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  • Esther Ruth Friedman

Signals and signs - recognizing manipulators

Updated: Jul 22



Dear Readers, Welcome to The GSR Healing Arts blog. This site is dedicated to education and recovery. I've been recommending books and podcasts and articles to many of you. But since I'm obsessed with topics like narcissistic personality disorder, and cults and most normal people are not ;-) I am happy to boil the material down for you.

I want to share practical and applicable tips. In that spirit, Dr. George Simon's book, In Sheep's Clothing, is a great resource. But if you're not eager to read an entire book dedicated to understanding the covert aggressive personality, I'm sharing his comprehensive list of red flag, manipulative behaviors, here. Dr. Simon hit many of the salient points. I've been trying, and not succeeding, to list them concisely for years. Because when you recognize these behaviors as strategies of manipulation -- NOT genuine and authentic human engagement and/or emotion -- it frees you. You can say no without guilt. You can walk away. You can let go of toxic relationships.


In fact, good mental health relies on those boundaries! So, in that spirit, here are the tactics that scream, beware, potentially manipulative person ahead...

*Minimization: denial plus rationalization. These aggressors trivialize the damage that they inflict. As Dr. Simon says, he or she "makes molehills out of mountains" by dismissing your reactions as overblown. According to them, "you don't get it" or "you're too sensitive" or "crazy", or something along those lines. When you doubt yourself, they benefit.

*Lying: manipulators deceive as a lifestyle. They lie in what they say. AND in what they don't say -- they lie by omission. They distort, nodding at some truth, while twisting it, or being deliberately vague. They leave out pertinent details. They do this to conceal nefarious intent.

*Denial: manipulators rarely, if ever, admit fault. They maneuver around the accusation, and/or attack and blame you. The intent is to get you to back down, and/or feel guilty for daring to call them out. In the rare moments in which they apologize, it is strategic -- they are only sorry enough to move their agenda forward.


Selective inattention/attention: manipulators intentionally ignore requests. They will blow off anything that impedes their agenda. They may promise, but they rarely follow through. Typically, when they do follow through, they will let you know that they did so at great inconvenience to themselves and that you should be grateful - there's always a compounding interest rate. You owe and will always be indebted.

Rationalization: manipulators offer an array of interesting excuses & justifications for heinous behaviors. When the rational contains a seed of truth, it's especially effective. Most decent people will stop to consider that breadcrumb -- and that's the point. You want to give people the benefit of the doubt and it's difficult to accept that not everyone deserves the benefit of the doubt.


Diversion: manipulators change the subject when confronted. They redirect attention to steer away from their bad behavior. It's hard to hit a moving target. Often times they divert by blaming you (see Denial, above and projecting blame, below). They divert by changing the subject, or bringing up issues from the past, especially if those events include making you feel guilty for something.


Evasion: manipulators evade with rambling, irrelevant responses to direct questions. They are deliberately vague, often talking in passive voice; that enables them to sound as though they are responding, when they are really steering you away from the topic at hand - this useful tool deflects confrontation about hurtful behavior .


Covert Intimidation: covert-aggressive make veiled threats to put their target on the defense. Simon wrote, "It's important for covert-aggressives to have their way with you but still look good."


Guilt-tripping: manipulators wield and leverage your overly active conscience against you. Guilt puts you're in the one-down position - doubting yourself. Manipulators takes advantage of uncertainty.

Shaming: manipulators use subtle remarks and sarcastic comments to put you down and keep you in self-doubt. This is how they establish and maintain dominance.

Playing victim: manipulators always claim to be the victim. They resist apologizing, admitting fault, mistakes, because it makes them look bad. And when they cry victim, you feel badly for them. Manipulators roll out this dog & pony show when confronted about hurtful behavior. This tactic diverts, stops the accusations and elicits sympathy and consolation.


Victim blame: on the flip side of playing victim, manipulators blame you. They vilify to elicit guilt and/or put you on the defensive. This tactic masks their aggressive behavior. It works because people who aren't character disordered will either start defending themselves or feel guilty and apologize, taking on more than their share of responsibility. Either way, the focus shifts away from them and on to you. They get a pass until they do something else. They always do something else.

Playing servant: manipulators cloak self-serving agendas in the guise of a noble cause, or presentation of selflessness. For example, when confronted on bullying, a narcissistic mother of four, trots them out, bragging of their accomplishments, while announcing how much she's given up to raise them, and of course, claiming, "I'm happy to have done so ..."

Seduction: covert-aggressive people are often charming and persuasive. They play on our natural social and emotional needs. They alternate between buttering you up and then attacking your character. In therapy land we call this intermittent reinforcement. This tactic literally manipulates brain chemistry. Click HERE to learn more about intermittent reinforcement.


Projecting blame: manipulators will pick your pocket while accusing you of being a thief. In fact, if you know that you're dealing with a manipulator, you understand that their accusations are, in fact, confessions. If they are, for example, calling you a "crooked liar", it is because they, themselves, are crooked liars.


Feigning innocence: this tactic is a type of gaslighting (see below) that makes you question your perceptions and sanity. They can skillfully put on a look of shock when confronted. That look is designed to make you second guess yourself.


Feigning ignorance or confusion: manipulators will act like they don't know what you're talking about. They will pretend to be confused. Again, this is meant to get you to question your perceptions and second guess any confrontation. As Dr. Simon says,"This is a very effective way to veil their malevolent intentions."

Brandishing anger: the covert aggressor uses anger not as a spontaneous expression of hurt, but as a calculated tool of intimidation and control. They aren't necessarily, genuinely, angry. "They just want what they want ... they'll use whatever tactics that will remove the obstacles..."

Gaslighting: all of these strategies fall under the gaslighting headline. Taken all together, the above tactics have one intent: to get you to feel uncertain. To get you to doubt yourself. When the aggressor is successful, and you are spinning your wheels in confusion, they are in the winning position.


Remember when it comes to narcissists these behaviors are tactics, NOT organic emotional responses. Manipulators use them to ...

1) Hide aggressive & nefarious intentions.

2) Put the target on the defense.

3) Hook someone into a dynamic 4) Instill confusion and/or self doubt.


Fortunately, Dr. Simon's book also includes tips on "Redefining the Terms of Engagement." And that'll be my next post.


After I published this post, 3 more flags came to mind:


1) Goal post moving: when someone's demands keep morphing. If you can't win for losing; if you always feel as though you can't do enough, or try hard enough, this red flag's a wavin' !

2) Consistently inconsistent: similar to the goal post moving, if someone's stories always morph when you set boundaries, take a step back and ask yourself what you want.

3) Disappearing act: when someone alternates between doting on you and then disappearing, without explanation. This intermittent reinforcement keeps you guessing. You're always waiting for texts, calls, or appearances, that never materialize. Then he or she shows up at his/her convenience. This person is controlling, therefore hijacking, your time and energy.


Thanks, all, for stopping by! I welcome comments and question








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