How to Deal with Controlling Manipulative People

Manipulative people have mastered the art of deception. These smiling liars may appear innocent, respectable, and sincere. However, under that façade lies an extensive tool box of skills they have spent several years masterfully crafting to pull the unsuspecting strings of others for their own gain. While becoming ensnared in a manipulator’s agenda may devastate you or your bank account for years, or even decades, don’t take it too personally. Manipulative people are not really interested in you, except as a vehicle to allow them to gain control so that you become an unwilling participant in their selfish plans.

All manipulators have an agenda and that agenda is control. Whether it’s control over their own self-aggrandisement through altering the behaviours, attitudes or opinions of others, blatantly lying to cover up some random wrongdoing, cheating or theft: or exaggerating an achievement to maintain an inflated false image. They know how to detect your weaknesses, use them against you, and convince you to do something that serves their own interests. They may even use seemingly positive tactics like insincere flattery and fake closeness, but more likely they tend towards negative means like silent treatment, criticism, deception and emotional abuse. As above, so below. As within, so without. The manipulation of the truth is only possible when you are afraid of your own power. Once you free yourself from doubts and inner worries concerning potential criticism and condemnation for speaking your mind, no one will be able to manipulate you – at least not for very long.

Manipulation involves an attempt to control someone else. Most manipulation can be boiled down to one common motive: Someone wants you to give up something – time, a personal possession, autonomy, attention, power, or anything else – for their benefit. Most of us have to deal with toxic manipulators at some time in our lives, at our jobs, in our families, or both. It can be hard to detect whether someone is manipulative upon first meeting them. Unfortunately, their selfish nature often goes unnoticed until you have become too involved in their lives to simply cut and run. 

“Controllers, abusers, and manipulative people don’t question themselves. They don’t ask themselves if the problem is them. They always say the problem is someone else.”

— Darlene Ouimet

Manipulation Red Flags

Instead of using their quick wit, understanding of human nature and potentially high IQ in service to others, they choose to exploit these gifts to their own advantage leaving a trail of emotional and societal damage in their wake, which is often carried forward to the next generation. You may not necessarily recognise manipulation immediately because it is often subtle and delivered behind the pretense of a mask. As time goes by, you might begin to notice these red flags:

  • You often feel tricked or pressured into doing things.
  • It seems as if you can’t do anything right.
  • It no longer seems possible to say no.
  • They often twist the truth.
  • You often feel guilty or confused.
  • Your efforts never seem good enough.
  • You are often interrupted and they talk over you.
  • Your concerns are dismissed, overlooked or even mocked.
  • You are scapegoated, shamed and blamed when things go wrong. 
  • You are often given the silent treatment.

“If you are an approval addict, your behaviour is as easy to control as that of any other junkie. All a manipulator need do is a simple two-step process: Give you what you crave, and then threaten to take it away. Every drug dealer in the world plays this game.”

― Harriet B. Braiker 

5 Toxic Manipulation Tactics

Manipulative people will often take what you say or do and twist it around so that what you said and did becomes barely recognisable to you. They attempt to confuse you by gaslighting you into questioning your own version of reality. They distort the truth and easily resort to lying if it serves their purpose. Manipulative people play the victim, making you seem to be the one who caused a problem that they began but will not take responsibility for. They can be passive-aggressive or nice one minute and standoffish the next – just to keep you guessing and to prey on your fears and insecurities. They will often make you defensive. They can also be extremely aggressive and vicious (particularly behind closed doors) resorting to personal attacks and criticism in their pursuit of getting what they want. They bully and threaten, and won’t let up or let go until they wear you down. The question is: How far will you allow it go before you take back the reigns of your life?

1. Self-centred and Self-seeking

Manipulative people either lack insight into how they engage others, or they truly believe that their way of handling a situation is the only way because it means that their needs are being met, and that’s all that matters. Ultimately, all situations and relationships are about them, and what others think, feel, and want really doesn’t matter.

2. Lack Boundaries

Manipulative people do not understand the concept of boundaries. They are relentless in the pursuit of what they want and have little regard for who gets hurt along the way. Crowding your space – physically, emotionally, psychologically, or spiritually – is of no concern to them. They either lack the awareness of what personal sovereignty means or just don’t care. They are codependent and parasitic – feeding off of another’s energy at their expense leaving the person depleted, exhausted, weakened, and demeaned.

