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How Stoicism Can Save You from Emotional Manipulation



We often think about Stoicism as a way to handle our own emotions. But it’s also an excellent framework for helping you to avoid being used or emotionally manipulated by others. I’ve been talking a lot lately about caring for other people, so I want to make it clear that caring for others does not equate to being a doormat! Our goal as Stoics is to care wisely for others, and that means knowing when it’s appropriate to say no. Sure, we care for other people, but there is no reason we should allow malefactors to take advantage of us. Stoicism helps us find the right balance between being patient and understanding but also standing up for ourselves when necessary.


First of all, it’s important to remember that being Stoic does not mean silently suffering whatever other people do to you. That’s not actually Stoic at all. Stoicism is about accepting things you can’t change but taking action when you can change things. So, for example, we can’t change the nature of the universe, or that fact that pain, hardship, death, and annoying people exist in the world. But when facing any one of those dispreferred indifferents, we can try to mitigate them through our own strategic action.

Let’s take the very clear example of physical pain. Just because pain is sometimes inevitable doesn’t mean we should, say, reject the anesthetic when we have an operation. If it’s possible to avoid pain without causing harm to anyone—which it clearly is in the case of an operation with anesthesia—then we should do so. After all, each one of us is a person worthy of care and respect. We respect and take care of ourselves just like we respect and take care of people we love.


On the other hand, if it’s not possible to get rid of our pain, then we would need to bear it with as much courage and dignity as we can. Or if getting rid of our pain would cause greater harm to others—say there’s a shortage of anesthetic and your operation would use it all up—then it might be appropriate to choose pain for yourself to help others. This is where wisdom comes in: selecting amongst indifferents to preserve your good character. You might choose to heroically sacrifice yourself in order to save others. But barring these unusual circumstances, in general you would bear pain courageously when necessary but avoid it when possible.


Dispreferred Indifferent: Dealing with Manipulators


Our interactions with other people run along the same lines. Sometimes it’s necessary to bear with unpleasant or malicious people, but that doesn’t mean we choose to do so unnecessarily. If we are in a position to influence their behavior, or if we have the authority to prevent their unpleasant or malicious actions, we should certainly do so. When this is not possible, it may be wiser to limit their presence in our lives through separation or clear boundaries. Only if none of these options are feasible should we choose to simply put up with their bad behavior.


There are many types of bad behavior—meddling, ungrateful, violent, treacherous, envious, and unsociable, to quote Marcus Aurelius—but one that I find particularly insidious is emotional manipulation. Liars and thieves take advantage of the trusting and unsuspicious nature of most people, but unscrupulous manipulators actually take advantage of the natural human desire to help others.


Most people in the world are nice and just want to get along and be a good person. Most of the time, when we’re dealing with other decent people, this works out well. You help other people, and they help you. But manipulators take advantage of these natural social instincts and use them for their own selfish purposes. That’s why manipulators typically prey on nice people: they turn their victim’s sense of helpfulness against them, making the victim feel like a bad person if he or she doesn’t “rescue” the manipulator.


Manipulators get away with their frequent emotional manipulation because they don’t have much in the way of a conscience. This could be due either to emotional immaturity, or to narcissism, or to some other personality disorder. (I’m not a psychologist or psychiatrist, so these are just my personal observations, not official diagnoses.) In the case of emotional immaturity, the manipulator simply hasn’t learned to think about other people. Other people’s thoughts and feelings don’t exist for her, so she isn’t much bothered about them. In the case of narcissism, the manipulator believes he is superior to other people and therefore has special privileges; in his mind, the rules of normal behavior don’t apply to him. In either case, the manipulator is able to operate guilt-free, which significantly reduces any psychological cost of hurting other people.


Whatever the underlying cause, the end result is that the manipulator has no qualms about using other people for his own benefit. Interestingly, this unjustified confidence in his own superiority often lends the manipulator enough charisma to actually get people to do what he wants. He believes in himself 100%, which makes him very persuasive.


