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

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. 

  • Flattery

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?

  • Blaming 

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. 

  • Lying 

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 

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? 

  • Self-blame

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.

Be sure to download your guide right here. 

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.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

  1. This article was sent to me by my partner, i believe, in an attempt to show me signs of my manipulation of her. But in reading this I feel that some of the signs apply to her as well but I also see signs where I am also manipulative without the intention of being so. I’m so confused because I often feel like I am being held back or shut in because of her. I’ve left my family behind, havent spoken to my niece or nephew more than a passing hello in over 6 years, and barely have any friends. She has a plethora of friends on social media and in person but feels like I am manipulating her.

    The thing is, I can see the signs and I feel like she is right. But why am I so depressed and down all the time if I am the one manipulating. Unless I am doing this to myself? It gets so confusing for me.

    The article is amazing and I appreciate the content within. Thank you.

    1. Hi Alex,
      I’m glad you were able to find use in the article! I’m holding space for you with so much compassion as you navigate how confusing this is for you and try to unpack your role and your desired boundaries with your partner ❤️

  2. Empowering information! I have researched and read so many articles listened to videos, followed coaches trying to figure what I did wrong; why wasn’t I good enough, smart enough, beautiful enough, sensual enough, young enough, why couldn’t I love enough. Climbing out of the gutter I was in took all I had in me and then some. It was one of the hardest challenges I had ever had to face. I got out of that space by becoming informed. I encourage you stop with the Netflix, put the phone down, start educating your brain (really read and absorb the above). Every above bullet I experienced, take time and really dive into what Terri has provided! Learn to spot good vs bad in yourself and others. You absolutely do not want to experience what I went through. It is not just a “broken heart” that you have to recover from, it is traumatizing to your mental, physical, your entire makeup system. I experienced manipulation for many years, and I had already started the process of wanting to learn about what makes a person tick. I should have been learning “one size does not fit all.” I had to acknowledge I was not prepared for a relationship, even a healthy relationship. ?

  3. Terri, this is so very significant to me. I see many of your
    “signs of covert manipulation” in many friend relationships I have had over the years and one recently. I just didn’t understand what was happening. Now I do. Thank you so much.

  4. Thank you! Your work continues to be so very helpful in my life. It’s like you think you have this co-dependency licked….and it rears its ugly head. Perfectly timed!

{"email":"Email address invalid","url":"Website address invalid","required":"Required field missing"}