How To Quickly Spot Abusive & Manipulative People

Both online and offline, there are a lot of horrible people out there who will do you a lot of damage if they can sink their claws into you. Fortunately, these kinds of people tend to have some pretty obvious tells that will give them away quickly enough if you know what you're looking for - so here are some signs to bear in mind when you're dealing with people.

And of course, remember: everyone has bad days and off-moments, so a one-time event that looks like one of these might not be a problem. But if you see a pattern of behaviors like these emerge over a long period of time, then there's almost certainly a problem.

Last update: September 16, 2020

Pay attention to how they talk about other people. Do they frequently dismiss others as incompetent, shallow, rude, etc.? Do they often talk as if other people are beneath them, perhaps even describing them as disgusting, trash, filth, or similar? Or do they frequently complain about being victimized by former friends, partners, or acquaintances? Does it seem they often have something negative to say about others in general? (This can also include celebrities and fictional characters.)

Do they often tell stories in which they are framed as the unequivocal victims or victors? Do they frequently tell stories about arguments they got in with other people and act like their insipid and childish comebacks left them demolished? Do they act like they're awesome or badass for shouting someone down or for taking acts of petty spite? And do they constantly tell stories or complain of being treated rudely, unfairly, cruelly, or disrespectfully by people in general? And on top of this, do they never admit to any wrongdoing in their stories and show genuine remorse for it?

Do they talk as if others are out to get them for some reason? Do they claim that other people are out to get them because they're jealous, spiteful, or just want to make them upset? Do they act as if people just want to hurt them for no reason? Do they constantly chalk people's mistakes up to deliberate acts of sabotage to stop them from succeeding? If they do, odds are good that they are like this and that they're projecting their own nasty selves onto people.

Do their stories and accounts grossly distort reality? Most people will distort details at least a little bit, but manipulators take it to a whole new level. Do they regularly omit key details that would make it clear that they were at fault in a substantial way? Do they frequently fabricate or exaggerate details to make themselves look better and make others look worse?

Pay attention to how they talk about things in general. Does it seem like they always have to take petty potshots at things or people they don't personally like? Are they often quick to point out why someone's dreams or hopes could never work out, while never offering them encouragement or tips to genuinely help them? Are they often quick to point of flaws and failings, but never highlight any virtues? When they actually do like someone or something, do they basically fawn over it and act as if it's completely flawless?

Are they elitist? Do they act as if fame, power, and/or financial success is a surefire sign that someone or something is good and admirable? Do they act as if aspiring to fame, power, and/or wealth makes one a better, even superior person? Do they claim that everyone aspires to these things, even if they deny it?

Do they praise and compliment those in charge, or those who seem to be smart or successful, or those they have something to gain from; but are indiffernt, cold, or even mean to everyone else? Pay attention to how they treat the "unimportant" people in their lives - the ordinary, the average, the not-exactly-geniuses. How do they treat waiters and service people? Ignorant newbies? Children? If they aren't kind and considerate to these people, they aren't truly kind and considerate at all.

Do they gossip a lot? Do they often spread stories and share juicy tidbits about other people in your social circles or workplaces? Are they eager to talk about the lurid details of other people's private lives? And this also counts if they're telling you about it, too - remember, if they're gossiping to you, they're probably gossiping about you, too.

Do they complain about drama a lot? People who constantly complain about drama are usually doing so because they're so often at the center of it - and it's usually their own faults. If they really wanted to stay out of drama so badly, they'd keep their noses out of it and/or find ways to de-escalate.

Do they make a big point of telling others that nobody has the right to criticize or judge them and that they don't need negative people in their lives? People like this are typically butthurt because other people simply had the nerve to correct them on something or very rightfully told them where to shove it.

Do they make a big deal out of not needing validation, yet go out of their way to criticize, mock, or tear down others? These people do in fact need validation, and destroying/dominating those who annoy them is one way they get it.

Do they make a big deal out of being highly sensitive, but are never moved to acts of compassion by other people's suffering and/or never put any real effort into supporting or building up others? People like this are usually "sensitive" because they have highly fragile egos, not because they have high amounts of empathy.

Do they make a big point of telling others how they don't care what other people think? Normal people who don't care don't make an announcements of it; they just get on with their lives. Those who feel the need to make a spectacle out of their alleged apathy are usually drama-seekers and/or feel affronted enough by people not liking them that they have to strike back by declaring apathy.

Do they try to play people off each other and tear rifts between them? Do they negatively compare people to others? (EG, "It's too bad you don't work as hard as your Bill!", "I saw Charlotte in the same sweater, and I have to say it suited her better," or "Ashley just isn't as good at this as you are.") Do they say things that could drive a wedge between people? (EG, "Sally told me that you're always selfish and cold," or "Dennis has been telling me he's getting bored with you," or "I'd stay away from Chris if I were you. They're a total backstabber.") Do they try to make people compete for their attention (or at least feel like they have to compete for their attention) by making a big deal or show over how busy or involved they are with someone or something else? Do they claim that someone is attacking or bullying them, then try to get others to go after this person? These behaviors are known as triangulation, and they can be a devastating tactic if people don't catch on to what's happening.

