Posted by: Donna Cunningham | December 13, 2010

How to Deal with Manipulative Behavior and Guilt Trips

Donna says, “I have WikiHow on my startup page, and it’s uncanny how often the day’s choices mirror the current astrological picture.  This one seemed like it might be especially useful during this Mercury-Pluto conjunction. It’s long, but worth it if you’re invoved with people who use these tactics. (With WikiHow articles, it’s wise to keep in mind that these are not necessarily professionals, though they’re generally written by people who have put significant sweat equity into the topic.)  

NOTE: Reprinted from WikiHow; originated by:Iqbal Osman, Teresa, Tipsy, Flickety (see all) at   13 Ways to Pick Up on Manipulative Behavior

Manipulation refers to making attempts at influencing someone else’s behavior or actions. As human beings, our emotions often cloud our judgments making it difficult to see the reality behind hidden agendas or motives in different forms of behavior. The controlling aspects or shrewdness linked to manipulation are sometimes very subtle and may be easily overlooked, buried under feelings of obligation, love, or habit. In this article you’ll learn some ways to pick up on manipulative behavior occurring around you, so that you can sort it rather than jump to it.

Understand the characteristics of a manipulative personality. They’re not always obvious because they play a silent game of building up obligations toward them, that end up with you feeling guilty, pressured, and obliged to carry out things for their sake even though you’re still wondering how things got to this point. Some of the characteristics of a manipulative personality include:

  • A martyr style personality. This personality type behaves as if he or she is being considerate toward others but is actually messing up considerateness with a need to be significant to you. By “martyring” themselves, they are doing things nobody has asked of them or wants them to do but in the process creates a bind when they do them. In “doing you a favor”, their expectation increases that you have to return the favor. They may also complain constantly about all the things they do for you and wonder rhetorically when you’re going to return this favor…
  • Excessively needy and dependent personalities. People who feel uncomfortable in their own skin, putting forth their own opinions and ideas can often hide behind manipulative behavior so that it seems as if you are responding on your own accord even though they’ve set up everything to have you respond directly to their neediness.
  • Narcissists. This is the archetypal manipulative personality and it’s very hard to deal with this master manipulator.

You. Seriously, at one time or other, every single one of us practices manipulative behaviors in one form or other. It is just that for most people, manipulative actions tend to be one-off or only occasional instances rather than a purposeful map for daily living and interaction with others. Note the possible types of ways in which people try to manipulate one another. There are some key behaviors that can end up in manipulation, and it’s helpful to know how to spot them before walking right into them. The behaviors are set out briefly here, with the following steps providing more details along with suggestions for healthy ways to respond:

The guilt trip – this manipulative behavior seeks to make you feel guilty and is aimed at sending you into the land of “should” rather than standing up for your own values.

  • The assumption statement – this manipulative tactic seeks to turn your behavior into what the beholder perceives it as, whether or not their interpretation is accurate. Soon leads to a guilt trip because no matter what, your refutation is proof of the assumption.
  • He said, she said – this manipulative ploy is pseudo-sociology in action. The manipulator takes it upon themselves to tell you what someone else said was the right thing to do. It’s a handy way of pushing aside the responsibility from themselves while loading it all onto you.
  • The confronting statement – this manipulative approach is about causing an argument. That way, the provoker will end up making you feel terrible over something you didn’t do or say but for which you ought to feel guilty anyway and they’ll get a huge chunk of sympathy with which to manipulate you all over again.