Some manipulators use obvious coercive tactics, but more often the coercion is so subtle that victims don’t recognize it for what it is. There might be emotional pleas (“if you loved me you would do this for me!”), claims of victimization (“everyone is against me!”), and various accusations (“only a [insert nasty epithet here] would let me down like this!”). All of these claims are designed to play on the helpful nature of the manipulator’s target. Since the manipulator usually targets really nice people, it’s pretty easy to make the target feel guilty. The target caves in and does what the manipulator wants. And since the manipulator feels no guilt herself, she is free to make the target feel as guilty as possible and take full advantage of the target’s desire to help.


A Stoic Response to Manipulators

We’ve established that we should not allow ourselves to be taken advantage of, and we’ve set the scene for how emotional manipulation happens. Now let’s talk about how Stoicism can help you avoid becoming a victim, or even a potential target, of manipulation.

1. Recognize emotional manipulators.

We all manipulate others in some ways: we coax, cajole, nag, plead, persuade, or otherwise try to influence people all the time. This is a normal part of social life. But what sets inveterate manipulators apart is their weaponization of guilt. They rely on guilt to get others to do things for them, while refusing to feel guilty about anything themselves. It’s this “guilt imbalance” that enables them to play other people to their own advantage.


If you are in a relationship with someone—whether a romantic partner, family member, friend, or colleague—who seeks to make you feel guilty but never admits guilt themselves, then you could be in the presence of an emotional manipulator. Think carefully about this person’s track record. Are they 100% convinced all their actions and opinions are right? Do they try to make you feel bad about yourself if you disagree with them? Do they attempt to control your thoughts and behavior? Or do they do these things to other people? These are all signs of emotional manipulation.

2. Define standards for good and bad behavior.

Manipulators—whether through emotional immaturity, narcissism, or some other moral defect—take their own behavior as the universal standard. They do not hold themselves accountable to any moral system other than their own. Stoicism can really help us here by defining standards for good and bad behavior.

On this point Epictetus is very instructive when he explains that everyone in the world is born with a sense of right and wrong. But people disagree about what is right and wrong in practice, which means they apply their natural preconceptions of “right” and “wrong” differently. Given that there are all these conflicting opinions out there, how do we know who’s right?


Do you have anything to show us, then, over and above your personal opinion, that would enable you to make a better application of your preconceptions? But does a madman do anything other than what seems good to him? And would that be a sufficient criteria for him, too? (Epictetus, Discourses, 2.12)


Without developing a standard for our judgments, we are all just “madmen,” doing whatever strikes us as best at the moment. In that case, we have no way of determining that we are more right than other people—that we apply our preconceptions of right and wrong better than they do. There is no standard, and there is no way of sorting between all those conflicting opinions out there. That’s why it’s imperative, Epictetus says, to find some sort of standard for right and wrong:


Look now, this is the starting point of philosophy: the recognition that different people have conflicting opinions, the rejection of mere opinion so that it comes to be viewed with mistrust, an investigation of opinion to determine whether it is rightly held, and the discovery of a standard of judgment, comparable to the balance that we have devised for the determining of weights, or the carpenter's rule for determining whether things are straight or crooked...

For that is something, I think, which, when found, will rescue from madness those who use opinion as their sole measure for everything, so that from that time onward, setting out from known and clearly defined principles, we can judge particular cases through the application of systematically examined preconceptions. Epictetus, Discourses, 2.13, 18)


When I first encountered Stoicism, this idea of an objective standard for behavior was a revelation to me. Manipulators take their own opinions—gut instincts, habits, desires—as laws that everyone should follow. The philosophical principle of rejecting mere opinion allowed me to start challenging that on theoretical grounds. Once I started demanding a cogent explanation of behavior, first in my own mind and then directly from the manipulator, I saw clearly—for the first time—what was going on. I realized the manipulator had no basis whatsoever for believing they were right and others were wrong, and therefore I was under no obligation to do what they wanted.


