Spotting Emotional Manipulation in your Support System

Today we want to talk about people who are maybe not so good for you in your grief or, oh say, life in general.  These people come in all shapes and sizes, but mostly we’d like to concentrate on the emotionally manipulative kind because they are the most clever and sneaky.  While this is not a grief specific topic per se, emotional manipulation comes up all the time in our workshops, our comments section, and through questions we receive via email.

Actually, this topic is especially relevant to grief because (1) people are vulnerable after they experience the death of someone they love and (2) research has shown that having a healthy support system has not only been linked with reduced rates of PTSD, but also may contribute to the likelihood a person will feel they’ve experienced posttraumatic growth as a result of their experiences.

Ideally weeding toxic people out of your support system would be easy, but in reality it can be hard to objectively look at people you have relationships with. Even when something feels definitively off, it can be difficult to tell if the problem lies with you or with them. They’ve been there for you (at times), they’ve done nice things for you in the past (you think), and they’re your friend – aren’t they? Sometimes the answer is “yes”, sometimes the answer is “yes, but…” and sometimes the answer is “no!”.

When to say…

“You are my friend, but your not the right support person for this particular problem.”

What kind of friend are you?  The advice-giver friend?  The lets-watch-funny-movies-together friend? The I’ve-known-you-my-whole-life friend?  The get-your-butt-off-the-couch friend?  The I’ll-help-you-move friend? The I’ll-watch-football-with-you-but-never-soccer friend?  You are a lot of things to a lot of people and you are different things to different people, but you aren’t everything to everyone, nor should you be. The same goes for your friends and family. Some of them might be great thinkers but horrible doers, others might be great advice givers but horrible listeners. Just like you, they each have a unique take on life, love, children, family, work, problems, and relationships.

When seeking support, it’s important to make sure your looking to the right person for what you need.  If you go to someone for support they don’t know how to give, you set them up for failure and yourself up for disappointment.  This is the type of misunderstanding that can lead a person to believe someone isn’t there for them at all, when in reality that someone just didn’t know how to support the person in the way they needed.  For further elaboration on this topic see our post on support system superlatives. 

When to say…

“I love you, but I can’t be around you right now.”

Sometimes you have to move on from people who you love, care about, and value because being close to them hurts you or holds you back.  Even though this person isn’t bad, staying close to them threatens your well-being for whatever reason. Perhaps they were a part of a lifestyle you need to leave in the past; perhaps they tempt you into doing things that you want to stop doing; perhaps you need to change and that makes them uncomfortable; or perhaps, despite your underlying love for one another, the relationship is just too damaged to repair.  Sadly, sometimes you just have to say “I care about you, but for the sake of my emotional well-being I can’t be around you.”  You might even want to add a “right now”, because maybe in the future when you’re feeling stronger you’ll be able to reconnect in a healthy and positive way.

When to say…

“Lose my number.”

Many relationships deserve a chance to survive, but some do not.  You would often be best served to jettison relationships that involve emotional manipulation, yet sometimes these are the most difficult relationships to disentangle yourself from.  Psychology Today defines psychological manipulation in the following way…

“Psychological manipulation can be defined as the exercise of undue influence through mental distortion and emotional exploitation, with the intention to seize power, control, benefits, and privileges at the victim’s expense.”

First of all, I know some of you are saying “I wouldn’t let anyone do that to me” and I hope you are right.  But keep in mind, no one wants to be the victim of emotional manipulation. People who use emotional manipulation are often clever and charming. If they’re really good, they make you feel as though you are important, loved, and needed by them and so, at times, it seems as though there’s a pay off to pleasing them.  In the resulting dynamic, you either don’t realize you’re being taken advantage of or you actually feel as though you want to give up your time and energy to make the person happy.

As the label implies, emotional manipulators exploit emotion to get what they want, so be wary if you are currently feeling emotionally vulnerable (or if you’re just a generally caring person). Obviously there is more to it and I recommend this article if you want elaboration, but in a nutshell here’s what emotional manipulators do:

(1) They identify your weaknesses and use them against you to get what they want.  Sadly, because they’re exploiting your weaknesses, you often end up blaming yourself or feeling inadequate for unhappiness and/or problems in the relationships.

