Narcissistic Abuse Awareness: Red-Hot Flags of Emotional Manipulation

Written by Angela Atkinson

If you’ve ever been in a relationship that left you feeling confused, upset, worthless, angry, and otherwise negatively, you may have been dealing with an emotional manipulator. This is the kind of person who seems to be focused mostly on what they want, especially during times of distress, but in many cases, nearly all the time. They may or may not be a narcissist, and they are likely to make your life feel very difficult, at least on occasion, 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. These practices can be harmful to everyone involved – and in the case of a toxic narcissist, it can literally 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. 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, there are other forms that are far more sinister. In many cases, emotional manipulation is a form of emotional abuse. 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 absolutely miserable. Let’s face it. No one likes to be controlled! For your own benefit, learn these signs that a family member is trying to manipulate you – the first step to any solution is the discovery of the problem, followed closely by understanding it – and eventually, you can overcome it.

Emotional manipulators 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. The person who is 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. An emotional manipulator can make you feel as if it’s your fault you’re not remembering the previous conversation the same way. They can make you feel guilty and ashamed, so you don’t pursue the subject anymore.

Emotional manipulators use guilt trips.

Emotional manipulators frequently use guilt to control their families. 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 will 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 in order to get sympathy. This is another important sign to recognize.

Emotional manipulators 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 you hurtful messages or to blame you for their issues. By involving another person, they’re able to blame someone else for the message being misinterpreted.

Emotional manipulators 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 are used to 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.

Emotional manipulators use belittling tactics to control you.

Family members may try to belittle you, so they can 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.

Emotional manipulators 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.

Emotional manipulators dig deep to hurt you.

Sensitive people are more likely to become victims of family members who want to control them. They’re less likely to stand up for themselves or speak out against the manipulators. It’s important to spot these signs in a relationship.

Don’t let an emotional manipulator control you!

You can recognize emotional manipulation and refuse to let the family member take control of you or your actions. These relationships are unhealthy and toxic. Seek professional help if you need to, but it’s important to make positive changes to the relationship or let the relationship go.

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 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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