The same is true whenever you encounter someone who believes 100% that they are right and others are wrong. Ask yourself what basis that person has for believing she is “good” and everyone who disagrees with her is “bad.” This crude, dichotomous thinking is rampant in our society today. By developing definite standards for good and bad behavior, you can start to filter out all those people who have no qualms about using the guilt imbalance for their own purposes (remember: guilt imbalance = making other people feel guilty while feeling no guilt themselves).

3. Refuse to feel guilty.

Once you’ve complete Step 2 and developed an objective standard for appropriate behavior, Step 3 becomes much easier. Remember, emotional manipulators rely primarily on guilt for their effectiveness. If you stop allowing yourself to feel guilty about not doing what the manipulator wants, they have lost their power over you.

If you are the sort of person who is used to being agreeable and helpful, this could be very hard for you. The manipulator will not let you go easily. They will try every emotional trick in the book to keep you under their control.

The key is to stick to your convictions. This must be a rational process, not an emotional one. If you allow it to become an emotional battleground, the manipulator will win, because remember: she feels no guilt and is an expert at manipulating your emotions. The realm of emotions is her preferred battleground, where she is comfortable and strong. Removing the emotional element gives her no ground to stand on. Once you move the discussion to the realm of rational explanation and objective reasoning, she has no weapons. She will consistently try to re-ignite the emotional manipulation and bring things back to an emotional level.*


Manipulators don’t recognize or understand standards outside themselves, because they use only their own opinion as a guide. So you may find it unproductive to try to reason with the manipulator about objective standards. Stay confident. You have the weight of Stoic philosophy behind you, which has been tested and practiced for over 2,000 years. This is not merely you vs. the manipulator; it’s you, Epictetus, Marcus Aurelius, Zeno, et al. against the manipulator. Whenever you start to waver or think you’re not right, go back to these sources and see what they say. You are not seeking to put yourself above the manipulator—you are seeking to put an objective standard above both you and the manipulator.

4. Maintain your own integrity.

As Stoics, our goal is always to act with personal integrity and virtue in every situation, no matter how unpleasant that situation might be. What the manipulator does has no impact on your character. But what you do has a huge impact on your character. Therefore don’t allow yourself to be drawn in to the manipulator’s way of doing things. You can’t fight fire with fire. Fight the manipulator’s fiery machinations with the inner strength that comes from knowing you are doing what is right.

5. Accept that you may not be able to change the manipulator.

Many of us feel responsible for helping other people to see the right way to do things. And of course, if this is possible, then you certainly should do it. If the other person seems amenable to learning about your reasons, or to growing or changing as a person, then you might be able to sit down and have a peaceful, productive conversation.

However, many manipulators don’t think there’s anything wrong with them, so they don’t think they need to change. In that case, there’s not a whole lot you can do. As Marcus Aurelius says:

If he goes wrong, instruct him in a kindly manner, show him what he failed to see, but if you are unable to, blame only yourself, or not even yourself. (Meditations, 10.4)

Make a good faith effort to show him the error of his ways, without rancor or malice. As difficult as it is, try to be a role model to the other person. Show him how a good person handles things. Perhaps in some way this will begin to shine a light into his self-centeredness.

More likely, though, you will have learn how to live with him as he is. If you are truly stuck with this person—you can’t separate yourself at all—set clear boundaries and do not cave in to the person’s demands. Once you are aware of the manipulative nature of this person’s behavior, do not enable it. As the old saying goes, “Fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, shame on me.” Enforcing these boundaries will be part of your virtuous behavior going forward.

Concluding Thoughts

I hope it’s clear that being a Stoic does not mean we ignore the bad faith or inappropriate behavior of people around us. If we can do something to stop it, we should do something. If we can’t change the situation or influence the manipulator for the better, then we may have to accept things and find a way to deal with it. But no matter what, we show respect to ourselves and the other person, and we handle the situation with dignity and virtue.

*Technically, the Stoics do not see a separation of reason and emotion. So here I’m describing emotions and reason as separate because this is the way the manipulator sees things.