master manipulator pretending to apologize to her partner

How to Tell if Someone is a Master Manipulator

Have you ever had someone in your life who made you feel like you couldn’t trust yourself? It could be a parent, sibling, friend, colleague, or romantic partner. Master manipulators come in all different forms. They have a special talent for manipulating others in order to get what they want.

But how do you spot a master manipulator and what are some signs you should look out for? We’ll examine the telltale signs of manipulation and provide strategies for navigating or ending these relationships to live a happier life.

What is a master manipulator?

Not everyone who is manipulative is a master manipulator. These are the people who excel at engaging in calculated behavior to advance their own endgame. They are what is known as Machiavellians or “High Machs.”

Machiavellians are named after the notorious philosopher Niccolló Machiavelli. He is perhaps most famous for his book, The Prince, in which he argued it is better for leaders to be feared than loved. Machiavelli believed that immoral behavior like deceit, brutishness, and murder was a perfectly normal and effective way to achieve political ends.

These people have a strong desire to get ahead in the world. They are not afraid to use manipulation skills to get what they want.

Machiavellianism is characterized by an arsenal of tactics that people may use in order to reach their desired goal, regardless of the harm they might cause others.

People who have these traits are most likely going to be more persuasive because they will be able to convince others that what they want is best for them. 

man manipulating woman who is upset
Warnings signs of a master manipulator

Why Do Some People Become Master Manipulators?

People are not born Machiavellians. It is a learned trait. Researchers have found that environmental factors play a role in shaping manipulative behavior. Individuals who experience abuse, trauma, or neglect in childhood are more likely to become “High Machs.”

The theory goes that children who do not experience trust or care as children can grow up to become distrustful of others. Trust is the foundation for developing skills like empathy and compassion. The more empathy and moral values that drive a person, the less likely they are to want to harm others.

High Machiavellians lack empathy. They have no scruples about deceiving or exploiting others. In fact, they may even take joy in it. Skilled manipulators only care about their endgame. They will worry about your wellbeing and feelings only to the extent that it benefits or advantages them. 

13 Signs of Emotional and Psychological Manipulation

Because master manipulators are good at what they do, it can be hard to admit to ourselves that we’re being manipulated. It’s important to know the signs.

Of course, we usually have a gut feeling that something isn’t right. There may be mind games at play, gaslighting, or being made to feel like you’re going crazy. But manipulators are good at making us question our own judgment.

Then there’s the shame. How could we be so foolish? Why didn’t we see what was really going on? These feelings of shame and guilt can trap us into emotionally abusive relationships we struggle to escape.

But there are common signs of manipulation you can look out for if you start to feel that someone in your life taking advantage of you. We’ll explore some common red flags and provide you with strategies to get support.

1. They come on way too strong.

In romantic situations, this is known as “love bombing.” Love bombing refers to the phenomenon in which someone new into your life showers you with affection and love for no apparent reason. It’s too early in the relationship for this intensity to make sense. Individuals who do this are often looking to get something from you, like time and commitment. They manufacture closeness with you as a means of control.

It’s not just limited to romantic relationships. Love bombing can happen in professional and platonic relationships as well. 

2. They weaponize guilt.

Master manipulators prey on our vulnerability to guilt. If you try to express your feelings to them, they are experts at manipulating your words and making you feel wrong. Have you ever tried to have a serious conversation with someone about how they make you feel only to have them turn the entire thing back on you?

“Why didn’t you bring this up sooner? Why are you making me out to be the bad guy? Don’t you know how much pressure I’ve been feeling at work?”

By the end of the conversation, you’re the one apologizing to them for feeling upset by their actions.

3. They always play the victim.

This is related to guilt trips. Master manipulators know how to blame everyone for everything. Nothing is their fault. They are never wrong. What’s worse, they know how to make you feel responsible for their behavior.

It’s your fault for making them angry. If you hadn’t been giving them such a hard time, they would not have cheated. They got fired because the boss had it out for them.