Self-pity: “But I’m so unloved/sick/victimized, etc.” – At times each one of us has times when we’re really in need of some tender self-care but long-term manipulators can make a habit of being the victim or the one needing special attention. Even companies use guilt trips…

Curtail the guilt trip. Guilt trips are really high on the list of manipulative tools. If you can get someone else to feel guilty, then you’re home and hosed. The trouble is, people wear out after being made to suffer guilt trip after guilt trip and the manipulator who thinks that he or she is on to a good thing here risks losing respect, friends, and being distanced by those who can’t get away, such as family and co-workers. One of the key things to keep in mind when escaping the guilt trip bind is that the sooner you nip it in the bud, the better, and that it’s their guilt trip, not yours. Here are some approaches to the guilt trip:

Recognize it. Guilt trips are usually prefaced with “If you really cared about me, you’d…”, or “If you were more responsible, you’d…”, or “If you were more understanding, you’d…”. In each case, you can substitute the words they add in after with “do as I want”. Another way of inducing a guilt trip is to tell you what you wouldn’t do, for example: “I knew I’d misheard it! After all, you’d never get engaged without telling me first.” In that small phrase, you’ve just been told that the expectations are that you’ll defer to this person before making any decisions.

  • Turn it back on the guilt giver. Take a return-to-sender approach with guilt trips and don’t let their interpretation of your behavior determine the situation. In this case, you can give them a little of their own medicine so that they understand how it feels to be made to feel guilty. This approach involves taking what the manipulator has said and tell them how they aren’t respecting, appreciating, caring for, etc. your behavior toward them, and in the process, you dissolve the need to meet the obligation they’re aiming to impose. For example:
    • A: “You don’t care about all the hard work I’ve done for you.”
    • You: “I sure do care about the hard work you’ve done for me. I’ve said as much many times. Now it seems to me that you don’t appreciate how much I care.”
    • A: “That’s not true! I appreciate it!”
    • You: “Yes, just as I appreciate your hard work.”
  • Shorten their hold on you. When a manipulator tries to guilt-trip you by suggesting that they don’t matter, don’t buy into it. Instead, answer with a quick retort that breaks this hold instantly. For example:
    • A: “Okay then, go on that camping trip with your friends while I do all the work looking after the dogs. Don’t worry about me.”
    • You: “That’s great! I’m glad you’re happy to look after the dogs while I’m away. Thanks!”

Shift the assumption statement away from you. One of the things that is so riling about having another person tell you what it is that you’re thinking or doing is that they are not taking you seriously or treating you as a whole person. Instead, they are attempting to overlay how they’d like you to behave and this comes right back to how they’d like you behave so that it benefits them.

 Assumption statements can be harder to pick up on but it’s essential that you do so in order to deflect them quickly and effectively. Some examples include statements using “suppose”, “guess”, “wish”, etc: “I suppose you’re going to leave me alone again.” or “I wish you’d understand how hard it is for me, after all I’ve done for you, to have you not want to stay longer with me each Christmas.”

The problem with the assumption statement is that there is no question; a manipulator doesn’t like asking questions because it causes them to feel a loss of control. In a healthier relationship situation, questions would elicit what you’re doing and a conversation could proceed from this understanding; a manipulator would prefer to make the assumption as to what you’re doing because it then allows them to them to be in control of the you they’ve described rather than the you they need to listen to.

Break the supposition away from your actions by ignoring the manipulative negative implication and return the manipulator to reality by clarifying your equally valid value attaching to what you’re doing. For example:

  • A: “I wish you’d understand how hard it is for me, after all I’ve done for you, to have you not want to stay longer with me each Christmas.”
  • You: “Actually, I spend as much time with you as I spend with Kate’s parents and just as you and dad used to do when I was growing up, I’m happily dividing my time equally between both families.”
  • A: “I suppose you’re going to leave me alone again.”
  • You: “I’m not leaving you alone. You’ve got your favorite movie on tonight, the dog’s with you wanting attention, and I’ll be back on Tuesday, as usual.”
  • A: “If you’ve got more important things to do, then it’s best you don’t waste time visiting me.”

You: “I’m glad you understand how busy things are for me right now. It’s an expensive time to fly and I’ll be able to spend more time with you when I come next May.”