Do they often attempt to one-up others, or try to minimize their experiences or accomplishments? When other people mention bad experiences, do they have to talk about how they experienced something so much worse, or do they have to try and explain why what these other people experienced wasn't really that bad? When other people mention doing something good, do they have to mention doing something bigger and better, or do they have to explain why others' accomplishments weren't really so great after all?

Do they otherwise have to make anything and everything into a competition? Do they have to make massive competitions out of trivial topics, such as which brand or franchise is better than another, and then spend ages trying to prove that their preferences are superior? Do they get inappropriately competitive - EG, do they try to get competitive or pick rivalries with strangers, people several years younger than themselves (especially if the younger ones are children or teens), people they're supposed to be teaching, or people who have no interest in competing at all?

Can they never just agree to disagree? Obviously, there are some things you can never just "agree to disagree" on, like whether trans people deserve rights, whether systemic racism is real, and whether the Holocaust happened. Obviously the answer to all of those is "yes," and these things should never be up for debate. But abusive, manipulative people might act as if you're defective, evil, or unintelligent if you don't accept their personal interpretation of a character's relationship, or if you prefer a different art style from the one they like, or something equally subjective and relatively trivial.

Do they act as if their way is the only way? Do they get snide, condescending, or angry when people think that something could or should be done differently from what they propose or endorse? Do they act personally insulted or get passive-aggressive when people don't want to take their advice at face value?

Do they shift from idealizing people to degrading and demonizing them? Do they talk about various celebrities or their own friends like they're the greatest people in the world, only to change gears and decide that they're the most horrible people in the world? Do they love and adore you one day, but then treat you like the spawn of Satan the next? Do they act friendly and warm when they want something from you, but turn cold and start insulting you when you refuse to give it to them?

Do they get angry with people and cut them off over relatively minor issues, or cut them off when they refuse to comply with their demands? Do they encourage you to do the same with your family and friends? Normal, well-adjusted people do not do this!

Are they petty and vindictive? Do they ever harass, stalk, or publicly shame people they don't like for any reason, or encourage others to act like this? Or do they talk approvingly about about others doing it? Are they offended easily and never really let anything go? Remember, if you associate with people like this, it's most likely only a matter of time before you end up on the receiving end of their vindictiveness.

Do they expect people to help them attack, slander, and otherwise hurt those they claim hurt them, and get upset when people refuse or state that they want to learn more about the situation first? Those who expect people to attack others with nothing more to go on than their word are bad news. There's a reason they don't want you to look at things too close and examine the evidence for yourself, and it's because they're afraid of what you'll find - or fail to find. What's more, they'll likely sic their other flying monkeys on you like this sooner or later.

Do they never see or consider things from other people's points of view? Does it seem like no matter how hard you try to make them understand where you're coming from, they just don't (or won't) get it? Do they always judge other people harshly without taking their personal circumstances and reasons into consideration?

Do they come to you for sympathy and support, yet turn apathetic (or even get angry) when you come to them for the same? That's not healthy. If that kind of thing is going on, something is definitely wrong.

Do they refuse to help themselves? For example, they expect you to help them through their hard times, but refuse to learn any self-help or self-care techniques. Or they ask you to help or take care of them while refusing to learn any skills that they could use to help or take care of themselves.

Do they try to make you feel like you're the only one who can help them or give them what they need? This is just manipulative baloney to try and weasel out of seeking help from other people or resources instead of mooching off of you all the time.

Do they get angry or upset when you get sad, angry, nervous, etc.? Do they seem to react badly to your emotional states, and rather than trying to understand and appreciate why you feel that way, treat you as if you're doing something wrong or inconsiderate?

Or do they just turn off/tune out when you're sad, angry, nervous, upset, etc.? Do they just show complete apathy and disinterest when you display negative emotions? Do they show no sign of concern or interest at all? Do they just brush you off and go back to whatever they were doing before?

Do they lavish you with compliments, affection, and gifts early on, and/or when you start spending less time with them or try to get away from them, but at no other time? If that's the case, then all these nice things they're doing (or did) don't equate to love; they just did it to get you under their control.

Do they always criticize and tell you what you're doing wrong, but never praise or thank you when you do something right? Stay away from people like this; they'll slowly wear down your sense of worth and make you feel like you're only noticed when you mess up.

Do they avoid taking responsibility whenever they can? Pay attention - is trying to get apologies from them like extracting teeth from a bear? Do they constantly make excuses for their bad behaviors while never actually doing anything to minimize their bad behaviors? Do they act as if buying you gifts or giving you physical intimacy means that a verbal apology is unnecessary? Do they put on big, dramatic shows of being emotionally hurt when you try to talk about something that's a legitimate problem between you? Do they act as if you're somehow mean or selfish for wanting to discuss and resolve problems between you? Do they act as if they're being victimized or bullied when asked to apologize and take responsibility for their wrongdoings? Do they constantly try to shift the blame and twist things around so it's someone else's fault somehow? Do they constantly beg for extra chances instead of simply apologizing and offering to do better?

