Spot Emotional Manipulation

Have you ever been in a conflict with someone over their bad behavior, but somehow at the end of your interaction with them, you’re the one who ends up apologizing? 

Have you ever tried to confront someone about something hurtful they’ve said or done and they respond to you with something like: “I didn’t say/do that. You’re always looking to start something! What’s wrong with you?”

If you’ve had one of these experiences, you know how confusing, frustrating, and painful it can be. These are just 2 examples of the kind of psychological tactics emotional abusers, users, master manipulators, and narcissists use to control those around them. When it comes to these toxic personality types, the regular boundary rules don’t apply. 

The best defense against emotional manipulation is a good offense, and that means knowing how to spot the red flags. In this week’s episode, I’m shedding light on how you can identify and protect yourself from “Boundary Destroyers”!

A boundary destroyer has limited ability to listen to how you’re feeling or understand what’s happening for you. Even if they present a good front (and they usually do), they don’t actually care about your needs, wants, or preferences. They feel entitled to your time, care and attention, and trying to reason with one is, honestly…a dead end.

The way we interact with the rest of the world does not apply to people whose mode of operation is emotional manipulation. Boundary destroyers think they are above the rules. No matter how skilled you become at establishing healthy boundaries and effective communication, a true boundary destroyer will disregard you in service of themselves. 

What this all means is WE have to learn a different way of interacting. The first step is to learn how to identify a boundary destroyer’s different tricks of the trade so you can spot their emotional manipulation for what it is.

Flipping the Script

Boundary destroyers are experts at shifting the focus from their own bad behavior and shadiness. They are reactive, petulant, and contentious. Any expression of your limits or boundaries can set them off. 

Have you ever made a totally reasonable request only to have this person respond as if you just punched them in the face? Their tantrums are designed to flip the script, taking the focus away from what you want in a calculated effort to control you and get you to do what they want.  

Another maneuver is pretending to make you the object of their concern, especially when you attempt to call them on their bad behavior or mistakes. They might counter by saying something like: “Are you ok? You seem extra sensitive these days. I’m worried about you.”

Or they might deflect any potential negativity by raking you over the coals with something like, “I can’t believe you’re bringing this up when YOU’RE the one who… XYZ.” 

These are straight-up diversionary ploys to get you to stop talking about what they did wrong and start defending yourself instead. In communication power dynamics, the person asking the question is the one in the dominant position. 

Pay attention when you bring up issues…does the person listen or do everything they can to get back into a position of dominance? 

I encourage you to really take a closer look at the nuances of your interactions with someone you think might be manipulating you. They might split hairs or outright distort what you’ve said or agreed to and insist their truth is THE truth. You might have the feeling they are purposely misunderstanding you. 

A boundary destroyer’s game is to distract you, get you to doubt yourself, and question your own reality…which brings us right to the next emotional manipulation tactic. 


Gaslighting is truly insidious. A gaslighter seeks to sow seeds of doubt in your mind to maintain control over you and over the relationship. They will use denial, misdirection, contradiction, and straight-up lies so you end up questioning your memory, your perception, and sometimes even your sanity. 

If you’ve ever walked away from a conversation or conflict with someone and thought to yourself…”Wait. Am I crazy?” Beware.

What makes us vulnerable to gaslighting? If in your childhood an adult you trusted denied your reality, this can set you up to be vulnerable to these types of plots in adulthood. Example: you witnessed your caregivers have a huge fight and the next day when you asked about it, you heard something like, “Oh, honey, we weren’t fighting! You have such a wild imagination!”

The purpose of gaslighting is to delegitimize your beliefs and make you question your reality. It is incredibly painful and lonely to be a victim of this experience. If you’re in deep, it really does make you feel like you’re losing it. 

Even talking about it to others can make you feel like there’s something wrong with you, so there tends to be a lot of secrecy, which only perpetuates the cycle of abuse. When the gaslighting starts working, we start to doubt ourselves and isolate ourselves from others…and that’s the Boundary Destroyer’s point. 

Love Bombing

Love bombing is a very common manipulation tactic narcissists use to lure in their victims, but it is only phase one of a cycle of emotional abuse. There is always eventually a pivot to the next phase, in which the opposite starts to happen, and that can be devastatingly painful. 

