Kicking the Habit of Emotional Manipulation


…when noticing that tendency to use a behavior like sulking or yelling to get a response, or trying to otherwise get your needs met by eliciting a person’s guilt, anger, frustration, or other emotion, consider what you really want and why. Do you have a real need that’s associated with the matter, or it is it really about something else (control, for example)? Spend some time with that.


Emotional manipulation is always something that someone else does, right? We often attach labels to the offending person, with “crazy ex“ serving as a particularly popular prefix to the boss, wife, boyfriend, etc. whose behavior created havoc for our lives. Even as we learn to recognize it in somebody else, often after years of resenting the person without really understanding why, we fail to own all of the ways in which we too are emotional manipulators. Surprise! We all do it to an extent. Here’s a breakdown of why this occurs and how we can recognize and kick this destructive habit.

The origins of emotional manipulation are actually quite innocent. Infants learn to express needs through actions long before they have language abilities. They cry, they fuss, they coo, all as expressions of need and affirmation or negation of its fulfillment. They need our love and our protection, and they ask for it in the only way they can. We each began understanding and conditioning the world around us through the only means we had (after all, infants aren’t so much Machiavellian as they are wanting of a clean diaper, food, sleep, etc.)

As children develop, they learn that certain behaviors are associated with desired reactions from caregivers. Any parent who’s given in to a pouty tween and bought the ridiculous thing that the child wanted but didn’t need understands how this works. The child comes to understand, as well. By acting in a certain way: pouting, screaming, weeping, smiling, cheering, or whatever else, she or he learns exactly what buttons to push to get a desired response.

Even children who live in neglectful or abusive homes learn these skills. In these cases, survival can mean learning how to elicit a parent’s guilt, limited affection, or whatever other positive emotions exist in a climate of scarcity. Even a parent’s anger is a form of attention to an especially lonely child.

Do you see how foundational the skill of emotional manipulation truly is?

The problem for adult relationships is that people don’t  learn to verbally express their needs merely as a rite of passage from adolescence. Whereas verbal skills play a progressively larger role in our interactions, we tend to use them poorly in our engagements with others. This is one of the chief barriers I see when I counsel couples. Consider this example:

Laura and Chris have been married for some time. Laura wants Chris to mow the lawn today and determines that she must prompt him to do so. Instead of stating her wish directly and talking with him about household responsibilities, she opts for a deep sigh that’s followed by, “Don’t worry about the lawn. I’ll do it when I get home tomorrow night after picking the kids up and fixing dinner.”

Not to be outdone, Chris retorts with a clipped, “I was kind of hoping that after working 12 days straight so we can pay off those new countertops you wanted, I might be able to rest for one day. Don’t worry about me, though. I’ll mow the lawn!”

Do you see what happened? Rather than engaging in a necessary dialogue about how to care for their home and lawn, both Laura and Chris used emotional manipulation, guilt-tripping in this case, to express their needs.

We can see that this isn’t an easy situation to fix. Managing a household on limited financial and physical resources is hard work, but it’s certainly something a couple working together can figure out how to do. Laura and Chris are making their life together infinitely harder though by using emotional manipulation, the inevitable outcome for which is resentment. Once resentment exists in a relationship, it spreads like a cancer and creates many additional problems.

Don’t be like Laura and Chris.

Instead, when noticing that tendency to use a behavior like sulking or yelling to get a response, or trying to otherwise get your needs met by eliciting a person’s guilt, anger, frustration, or other emotion, consider what you really want and why. Do you have a real need that’s associated with the matter, or it is it really about something else (control, for example)? Spend some time with that.

Once you’ve clarified what’s important to you and why, you can think about how and when to ask for what you need. A good rule of thumb (from the good folks at Alcoholics Anonymous) is to never take action when you’re Hungry, Angry, Lonely, or Tired. You’ve got it. HALT! It’s best as well not to seek things from others who are experiencing these conditions.

Nobody wants to be thought of as an emotional manipulator, for each of us understands how manipulation feels on the receiving end. Even still, does it ever feel especially good to manipulate? There’s perhaps an affirmation of power or control. Although seductive, control is elusive. How much happier we can be when we make a concerted decision to deal honestly with our relationships, stating our intentions and needs as clearly as we can, and creating opportunities to have real dialogue and connection with the people around us.

We’ve each had a lifetime of learning how to manipulate others’ emotions in order to get our own needs met. By clarifying the how, what, and why of our needs, we can cease this destructive pattern. We can also spend a lot less time pouting and hinting at what we want and then getting angry at the other person for failing to guess correctly. This doesn’t generally go too well.






Humiliation Haunts Me No More


Even as we develop networks of people who love and are protective of us, we don’t often connect the dots between these healthy adult relationships and their significant role in our healing journey from previous humiliation-based torment. Doing so though can severely lessen the stranglehold these old memories have in our present lives.