Move away from the mind games of what the manipulator thinks other people say or do. The use of third party “authority” is thoughtlessly rampant in much of everyday life because we like to defer to these generalizations as a way of backing up our own vague and often unexplored preferences. While most of us know it’s a bad habit, in the hands of a manipulator, it becomes a weapon.

 Whenever a manipulator resorts to quoting what your Aunt May, cousin Josh or darling Katie down the street would do or are saying, see warning lights flashing. This tactic is used to try and compare the perceived lack in your responsiveness with the manner in which other people apparently would behave more appropriately than you (read: they’d do it for the manipulator whereas you’re holding out). While some of this is to do with the manipulator fantasizing that the grass is greener in someone else’s life, it’s far more about being a tool that lets the manipulator abdicate his or her own responsibility for making the statement.

  • A: “Mary says it’d be better if you didn’t leave me alone all the time. She says it’s harmful for me.”
  • You: “I didn’t realize Mary was a psychologist. I must speak to her about the possibility of her spending more time with you.”
  • A: “Everyone thinks you’re not being kind to me when you refuse to buy me a second diamond ring.”

You: “Everyone? I must meet these people who are so flush! I’d love to buy you another ring but I’m glad you have a beautiful one to keep you occupied until our budget can withstand any more large purchases.”

Avoid the confrontation and dispute manipulation. Determine whether someone is deliberately using a ploy or “game” to bring about a dispute or conflict into the open. This frequently happens amongst friends or in relationships, when one member wishes to have influence or to attempt control over the other. Confrontational statements are designed to upset you immediately and to cause an argument to occur.

For example, “How dare you leave me alone tonight!” or “I thought we agreed that this would be the best solution. And now you’re deliberately doing something entirely different.” Or “Why do you always have to do everything your way? What about me?” It can even be brought up jokingly but with the intent to mock or pour cold water on your hopes. Rather than engaging in an argument with this manipulator, learn to simply say “no” and by pointing out clear facts. For example:

Be calm, rational, and pleasant when you say no. Don’t try to up the ante by grimacing or snapping back. It’s also important to keep your response simple and friendly.

  • Use your body language to back up your meaning. Shake your head and give your “no” face.
  • Be polite. When a manipulator asks you to do something, try “I’d love to but I’m too busy in the upcoming months. Sorry.” or “Thanks for asking, but no.”

Sidestep self pity. The manipulator who finds everything unfair and falls to pieces, he or she is attempting to gain your sympathy in order to use it to further his or her own needs. In this case, the manipulator will rely on a sense of “helplessness” and will seek financial, emotional, or other forms of help from you.

 Look out for attitudes and comments like, “You are the only one I have”, and “I have no one else to talk to”, etc. In dealing with a meltdown of self-pity, be compassionate but wary as you don’t want to establish an obligation as a result. Some ways to respond to such a manipulator include:

  • A: “You are the only one I have.”
  • You: “Oh you’re flattering me again but you and I both know that’s not true! You’ve got Betty on Sundays, Muriel on Thursdays, and the bowls club all day Saturday. Why, when I tried to call you last Wednesday night, you were out playing cards with your neighbors.”
  • A: “I have no one else to talk to.”
  • You: “Remember yesterday when Grace came over to talk to you all afternoon? And Sally’s said she’s more than happy to listen over the phone whenever you need a sounding board. I’m happy to talk to you for the next five minutes but after that, I have an appointment I cannot miss.”

