Narcissistic Abuse Awareness: Red-Hot Flags of Emotional Manipulation

Written by Angela Atkinson

If you’ve been in a relationship that left you feeling confused, upset, worthless, angry, and otherwise negative, you may have been dealing with an emotional manipulator.

How do you identify an emotional manipulator? 

Do you know someone who focuses mostly on what they want, especially during distress? 

Emotional manipulators may or may not be narcissists, and they are likely to make your life very difficult, at least occasionally, especially if they are close to you.

What is Emotional Manipulation?

Emotional manipulation is one-way others try to change your behavior, thoughts, and feelings through misleading practices.

While some forms of emotional manipulation are part of everyday life, such as advertising and marketing that uses emotions to draw you in and sell to you, other forms are far more sinister.

In many cases, an emotional manipulation is a form of emotional abuse.

At what point does emotional manipulation become emotional abuse?

In some cases, emotional manipulation can be harmful to everyone involved – and in the case of a toxic narcissist, it can take you to a place where you sort of lose yourself – and this is even more of a concern when the narcissist is part of your everyday reality.

Also called psychological abuse, emotional abuse is a form of abuse in which a toxic person subjects or exposes you to repeated behavior that often results in long-term psychological trauma, including anxiety, chronic depression, or a form of post-traumatic stress disorder called complex post-traumatic stress disorder, or C-PTSD.

How Do You Learn to Recognize Emotional Manipulation in Your Family Members?

Family members may try to use emotional manipulation to control you – and whether or not they can be identified as people with narcissistic personality disorder (NPD), they can make life miserable.

Let’s face it. No one likes to be controlled! Learn these signs that a family member is trying to manipulate you – the first step to any solution is discovering the problem, followed closely by understanding it – and eventually, you can overcome it.

They deny the truth.

One of the most common ways a family member can use emotional manipulation is to deny the truth. This is a key sign, and it’s one that you’ll overlook in a hurry if you care about the person denying the truth. 

  • The person manipulating you will often make a promise or a statement but deny it later.
  • They will pretend that the truth doesn’t exist and conveniently blame your bad memory for it. It’s difficult to prove the truth without a recording, email, or other physical evidence.
  • In some cases, the manipulator will try to fight the evidence by saying it’s fabricated.
  • And they will make you feel it’s your fault you do not remember the previous conversation the same way.
  • They can make you feel guilty and ashamed, so you don’t pursue the subject anymore.

They use guilt trips.

Emotional manipulators frequently use guilt to control their families, friends, and loved ones. A few examples of how they use guilt trips:

  • Family members can use passive-aggressive tactics to manipulate you.
  • They can also find your weak spots, so it’s easier to make you feel guilty.
  • Manipulators pretend to be victims, so you’ll feel sorry for them.
  • If you refuse to go along with the charade, they will accuse you of being insensitive and mean. 
  • They can make you feel guilty to get sympathy

They use people.

  • Emotional manipulators will use your friends and other family members to hurt you.
  • They can use others as messengers or mediators to control you.
  • Emotional manipulators will use these people to send hurtful messages or blame you for their issues.
  • Involving another person means they can blame someone else for misinterpreting the message.

They use anger and threats to get what they want.

Family members can use their anger and threats to manipulate you. An emotional manipulator uses anger to frighten and coerce people.

  • Threats and angry outbursts make the other person feel uncomfortable and upset.
  • Emotional manipulators often use anger to interrupt or stop a conversation they don’t like.
  • For example, a family member who refuses to discuss his affairs may use an angry outburst and threats to end the conversation or storm out of the room.
  • The anger can escalate to physical violence, so it’s important to pay close attention to the situation and seek help if necessary.

They belittle you to control you.

  • Family members may try to belittle you and often do in an attempt to manipulate you more easily.
  • Emotional manipulators will criticize you and point out your flaws.
  • The main goal of this tactic is to make you feel inferior so you’re easier to control.

They focus on vulnerable targets.

  • Manipulators seek out sensitive people because it’s easier to influence them.
  • They deliberately look for people who are vulnerable and insecure.
  • They can spot your insecurities and use them.

In the beginning, emotional manipulators may even seem kind and concerned as they gather information about you. However, this quickly changes to control.

They dig deep to hurt you.

  • Sensitive people and codependents are more likely to become victims of family members, partners, and friends who want to control them.
  • They’re less likely to stand up for themselves or speak against the manipulators.

Don’t let an emotional manipulator control you!

This video offers insight into gaslighting and emotional manipulation and describes how a narcissist might emotionally manipulate you within a toxic relationship.

More Helpful Videos for Understanding Emotional Manipulators

Learn more about signs of gaslighting, plus how to deal with gaslighting.

Helpful related articles for dealing with emotional manipulators

Your turn: have you been emotionally manipulated by a toxic family member? Not sure? Take our emotional manipulation self-assessment.


  • Angela Atkinson

    Angela Atkinson is a certified trauma counselor and the author of more than 20 books on narcissism, narcissistic abuse recovery, and related topics. A recognized expert on narcissism and narcissistic personality disorder who has studied and written extensively on narcissistic personality disorder and narcissistic abuse in toxic relationships since 2006, she has a popular narcissistic abuse recovery YouTube channel. Atkinson was inspired to begin her work as a result of having survived toxic relationships of her own. Atkinson offers trauma-informed narcissistic abuse recovery coaching and has certifications in trauma counseling, life coaching, level 2 therapeutic model, CBT coaching, integrative wellness coaching, and NLP. She is a certified trauma support coach and certified family trauma professional. She also has a professional PTSD counseling certification. Her mission is to help those who have experienced the emotional and mental devastation that comes with narcissistic abuse in these incredibly toxic relationships to (re)discover their true selves, stop the gaslighting and manipulation, and move forward into their genuine desires – into a life that is exactly what they choose for themselves. Along with her solution-focused life coaching experience, Atkinson’s previous career in journalism and research helps her to offer both accurate and understandable information for survivors of abuse in a simple-to-understand way that helps to increase awareness in the narcissistic abuse recovery community. Atkinson founded Narcissistic Abuse Recovery Support, the SPANily Narcissistic Abuse Recovery Support Groups and the Life Makeover Academy. She offers individual and group coaching for victims and survivors of narcissistic abuse here at and at NarcissisticAbuseRecovery.Online.

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