Emotional manipulators can play dirty but that doesn’t mean you have to.
You know that saying “Don’t negotiate with terrorists?” Well, the same applies for emotional manipulators. They play a different game by a different set of rules and often use methods like fear-mongering, hyperbole, self-victimization, dishonesty and exploitation of insecurities in order to gain power over another person.
Effectively managing a relationship with an emotional manipulator is, of course, easier said than done. Manipulators are expert at being … well, manipulative. People get stuck in manipulative relationships because it’s hard to draw lines and extricate your own sense of well-being from someone else’s. In the same moment we get hurt, we’re made to feel like we’re the ones doing something wrong.
This dynamic can be especially tricky in the workplace, where our careers, salaries, and benefits are on the line. Bosses or superiors can easily take advantage of situations and make us feel trapped. Even when you’re the CEO, you have a board to answer to and can end up feeling held hostage. Here are some tips to help you effectively manage emotionally manipulative relationships moving forward.
1. UNDERSTANDING IF YOU ARE IN AN EMOTIONALLY MANIPULATIVE RELATIONSHIP
Acknowledging that someone is emotionally manipulating you is a critical first step. Naming something gives us power. It calls it into existence in our own heads. Pride can get in the way. So can fear or just plain obliviousness. Sometimes we don’t want to admit that we’re being manipulated. Likewise, sometimes we don’t sense what’s going on until we’re smack dab in the middle of it.
So what are the tell tale signs you are being emotionally manipulated? You start to feel anxious, on edge and possibly even afraid to interact with the person. You find yourself lacking confidence or questioning your beliefs or abilities. You may even find you feel irrationally bad or guilty about something where it doesn’t make sense.
Do your due diligence and if there seems to be a connection between you feeling ‘off’ and a particular person’s behavior, call it out to yourself — “I think I’m being emotionally manipulated here. Now what can I do about it?”
2. MANAGING AN EMOTIONAL MANIPULATOR
Collect as much insight into the situation as possible. You can research a manipulator’s tendencies. What are their triggers? What’s at stake? What role are you playing? How can you activate as much choice and control as possible? What can you do and what can’t you do? What’s your end goal?
Gathering information can help you come up with a short- and long-term strategy. If the long-term strategy is to leave the manipulative relationship altogether once you are ready to, then the short-term strategy is to sustain yourself between now and then. That could mean trying different approaches to avoid a manipulator’s tendencies and triggers. Try the following techniques and see what works for you the best. See this as experimentation — trial and error – you won’t know what will help you until you try.
Set ground rules and expectations for your interactions with them. Do your research on their patterns of manipulative behavior. Be as present-minded as possible in your interactions and observe your own tendencies — there may be some habits of communication you have that you will need to change.
Don’t try and negotiate with them but instead use direct communication as calmly as possibly. This involves communicating as succinctly and clearly as you can. This may require extra preparation before meetings and interactions — make sure you have time to think through and practice what you would like to say and how beforehand. The more you do this the easier it will get.
Create space and set clear boundaries. This can be hard in the work and family environment but it is possible. You first need to identify what kind of space you need and where your boundaries lie and then start testing them out in reality. Adhering to your own boundaries while in a manipulative relationship can be difficult so getting outside support from a friend, therapist or coach can be crucial.
3. PRIORITIZING YOUR EMOTIONAL WELLBEING
Gathering information and devising a strategy is well and good, but when you’re in the throes of a manipulative situation, sometimes you don’t have the luxury of being able to describe what’s going on. You’re so in it, it feels like you’re in a freeze state. You can’t get out of it. You can’t stay in it. This is classic fight or flight — an emotional hijacking.
The best way to work through an emotional hijacking is to 1)realize you are in one, 2) accept you are in one and 3) catalyze working through it through breath-work or sensory engagement. If you feel you have built up anxious energy, you will need to find an outlet for it to be released. Physical exercise is often the optimal way to release it sustainably.
It is paramount to get the support you need from your trusted circle of people and to have a safe space to vent or get advice. The main purpose of this is to make sure you don’t feel alone in the situation. Having a support system around you makes it harder for you to continue to be manipulated and easier for you to leave a manipulative relationship.
Engaging in other tasks is also helpful to shift your focus and take your mind out of the spiral. Cooking, listening to music, working on your side gig or just simply getting out of the house or office for a breath of fresh air and perspective. Remember what the Sufi poets taught us about the ephemerality of life: This too shall pass. Life will move on. You will get through this.
Amelia Kruse is a Certified Leadership Coach based in New York working with professionals and entrepreneurs globally.