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Have you ever wondered why in certain relationships you always feel like you’re doing the wrong thing? It could be a friend, family member, or partner, but you realise that you’re often feeling guilty or ashamed, even if you know you didn’t intentionally do anything wrong.

Emotional manipulation is a form of control, sometimes out of fear (e.g. of losing you), or even out of love (e.g. because they want to help you but don’t know how). One of the key signs of emotional manipulation that I learnt in my previous relationship is that we should never be made to feel bad or guilty for things when we didn’t have bad intentions. Everybody makes mistakes and we should of course feel bad if we have sinister intentions, but when we are simply carrying on with our lives and someone tries to make us feel guilty (e.g. for not calling them, not thinking about them, or behaving in the way they expect when we have good reason) this is a sign that they are trying to exert their control over us. It’s also a sign that they have poor communication skills, insecurities (which they project onto us), or simply don’t know how to authentically connect with us.

For the majority of us who have empathy and genuinely care about others, being made to feel bad or guilty is enough to make us try to change our behaviours. But often a change made based on negative emotions (e.g. guilt or shame), does not help us to grow and simply perpetuates the cycle that we need others’ approval and pride in us in order to feel good about ourselves. Think about a time when you genuinely made a mistake and hurt somebody; and whilst you were trying to explain yourself and help them feel better, all they could talk about was “how could you do this?” or “I can’t believe you’re so thoughtless/self-centred/ didn’t think about me”. This sort of communication only served to make you withdraw more into yourself and feel less connected to them. You might have changed your behaviour following this incident, but it didn’t truly inspire you to become a better person.

Sometimes this way of communicating is all that people know, particularly when it comes to parenting or asserting one’s position of authority. Because we might not know how to reign in our child or change their behaviour to what we believe is right, we play on their human emotions to effect change. But the result is we create a greater disconnect and misunderstanding between us and them. On the darker side, emotional manipulation can be used to completely change somebody to suit the manipulator. For the one being manipulated, the burden of hurting someone else or feeling guilty all the time is often worse than standing up for and taking care of oneself. Thus they can turn into a mere puppet of their former self, giving up on their own dreams and values to keep the manipulator happy. This can manifest itself in seemingly minor ways –

  • Making you feel bad for saying no
  • Making you feel bad for any action really (going out late, eating junk food, not texting fast enough)
  • Calling you names and attacking your character (e.g. selfish, thoughtless, careless)
  • Not truly accepting or wanting to understand your version of events
  • Never accepting any blame or responsibility when they’re unhappy about something (it’s always your fault).

The difference between emotional manipulation and us actually validly feeling guilty, is in our intention. We should never be made to feel bad for something we’ve done without bad intentions. Yes, we can be asked lovingly and respectfully to change our behaviour (which we should receive openly), but emotional manipulation and guilt tripping ultimately serves no purpose for our personal growth.

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