(2) They make you feel as though they desperately need your time, attention, and energy because without it they will suffer some sort of emotional or physical harm or your relationship will suffer or there will be even broader implications. Of course you comply because…

  • You’re a good person
  • You don’t want to hurt them
  • Their unhappiness means you’ve failed
  • You want them to be pleased with you

(3) If you try and draw boundaries or say no to them, they make you feel guilty by shifting the focus away from the consequences you experience as a result of giving in and towards the ways that your resistance hurts them.

(4)  They convince you that their actions, which you feel in your gut are wrong or malicious, are actually good, helpful, or altruistic.

Add all this up – the guilt, blame, and distorting of reality – and it’s easy to see how a person might not realize they are being taken advantage of.  It’s often only after repeated manipulation that a person recognizes they are involved in a dynamic that harms them while serving another.

Even in the light of day it can be hard to put a stop to manipulation, especially if you are prone to feeling guilt and self blame or if you worry you will be alone and isolated without the love of the toxic person. The articles I linked above both have recommendations on how to handle emotional manipulators if these are people you want to keep in your life.  If you are grieving, though, I might recommend a more extreme course of action.  You need all the energy you can muster, you need to take care of yourself, and you need to lean on people who have your best interests at heart.  At this time, cutting the emotional manipulator out of your life completely might be an act of self preservation and, as hard as it may be to believe, you are strong enough to take control of your life in this way.   


March 28, 2017

15 responses on "Spotting Emotional Manipulation in your Support System"

  1. I lost my fiance to suicide in 2016. He was still married and his wife resumed her role as the now-very-grieving Mrs., even though she left him more than 2 years prior to his death and had a boyfriend for over a year. Our child was born 5 months prior to his death. So, he left 2 biological children and a step child behind. For his wife and child and step child, he left a very generous life insurance benefit, of which he often spoke of – that he could “at least leave his kids money”, which I would counter every time with “they would rather have a father than a trust fund”. He was suicidal for many months and tried four times, twice during my pregnancy, twice after the birth. I met his family, he met mine (we lived far away). I also met his estranged wife.
    I was not blind to the emotional manipulation he was doing to me and the borderline tendencies he had, coupled with the alcoholism. But, I was in love (and the “highs” of the borderline roller coaster were so high, it was bliss for both of us) and I was forever willing to try to please him and help him get better and overcome his demons. I accorded his bad behavior to his illness.
    After his death, I was reeling. But I had to rise every day and care for a 5 month old infant. The fallout, in addition to the surprising turnout of the life insurance benefit, which left my child nothing, I was disregarded completely in the obituary (my child appears to be his estranged wife’s child with him). I was excluded in the actual condolences at the funeral and in the facebook support and condolences. It then got more ugly, I was accused of withholding his daughter from his mother (which was another blow to my heart, because it is such a cruel thing to do and to be accused of it – was horrible). The truth was – I was barely functioning. I lost my best friend. I feel like I failed him, and failed my daughter. And the exclusion added to the agony.
    It took me months to write a letter to his mother explaining my side, not telling her to Leave My Life, but instead to give a chance to move forward with her wish to see her grandchild. There was no response. I posted again, saying that it took me a long time to write the letter and that I am sure she needed time to respond. Her response to that: I didn’t feel that your letter needed a response – I felt it was a testimony of your feelings.
    Yes, yes it was. Exactly that. My feelings.
    I am now starting to stand back up, getting my life back together.
    I still (still! still?) yes, I still wish to resolve things with her. I realize that she is in a great deal of pain and I hope to never lose a child and experience the loss she will always feel. And the people pleaser in me wants to have that happy relationship with her, to foster that relationship between her and my daughter.
    She is not cruel, but when she posts that she never sees her granddaughter, the online hate spewed forth towards me is horrific and she says nothing to counter it. She therefore, is inciting the online hatred and garnering sympathy. People I have never met are saying that there is a special place in hell for me. I do not respond to any of this.
    So, I feel forever in conflict. As I often did with her son – putting my feelings to the side, having empathy for others and their situation, fostering relationships even though they were toxic to me, but felt that it was something I could do and cope with.
    I want to let her go.
    But, it still feels selfish to do so.
    There are moments when some (new) part of me wants to be very…. clear and direct and a bit hard and say – Nope, I do not and should not have this woman in my life, even if this means that my daughter will not know her grandmother. If she is toxic to me, then this affects my well-being, which affects my child’s life. And she could end up being toxic to my daughter, too. And I will feel like I could have avoided that scenario.
    And then, the more empathic person arises within me and wants to just let go of all negativity and believe in the good in people and open my heart again.
    And then I feel terribly naive. Again.
    So, yes, grief, complicated grief is a life-changer. Everything changes. There are no answers because as soon as you feel one way, other thoughts enter and changes your thinking. Decision making is a very scarce skill at this time, especially when it comes to feelings and how to deal with people who are causing additional pain. Loss after loss after loss of the loved one.

