Strategies Manipulative People Use to Control You


Like other HSPs, I have often given too much to the wrong people a time too many. Giving the benefit of the doubt and then regretting has been a pattern with me for years. But in the last several years, I have consciously worked through many faulty beliefs about my responsibility and drawn more sketched-out boundaries around my life.

Manipulative People Disrespect Nice People

But recently, all that I have been learning was put to test, as it often is. The universe gave me a test. I encountered someone who is definitely a bully and also has narcissistic qualities. While I was interacting with them, I went back and forth in my mind wondering whether they were a full-blown narcissist or not. I tried to rationalize when they stepped on my toes. This person physically got into my personal space and tried to intimidate me by speaking loudly. Often, it felt like they thought that they were the employer and I was the servant. They were definitely not “nice” and as they made one power play after another, I thought of how naive I had always been.

Like many other HSPs, I have often had beliefs that said that if you were just loving enough, you could bring out the good in the other person. But as time has taught me, depending on who you are dealing with, being accommodating or “nice” can be seen as weakness. There are people out there who don’t operate with the same paradigm that many HSPs do. This time though, with years of experience and falling flat on my face with bullies and potentially narcissistic people, I was able to be discerning and set my boundaries without getting into any sort of drama.

But the process was hard at times and more than once, I felt confused. Was this person really that bad? Was I being too harsh? Some of the ways in which they acted, bullying and trying to control me at first and then switching to being nice left me feeling a little fogged up. As I scrambled to find answers, once again turning to the internet, searching about narcissistic behavior, once again feeling like “I am not a psychotherapist. How can I really know whether this person has a real problem or not?,” in one article, I came upon an unusual suggestion from someone who recommended reading Gavin De Becker’s book The Gift of Fear to figure out tactics that manipulative people use to con you.

Manipulative Tactics

I had already come across De Becker years before and even had his book! So, I leafed through my copy, and within the very serious topics that De Becker covered (he is the CEO of a firm that predicts and prevents violence against individuals), I found insights into tactics that people who are trying to coerce or manipulate you often use.

It helped quite a bit with dealing with my bully and it might help you as well.

  1. Forced Teaming: Once the bully I was dealing with realized that their intimidating tactics, such as raising their voice or blaming me weren’t working, they seemed to change their approach. They used statements with “We” implying that we were alike, kind of like we were on the same team. But then, pretty soon afterward, they would switch back again to their old intimidating tactics. It was on and off, on and off more than once till I realized that this was a “strategy.” When the more bullying strategy didn’t work, they just tried something else to get me to think we were on the same team. De Becker talks about how this is a very sophisticated manipulation tactic. It’s used by con men and con women to establish premature trust. If you suspect that someone is a narcissist or that they are trying to manipulate you, then listen to what De Becker says: “The detectable experience of forced teaming is the projection of a shared purpose or experience where none exists: ‘Both of us;” “we’re some team;” “how are we going to handle this?;” “now we’ve done it,” etc. In the book, De Becker uses examples of women who have been subjected to violent crimes and talks about how it’s important to see that forced teaming is not about partnership or coincidence – it’s about establishing rapport. Depending on who you are dealing with, this rapport building can become dangerous such as if you don’t know the person or if you feel fogged up, like I did, when someone self-serving tries to establish this forced closeness.
  2. Charm and Niceness: De Becker talks about how charm is another overrated ability. He talks about how charm is not an inherent feature of one’s personality. It’s something that you can turn on and turn off. “Think of charm as a verb, not a trait. If you consciously tell yourself: “This person is trying to charm me” instead of “This person is charming,” you’ll be able to see around it.” Most often, when you see what’s behind charm, it won’t be sinister, but other times you’ll be glad you looked.” It’s so interesting that De Becker talks about niceness as a strategy. It’s interesting that he says: “People seeking to control others almost always present the image of a nice person in the beginning.” Of course, most people don’t have any wrong intent. But for us as HSPs and if we are someone who gives people a lot of benefit of the doubt, it’s really important to check this. For me, understanding that my “garden-variety narcissist” (if there can be such a thing, but they were not hidden and not as sophisticated as the con men De Becker talks about.) had switched to niceness as a way to gain back control was very helpful. But what I had to constantly remind myself of was that they started off by bullying me, even though they knew I had been hurt by something they did. This person didn’t make any effort to talk about this issue. They didn’t talk about any real thing that I am interested in because they, themselves, weren’t interested in those things. Instead, they made some token “nice” remarks and when I didn’t warm up after that, didn’t really self-reflect but instead switched back to intimidation and control as a strategy. 
  3. Loan Sharking: In the book, De Becker talks about how manipulative people want to sometimes help you because that would place you in their debt and the fact that you owe a person something will make it hard for you to ask them to leave you alone. Let’s take an example. Let’s say your mother is a narcissist. She creates a lot of drama and tension and seems to thrive on it. Maybe, you start getting this and pull back. If the crazy-making stops getting a response from you, then maybe she tries another tactic: She offers to help. If you accept this help, after this, how can you then not be okay with all those other ways in which she tries to manipulate or control you? This dynamic seems to play out in many situations, in different relationships. It can be hard to see. When the person I suspected was a narcissist did this, I kind of got it this time. This was because I knew the help wasn’t unconditional. It came with strings attached. It was a way to find their way back. But for once, I remembered the context, the fact that my hurt feelings hadn’t been acknowledged at all and that our interactions had been initiated in a way that had felt very gamey to me. Not everyone does things out of the goodness of their heart. It’s important now for me to let go of this child’s thinking. The world has all sorts of people in it and not everyone operates in the same way.