The narcissistic cycle of abuse has three stages: (1) idolize, (2) devalue, (3) discard. When you’re getting love bombed, the manipulator lavishes you with attention and flattery, feeding your ego and building up a fantasy of true love. Sadly, once they’re sure you’re hooked, everything changes. The boundary destroyer starts becoming highly critical, disapproving, even hostile. Eventually, disdain turns to total rejection. 

Love bombing is driven by the boundary destroyer’s desire to gain full control. It can be seductive because it is marked by grand romantic gestures in the beginning. It can feel like a dream come true. But if it feels too good to be true, proceed with caution. 

Assert yourself in a healthy way. Make a simple request about something. State that you would prefer to do something other than what they have planned. If their reaction is to withdraw love, give you the cold shoulder, cut off their affection or attention…it’s a red flag.

In this week’s downloadable guide, I’ve included more resources for you on how to spot emotional manipulation and how to protect yourself from boundary destroyers. 

Download your “Spot Emotional Manipulation” guide here now

Sadly, I think sometimes there can be a tendency to minimize emotional abuse, like, oh, well, it’s not really abuse if they are not physically harming me, but emotional abuse can be just as devastating. 

If any of these behaviors are resonating with you, please don’t minimize it. If you are having similar experiences, please know, you don’t deserve it. There are ways for you to change your situation and your safety is of the utmost importance. 

My goal is to help you learn how to limit harm from unhealthy relationships. This means learning how to set limits in a safe and healthy way. Stepping back from a relationship with a boundary destroyer can be complicated, and you need to be extremely cautious in your approach. 

If you feel trapped and afraid of what your partner might do if you end things, please watch this video on “How to Safely Leave An Abusive Relationship.”

The reason I am sharing these manipulation tactics with you is that knowledge and awareness can create the opportunity for you to protect yourself effectively. Arming yourself with clarity on what emotional manipulation looks like in practice is the first step to avoiding it. 

If you are in a situation where someone is denying your reality or using any of these manipulation tactics, you want to be able to step back and say something like, “We’re going to have to agree to disagree because I know what I experienced.” (Only if it is safe to do so.) 

If the person is more clueless than abusive, there is a possibility that they will respect the boundary you draw. The more trust you have in yourself and the more confidence you gain in your boundary skills, the less vulnerable you will be. In the guide, I’ve given you some questions to help you get more clarity on any problematic relationship or situation you might be in right now, and you can download it right here.

I want to hear from you! Does this resonate? Please drop me a comment here or connect with me over on Instagram @terricole and let’s keep this conversation going. 

If the episode added value and you think there’s someone who needs this information, please share it with the people in your life. 

I can’t wait to see what you have to say about this. I hope you have an amazing week and as always take care of you, first.

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. Wow, this is so good. I am negotiating a financial settlement with my ex-husband who ran away with his high school girlfriend after we were married for 40 years. I suspect I now understand a bit better why I also felt so inadequate around him when we were together – gaslighting, silent treatment, ‘why are you so sensitive?’ etc etc. even now he is questioning my legal expenses – today an email asking me to explain them all to him prior to mediation. Sheesh! What a control freak! My lawyer says I should ignore him and not play his games any longer. But its hard to do after a lifetime of being questioned and devalued …

  2. Hey Terri,
    I am a dutch psychotherapist myself and after a relationship of 25 years, i left my husband and father of three because of his paranoïde, agressive and manipulative behaviour. I am so sad my middle son is behaving more or less the same although his attachmentstyle is safe and i allways tried to be positive to him en stimulate him to grow emotionally. Do you know how to handdle him en coach him to a healthier development?