  2. So sorry Jen for your loss. Yes I have experienced the deep wound of something very similar in my. own life. Yes it might have been a terrible daunting task to get people in your family who have those kind of heart’s to see your side of the story. Maybe time will heal this insidious grief and your relationships. Don’t let family members shadow darkness in your life. Your the head, not the tail. God bless

  3. Hi. It is sad for me to realise that trought analyzing myself why i act in specific way I realised that I’m this emotional manipulator. How i can change that? I feel I can lose people around me which are close to me. What to do? I don’t want to be that kind of person.

  4. Wow! Thanks so much for this article and good read. I have been pondering the last 14 months of my life since my uncles death…feeling so LOST. I keep thinking of all of the people I have cut out because of their abuse, inappropriate behavior, honestly disgusting despicable actions. This after such a devastating loss, man…talk about salt in a wound!

    It can feel very lonely, the guilt creeps in, the what if’s? Then reality and my memory of my “best friend” and what she did! Man! I’d never treat a stranger like that, let alone my best friend. When I didn’t appease and comply with the rest of my family and friends…they lashed out. If I didn’t do what they wanted…then like dominos everyone became clear to me.

    What I have seen cannot be erased. It helps to know and trust myself, and reminding myself of what they did only makes me realize I did the RIGHT thing.

    It’s just hard. Losing the life I was accustomed to. They do say ignorance is bliss for nothing! Now it’s my son and I. He’s angry. He isn’t adjusting well. It’s hard when it’s just the two of you and that’s it. I feel like I’m not doing anything right.

    Thanks for showing me I’m not alone.

  5. We lost our son to suicide 7/17/15 my best friend stayed very close to me in the immediate time after my son’s death. I began to recognize a pattern whenever I would cry or bring up my son’s name. My friend would respond with silence. I have always been the friend all of my friends come to to talk something over. I’m comfortable and honored by this role. I love all my friends. My best friend though wanted that person back, she wanted me o continue on with life as normal, be that fun loving friend to her again. I began to notice nonverbal cues between her and her husband whenever I mentioned my son’s name. She was actually trying to condition me to not bring up my son’s name or not show grief. I realized she needed to design our friendship to meet her needs. During the hardest time of my life this friend left me because I was causing her sorrow. My inner voice told me to let go, as much as it hurt, I realize she was never my friend, only meeting her needs. If the roles had been reversed, I would never have left her side. Grief is hell, everything is different when you have time to really examine it. I am healing by following my heart, and appreciating the beauty and kindness in this world and leaving the manipulators behind.

  6. This is a fabulous read! Thank you!! I lost my mom in November. Since then I have decided to split with my husband (I lost my dad 5 years ago, and I saw a pattern), and I also “broke up” with my best friend of 20 years. I’ve been there for her through literally everything. She started seeing a new guy right after my mom passed and has literally been MIA. She says it’s because she doesn’t know how to help me…I say I don’t have the energy for that. This article totally validates my feelings. Thank you!!!