Beware of people who twist and distort facts to make them appear more attractive. Generally these people will lie to the ends of the earth in order to get what they want. This often happens in the work environment, simply to get others on their side or gain favor with management and higher authorities. When responding to a fact distortion, seek clarification. Explain that this is not how you remembered the facts and that you’re curious to get a better understanding of their view of them. Remain polite and feel entitled to say that it’s to clarify your confusion. Ask them simple questions about when you both agreed to an issue, how they believed the approach was formed, etc. When you meet on common ground again, take this as the new starting point, not their distorted one. For example:

  • John (manipulator): “I asked Cassie to have all these finished by today. He’s never on time with these reports.”
  • Boss: “Is this true John?”
  • Cassie”: “It isn’t my understanding boss. John, when did you suggest that this was my task alone? My last understanding was that this was to be a joint effort, with you signing off on my work before we presented it to the board. When you didn’t arrive yesterday and I couldn’t reach you, I felt that I had little choice but to continue and finish what I could but it was clear I didn’t have a handle over the X, Y, Z issues that you’re best at defining. And I’ve handed in my last six reports all two days before the due date; I take timeliness very seriously.”
  • Another example: A: “You never back me up in those meetings, you’re only in it for your own gains and you’re always leaving me to the sharks.”
  • You: “That’s not true. I believed that you were ready to talk to the investors about your own ideas. If I had thought you were erring, I’d have stepped in but I thought you did a brilliant job by yourself.”
  • Beware of people with “selective memories”. This is a manipulative tool for wriggling out of obligations they don’t want to meet, while still managing to remember obligations that they expect you to meet, or have met (in front of the boss).

Don’t fall victim those those who use love as a bargaining tool. Such a manipulator will commonly use phrases like, “I know you love me, so…”, “Because I love you, do X, Y, Z for me…”, in order to trick you into accepting what they desire. This often occurs in married relationships and also between friends. People who display this type of attitude will often make you feel indebted or that you owe them something. Instead of letting them manipulate your love for them, try to point out how what you’re doing is proof of your love for them, and bonus points if you can be compassionate enough to weave in recognition of their love for you too:

  • A: “If you loved me, you’d take me on that business trip. I don’t care about your boss’ miserliness, that’s your problem, not mine.”
  • You: “I do love you and that is the very reason I don’t want to inflict my boss on you. You’d have a horrible time having to be super polite around him and he would resent having you there and would possibly even try to demote me for not taking the business trip seriously enough.”
  • A: “You think that this garden is more important than me.”
  • You: “Actually my dear, I tend the garden with care to ensure that you have somewhere fun and safe to play war games with your mates. I want it to be perfect for you, just as you try to paint the house in colors that you know I like.”

Figure out those who feign illness. Unfortunately, some people use illness as a way of manipulating others. There are people who feign small illnesses and symptoms on a small scale, and then there are people who suffer from Factitious Disorder (DSM-IV), previously known as Munchausen’s Sydnrome. Faking illnesses is the intentional production of false and exaggerated physical symptoms designed to achieve an ulterior motive. People who do this may be trying to avoid responsibilities, have more leisure time, obtain medical benefits, or are lazy enough to want someone else to do everything for them.

  • If the person is persistently using this method, it is possible that he or she needs medical help from a psychiatrist or psychologist for Factitious Disorder. The difficulty for you lies in the fact that a person suffering from this might actually have some illness but can function fine most or all of the time despite the illness but chooses to exaggerate its effects (also known as malingering).
  • If the disorder is causing them to behave this way, try not to be judgmental. It is often developed as a way of reacting to stress and has habituated into a pattern.[1] The best thing if you suspect this condition is to suggest that he or she sees a mental health professional to deal with their worry and anxiety; don’t be combative about their “faking illness”.[2]

Beware of individuals who create false rumors. Individuals in this category will tell you the opposite of what you wish to hear. They may do so hoping that you will correct them and as such force out the real story from you. Very private people often fall prey to this type of tactic because it’s targeted at eliciting information from you directly when you’ve been reticent so far.

Ignore emotional outbursts that play on your emotions. Some people will use crying, sorrow, screaming and other forms of emotions to further their own ends or to simply get what they want. This is common among children and teenagers who will “test the waters”, to see how far they can go with this form of manipulation. Read some good parenting books on dealing with manipulation in children and teens; their behavior is more about boundary testing and can be dealt with appropriately with good parenting skills.

