Manipulation Untangled

At some point, you’ve been manipulated by someone, or worse, you’ve likely been manipulated by someone you love.

Because we want to please those we care about, we may mistakenly allow ourselves to be manipulated (which isn’t love).

Someone once referred to a relationship with a manipulator as being in an emotional black hole.

Maybe you’re in a relationship causing you to feel constant pressure like walking on eggshells during every exchange.

Relationships like these can be suffocating, making you feel trapped, unsure, and helpless. Sound familiar? If so, you are probably dealing with a manipulator.

Merriam-Webster defines manipulation as “to control or play upon by artful, unfair, or insidious means especially to one’s own advantage.”

Lou Priolo writes, “For a Christian, manipulation is using unbiblical means of controlling or influencing others. […] It is often accomplished through intimidation. This involves selfishly coercing someone to or inhibiting someone from a particular course of action (directly or indirectly) causing him to sense some kind of threat.”

Unfortunately, many people don’t realize they are being manipulated until after they have already responded (by giving in or escalating the situation).

If the manipulator is allowed to manage your thinking, he or she will continue to use the same tactics because they’ve proven effective.

You can untangle yourself from manipulative patterns and relationships if you know how to identify manipulative behavior and prevent it.

To help us on this journey, we are using Manipulation: Knowing How to Respond by Lou Priolo.

Classic Signs of Manipulation

People manipulate others in a variety of ways.

However, there are some common signs of manipulation, such as feeling fear, obligation, and/or guilt.

Sharie Stines for Time explains, “When you are being manipulated by someone you are being psychologically coerced into doing something you probably don’t really want to do […] You might feel scared to do it, obligated to do it, or guilty about not doing it.”

Another common sign of manipulation is questioning yourself.

Manipulators not only know how to push just the right buttons, but they also know how to make you question yourself.

Manipulators relentlessly twist and turn facts and conversation so much you may begin questioning whether what they said or did actually happened as you remember.

Moreover, manipulators do not accept responsibility. They are typically masters at blame-shifting, which may cause you to question your role.

Manipulation often begins subtly and builds.

Moreover, when a manipulator is a family member or in a close personal relationship, we may not recognize the behavior for what it is.

Focus on the Family provides these signs of emotional manipulators:

  • They undermine your faith in your grasp of reality.
  • Their actions don’t match their words.
  • They are experts at doling out guilt.
  • They claim the role of the victim.
  • They are too much, too soon.
  • They eagerly agree to help — and maybe even volunteer — then act like a martyr.
  • They always one-up you.
  • They know all your buttons and don’t hesitate to push them.

How Manipulation Affects You


It is for freedom that Christ has set us free. Stand firm, then, and do not let yourselves be burdened again by a yoke of slavery.
– Galatians 5:1


Since manipulation is driven by someone wanting control, you typically lose a sense of freedom.

As Christians, we know that Christ has set us free, but manipulation attempts to take that freedom away.

In addition, manipulation can affect you physically, mentally, and spiritually.

Focus on the Family lists the following manipulation symptoms:

  • Increased mental stress and physical fatigue.
  • Depression or anxiety.
  • Compromised self-confidence, which can lead you to doubt yourself.
  • A threatened sense of reality, which can make you think you’re going crazy.
  • Feelings of helplessness or shame.
  • Unhealthy, self-soothing behaviors to deal with stress and fatigue.

Additionally, manipulation hurts relationships.

A healthy relationship does not include manipulation.

If you are manipulated by someone you are in a relationship with (spouse, family member, employer, etc.), your relationship will suffer.

Identifying the Manipulator’s Pathway

When it comes to untangling yourself from manipulation, it’s important to consider how manipulation happens.

If you begin to identify and understand the process manipulators go through to justify their tactics, it will become easier to stand up against it.

Lou Priolo has identified the following ways and means of manipulation.

  • Behavior: This is the behavior the manipulator takes, such as making accusations, criticizing, crying, asking “why” you would do this to them, forcing obligations, sulking, withholding affection, or playing the victim.
  • Desired Emotional Response: This is the emotional response they want from the victim, such as feelings of guilt, shame, embarrassment, fear, anxiety, or intimidation.
  • What the Manipulator May Actually Want to Accomplish: This identifies the possible selfish purpose of their ploy, such as avoiding their obligations, changing the victim’s mind, or influencing and controlling the victim’s decisions.
  • Possible Motives: According to Priolo, “It specifies those potential chief desires (those things that he inordinately loves) that may be so intense that the manipulator is willing to resort to sinful behavior in order to obtain what he loves and longs for.”Examples include love of pleasure, love of power, love of praise, etc.

Ultimately, the manipulator’s steps lead to self. They are searching for ways to control others to get what they want.

It is self-seeking and unloving behavior and the opposite of how we are called to act as followers of Christ.


It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs.
– 1 Corinthians 13:5


How Christ Responded to Manipulation

The word manipulation doesn’t appear in the Bible, but we can find several examples, such as how Satan manipulated Adam and Eve.

People even attempted to manipulate Jesus!

However, Jesus never gave into manipulation and his responses to these attempts provide great wisdom for the rest of us.

Priolo writes, “Jesus never answered a foolish individual with a foolish response. He never fought folly with folly.”

Too often, when we deal with manipulators, we struggle to know how to respond and get our tongues tied, get into an argument, or give in.

We should follow Jesus’ example instead.

According to Priolo, “Christ’s responses to those manipulative individuals typically involved two effective techniques. […] First, Jesus appealed to (the conscience of) the manipulator to fulfill specific, personal, biblical responsibilities (which typically he had neglected to fulfill). Second, He appealed to God’s Word (or at least to God’s will as found in God’s Word) as the standard by which the manipulator is to be judged.”


Do not answer a fool according to his folly, or you yourself will be just like him. Answer a fool according to his folly, or he will be wise in his own eyes.
– Proverbs 26:4-5


Preventing Manipulation and Protecting Yourself

To untangle yourself from manipulative patterns and relationships, you must recognize it for what it is: sin.

By responding biblically, you not only protect yourself from being manipulated, but you also point the manipulator towards healthier behavior.

Here are some ways to prevent manipulation and protect yourself:

  • Follow Jesus’ example. When responding, identify what he or she is biblically responsible for using God’s Word.
  • Be aware of manipulation tactics but remain open-minded. Before you rush to judgment, consider if the person is trying to control you or encourage you.
  • Look for opportunities to deal with the conflict if it is safe to do so.
  • Speak with a Faith-Based Counselor.
  • Create healthy boundaries and expectations and stick to them.

But the wisdom that comes from heaven is first of all pure; then peace-loving, considerate, submissive, full of mercy and good fruit, impartial and sincere. Peacemakers who sow in peace reap a harvest of righteousness.
– James 3:17-18

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