The role of the victim absolves them of any wrongdoing and has the added effect of making you feel like the bad guy. This kind of emotional manipulation allows the abuser to never be wrong. It is designed to make the person on the receiving end feel somehow wrong or at fault for their own hurt feelings. 

playing the victim – emotional manipulation tactic

4. They distort everything.

Master manipulators are experts at distorting the narrative to fit their own agenda. They know how to pick events and can selectively recall things in such a way that makes you question your own memory. They will intentionally distort what you’re trying to say for their own purposes.

A common form of distortion is gaslighting.

Gaslighting is a form of emotional and psychological abuse, which is characterized by manipulation to make the victim question their own feelings, memories, and perceptions. It is one of the tell tale signs of an emotionally abusive relationship.

In short, gaslighting is when someone tells you that you are too sensitive or that they didn’t do something wrong when you know they did. They might also try to convince you that reality isn’t as it seems by constantly denying things they have done. Gaslighters can be romantic partners, parents, bosses, or other people in positions of trust and authority over your life.

Toxic relationships are often riddled with gaslighting as it is another favored tactic of emotional manipulators.

5. They’re bullies.

Manipulators use a wide range of bullying tacts to get what they want. They may humiliate you in public and then make you feel bad for getting upset about it. Or they may suddenly exclude you from social gatherings with no explanation.

Intellectual bullying is about criticizing people for the views they hold and the opinions they have. It can be in the form of arguments and debates, but it can also be in the form of mockery, insults, name-calling, and other forms of intimidation.

Some common examples of intellectual bullying are:

  • Saying a person’s opinion is invalid because it is not based on facts or research.
  • Arguing a person’s opinion is invalid because they don’t have enough evidence to back up their claim.
  • Telling someone that their argument is invalid because they are too emotional to talk about this topic objectively.
  • Talking over someone when they’re trying to speak and not letting them finish what they’re saying.

Bureaucratic bullying is the act of using the power of rank or position in an organization to oppress, intimidate, and control employees.

Some common examples are: ignoring an employee’s communication attempts, using sarcasm in interactions, telling them they’re not smart enough to work on a project.

Master manipulators know how to be all three types of bullies.

6. They are passive-aggressive.

Passive aggressiveness is another form of manipulation to watch out for. It’s when a person does not say what they want or feel in an open way. They express their anger or frustration through sarcasm, sullenness, pouting, stubbornness, “silent treatment”, etc.

In the case of manipulators, this isn’t because they’re afraid to speak up. They do it because it’s confusing for the people on the receiving end and that works to their advantage. When someone wields passive-aggressiveness, they’re able to use subtle tactics to get what they want.

This can look like “forgetting” an important document for a meeting as a form of sabotage to a colleague. Or other forms of subtle undermining include:

  • Casually pushing buttons and acting offended or surprised when this bad behavior garners a negative response
  • Pretending not to understand
  • Shifting responsibility unfairly
  • Sarcasm
  • They’re stubborn to an extreme degree. An example of this could be defending a clearly wrong position tirelessly as a way to annoy the other person.

Of course, passive-aggressiveness is hard to prove which is why it’s so effective. 

7. They are experts at playing dumb.

Masters of manipulation know how to feign ignorance. They are pros at it. When a manipulator gets called out for bad behavior, they immediately play dumb. It’s a tactic designed to make the person on the receiving end question their own memory and judgment.

Sometimes this looks like outright lying. Machiavellians can look you straight in your eye and tell you the sky is purple in such a way that you start to question your own eyes when you look up and see blue.

8. They’ll tell you what you want to hear.

High Machs will tell you exactly what you want to hear and then turn around and do something completely different. They say they’ll show up and never do. They make promises they can’t keep. And when it comes time to confront them, they know exactly how to make you feel bad for expecting them to follow through.

master manipulator pretending to apologize to her partner
signs of manipulation

9. They use comparison to hurt you.

Master manipulators love to prey on vulnerability and one effective way to do this is by comparing you to others in a way that is designed to hurt you. 

Here’s how that sounds in practice:

  • “My ex-girlfriend never had a problem making it to the gym before work. You should try harder.”
  • “Your brother was always good in math. I don’t know what happened to you.”
  • “You should try to dress more like Mia so you can get a date.”

