Toxic Personalities: Part I

When Talking Isn’t Enough 

In the previous two blogs (How to Say No to Others and Making Requests without Making Problems), I discussed effective ways to communicate. However, most communication techniques are based on the assumption that you’re communicating with someone who is not intentionally and chronically trying to manipulate you.  But what is emotional manipulation?  Here is my definition: emotional manipulation is when person A says or does something to person B in a way that (1) provokes an emotional response in person B, and (2) allows person A to get something at the expense of person B.  Here are a couple of additional points about emotional manipulation and some examples:

  • Emotional manipulation can be intentional or unintentional (conscious or unconscious).
  • It doesn’t have to be clearly stated (it can be implied or hinted).
  • It may or may not be the “truth.” You can be telling the truth, for instance, and still be manipulating someone else (“Well…. I was just being honest.”).


Example #1:

A 14-year-old girl asks her mother if she can go to a party. Initially, her mother says “no.” But during the ensuring tantrum, the teen says, “At least dad trusts me!!!” (the teen’s parents are recently divorced). This provokes an emotional response from mom, who doesn’t appreciate being compared unfavorably to her “pushover” ex-husband.  So mom yells… and then later feels guilty for yelling. Eventually, mother’s guilt causes mom to give up her position by allowing her daughter to attend the party. Although the mother placates her conscience by providing her daughter with a stern lecture about how the teen needs to be “responsible” at the party, a negative precedence has been set. In this case, person A (the teen) said something (“At least dad trusts me!”) to person B (mom) to provoke an emotional response (anger, yelling, shame).  Person A got something she wanted (the party) at the expense of person B (mom caves on her standards).  The teen may not have been aware that she was pulling her mother’s emotional strings, and she may have technically been telling the truth (perhaps dad is – in fact – a softy), but this is still an example of emotional manipulation.

Example #2:

I offer my patients a beverage as a small favor at the beginning of each the session to make them comfortable. Is this manipulation? While it’s true that I am doing something to provoke an emotional response (make them feel less uneasy and more welcome), I am not doing it to their detriment.  Therefore, this is not emotional manipulation.


What can Person B do when he or she is being emotionally manipulated:

  • First, make the unsaid said: “What you just said sounds manipulative to me. You may not have meant it that way, but it isn’t having the effect on me you want it to have.
  • Next, state that you will not play this game: “I can’t talk to you when you say something hurtful like that. Can you please say that differently so I can stay?”
  • If the person makes a good-faith effort to change, then stay. Work out something using the other techniques mentioned in the last two blogs.  If you stay, just remember you don’t have to agree with something that makes you uncomfortable. At the very least, you can say, “Give me some time to think about it.”


  • But if the person makes no attempt to change, walk away as soon as possible. (Ideally, within 10 seconds.) Staying in the room and trying to make the emotional manipulator “get it” is like arguing with a drunk person: it doesn’t matter how right you are or how logical your arguments may be; the longer you stay, the more likely it is that you’ll also get emotionally “drunk” and say something you’ll regret, which the emotional manipulator will have no problem using against you in the future. Talk later when everyone is calm(er).

Okay… I’ve tried that, but it isn’t working.  So now what?

As unpleasant as it is to say, you sometimes have to cut your losses.  Not everyone will respond positively to the communication skills I’ve mentioned.  Based on the previous blogs, here is a brief checklist to determine if you are interacting with a toxic personality, which is someone who is likely to continue to emotionally manipulate you:

  • Have I made a consistent good-faith effort to say “no” to requests that are unreasonable? (see How to Say No to Others.) Does the person pressure me into saying “yes” without giving me time to think things through?
  • Does the other person consistently make up excuses or fail to follow through after initially agreeing to “yes…but” or “yes…and” commitments? (see also the blog noted above)
  • Do I frequently feel too scared to ask for what I need in the relationship? (see Making Requests without Making Problems.)  Is this fear based on my history with this particular person or with someone else from my past?  In other words, has the person him- or herself frequently ignored, controlled, intimidated, or threatened me when I’ve made requests appropriately?  Does the other person consistently fail to recognize my basic human rights of safety or free will?
  • Does the person frequently remain rigid and inflexible even when I’m using reflective listening? (see also reflective listening techniques noted in blogs above).


Notice that each yes assumes that the other person isn’t just having a bad day.  Instead, he or she is demonstrating a consistent pattern.  The more “yeses” you have, the more likely it is that the other person is emotionally toxic.

If this describes your relationship, then first let me offer you my condolences.  It’s a difficult position you’re in, and I can understand why you may feel angry, scared, and/or betrayed.  In fact, such feelings may cause you to justify the other person’s bad behavior… yet again.  (“Oh, she didn’t mean it…”)  Be that as it may, it’s still probably time to cut your losses.  It may be tempting, but don’t try to figure out why the other person is the way he or she is.  Such speculation assumes it’s your job to “fix” them.  Instead, you may have to sadly accept that there are some things (and some people) you cannot fix.  You aren’t the other person’s therapist.  Trying to make a chronically inflexible person get it is like trying to tread water indefinitely while wearing ankle weights: you’ll eventually sink. Any person or organization that is unwilling to be flexible over time is not a person or organization that has your long-term interests at heart.  The longer you stay, the more you’ll continue to bang your head against the wall.

I know that cutting your losses is tough.  Psychologists frequently talk about the “sunk-cost effect.”  This is an almost universal human tendency to throw good money after bad in an attempt to save an emotional investment.  Even in the best of circumstances, it can sting our pride to admit we were wrong or that our best wasn’t good enough.  But admitting to the flaws of a relationship doesn’t mean you’re utterly flawed as a person.  You are not a failure, even if the relationship fails.  Just think of how much more time and effort may be wasted.  Anyone who has gone through the pain of a divorce and has come out better afterward knows what I’m talking about – even though they may not have felt so at the time.

Sadly, not all problems are solvable. This is why there are such things as divorce, quitting a job, filing for bankruptcy, changing your name, moving away, and restraining orders.  People are resistant to doing these actions because doing them would undermine their delusions (“Maybe he still loves me…”; “Maybe she will get a clue…”; “Maybe they will start to notice me and treat me right…”). But when maintaining your delusions is more important than maintaining your sanity, something is wrong—regardless of the communication technique you commit yourself to using.  Communicating with others should not be used as a way of avoiding being realistic with yourself.

The next blog in this series will discuss what to do if you really can’t cut your losses….


[The information above is an excerpt from the book, Becoming Okay (When You’re Not Okay), which is published exclusively on Amazon and can be found on the link below.]



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