3. Avoid Responsibility

Manipulators blame everyone else. It’s not that they don’t understand what responsibility is. They do; a manipulative person just sees nothing wrong with refusing to take responsibility for their actions, even while making you take responsibility for yours. Ultimately they may try to get you to take responsibility for satisfying their needs, leaving no room for fulfilling yours.

4. Superficial

Manipulative people prey on emotionally sensitive empathic people. They know they have a good chance of hooking you into a relationship if you are a kind, feeling, caring person, and especially because you want to help. They may cater to your moral fibre and kindness at first, often praising you for the wonderful person you are. But over time, praise for these qualities will be minimised because you are being used in the service of someone who really doesn’t care about you. They only care about what you can do for them.

5. Gossip

Pay attention to the way people speak about others in relation to you. They will often talk about you behind your back the same way they talk to you about others. They are masters at “triangulation” – creating scenarios and dynamics that allow for intrigue, rivalry, and jealousy, and encourage and promote disharmony.

“The need for control always comes from someone that has lost it.”

― Shannon L. Alder

5 Powerful Strategies to Take Your Power Back

Emotional manipulators often use mind games to seize power in a relationship. The ultimate goal is to use that power to control the other person. A healthy relationship is based on trust, understanding, and mutual respect. This is true of personal relationships, as well as professional ones. Sometimes, people seek to exploit these elements of a relationship in order to benefit themselves in some way. The signs of emotional manipulation can be subtle. They’re often hard to identify, especially when they’re happening to you. That doesn’t mean that it’s your fault – no one deserves to be manipulated. Here is some practical advice for standing up to the toxic people in your workplace and life so you can remain in charge of your own destiny.

5. Stall for Time

When a manipulative person is pressuring you to do something you’re not sure you want to do, a great response is to delay giving them an answer. “Let me check my calendar/workload/check with my partner and get back to you” can be a great way to stall for time and decide how best to respond away from the toxic pressure. If you are still pressured for an immediate yes, that can give you a graceful out: “Since I’m not sure and you really need an answer now, I’ll have to say no.”

4. Set a Policy

Know what you will and will not do, and set yourself mental boundaries. When discussing these with friends and colleagues, call them policies – perhaps it’s your policy to not set work appointments on weekends. This makes it super simple to say no when someone asks for one.

3. Use Discernment

Consider people’s motivations as well as your own in any situation. Manipulative people are skilled at making you feel responsible for solving every problem. Once you ask yourself what they really want and what you really want, you are basically forced to take a step back and look at the bigger picture. That perspective might help you see whether a request or demand really is reasonable.

2. Question Entitlement

Research suggests that we tend to see questions of fairness in a self-serving light (EG: we convince ourselves that it’s OK to pilfer a pastry from someone else’s break room because they’ll probably wind up getting thrown out anyway). Manipulative people usually have a very high sense of entitlement and are quick to feel that they’ve been mistreated if things don’t go their way. Their certainty that they’re in the right can be so convincing that you can easily be caught off guard.

1. Third Person View

It’s often easier to be objective when someone you care about is being treated unfairly. Imagine that your scenario is happening to a friend instead of to you. If your friend told you about the demands a manipulative person is making of you, what would you tell that friend to say or do? It’s time to take your own advice.

“True love is built on free will and free choice, not control and manipulation.”

― Ken Poirot

Are YOU The Control Freak?

Have you ever been accused of being too controlling? Is your way usually the best way of doing things?  Are you Mr or Ms Right, and your first name is ‘Always’? If you answered “yes” to these questions, you may indeed be a control freak. Have you ever paused to consider how much that is costing you? There is a price to pay for everything. Control freaks experience consequences ranging from constant irritability to uncontrollable anger. In addition to wreaking havoc on your mental health, being a control freak also wastes a lot of time and energy, both of which are finite resources. In order to build mental strength, practice controlling your emotions, rather than controlling everything around you. Build confidence in your ability to deal with discomfort and practice accepting that not everything will go as planned. With a concerted effort, you can regain control over yourself. This will help you gain the inner peace you’ve been attempting to achieve by trying to control your environment.

Here’s the thing: control freaks rarely know that they are one. They believe that they are helping people with their “constructive criticism” or taking over of a project because “no one else will do it right.” They don’t see their controlling behaviours as symptoms of what is really going on — their own anxiety has run amuck. Irrational thoughts proliferate our high stress world: “If I don’t get this contract, I’ll get fired.” “If I’m not home by 6:00, I’m a terrible parent”. “If I don’t get that raise, I suck at my job”.  All of these thoughts might be true, but most likely not.