 If your child suffers from disruptive behavior disorders, seek help from a mental health therapist. Such disorders as oppositional defiance disorder, conduct disorder and separation disorder can have elements of manipulation in them but need special attention to overcome, using the help of specialists and your compassion.

Listen to yourself. In all of the possible manipulative situations outlined above, whether or not the signs are easy for you to spot, it is very important to listen to yourself and how you feel about the situation. Do you feel oppressed, pressured, obliged to do things for this person that you’d rather not do? Does their behavior seem to impact you endlessly, so that after one form of assistance, you are expected to grant yet more help and support? You answers should serve as a true guide to where your relationship with this person is headed next.

SKYWRITER READERS: have you any observations or any ideas about how to deal with manipulators?  Leave them in the comment section.

Related repints from WikiHow:


  1. Awesome guest post Donna, and indeed timely with the stars! 😉

  2. Loved this posting- Thanks. And thanks for turning me on to WikiHow. I’m sure I’ve experienced all of these challenges before…and maybe used a few myself. To follow the advice- not becoming emotional in these situations- seems often to be almost a superhuman effort for me.

    I know I have a bit of a temper at times. But here’s another one for you: when I find I have legitimate greivances which are being ignored and I become ‘outspoken’, shall we say, I find the response is- I’m just being ‘childish’. I see this put-down happening all round me too- with friends and colleagues, especially with the job situation being so bleak- with people desperately holding on. Isn’t this also a form of manipulation? It’s a ‘power play’- it’s sole purpose: to silence the protest and remind one who has the real power in the situation, whether it be an employer, a friend or a spouse, or a political party. There must be a positive purpose and an appropriate place somewhere for emotion. Or is it just a character flaw of mine?

    One other type of manipulator not mentioned above (unless you count ‘narcissist”) is the sociopath/psychopath. From my own reading I’ve found these two types are on the rise. Some psychologists are estimating that perhaps a good 10% of the population falls within this category- and that the numbers are increasing, especially in the corporate world. I have run into many sociopaths, and at least 2 true psychopaths. The danger with these folks- they’ll use all of the types of manipulation listed, but without any conscience whatsoever. None of the defensive tactics will work against them, as they won’t quit until they have completely crushed you. They often start by befriending you so that usually it’s too late by the time the intended victim finds out what their actual motives are. The only defense here it seems is, once you’ve found them out, to stay well clear if possible. The song ‘Smiling Faces’ always reminds me of these types.

    Your recent posts have been most helpful in guiding me through this Mercury Retrograde (zero degrees Libra AC). I do find myself wanting to be silent, but I can now see how that is a manipulation in itself.

    • Excellent points, Carl. Brrr–“you’re just being childish” is such a vicious putdown. And, a related one, most often aimed at women, “You’re being too emotional.”

      And I agree that the sociopath is a master manipulator that was left out of the WikiHow post. I don’t know if you’re aware of this, but you can add something to a WikiHow post by following the link and looking for the place on the article to submit it. Then their panel evaluates the addition. I wish you’d do it–people really need to be aware that sociopaths are out there and have no conscience. Donna

  3. After a few days of guilt-tripping with old family members, I now feel better, knowing I at least used some of these suggestions at more or less appropriate moments.

  4. After leaving a phone conversation with a relative, I found your site when I typed in how to deal with guilt trips from a family member. I am alarmed that my family has allowed this behavior to go on so long that the family member that does this has it down to an art. Also uses it sometimes without any conscience. I know that prayer works and God does hear. I also know that as family members we have the power to learn how to handle this nagging problem. Thanks for this information!

  5. Great information on manipulative behaviors! I am in a relationship where he tries to put the old guilt trip on me. If I call him on his manipulation. Its an instant fight! Too avoid a fight. I just give in! Which constantly makes him happy and I am unhappy!