  7. thank you so much for this! There were two I just cut out of my life (this week) and they immediately went to mutual friends about how cruel and ‘not mentally ok’ i am. This article is much needed and appreciated; thank you both for having this website.

  8. This really resonated with me. I have a family member, a brother, and this has been the pattern for a long time with him. He gained control and power w my mother’s estate, my brother’s funeral two years ago, and now my youngest brother who just died. Right now it feels like psychological warfare. It’s really so demoralizing. But the article really helped, a lightbulb moment. Thank you.

  9. Like Vicki, my emotional manipulators have been my family, especially my mom and dad. It has happened all my adult life but the last straws for me were when my husband was in ICU and then after he passed. On top of losing my husband and soul-mate, I have had to distance myself from my family — self-preservation. I’m still reeling from the loss of my husband.

    • Yes, self preservation. For me, it has been my sisters. Their behavior has been inexcusable and unforgivable, but I thought I was the only person to go through family drama during grief.

  10. I just lost my Mom in October 2015 and I have no support system. I am so glad I found this site. I really could use some help as this has hit me hard. I’m not much for podcasts but I am a writer. Beverly I totally understand about what a mess families can be when you need them the most.

  11. I just lost my mom she was not only my wonderful mother but my best friend. I’ve had such a hard time with her loss. I have a sibling who has never cared or treated any of my Other siblings or myself with respect. He an his wife caused trouble from the time he married her. My dad died 5 yrs ago which was devastating he was my dad my best friend greatest man in my life, when he died I, nor my poor mother, or sister never got to grieve for the 2 of them causing turmoil for my mom an my sister an I very embarrassing. Now after my mom died they cal an want to be in my life only due to the Will, trying to put me against my sister so when you say people not being support I can refer to family! MONEY to some people make them do crazy things! If I could give what I get to bring my parents back my life would be heaven! I have to keep them out of my life or they’d mentally destroy me! MONEY an material things makes them evil !! I won’t answer if they call an moved so they don’t no where I live! I’m glad I found this site now I don’t feel so crazy!

  12. Grief is a tricky thing, and people shouldn’t have to apologize for their actions or what they need to get through the grief, even if that means taking a break from certain people. I came across the topic of supporting grieving people on another website and it said, “No one will respond to the death of someone loved in exactly the same way. While it may be possible to talk about similar phases shared by grieving people, everyone is different and shaped by experiences in their own unique lives.” - It’s an interesting and helpful way to look at grief, both as someone experiencing it or as someone who is being present for a grieving friend. There are definitely people I should have taken a break from after traumatic losses in the past who tried to tell me when it was time to “move on” before I was ready. Great article, thanks for sharing!

  13. What are you supposed to do when this goes on inside your own family? How do you say ‘Lose my number’ to them?
    I had an issue with one family member that was so bad it’s never been resolved; I don’t call resolution pretending the problem never occurred. I call that a juvenile response to what occurred but there’s nothing I can do about it because I can only effect my own side (I can only change myself.)
    A death by homicide upsets even the nuclear family and my family (the one I was born into) has never been close anyway.
    I married a man whose family would stand outside before he went back home and each member would go through hugging and kissing him goodbye. When I first saw it I thought it was the oddest thing ever. I could in no way relate to it. My family’s never been that way.

  14. Wow, thank you for this article! I wish it was around after my Dad died 2.5 years ago. I along with members of my family have been manipulated for years by someone in my family who very charming and demonstrative. This person started manipulating me about my Dad (and his stuff) after he died and I decided (with help from a counselor) to end the relationship. I tried to set boundaries with this person but they wouldn’t respect my wishes. As a result I’m estranged from my entire family. I was not going to discuss this issue with each family member and ‘campaign’ to get people on my side. So, I just walked away. Not only am I grieving for my Dad I’m also grieving for my entire family.

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