Lately I’ve been encountering a very subtle thing that I like to call “soft manipulation.” Soft manipulation is a form of manipulation in which the perpetrator is so gentle and acts so loving that it becomes extremely difficult to spot what they are doing. They frame all their actions under the guide of “loving you” or “caring about you”, so if you do start to notice it, you might feel bad and recant your conclusion immediately.

Most commonly, I’ve seen this behavior played out by people in leadership positions, by people who act as mentors, and by women who try to “mother” me so that they can be the dominant one in the relationship. It is possible to spot this manipulation. Here are four tactics that are the trademark of soft manipulation.

1. They will gently demean you.

Have you ever left a conversation feeling less-than, but weren’t able to pinpoint why? The other person didn’t say anything overtly cruel, but they managed to make you feel childish and adorable rather than dignified and respected. This is a form of manipulation.

Their language may have been gentle, but their goal is to elevate themselves and their perspective and belittle yours. They might come off as maternal or paternal or they might act like an older sister or brother, which could make you feel like you can trust them and open up to them. Their real motive is to make the playing field uneven. If they can get you to view them as the dominant person in the relationship, then they can gain the power in the relationship under the guise of giving advice or leadership.

How to spot this:

My mentor, Debi, is far beyond me in wisdom, but she never treats me that way. She always speaks to me as an equal. She has an accurate view of my strengths and weaknesses, and she never belittles me when I make a mistake. She shares her wisdom freely, but doesn’t get controlling or upset if I don’t take her advice.

A manipulator won’t like it when you don’t take their advice. Even if they don’t show signs of frustration, you will feel pressured by them when you don’t do exactly what they suggest. You may start to feel that you aren’t good enough to make decisions or discernments on your own, and you’ll be inclined to feel dependent on them for accurate perspective.

2. They will constantly reframe situations and try to get you to adopt their perspective.

Gas lighting is when someone will change the details of a situation to get you to question whether your memory is accurate. They may also try to distort your perspective of yourself by painting a false picture of who you are.

If you adopt their perspective of you, you’ll become dependent on their praise and deeply hurt by their criticism.

This gives them control over you, and then they can use praise and criticism as a sort of “punishment and reward” system to get you to do what they want.

How to spot this:

The heart of manipulation is the reframing of truth. If you can’t stand on what is true, you are putty in the manipulator’s hands. When you start to question your memories, your perception of yourself, or wonder about your sanity, that is a red flag. If someone is trying to “spin” a situation or change the way you see yourself, they don’t really have your best interest at heart.

3. They will try to discredit you.

When you disagree with a manipulator, they will pinpoint any mistake that you make in the interaction and use that to discredit everything that you say. They will attempt to use your guilt over your error to get you to believe that you are wrong and they are right. Their goal is to place themselves on higher moral ground than you so that you can’t disagree with any aspect of what they say.

How to spot this:

In a typical disagreement where both sides have wronged each other, two emotionally healthy adults can reach a resolution where both sides apologize and move on. A manipulator will not accept any of the blame – they want YOU to shoulder all of it. So they will over blow your mistakes and underplay or ignore their own. They will even go as far as to bring up past mistakes you’ve made (even ones that the two of you have already resolved) in their effort to guilt you into taking all of the blame.

Even if you are the one in the wrong for some reason, ask yourself, “Is this person treating me as an equal, or are they trying to condemn me and overpower me based on my mistakes?” Nothing you could possibly have done gives someone else the right to control or condemn you.

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4. They know how you will react to some of their statements, so they pre-emptively voice your response and make it seem ridiculous.

Say that you are in a disagreement with a manipulator and they do something that is a pretty clear power move. Before you respond, this person will say, “Now I know you’re probably going to take this as a power move, but you really need to stop taking things the wrong way. You’re always so paranoid and you tend to overreact to things.” They know that what they are doing is obvious, so before you can respond with the obvious, they call it out and reframe it in an attempt to make YOU feel stupid for making that conclusion.

Now that I’ve spotted it, how do I end it?

Once you’ve identified a manipulative pattern in a relationship, you need to put an end to it. I used to call the person out and try to reason with them, but this is not the best approach. Unfortunately, most of the tactics we naturally resort to will only make the situation worse. Stay tuned for part two, where I will share healthy ways to exit a manipulative situation.