Emotional manipulation: the guilt game

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Robert Maurer
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Emotional manipulation: the guilt game

Emotional manipulation tries to make the other feel guilty and to submit to our desires. Sometimes a few seemingly innocent sentences are enough ...

Last update: December 16, 2022

Emotional manipulation wreaks havoc on psychological integrity. Few practices make such refined use of abuse, mental distortion and the violation of self-esteem as that exercise so characteristic of the human being.

Mothers, fathers, siblings, partners, children and even ourselves… We are all likely to perform this dynamic in which the game of making people feel guilty predominates.



We all know that coexistence in society has a biological basis that focuses on a specific aspect. People need to feel security and a sense of survival in each of our environments along with our respective peers.

The moment we feel we are being attacked, that essential bond is broken; that bond based on altruism, mutual cooperation and trust.

Emotional manipulation occurs mostly within relationships. However, an equally recurring context that we must not neglect is the working one.

Dr Diana Krause, of the University of Klagenfurt, Austria, conducted an interesting study to uncover the dynamics at work aimed at manipulating employees or collaborators.

It is enough to take a look at history to see that manipulation has been one of the pillars on which the government of any empire has been based. Manipulation is the "daily bread" of the society in which we live. No one is exempt from having exercised or been subjected to manipulation in the course of its existence.

Learn to detect emotional manipulation it helps to prevent it and for this you must first know what it consists of, how it manifests itself, how it is disguised and how it is used.



"Manipulation thrives only in those who compulsively say 'yes' to everything and in those who are weak when it comes to defending their rights."

-Walter Rice-

Did they make you feel guilty? Detect emotional manipulation

Emotional manipulation is often disguised as good intentions. It comes from the hand of a best friend, the person who claims to love us or the collaborator with whom we carry out a common project. We trust them and they use that alliance to get a secret benefit.

Sometimes it is for the simple pleasure of control, sometimes to strengthen one's self-esteem, to get something in return, or to simply do harm.

In addition to asking ourselves why a person engages in emotional manipulation, we cannot ignore an equally important aspect: personality. As we can deduce, not all people use this mental deception to submit others to their will.

The University of Michigan conducted a study on how to detect emotional manipulation in the context of the couple: emotional instability, low responsibility, capacity for seduction, low self-awareness and social openness.

Similarly, a study from the University of Florence, published in 2022, conclusively shows the association between the narcissistic personality and the tendency to emotional manipulation. Let's see below what they are the most common strategies when engaging in emotional manipulation.

"Do as you like"

In a power dynamic between two people, the individual who manipulates has the most advantageous position, the manipulated person may be threatened with losing some advantages in case he does not obey her.


Its less obvious manifestation occurs when a family member or friend suggests acting in a certain way, otherwise the relationship will suffer.


“The basic tool for manipulating reality is to manipulate words. If you can control the meaning of the words, you can control the people who use those words ”.

-Philip K. Dick-

“If you don't, neither do I.” emotional manipulation

Behind this tender declaration of good intentions lies a ferocious manipulation in which the manipulator appeals to the ability to empathize of the other person to make them feel guilty.

In its most extreme translation, this "self-punishment" can even go as far as self-harm by the manipulator.

This is why it is important to know how to recognize simple blackmail, when the intention is to make people feel guilty and when an advice.

"There's nothing wrong with me"

A prolonged silence follows and, usually, non-verbal language that accompanies the anger. Insinuating one thing with behavior and another with words is a very common manipulation technique for making people feel guilty.

"What have I done for you"

It is the manipulation par excellence and that exercised by a large part of society. Being united by that "giving in order to receive" is one of the most used forms to make people feel guilty at all levels.


Therefore, it is more than common to see us in those emotional crossroads in which the partner, parent or best friend reproaches us for what they have done for us to boycott our self-esteem and exercise control.

"Without you I'm nothing"

Victimization is a very simple way to make people feel guilty, but highly efficient. Those who listen to him may come to fear that the other will commit some reckless act, thus appearing, once again, the threat of self-punishment.


"To effectively manipulate people, you need to make everyone believe that no one is manipulating them."

-John Kenneth Galbraith-

"Of course you could try harder"

One of the most generalized forms of emotional manipulation, since it generates feelings of guilt and inferiority in the manipulated person, suggesting that they are not trying hard enough or that there are other people who can do their jobs much more efficiently.

Conclusions on emotional manipulation

Emotional manipulation is that eternal leivmotif that arises in almost every context and connection. We must be prepared to see these practices arrive and stop them as soon as possible.

Setting yourself limits is an exercise in personal and relational hygiene which will allow us to create more authentic bonds (and with less suffering).

Strategies such as becoming more aware of our emotions, working on our assertiveness and learning to say "no" in time can help us avoid or get out of emotional manipulation situations more easily.

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