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How can I tell if I’m a manipulator? A therapist explains

9 min read
Erica Digap Burson

By Erica Digap Burson

Reviewed by April Kilduff, MA, LCPC

Nov 30, 2023

Google the term “Am I manipulative?” Then, Google “Am I being manipulated?” If you do this, you’ll probably realize one thing very quickly: there are far, far fewer people trying to figure out if they’re the manipulators versus people who are concerned that they might be the ones being manipulated. 

So if you have a fear that you’re manipulating others, chances are that you’re not actually the bad person you might worry that you are. The very fact that you’re concerned about being manipulative is a signal that you probably aren’t maliciously trying to exert control over the people in your life. 

Still, if you just can’t get rid of your fear that you’re displaying manipulative tendencies, you’ve come to the right place. In this article, we’ll define what manipulation is, discuss some of the signs, and dig into some mental health conditions that can be associated with manipulative behavior—as well as worries about such behavior.  

What is manipulative behavior? 

Manipulative behaviors are actions that are used to maintain control and power over another person, usually to the benefit of the person doing the manipulation. 

There are many different kinds of manipulative behaviors. Some of them can be subtle, while others are more obvious. Some examples include: 

  • Gaslighting
  • Guilt-tripping 
  • Passive-aggressiveness 
  • Love bombing 
  • Withholding affection
  • Lying
  • Criticizing
  • Silent treatment 

While all of these forms of manipulation are acted out differently, the key idea behind all of these is that people who are manipulative will do these actions to put another person down and create an imbalance of power. Manipulation is used in many different circumstances, ranging from workplace dynamics to romantic relationships. Ultimately, manipulators engage in these behaviors to influence the other person to do what they want them to do and to get their own way. 

While not all manipulators necessarily have a mental health disorder, manipulation is sometimes found as a symptom of certain conditions. NOCD therapist April Kilduff, MA, LCPC, LMHC explains that manipulation is a trait that is sometimes displayed by people with personality disorders like narcissistic personality disorder and antisocial personality disorder

Personality disorders are a group of mental health conditions that are defined by a lifelong, global pattern of behaviors, thoughts, and feelings that deviate from normal cultural expectations and which cause significant distress or impact one’s way of life. Because many personality disorders affect the way that people interact with others, this can sometimes manifest in manipulative behavior. 

In addition to personality disorders, manipulation can also sometimes be seen in people with substance use disorders as well as bipolar disorder.  

Worrying about being a manipulator vs. actually being a manipulator

Additionally, there are also some potential links between manipulative behaviors and obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). People with OCD might be excessively or irrationally worried that their behaviors are causing them to influence and manipulate those around them. You might even be concerned that you’re a bad person because of it. 

However, if a condition like OCD is making you fear that you are a bad person who manipulates others around you, this doesn’t mean that you are a manipulative person. Let’s explore what this means. 

OCD is a condition in which people experience repetitive obsessions and/or compulsions that can significantly impact their well-being and quality of life. Obsessions are intrusive thoughts, fears, sensations, urges, and feelings that do not line up with one’s values or usual way of thinking. These obsessions can then trigger intense levels of fear and anxiety. In order to alleviate that fear or to stop something bad from happening, people with OCD then engage in compulsions, which are mental or physical actions that are done in order to relieve the anxiety or to prevent a bad thing from happening. 

One common subtype of OCD can commonly cause people to feel “stuck” on worries that they could be manipulating others. It’s called Responsibility OCD, and it causes people to fear that they’re failing to live up to their values, morals, and beliefs, or that they’re inadequately caring for others around them. This can cause an inflated sense of responsibility for how others are feeling—for example, if someone’s partner seems upset or distant, Responsibility OCD brings intrusive worries: Why do they seem sad? Is it my fault? I must have said something careless and controlling. I’m a manipulative monster.

“OCD goes after what you value and how you think of yourself,” she goes on to explain. “People who are very well-intentioned and who generally engage in good, positive behaviors are of course going to be afraid that they could be manipulative.” But the very idea that you are concerned that you are manipulating others is a good sign that you aren’t trying to control people or otherwise be malicious—you’re struggling with a serious but treatable condition that can feel all-encompassing and can make you wonder about your interactions with those around you. 

There’s another way that OCD might bring these fears about: because obsessions are so intense, some people with OCD might feel that their subsequent compulsions are causing them to manipulate others around them in order to help themselves feel better. 

For example, one common compulsion that many people with OCD experience is reassurance-seeking. Because people with OCD tend to experience so much anxiety and fear, they often reach out to other people to look for reassurance. In a sense, this means that the person with OCD is looking towards others to help relieve their anxiety for them, which they might fear is manipulative behavior.  