    1. Hi Karin,
      Thank you for being here and for your question (also, great to hear from another psychotherapist ?). This is a tricky situation, and I’d want to know more to offer a better response. My initial thought is to ask him if he’s interested in your observations about this type of behavior. If you struggle to have a convo with him, you can write him a letter. I would be sure to let him know what is great about him and what types of healthy behaviors he does exhibit, so he knows you see the good in him as well. I’m holding space for you with so much compassion as you navigate this with your family ❤️

    1. Hi there,
      I’m so glad this (and the boundaries course) resonated for you! I hear you about how the marriage affected your adult children. This is certainly a difficult scenario. Do you feel like you can talk to them about how you feel and what boundaries you believe are important to set in a relationship? Also, just letting them know that you’re working on yourself and your personal boundaries in relationships can open the door to further conversations. Hopefully they will have questions and you can discuss this more with them. ❤️

  3. Wow, I felt like you were talking directly to me. You were looking me in the eyes and speaking truth. My partner is highly critical and regularly sows seeds of doubt. I find myself stunted and unable to progress in many aspects of my life. When I do seek outside help, for example a coach (mental toughness and sport specific), my partner is not supportive of on-going efforts with the coach. In fact he sows seed of doubt that the coach isn’t worth the investment and that I’ve regressed while working with them despite the fact that I am feeling better. Thank you for adding more awareness to my situation and giving me language to further establish my boundaries. Ordering a copy of Boundary Boss!

  4. I am facilitating a group right now where we are even addressing some of these areas and have a lady that is definitely trying to manipulate. So far have been able to minimize most of her “ concerns “. Eg. How she feels “ left out”. Mostly by using her own words to minimize her contradiction. I’m not perfect in boundary setting, but have had to use some tactics even with my own Mother. At first I was skeptical, but once I put necessary boundaries in place and stuck to them. ( at first very hard) I began to feel the release of “ guilty” feelings. Wow what a weight lifted. Thank you for your wise words of encouragement and boundary setting.


  5. This definitely resonates as I have felt this way in a current relationship that has plagued me with throes of romance and joy as well as “am I insane?” feelings. I’m also looking back in my history with a handful of partners and spotting these tactics, piecing them together, and having helpful revealations, but also trying not to get TOO terrified. My father was emotionally abusive (and physically with my mom). I know a lot of the attraction to these possible manipulators was related to that familiar experience.

    What I find challenging is when some of the traits don’t line up with their actions, and some do, and I wonder if it’s my triggers freaking me out as well/how much is it abuse?
    I have also noticed as I read about this, some behaviors I did with these partners, that I never meant to be manipulative, but they are listed as such. I just remember freaking out and not wanting to lose control (or feeling like I had lost it and was lashing out…) not that I was maliciously trying to hurt someone. So I question how vindictive these partners are vs. just on some “baggage autopilot “…. and how do you separate the two? Love this topic, so important to talk about!

    1. Hi Jamie,
      Thank you for being here! This is such a great point – oftentimes, we (and others) are unintentionally manipulative because we lack the awareness to know that we are trying to manipulate others to soothe ourselves. It’s definitely not always vindictive! I think setting boundaries and discussing the ways that you feel controlled by others (the “other” being the manipulator) can help you understand where the manipulation is coming from. Regardless of the intention, it’s important to remember that it’s not your job to unpack the reasoning, but rather, your job to keep yourself from being manipulated.

  6. Teri, you are worth your weight in gold!
    Your episode about emotional manipulation rings so many bells. I experience it every day.

    I bought your audiobook and started to push back.

    Today he wanted me to go to a place where we can have our van converted into a camper. I didn’t fancy going anywhere, so I said I didn’t fancy going I want to stay at home and rest. (To be honest I don’t see the point because I’m not involved in decision making anyway). He told me that he had thought I would be more interested. Basically in his opinion I didn’t care enough. I didn’t fall for it.

    Looking forward to learning more.

  7. Hi Teri!
    I’ve realized that my sister is somewhat of a boundary destroyer. I’m younger and have tended to be very easy to manipulate without even realizing it. I’ve now moved out and am in a new relationship which has caused so many more issues to come up.
    I so deeply want to help her. Do you have anything that can help people on the other side?

    Thank you for your amazing insight, I‘be learnt so much already and my boundaries are getting stronger.

    1. Hi Karen,
      Thank you for reaching out; I’m glad this is resonating for you! In these situations, it can be best to set boundaries and lead by example. You can’t help someone who doesn’t want help, but you can hope that by showing her a different way to live, she will get curious about her own behavior. Also, if you have the type of relationship where you can talk to her directly about her boundaries, that can be another good strategy. ❤️

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