15 Signs You Are A Control Freak
For Your Self-Diagnosing Pleasure.

1. You believe that if someone would change one or two things about themselves, you’d be happier. So, you try to “help them” change their behaviour by pointing it out, usually over and over.

2. You micromanage others to make them fit your (often unrealistic) expectations. You don’t believe in imperfection and you don’t think anyone else should either.

3. There’s really no pleasing you, you’ll usually find a reason to complain. If the work is done by someone else, you think it’s shoddy. If it isn’t completed yet, you get angry because it hasn’t been done yet.

4. You hate delegating. You would rather stay up all night working instead of sharing the burden with someone else.

5. You judge other people’s behaviour as right or wrong and passive-aggressively withhold attention until they fall in line with your expectations. Sitting in silent judgment is a master form of control.

6. You offer “constructive criticism” as a veiled attempt to advance your own agenda.

7. You sincerely believe that the people around you are incapable of doing something on their own. They obviously need your constant intervention, input and guidance so they can get it right.

8. You grow frustrated when someone doesn’t get you. Why don’t they understand that you’re only trying to help them *even if they aren’t asking for your help*.

9. You change who you are or what you believe so that someone will accept you. Instead of just being yourself, you attempt to incept others by managing their impression of you.

10. You’re a perfectionist in everything you do and you secretly feel threatened by anyone who may be better than you in your area of expertise.

11. You present worst-case scenarios in an attempt to influence others away from certain behaviours and toward others. This is also called fear mongering.

12. You’re a terrible listener because you don’t like hearing the other side of the story. Why would you try to understand another person’s point of view when you think you’re right anyway?

13. You do not take leaps of faith. You have a hard time with ambiguity and being OK with not knowing something.

14. You can’t take criticism, and you only pretend like you can.

15. You intervene on behalf of people by trying to explain or dismiss their behaviours to others.

“You are here to make a difference, to either improve the world or worsen it. And whether or not you consciously choose to, you will accomplish one or the other.”

― Richelle E. Goodrich

Control Issues

At the root of all relationship control issues is fear: fear of abandonment, fear of vulnerability, fear of things going wrong. People who struggle with an exaggerated need to be in control often fear being at the mercy of others, and this fear may stem from traumatic past events that left them feeling helpless and vulnerable. As a result, they tend to crave control in disproportionate and unhealthy ways. For example, some hyper-vigilant controlling people may be trying to make sure nothing bad happens (as it likely did in their past).

An exaggerated need for control drives people to turn to the external world in order to find things they can control. They may be compelled to micromanage and orchestrate the actions and behaviours of others, or maintain rigid rules regarding routine, diet, or cleanliness and order. For instance, people who are physically or psychologically abusive inflict pain on loved ones in the form of ridicule, isolation, restrictions, physical or sexual assault, because they themselves are in pain, though this pain is often deeply buried and unacknowledged.

Snatching Control Causes Resistance

It doesn’t have to be as graphic as that though. Say I snatch control of the conversation, talking well past the point when you want to reply. You will become increasingly frustrated as you wait for a pause in which you can respond. Sales people do this when they insist on going through the whole sales pitch even when the customer simply wants to pay, take the product and leave. Parents do it when they over-do the lectures to their children. A point which is initially accepted will be later rejected after what is seen as unfair punishment.

“Control and manipulation are not love; the outcome is a life of imprisonment ultimately leading to deep-rooted feelings of resentment.”
― Ken Poirot

What is NOT Controlling Behaviour?

Two common dynamics that often get confused with controlling behaviour are holding boundaries and making requests.

Maintaining Boundaries — Healthy boundaries state the kind of dynamics we will, or will not, engage in. When you create a boundary (in a clear space) and share the consequence of crossing that boundary, the other person is free to make decisions based on that information. You do not interfere with their choices.

Let’s say Sally is in recovery and she can’t have alcohol in the house. She explains to her husband, John, that the sight of beer in the fridge is not safe for her recovery. She lets him know that if she continues to see beer in the fridge, she will need to live alone to ensure this doesn’t happen.

John may think she is controlling him. However, Sally is creating a boundary around what she will and will not accept in order to create the environment she needs to recover. Boundary issues are almost always related to our health and identity. They include how we dress, what we put into our bodies, when and by whom we are touched, and what we will and will not tolerate in our space.

If you are telling someone else what to do in areas that affect their health or identity, you are being controlling. If you are refusing to let people tell you what to do in areas that affect your health or identity, then you are maintaining clear boundaries.