They may compare you to someone who is a bit more successful as a way of demeaning you or making you feel small. If you call them out on it, they’ll deflect and make you feel like you’re being overly sensitive. or picking a fight.

This form of emotional abuse is designed to produce feelings of inadequacy on the victim. 

10. They weaponize the silent treatment.

Manipulators will withdraw their presence and support as a tool for punishing and controlling others. A common form of this type of manipulation tactic is giving someone the silent treatment to get their way. It can also look like withholding affection or physical intimacy as a way of exerting control. It’s equal parts cruel and effective.

11. They always one-up your problems.

Another manipulation tactic to keep an eye out for is when someone downplays your problems in relation to their own. When you go to an abusive person with a problem you’re having, they find a way to diminish your situation while lamenting how much worse they have it.

“Man I wish the only thing I had to worry about was dealing with an overbearing mother. I’m trying to help mine financially so she doesn’t lose her house.”

It’s a tactic manipulators use to force you to expend all of your emotional energy on them. It’s designed to make you feel like your problems are silly and small, while their problems are important. The long-term impact leads to feelings of weakness and shame.

12. They act like a martyr.

Any effort on their part is to be considered a Herculean effort. They will agree to help out with something and then behave as if it is a heavy burden for which you must be overly grateful. This, in turn, can make you feel bad for asking, which they will then exploit.

“I was up till 3 AM last night so driving you to this early appointment is asking a lot. I don’t know why you schedule these things so early.”

13. They make you feel crazy.

This one is very much a culmination of every kind of manipulation on this list. If someone is making you feel can’t trust your own instincts or judgment anymore, they are manipulating you.

They will have you believe that all of your suspicions about them are a figment of your imagination.

“Was that text message actually flirty or did I make that up? Did she actually promise she was going to be there?”

Manipulators will gaslight you and play to your insecurities in order to make you question yourself.

The Impact of Emotional Manipulation

There are short and long-term effects associated with emotional abuse and manipulation. In the short term, the person on the receiving end may be in denial about the abusive nature of the relationship. While grappling with this, they are likely to experience feelings of shame, guilt, fear, or confusion. This can lead to psychological and physical effects such as moodiness, muscle aches, muscle tension, and difficulty concentrating.

It is exhausting.

In the long term, sustained emotional abuse can lead to depression, low self-esteem, and may be associated with chronic conditions like chronic fatigue syndrome and fibromyalgia.

Additional long-term effects include:

  • anxiety
  • guilt
  • insomnia
  • chronic pain
  • social withdrawal
  • internalizing the messages of the abuser and believing they you are no good.
  • Feelings of worthlessness

Adults and children who are subjected to emotional manipulation for long periods of time develop major trust issues and struggle to form positive connections with others. In some cases, they may seek out negative relationships that reinforce their internalized narrative that they are somehow bad and deserve mistreatment.

Access should not be a barrier to help.

Soberish is proudly sponsored by BetterHelp. If you have tried (and failed) to find a therapist who has the knowledge and background to help you navigate your specific issues, try BetterHelp. Learn more about my counseling journey with BetterHelp or visit their website below.

Overcoming Emotional Manipulation

Once you’ve accepted that you are dealing with a master manipulator, it’s time to take action. You’re going to have to set boundaries to protect yourself from this person’s manipulation. When possible, it’s best to cut this person out completely. If you can’t, developing strategies to handle a master manipulator is a must.

More importantly, you’ll need to devote time to your own recovery. All of the side effects of emotional abuse we just talked about do not vanish with the abuser. Consider talk therapy with a trained professional who can provide you with strategies for handling the situation and support you as you work through the hearing process.

Seek emotional support from friends and family members who have your best interests in mind. And then don’t forget to take care of yourself. Part of the healing process requires us to refute the myths our abusers convinced us to believe about ourselves.

Little things like providing your body with nourishing food, getting enough sleep, spending time in nature, or getting exercise are all ways you can show yourself love and compassion.

It takes time to bounce back from a manipulative relationship but you can do it. Remember to give yourself grace and keep in mind that recovery is often the result of tiny steps done consistently over an extended period of time.

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