emotional manipulation

Emotional manipulation is a subtle form of emotional abuse that can lead you to doubt or lose trust in yourself

It’s most common in romantic relationships but it can also occur between friends and family members. 

It’s important to remember that it’s not always deliberate or malicious – for example, if a small child doesn’t want to go to bed, they might sulk or cry to get their parents to agree to five more minutes of TV time.

Emotional manipulation becomes negative when it is a repeated action or behaviour that benefits the other person and makes you feel bad about yourself or somehow beholden to them.

Here are some examples of emotional manipulation that are detrimental to your mental health:

Making you feel guilty

They use your feelings against you, making you feel guilty for putting your needs first.

“If you take that after-school job, we won’t be able to hang out as much. I wouldn’t do it but then again, I value our friendship.”

They may even issue an ultimatum saying that if you do something they don’t want you to do, your relationship is over.

Being passive-aggressive

A passive-aggressive person is one who is kind to your face and then talks behind your back. They do it to avoid conflict and perhaps to also make you feel paranoid about how you are perceived by others.

Another way to describe passive-aggressive behaviour is when someone displays a pattern of indirectly expressing negative feelings instead of openly addressing them. This means that they are upset or angry, but instead of talking about it, they will display micro aggressions, or hurtful behaviour towards you, but try to mask it. For example, the person may say, ‘I don’t care if you want to go out with him, I just thought you were smarter than that.’

When confronted, they will either deny the issue or say that you “took it the wrong way” or that they wanted to say it to you but felt that you might be upset.


If they’re upset with you or if you have stood up to them, their response is to cut off all communication.

They don’t respond to texts, DMs, emails, calls and refuse to speak until you have apologised and their power has been re-instated.

Criticising you through humour or sarcasm

Saying ‘I’m only joking’ after making a mean or rude comment about how you look, the clothes you’re wearing or your opinion on something is a classic form of emotional manipulation.

Unfortunately, those cutting remarks can often be enough to make you worry or start doubting your personal style or values.


This might seem like a good thing at first but if someone gets too close too quickly or showers you with gifts and attention, it could be a form of emotional manipulation. When you receive this level of attention, you often are made to feel indebted to that person. You may also fail to recognise hurtful behaviour later for what it is, because your first impression of them was so full of love and generosity and you will hold out hope that they can be this person again. 

Be wary of revealing too many intimate details or insecurities because after a while they may use them against you.

Blaming you for everything

When something doesn’t work out the way they thought it would, the manipulator won’t take responsibility and will find a way to make it your fault.

“It wouldn’t have happened if you hadn’t mentioned it in the first place” or “I only did it for you – this is on you.”

Social isolation

If a romantic partner or “best friend” wants you all to themselves all the time, it’s a red flag that you should be aware of. If they tell you that no one will understand you like they do or get angry when you choose your family or other friends over them, it’s time to remove yourself from the situation.


Gaslighting is an extremely harmful form of emotional manipulation. It can take the form of someone questioning your memory, trivialising your feelings or even denying something that actually happened which can leave you questioning your sanity.

What to do if you’re being emotionally manipulated

Step back

If you start to recognise that someone in your life is making you feel drained, confused, sad or worried, take a step back and stop seeing them for a while. Notice how you feel while you are away from them.

Talk it out

It’s natural to be unsure of how you feel sometimes so if it helps, talk things through with a trusted adult or friend who can help you make sense of what has happened. Perhaps by talking it out you may see that some things are not as bad as you thought – while others might be more serious.

Set boundaries

If you are unable to distance yourself from the person who is emotionally manipulating you, it is up to you to set boundaries for yourself. You can read more about setting boundaries here.

Trust yourself

As bad as things may seem to you, it’s important to trust your feelings. If something feels off about a relationship or a friendship, there’s probably a good reason for that. Sit with your feelings and identify what it is that has upset you. From there you can take the steps you need to decide whether the relationship is over or if it can be salvaged.

It can help to write out a pros and cons list of the person’s behaviour. On one side of the paper, write the things they do or say that make you feel good, and on the other, write down the things they do or say that make you feel bad about yourself.

Whenever you need to talk, Childline is ready to listen. Call 1800 66 66 66 or chat online at Childline.ie, 24 hours a day, every day.