This happens in virtually every kind of OCD, but it can be especially obvious in Relationship OCD (ROCD). People with ROCD will have obsessions that specifically target their romantic relationships, leading to extreme fear and doubt about their relationships, their partners, or both. Kilduff explains that people with ROCD may seek constant reassurance from their partners in a way that may be construed as manipulative. For example, she explains, “They might say, ‘I love you,’ but what they’re really doing is fishing for the ‘I love you’ back,” rather than directly asking the question.”

This kind of reassurance-seeking can sometimes feel like manipulative behavior since it involves getting someone else to do what you want in an indirect manner. But in this case, “OCD is the real manipulator,” Kilduff explains. “The fear and worry OCD creates can be so powerful that the people around you are naturally impacted too.”

How can I tell if I’m experiencing OCD, rather than healthy self-reflection? 

The fear that you might be manipulative is often seen in people who have a “what if I’m a bad person?” theme to their OCD. Someone who experiences these fears will have concerns that their OCD symptoms must mean something about themselves and their true beliefs, and that they are a bad person because of it.

Start by considering whether these thoughts are accompanied by a cycle of obsessions and compulsions. Remember, distressing and time-consuming obsessions and compulsions are the cornerstones of OCD. If your thoughts of being manipulative or otherwise “bad” are intrusive, repetitive, and don’t line up with your usual way of thinking, they might be obsessions. If you’re then compelled to reach out for reassurance, research manipulative behavior online, or constantly apologize to others for behaviors you’re worried are manipulative, these might be examples of compulsions. 

For example, one potential sign that your concerns are stemming from your OCD is if you start to ruminate on the idea that you may be manipulating others. “People with OCD might start repetitively reviewing their conversations or interactions and trying to see if they were manipulative,” explains Kilduff. Someone who is having OCD-related fears of manipulation might ask themselves after every conversation: “How do I know that wasn’t manipulative? If it was, what does it mean about me if I just manipulated my best friend to say or do that?” 

If these apply to you, your fears might be stemming from OCD rather than self-reflection. Luckily, if this is true, there is help out there. 

How to overcome the fear of being a manipulator

Worrying that you are a manipulator can be hard, especially when you care for the people around you. The good news is that there is hope, and it can start by managing OCD with the right treatment. 

Exposure and response prevention (ERP) therapy is considered the gold standard for OCD treatment. In ERP, your therapist works with you to gradually confront your worries. They then work with you to help you sit with the anxiety and uncertainty that these intrusive thoughts bring, rather than engaging in your usual compulsive behaviors to feel better. 

Kilduff explains that she might start by working with a patient to uncover what triggers them the most, and then having those patients face those triggers in a safe environment during their sessions. The way that this looks will depend on the individual and their unique fears. “This could be just sitting with the uncertainty that you may or may not have manipulated your parents, and writing it down in a therapy journal,” she explains. 

Another strategy includes having patients describe certain behaviors that they worry could be manipulative and have them actually engage in those behaviors, especially since in many cases those behaviors aren’t really manipulative at all. Finally, Kilduff also finds it helpful in many cases to look at a worst-case scenario with patients as a form of exposure. “Let’s say that you are a manipulator. How does that play out? What does that look like?” she asks. 

While these experiences are uncomfortable, facing them in this controlled environment is a big part of ERP. Ultimately, the goal of ERP therapy is to help people with OCD break out of the constant cycle of obsessions and compulsions. Before long, you’ll be able to live with greater confidence in the way you treat others, living in accordance with your values while also feeling comfortable with the fact that doubt and uncertainty will always exist.

You can learn to live confidently in your values

ERP is most effective when it is done with a trained mental health professional, and it’s important to work with a therapist who specializes in OCD and ERP therapy. If you are interested in learning more about how ERP can help you with your fear of manipulation, you can access the specialized care you deserve. All therapists at NOCD specialize in OCD and receive ERP-specific training to help you better manage your obsessions and compulsions. I encourage you to learn more about NOCD’s accessible approach to treatment for OCD and anxiety disorders.

Finally, it’s important to finish off with the idea that “just because something’s possible doesn’t mean it’s probable,” says Kilduff. Simply having intrusive thoughts and worries about being a manipulator does not mean that you are manipulating those around you, nor does it make you a bad person if you are engaging in compulsions in order to find relief.

It also says a lot that you are worried about it to begin with, since this often is not the case with people who really are manipulating others and trying to get them to do their bidding. “Most manipulators don’t sit around and worry, ‘What if I’m a manipulator?’ It doesn’t give them stress,” says Kilduff. “They’re just out there manipulating for their own benefit.” The very idea that you are worrying about this means that you likely are not maliciously interacting with others for your own gain.  

Learn more about ERP
April Kilduff, MA, LCPC

April Kilduff is a NOCD therapist who has exclusively treated OCD and anxiety disorders, as well as their intersection with the Autism spectrum, for over a decade. Her path to this career started with her own journey dealing with panic attacks, perfectionism and a couple phobias. When not working on exposures with members, you can find her at home reading books and hanging out with her two cats or out taking pictures and traveling the world.