How Do I Protect Myself From Manipulation?

A counseling professor told a woman in one of Larry’s lab groups, “Your tears don’t move me.” His words stunned the group, but the woman stopped crying. “Those were tears of frustration,” he explained. “They weren’t tears of brokenness.”

Photo by: Natalie Heathcoat

I’ve thought of that many times when someone’s tears haven’t moved me and wondered what was behind them. Crocodiles shed tears when they eat their prey, but not from regret or sorrow. Some people use tears to manipulate. Others use flattery. If that doesn’t work, they pout or explode to get us to follow their script.

Emotional pain is real. And manipulators use it to control us—if we let them. Share on X

One family I know didn’t take a vacation the first twenty years of marriage. Every time they planned a trip, the mother-in-law became ill and asked, “How can you leave when I’m about to die?”

Giving into manipulation is harmful—not just unpleasant. Jesus said no one can serve two masters. Submitting to manipulation makes the wrong person lord over our time and lives.

How do we protect ourselves from being manipulated?

Recognizing manipulation is the first step. The controllers in our lives may be blind to their tactics, but that doesn’t mean we have to be in the dark. The ugly feelings we experience after allowing ourselves to be manipulated should inform and motivate us to create healthy boundaries.

Consider the following if you suspect you are being manipulated:

  • How do you feel after you leave this person or group?
    Guilt may be a sign someone is trying to control you. A woman pulled aside a friend of mine one night. She complained that she didn’t have any friends. My friend prayed for the woman but left feeling guilty. On the way home, she experienced an aha moment. The woman was a manipulator. Her guilty feelings evaporated with this understanding.
  • Are you making decisions based on what you believe is best or to avoid disappointing or angering someone?
    We want to be kind and generous, but when someone takes more than we want to give we feel taken advantage of and resentful. God loves a cheerful giver. If I’m feeling resentful, I probably need a clearer understanding of where my responsibilities end and theirs begin.
  • Am I living to avoid pain or to pursue faith and love?

    Giving into controlling people won’t protect us, in the long run, from emotional pain. We despise our spineless compliance and resent them and anyone who reminds us of them. This isn’t love. People who habitually let others control them may develop self-destructive habits. They mindlessly shop, eat, gamble, or drink to numb the pain of feeling used.
    Faith and love are better motivators than fear and guilt. Share on X .
  • Do I believe all conflict is bad?
    When some religious people tried to control a group of believers in the early church, Paul wrote, “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” (Gal. 5:1, NIV).
    Standing firm in our God-given freedom may upset those who want to control us. But that isn’t bad. Paul said, “No doubt there have to be differences among you to show which of you have God’s approval.” (1 Cor. 11:19 NIV). Conflict exposes hearts. If one arises because we won’t let someone wrongly control us, it’s okay. We’re in good company.

People with religious-sounding arguments tried to control Jesus, the Apostle Paul, and the disciples. Because these men understood God’s will, they escaped their nets. By serving one Master, we can too.

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I recommend the book Boundaries by Henry Cloud and John Townsend if you need help in creating healthy relationships.

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  1. Michele Morin

    Our adult SS class finished a study of Boundaries at the end of 2016, and it was so helpful, generating lots of good discussion. I appreciate your tackling this subject, as I think we women are especially prone to being manipulated by the emotions and demands of others.

    • Debbie Wilson

      Michele, I think that book contains a wealth of practical help. And I agree, we can be manipulated by people we love with neither of us realizing what’s happening.

  2. Pam Ecrement

    Great topic and post, Debbie! Manipulation is a powerful tool and one not easy to overcome. I grew up with a mother who used it a great deal. I understand why as an adult that she felt prey to that, but it haunted me well into adulthood. (Long story I may share with you at some point.) Setting boundaries was unheard of in my home and it took me awhile and some help from a counselor and others who supported me to become healthy in setting them. Thanks for stepping into this topic with truth and wisdom.

    • Debbie Wilson

      Pam, I think when we are raised without them it is hard to identify when they’ve been crossed. Healthy boundaries create healthy and happy relationships when both parties understand them. They also help us choose healthy relationships. Thanks so much for sharing your personal experience.

  3. Ann

    An excellent post Debbie. Having adult children I am learning to relate to them in a new way. There are definitely times when I could see how someone could slip into that manipulative mode – I am so careful to respect their boundaries and their time and allow them to live their lives as God is leading them. I want them to want to spend time with us – not feel guilty and pressured to do so.

    • Debbie Wilson

      Ann, that is a perfect illustration of how we can be tempted to use manipulation to get what we think we want. But you are right, if they come out of guilt none of you will really enjoy the relationship. Thanks so much for expanding our understanding.

  4. Fuller

    Stunningly powerful and VITAL post, Debbie.
    Thank you for your faithfulness to write it. I pray many “captives” are set free – – – the truth contained in this is truly “Isaiah 61” blessed!

    • Debbie Wilson

      Thank you, Fuller! Blessings.

  5. Tara Furman

    So eye-opening! I appreciate this post. It’s one to tuck-away and pull out when you start to feel the ick coming on.

    • Debbie Wilson

      Tara, I like your word “ick.” It describes it so well!

  6. Stephanie

    Very powerful post Debbie. Thank you!

    • Debbie Wilson

      Thank you, Stephanie!

  7. Alan Gunn

    I appreciate all of your post, but I do especially appreciate this one. It took me about 20 years to work through boundary issues as I am compliant and avoidant and the Christian counselors that I confided in for help were controlling and manipulative!? I am not saying that I have it mastered at this point, but I am much more sensitive and aware to when someone is trying to manipulate. Several times my wife and I have been able to help our adult children work through boundary issues as well. False guilt does play a huge role… unfortunately!

    • Debbie Wilson

      Alan, thank you for sharing this. It is important for people to know that just because someone has a title or degree that doesn’t mean they are right or give them the right to run your life. I’ve had doctors try to manipulate me with fear. Now I am better able to recognize those tactics. Fear and false guilt are reliable warning signs that something is wrong.

  8. Beth

    I remember my mom telling the story of how her mother-in-law feigned sickness the night of my mom and dad’s honeymoon. She did that and so many other manipulative tactics throughout the years that really served to drive a wedge between my mom and her MIL. This is so important to recognize, Debbie, but often overlooked. I appreciate you bringing it to light and reminding us that faith and love are better motivators than fear and guilt. So true!

    • Debbie Wilson

      Beth, how sad and tragic. This woman pushed away the love she so desperately wanted. Thank you for adding to our understanding of how this can look and the consequences.

  9. Kathleen

    Thank you for this excellent post! The book, Boundaries, is excellent. Yes, it’s important to set boundaries–very important!

    • Debbie Wilson

      Amen, Kathleen! Thanks for commenting.

  10. Donna Reidland

    I’m seen this in action so many times. It’s so important to keep our eyes first on pleasing the Lord and asking Him what our God-given responsibilities are. Otherwise, it’s so easy to fall prey to this kind of behavior. Thanks for sharing.

    • Debbie Wilson

      Thank you, Donna.

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