, then questioning the kind of person you are, leaving you feeling guilty, and wondering if you’re broken in some way…be aware. I really want you to keep an eye out for the relationships in your life that regularly produce feelings of blame, shame, or guilt.
Inside this week’s downloadable guide, you’ll find the complete list of covert manipulative behaviors (shout out to Darlene Lancer’s work!). I’ve also included questions to help you get more clarity around your personal history to help you understand why you might be especially vulnerable to this kind of dysfunctional behavior pattern. Sometimes we can’t name the behavior or the interaction, but we can almost always identify our feelings if given powerful and direct questions.
In healthy relationship dynamics, whether it’s a friendship, family, or love relationship, these elements of manipulation and control are not present. I want to encourage you to continue to raise your awareness of yourself and others so you can be self-determined and empowered in your beautiful life. You have the power to decide how you will be treated.
I hope this episode added value to your life. If it did, please share it with others you think could benefit as well! I deeply appreciate you. I am rooting for you as you continue to advocate for yourself and the life you desire and deserve. As always, take care of you.