After I had physically removed myself from this person’s presence, although I had both kept my power and also kept things polite at the surface level, I felt a gnawing depression. I felt that the deep hurt that I had felt hadn’t been addressed. It hadn’t been acknowledged. I felt as if my heart was congested as if I couldn’t breathe. I wished that they were different. I again asked myself whether they were really a narcissist or not. There is no way to test, no way to be 100 percent sure. But in trying to rationalize, I think I forgot the Context – that someone knew I was angry with them but then did not address that issue and in fact, was callous about it. They were definitely not nice. They knew I don’t like confrontation. So, they thought of that as a weakness and tried to bully me. When that didn’t work, they changed tactics, but on a superficial level. At every stage, they tried to get the upper hand. They very much operated on the paradigm of control, feeling like if they were not one-up on me in some way, they were one down.

The Pain Of Being Dehumanized

How could such a person acknowledge my feelings? Wouldn’t they feel that they were one-down as if they had a lost battle? Our interactions weren’t about nurturing the relationship, but about being manipulative to gain the upper hand. How could I then ever feel comfortable with them? How could I trust them? I know that like many other HSPs, I don’t like judging people prematurely and I want to almost talk myself out of the real discomfort and that feeling of constantly patrolling my boundaries that I felt with this person. But if someone drains me or I feel ill-used by them, then isn’t it my responsibility first to myself now? Haven’t I gone down this wrong path enough times, not heeding warning signs and red flags? I don’t think I need to figure out whether this was a narcissist or not or whether they only have narcissistic traits. What I do know is they didn’t care about my feelings. What I do know is that they play power games where they are okay with pushing someone down. Why would I then want to try to figure them out?

I think I might know everything I need to know about them. Maybe, as someone wise told me, I need to freeze my opinion of this person, instead of getting taken in and fogged up by the switch and bait. Maybe, I need to make my own safety a much higher priority.

What do you think? How have you learned to handle narcissistic people in your life?  

About Ritu Kaushal

Ritu Kaushal is the author of the book, The Empath’s Journey, which TEDx speaker Andy Mort calls “a fascinating insight into the life of a highly sensitive person and emotional empath.” Ritu is a Silver Medal awardee at the prestigious Rex Karamveer Chakra awards, co-presented by the United Nations in India, and given to people creating social impact through their work. Ritu writes about highly sensitive creatives on her site Walking Through Transitions where you can also get two free chapters of The Empath’s Journey by signing up for her newsletter.


  1. Eli on July 23, 2018 at 6:51 am

    Maybe this person was BPD. They are even made re painful this deal with. The point is to reach to a place where you see all their bullying is about their empty scared selves. It is so painful, but life throws us these people to get to a palace f assertiveness, placing ourselves first, healing traumas from past, recognizing fear and pain and finding compassion for the self(our/their).

  2. Eileen on July 23, 2018 at 6:54 am

    Thanks for your writing.
    I am a HSP and it is good to understand these dynamics.

    My challenge has been that I am super guarded and have experienced an unfortunate hardening of my heart with being vigilant against people who I perceive to be harmful.

    It is with meditation and practices of meta and loving kindness that I have softened my heart yet reading your article allows me knowledge to be aware of red flags and potential harmful behaviors.
    Thank you,

    • Maria Hill on July 23, 2018 at 6:57 am

      Thanks for your thoughts, Eileen. It is hard sometimes to keep your heart open with people who are abusive and sometimes you just have to take care of yourself.

      All the best,

  3. Bart on October 19, 2018 at 3:38 am

    Thank you for the informative article, it’s been very enlightening for me.
    I’m a HSP (recently discovered, after getting romantically involved with another HSP). I’ve been with a narcissist for 12 years without even knowing it.
    I only knew shortly after separation her narcississm. Now that I know I’m HSP, it is surely much easier to understand and to deal with. I used to be, and still am, pretty good at hiding and blocking my high sensivity.

    While generally being pretty good at it, I find narcissists/psychopaths (and other manipulative people) very hard to read/feel. But this “experience” makes it easier now. For example, meeting someone who appears to be too good to be true (very easy going, very extravert, too charming for first meeting…) usually is too good to be true. Today that is enough to set a huge red flag, and run away as fast as I can.

    • Maria Hill on October 19, 2018 at 6:00 am

      Thanks for your insights, Bart. Narcissists make a point of being hard to read – deception is one of their great skills. I am glad you are out of that relationship.

      All the best,