Making Requests — When we ask for something, we release control over the outcome. The other person can either oblige or not. On the other hand, if someone does not oblige and we make them pay for it later through lost connection (silent treatment, anger, other negative consequences), then this is manipulation, control and emotional abuse. See the difference?

“Life doesn’t happen to me because I don’t let it happen.
I’m afraid it won’t happen the only way I want it to happen: my way.”

― Carol Vorvain

Overt or Covert Controller

There are two types of controlling people: The overt controller (bullying, in charge persona, larger than life, domineering, abusive), and the covert, co-dependent controller.

Both are equally damaging.

  1. Are You an Overt Controller?
  • Do you tend to be bossy, direct and potentially domineering?
  • Do you speak frequently and at length about what “should” be done? You assume you know what’s best. You tend to not be open to a shared vision or plan. You would rather decide moment to moment what and when is best, and give directions based on your mood.
  • Have you been accused of hijacking the conversation? This includes asking rhetorical questions to make a point, changing the subject, turning the tables, constantly correcting, and deciding what the topic is. Dismissing or redefining the concerns other people raise is particularly harmful. If they bring something up, you deflect by accusing them of something else. They may defend themselves but their original point usually never gets addressed.
  • Do you talk excessively? By not allowing responses and making many points in a row, you keep others in a state of being unable to process their own thoughts. This causes them to feel held hostage.
  • Do you pretend not to understand? Instead of plainly disagreeing, you might say you didn’t know that, or that you don’t understand. This refusal to own your position creates confusion and makes others work harder to be understood, thus putting you in control.
  • Do you demand toxic delegation? This means you ask someone to do something for you, but it needs to be done exactly the way you would do it. You then criticise them when it’s not done ‘right’.
  • Are you prone to mood swings? These are persistent, not occasional so others never quite know what your mood is going to be, keeping them on their toes. This is a great fit for co-dependent partners. Mood swings control your partner unless they are highly skilled at not reacting.
  • Do you need to always be right or to win? You don’t like hearing “no” – not one bit. People feel like they must agree with you or there will be trouble. This is not safe environment for them emotionally.

    2. Are You A Covert Controller?

  • Do you manipulate people by needing them to behave or feel a certain way in order for you to feel okay?
  • Are you a martyr? Do you do so much for others that you create a sense of indebtedness in them? They feel they will never be as good or giving as you.
  • Are you super re-active? You overreact other people’s thoughts and feelings. If they say something you disagree with, you either take the ball and run with it or become defensive.
  • Do you put other people ahead of yourself? You have a need to help and you feel offended and rejected if others do not want your help.
  • Do you guilt-trip others? Do you blame other people for your emotional state?  This is a huge red flag because guilt eventually becomes part of the fabric of your relationship. The other person then does things for you to avoid feeling guilty.
  • Do you have an expectation of mind reading? You may be so good at reading and meeting other people’s needs that you expect them to do the same. You may pout until they guess what you want. This is a way of getting what you want without having to ask for it… manipulation much?
  • Do you give people the silent treatment or withdrawal? Silent treatment functions to keep others anxious about where you stand and what will happen. It renders them unable to fix the problem, and yet at the same time pulls their focus off their own lives. This is emotional abuse.

“Controlling my environment was still a compelling need for me. I did everything I could to not be surprised by anything…Looking back, I think that my need to predict how my day was going to unfold was a direct response to the amount of chaos in my childhood.”

― Olga Trujillo

4 Ways to Stop Being So Controlling

If you recognise these behaviours in yourself, don’t beat yourself up. Rather than tackle our own irrational thinking and massage it into more realistic thinking, we attempt to control the situation, usually by trying to control other people. Behaviours like these are learned behaviours. We do what works for us as a survival skill. However, you are not your past and if you want to evolve and get stronger, it’s time to release control over others and gain empowerment for yourself.

  • Identify your triggers. The first step is to be mindful of when the control issue is emerging. Is there anger, resentment, annoyance that things aren’t going the “right” way? Is that the way they really have to go or just the way you want them to? When are you most likely to engage in these behaviours? Is it when you feel threatened? What happens just before you feel the need to control the situation?
  • Tune into your fears and desires. Turn inward, not outward. Next time you are engaging in controlling behaviours, ask yourself “What do I fear right now?” and “What do I need?” It could be that you only want acknowledgment. Work on asking directly for what you need.
  • Take yourself out of the equation. Take a time-out. Even if it’s only for a minute. Step back and just breathe. If you can go to a room alone and take some time to figure out the root of why the negative emotions are abounding that can be quite helpful. There is a bigger picture. Look at things from a wider perspective, rather than in terms of only what you want at that moment.
  • Trust yourself. Slowly Release. You have more resiliency, depth, strength and flexibility than you give yourself credit for. Risk bearing the disappointment. Find out what happens when you don’t control things. Do things fall apart? If they do then perhaps you are not in the right relationship or job situation. Trust the process as a way of gathering information.