    • He sounds difficult to deal with. In recent posts on Skywriter, you’ll find several links to article on toxic relationships that may give you additional insights. Donna

      • My mom is the same way. I’ve gotten to where I don’t answer her calls but once or twice a week and its never anything new just the same, talk about what she wants to talk about, try to pry into my privet business/how much money I have/how much I make. When she don’t get her way she’ll try to be sneaky by changing the subject for a minute then back to prying. Repeat this process until she throws a fit then change subject then back to prying.. starts crying and guilt trip, change subject then back to prying. This may go on 4-5 times in a 15 min conversation. I feel like the only way I could be happy is move off and not give anybody my number. Hell she didn’t hear from me for a whole day and she called and had the cops come to my house and check on me. I’m 32 years old and been dealing with this for a loooong long time

  6. Thank you for several excellent articles here: my Libra Moon started a chain reaction and I read about those who guilt-trip, manipulate, and how you so delicately described the ‘impossible’ people. Having encountered a few, I found this information very true. The last person like this was just two years ago and he really took me by surprise, but I finally clued in that there was ‘something wrong with him’. And then I just seemed to know how to handle him. Turns out I was following your advice before I read it!

  7. Hi, very sorry that happens. I don’t have direct access to the Feedburner mailing list for this blog. I ‘ll try removing your email from this comment and see if it helps. Or, if I can find your original comment, I’ll try deleting it. But why you’d get several such notices, I can’t imagine. If you’re a subscriber, try unsubscribing, then resubscribe later if you want new posts. Donna

  8. Thank you for this post. I’ve recently ended a two year-ish relationship (third time’s the charm) and he calls and texts nonstop verbatim some of the manipulative tactics (chiefly guilt-trip and self-pity: “I changed my life for you, don’t you care?” “If you cared about us…” “I don’t have anyone else.” “I only have you.” “I only want you.”). Your advice is gold. Thank you thank you.

  9. I am in a relationship with a person who is very generous and kind… however, he is constantly doing things for me that I do not ask for and it overwhelms me and instead of being thankful I feel a bit resentful and indebted to him. I have never had the chance to decide how far I want to go in this relationship and now feel “stuck” because of all the things he has done, yard, daughters car, etc., etc. It is like he has taken over management of my property and life. He also has embedded himself into my friends and family circle and of course everyone loves him. I am not saying I don’t care for him but I feel overwhelmed with him and I am feeling trapped instead of excited to be in a relationship. Is it me? Is this behavior manipulative? I don’t think he is at all mean. Help…

    • I’m familiar with the type, and it’s not an innocent generosity. It makes the receiver more and more dependent, so they can’t leave him. I’ll send an article on codependecy to your email address. Donna Cunningham

      • Thank you… I have experience with codependency and am a product of ACA myself. I do agree this is where the trouble is. I also recognize that I tend to “find” ACA adult men and have relationships with them before I can bat an eye! This is my pattern and I have tried to educate myself about all types of codependency but still seem to end up with the same type of person or a very narcissistic one. I guess what this is saying is I have a lot more work to do on myself..Thank You


        Date: Wed, 8 Jun 2016 21:47:57 +0000 To:

      • Ah, Joni, speaking as another ACA with lots of program behind her, I can tell you that no matter how we work on it and remain conscious of it, it can come back again when we are presented with enough stress or enough temptation. It’s good that you can recognize when it’s coming up. Best wishes, Donna

  10. I Love how this article gives examples. I’d like to provide a few example that I’d like to know how to respond to, this would mean so very much if ANYONE could HELP.

    “You’re killing your father” (context: by continuing to see the love of my life who is unsuitable for me mainly based on religion and race and any other extra excuse they could think of..)
    Me: ……

    “You’re disrupting this family” (my thought bubble answer: how? by being happy, by being with someone who makes me excited about life.)
    Me: …….

    “My biggest misery in life is your ‘situation’ now” (my role model, my father who I love dearly, who’s having far bigger financial & such issues but considers my “issue” the most worrisome)
    Me: …….

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