Are their apologies shallow? Do they say "I'm sorry you feel that way" when they've said or done something that deeply hurts your feelings? (If they're apologizing for your emotions, then they aren't actually sorry for what they did!) Or are many of their apologize extremely short and blunt, and they promptly expect you to just get over your feelings right then and there?

Do they have friends or significant others who will apologize and make excuses for them, but rarely (if ever) actually apologize themselves? And do these people tell you how "it's complicated" and how "they just get like that, I'm really sorry" or the like? Yeah, that's your cue to back away.

Do conversations/arguments with them get weird, way off-track, or just go around in circles? Do they say things in an argument or conversation that are sort of relevant to the last thing said, but don't actually make sense in full context? Do they bring up things that are completely irrelevant to the issue you're trying to address? Do you find yourself repeating the same points over and over to them? Do they ask questions that you already answered point-blank earlier?

Do they lie or contradict themselves a lot? Do they claim they want one thing, then five minutes later claim they were really after something else all along? Do they get up in your personal space and make suggestive comments, then insist that they were "just trying to be friendly" when you tell them to stop it? Do they insist that they never said or did things that happened just minutes ago or that everyone was around to witness?

Do they get evasive or hostile when asked perfectly reasonable or sociable questions? Do they snipe at you or question your motives when you ask questions like "how are you?" or "may I help you?" Do they act like asking them what they like or what they're interested in is some personal affront? Do they ask you for help with a project, but get hedgy when you start asking questions to help you better understand the project and what they're trying to do with it?

Is their behavior jarringly inconsistent from one moment to the next, especially when they want something? For example, someone who wants to manipulate you into something might begin by approaching you seductively and with apparent confidence. When that fails, this person might switch gears, perhaps going over to pouting, pleading, and even self-deprecation to try and elicit pity from you. Should that fail, this person might try to switch to an authoritarian position, taking on a firm tone of voice and telling you that you're disrespectful and rude. Here's the thing: you can usually put a label of some sort to all of these roles they play (some possible examples include Concerned Caretaker, Unappreciated Partner, Neglected Child, Self-Sacrificing Helper, Strong Leader, and Smoldering Lover), and you can watch as they rapidly switch from one to another in an effort to get the results they want.

Or do they switch from warm to cold when they don't get their way? For example, when they come to you for something, they act warm and loving. Their presence might even be larger than life, somehow - they're bombastic and dramatic, and it's all focused on putting out a display for you or showering you with attention and praise. But when you turn them down or make it clear that you aren't impressed, they turn cold. They might act as if they've been grievously insulted. They might complain that they tried to be nice. They might insult and degrade you. They might act like they've been somehow victimized and that you're unspeakably rude or callous.

Do they act like they're doing you huge favors by being minimally useful? Do they do a few minor favors for you, then act as if you owe them massive favors in return, or favors that make you uncomfortable in any way? Do they expect lavish praise and over-the-top expressions of gratitude? (It's reasonable to expect a simple thank you or a favor of similar effort and commitment at some point; it's not reasonable to expect more than that.)

Do they act as if they're the experts on other people's minds? Do they frequently act as if they know for absolute certain what other people's intentions and thoughts are, to the point where they act as if they know better than they do? Do they accuse others of thinking they're better than them, or thinking they're perfect or superior? Do they refuse to listen when others try to explain themselves? Do they frequently dismiss people as envious or prejudiced, despite these traits not actually being in evidence?

Do they consider your concerns and fears invalid, but consider their own super-valid? If you voice them, do they tell you that you're just being negative, paranoid, or that you're just looking for flaws? On the other hand, are you just supposed to accept that their own concerns and fears are completely justified, even when there's no real evidence yet?

Do they have double standards about respect? Do they demand that others respect them immediately, yet maintain that others must earn their own respect? Do they define other people respecting them as showing them as unquestioning compliance and deference, yet define respecting other people as treating them with basic courtesy or permitting them to speak up at all?

Do they hold others to higher standards than they hold themselves to? For example, do they read you the riot act if you show up late despite often being late themselves? Do they borrow your things without asking all the time, but lecture you if you do the same? Do they complain about people being rude and disrespectful, yet turn around and to the same thing that they did (or worse!) to others? Do they constantly expect people to "get over it and move on", but drag things out or hold onto things forever themselves? If others treat them the way they treat others, do they complain of being abused, bullied, or disrespected?

In their eyes, do they always have reasons while you only have excuses? Pay attention - are they always coming up with some reason or other why they can't really be held at fault for what they did, but are constantly telling you that your own circumstances and reasons don't count? If that's the case, something is definitely amiss.

Also, take a look at:

The Voice of Reason vs. the Control Freak - The Difference
How To Recognize Gaslighting
How To Recognize A Moral Abuser
How To Recognize Bad Creative Mentors
Signs You're In A Toxic RP Community

How To Cultivate A Strong Internal Identity
Ways To Deal With Negative Emotions
7 Ways To Make Yourself A Happier Person
5 More Ways To Make Yourself A Happier Person

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