Emotional abusers are masters of manipulation, meaning they’ll do whatever it takes to get us to do what they want. To them, going against their wishes threatens their authority over us, and that makes them feel very uncomfortable. The manipulative tactics of an emotional abuser are creative and often subtle. They can leave us wondering why we feel so used and yet unable to put a finger on how exactly they’ve gotten us to do what they want. I’m just going to discuss a few of the common techniques abusers use to manipulate.


Gifts of money or things are a powerful way for abusive parents to manipulate us. They make us feel indebted to them. Receiving unasked-for money or things is different from asking for them. We’re expected to be grateful, so grateful that we give into their demands on other occasions, even when that means we have to deny our own needs.

Abusers, of course, don’t see these gifts as tools for manipulation. They genuinely think they’re being generous and don’t expect anything back. But then when we resist their demands later on, they may complain about ingratitude, either directly to us or to others who pass the message onto us. The guilt that comes from this is hard to resist because we’ve been taught that the giver of a gift deserves to be honored, so we may grudgingly find ourselves falling for the manipulation, unable to stop the gifts and thus the feeling of obligation to show “gratitude” by giving into their demands at other times.

Playing with Your Self-Esteem

Making us feel guilty through gifts is only one way to play with our self-esteem. Guilt is generally a powerful tool for manipulation. It’s such a nasty feeling that many of us will do anything to avoid it or get rid of it. Often the guilt comes from a subtle word or gesture. We feel guilt is being laid on us for a specific purpose, to get us to do what they want, and that leaves us with a bitter feeling and yet unable to resist the manipulation.

Abusive parents can also play with our self-esteem by making us feel bad about ourselves. The silent conclusion we draw is that by giving into their demands, we’ll feel better. For example, an abusive mother may bring up something her daughter did as a child and tell her how much it hurt. This makes her adult daughter suddenly feel badly about something that happened years ago. The next day, the abusive mother asks for a favor, and the bad feelings that were created from their previous conversation move her to give in so that she can alleviate them.

Such games with our self-esteem aren’t usually conscious. Emotional abusers don’t generally set out to make us feel badly in order to manipulate us to give into them later. Most aren’t that calculating. It has more to do with the way they relate to others. Most abusers are obsessed with meeting their needs; that’s why they abuse. They’ve concocted complex ways of meeting those needs that they’ve found effective over the years. Playing with our self-esteem is just one of them.


Another common form of manipulation is needling and nagging. We tend to think of this as simply irritating and relatively easy to resist, but in truth, it’s an effective form of manipulation. Abusers wear us down through persistence. Something that was important to us can be quickly relegated to not mattering that much in order to get rid of the nagging.

Some emotional abusers are so adept at nagging that they can do it subtly and over an extended period of time. Let’s say an enmeshed mother wants her son to move to her town. She can, over a period of months or even years, nag him about it by telling him how much better her town is whenever he runs across a problem where he lives. Her constant nagging about moving to her town can wear him down enough to finally give in, even when he knows that it means being at her beck and call.

Emotional Drama

Emotional abusers are very good at emotional drama. They overreact to things and make everything a life-or-death situation. This creates anxiety and stress, which weakens our problem-solving and decision-making powers. We’re more likely to do what they want in stressful situations. We may also want to avoid drama that we know something will bring on and just give into them without even putting up a fight.

For example, holidays are often high drama times in abusive families. Everything has to be just so for the abusers, who feel threatened when something doesn’t go according to their expectations. Abusers may want us to come over at an inconvenient time, do things we don’t feel like doing, say things we don’t want to say, do things we’d rather not do, and just in general tolerate their hurtful behavior. Because they’re stressed, any show of resistance sends them into a dramatic performance where they recruit other family members on their side. The situation can be unbearable, so we just give in.


Some emotional abusers will simply lie to get us to do what they want. They don’t necessarily mean to. Sometimes it’s a tendency they have of twisting the truth to suit their needs. Other times, they make up stories with the idea that what they’re doing is harmless.

For example, abusive parents may want their adult son to renovate their kitchen, and their son refuses, saying he doesn’t have time for that and they should pay a professional to do it. His parents may lie and tell him that his cousin renovated his parents’ entire house in order to make him feel guilty and pressure him into doing it. They may not see the lie as a big deal because the purpose of telling it was, to them, a worthy purpose.

A specific form of lying that emotional abusers are good at is gaslighting. This refers to denying or making up things that were said or done, making us wonder what’s true. Again, the intention usually isn’t to deliberately confuse us but to manipulate us into doing what the abusers want.

Let’s say that a manipulative mother wants her daughter to take her shopping. Her daughter tells her she’s too busy. The manipulative mother then accuses her daughter of embarrassing her by telling other family members that she doesn’t like to go shopping with her. Even though her daughter knows she never said such things, she may allow the accusation to manipulate her into going shopping with her mother just to prove that they’re wrong.

Using Others to Get to You

Emotional abusers are generally masters at recruiting others to get to us. They know that it’s harder to say no to other family members or friends because it will embarrass us or create conflict between us and them that we don’t want to create. We may want to explain our side of the story but feel badly about putting the third person in the middle. Or we may doubt they’ll listen to our side, having heard the abuser’s side first. If we don’t particularly like the third person and they’re close to the abuser, we may feel like we’re being ganged up on. In such situations, it’s easier to just give in.

Another way to involve others in manipulating us into doing what they want is to make comparisons between us and others where we come off looking bad. Research shows that things are clearer when we see a comparison, so the message that we’re bad if we don’t do what the abuser wants is made more vivid by hearing about someone who did it and is therefore good. We feel guilty, and guilt is an effective tool for manipulation.

Often emotional abusers aren’t even aware that they’re manipulating. If we try to tell others about it, they may think we’re overreacting. Yet we’re left with a feeling that we’ve been strong-armed into doing something we don’t want to do. It helps to step back and look at the situation from the point of view of an outsider. Often we can see that their demands are unreasonable or show us disrespect by placing their needs above ours. Then we can also see the manipulative mechanisms that they used to get us to give in.

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