If you knew your potential to feel good, you would never ask anyone to be different so that you can feel good. You would free yourself of needing to control the world, or control your mate, your peers or your child. You are the only one who creates your reality. No one else can think for you, no one else can do it. It is only you, every bit of it you. Letting go of controlling behaviour requires a leap of faith and a deep shift in our old ways of relating. And you’re so worth it!  

“Everyone loses their class when they travel through hell, but only a few will regain it if they remain humble and accept the part they played in their own misery.”

― Shannon L. Alder

Dealing With Toxic Manipulative People

Here are our top tips for dealing with toxic people in the moment.

Never Try to Control a Controller

Speak up, but refrain from telling them what to do.  Create boundaries in a way that is assertive rather than controlling. Stay in your power and refuse to play the victim. Controllers are looking for a power struggle, so do your best not to sweat the small stuff. Stay calm. Focus on high-priority issues that you really care about rather than bickering about putting the cap on the toothpaste.

Keep Your Distance

If you have the option, spend as little time with them as possible. Let’s call it anti-social distancing. Master manipulators exert major stress which can make you more vulnerable to their behaviour. Create a gap between to two of you. Letting this person think they are your friend offers a window of opportunity for them to jump in and attempt to manipulate and control you again.

Set Limits

Strong boundaries created in a clear emotional space with a neutral tone are crucial in any relationship and even more so with controllers. Repetition is key. Don’t expect instant miracles. Since controllers rarely give up easily, be patient. Respectfully reiterating your stance over days or weeks will slowly recondition negative communication patterns and redefine the terms of the relationship. You are 100% responsible for what you will and will not tollerate.

Practice Saying NO

Controlling people use persuasive language to hide what is, in actuality, pressure. If you do not submit to what they are ‘encouraging’ you to do, this often results in some kind of emotional display. It is a very slippery slope once you start appeasing them simply because it’s easier in the moment. Practice saying “No” without feeling the need to justify it. “No” is a complete sentence. Be clear and firm in your communication. If this seems daunting for you, practice a series of stock phrases to have at the ready so you are not caught off guard.

Size Up the Situation

If your boss is a controlling perfectionist (and you choose to stay) then that’s 100% on you.  Ruminating and complaining about what a rotten person he or she is, or expecting that person to change is basically futile. Choose to operate within that reality check. For instance, if your boss instructs you how to complete a project, and you add a few good ideas of your own, accept that this may or may not fly. The nature of the status-based relationship means that your boss will always be able to pull rank. If you’re OK with that, then stay. If it upsets you, then it could be time to find another place to work.

“Being a control freak is a weakness, not a strength. If you can’t allow others to shine, you’re exhibiting signs of narcissism and showing a lack of self-confidence. It is isolation through ego.”

― Stewart Stafford

Walking a New path

The times in which we live are characterised by immense changes and if you think you are in control of anything, other than your response to these changes, we have news for you. Great flexibility and clear intent are required of you for dealing with this inestimable process of human transformation. Developing the ability to become aware of what you think, feel, and speak, and structuring your life with pristine clarity through thought, word, and deed are of essential importance for living an empowered life. Accepting responsibility for the power you embody is the essential and most important lesson of this transformation.

People who feel out of control tend to become controllers. Deep down, they’re afraid of falling apart, so they micromanage to bind anxiety. Some controllers have a machismo drive to be top dog in both business and personal matters. This is usually to mask their feelings of inadequacy and lack of inner power. When you mindfully deal with controlling people, you can free yourself from their manipulations. Knowing how they operate allows you choose how to (or if to) interact with them. Oftentimes your greatest power is in simply walking away. Make no mistake: old habits, patterns, and addictions that limit and confine the human spirit are rapidly breaking down and clearing the way for a new way of living and being. This new way is demonstrated by Conscious Leaders everywhere and it is based on a global revival of responsibility, accountability, and personal empowerment. Will you elevate or be left behind? All choice is with you. Together we rise!

“Attempting to constantly control everyone and everything around you is not only exhausting…it is also futile. The only real power you can achieve in this life is being in control of yourself.”

― Anthon St. Maarten


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