What if I told you that every humiliating memory you have could be retooled so that instead of causing you to re-experience its pain and reflexively trying to block it from memory, you could use it as a source of strength? Allow me to introduce a new self-help technique that I adapted from my therapy practice: the humiliation showdown.

Whenever you recall a humiliating experience, you feel immediately self-conscious and may even wince from the painful sensations that accompany the memory. You try to shut it out from your conscious thoughts. Most people go through life doing this because we never learned how to unpack these awful memories from our lives.

Humiliation is a form of relationship trauma involving two or more, or even many people. It tends to reflect deeply exploitative and abusive situations in which we were victims. The most insidious part is that we carry the memory of it throughout our lives, allowing these years- or decades-old memories to impact our adult relationships in ways that we don’t often see.

Even as we develop adult networks of people who love and are protective of us, we don’t often connect the dots between these healthy relationships and their potential role in our healing journeys from previous humiliation-based torment. Doing so though can severely lessen the stranglehold these old memories have in our present lives.

Here’s how it works:

Bring to mind a memory of humiliation in an area that you recognize may be holding you back in some way.

Instead of attempting to immediately block the memory from your forethought, simply notice the physical sensations (wincing, shoulders tensing, stomach churning), the emotions which may accompany it (perhaps terror, bewilderment, or others), and the beliefs about yourself (“I am filthy,” “I am disgusting,” or whatever might be there for you) that this incident taught you.

Close your eyes and allow your mind to float back to the first time you experienced these thoughts, feelings, and physical sensations*. This will bring you to an early humiliation memory. Jotting down a line or two about the incident may be helpful, although a list of details isn’t necessary.

When you bring this event to mind, you’ll no doubt notice other accompanying experiences. You may recall a sense of confusion as if you weren’t quite clear on what was happening. Betrayal is also a feature of humiliation, which is of course part of the confusion.The sensations that accompany a humiliating memory may momentarily wash over you. Instead of allowing this, we will use the showdown technique.

Bring to mind your closest allies. These can be friends, a partner, trusted people in your community, even your adult self.

Imagine this squad of people who care about you in your present life entering this old humiliation memory now and seeing what you experienced. What would people who love you and care about your safety do to protect this younger version of you? Some will surround you, embracing you and allowing you to feel safe from harm. Others will take on the betrayer. Let them reprimand or restrain the betrayer. These are people you summoned to conscious thought so that they could defend you. If there are still others involved in this memory (maybe onlookers or someone else who directly tormented you), allow your squad to take them on as well. Maybe they scold the tormentors as wayward children, maybe they call them out for acting from their own pain.

Simply allow your squad to intervene as they would if they were in fact witnessing your younger self in trouble.

Next, allow them to accompany you out of the memory and into the present. Sit with these experiences for a while and let yourself just notice the impact of this exercise.

Having some trouble bringing these images to mind? I’ll share from my own experience. This is from a 1986 memory that I chose for a showdown.

 In high school, a group of girls I thought were friends (this is a familiar refrain, isn’t it?) had convinced me that a boy was interested in me when he really wasn’t, and that he wanted us to come by his house late one night. I was early in my transgender identity development, and the girls convinced me to wear a dress. Of course, it went badly. He flew into a rage. The girls thought it was very funny. I felt confused, betrayed, and humiliated.

Using the showdown technique, I floated back to this memory. Powerful stuff emerged. First, a group of my toughest, closest girlfriends in my present life took on the mean girls of my adolescence. Let’s just say that the mean girls didn’t stand a chance. Next, a group of my guy friends from my present life encircled the kid whose house we’d visited. They gave him a good coming of age talk about the fears and uncertainty that were brewing in his 16 year-old mind. As I retooled the memory, an image of the kid as he must be today even came into the scene, in his late 40s and possibly trying to help his own son through adolescent struggles. I couldn’t hold anger toward him, for I saw in this showdown experience that he in fact was as duped as I was; probably experiencing some degree of his own humiliation.

Completing my showdown to retool this memory’s power over me, I allowed myself to be driven safely home by a friend.  

Most importantly for this type of work, I drew from the love I have of people in my life today to address an adolescent memory of a humiliating event. The need for this type of work can’t be understated enough. I intervened and disrupted a powerful controlling memory of humiliation which was blocking my trust of people and creating a lot of unnecessary fear.

This memory can never hurt me again.

It may seem a bit strange to recall our past and to supplant people from our present lives into these scenarios. These old memory networks though are frozen in time and reflect nothing of our present strength, the challenges we’ve overcome, certainly all of the love we’ve earned in life just by being ourselves.

All that we have now, all that we are now, allows us to dismantle the sources of pain from the places in our minds in which these memories are embedded. In doing so, we liberate ourselves from the hold that humiliation-based trauma memories have on us; and we learn to live and act differently. When I no longer fear humiliation in my relationships, it frees me to express myself openly, to love, to trust. The wisdom of my past has taught me lessons on how to do things well; and without fear in the way, I can carry them out with creativity and zest.

You can, as well.