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Reclaim Peace: Healthy Responses To Toxic Behaviors & Manipulative People 

Shannon Kaiser
May 1, 2023
Shannon Kaiser
By Shannon Kaiser
mbg Contributor
Shannon Kaiser is the best-selling author of 5 books on the psychology of happiness and fulfillment including The Self-Love Experiment, Adventures for Your Soul, and Joy Seeker. She has a B.A. in Journalism and Communications from the University of Oregon.
Tense Couple Eating Breakfast Together
Image by iStock
May 1, 2023

Whether you're a people pleaser, sensitive soul, empath, or just a big-hearted person, you probably care a lot about your connections with those you care about—but not everyone has your best interest at heart, and empaths are often susceptible to being used by others.

If you find yourself feeling resentful in connections because you're often the one giving more of your time, money, or energy, or they leave you feeling drained or unheard, you could be involved with a manipulative and toxic person.

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After overcoming and healing from decades of emotionally and psychologically abusive relationships, I sought out answers through therapy, inner child healing work with shamans, daily meditation, and journaling. As a trauma-informed empowerment coach and author of several books on the psychology of happiness, I now make it a priority to support people through their own healing journey by identifying the toxic behaviors of people in their life and finding powerful ways to reclaim their personal autonomy.

Here are common patterns of abusive people and what they sound like, plus how to respond in a healthy manner: 



Gaslighting is a form of psychological and emotional abuse in which a person causes someone else to question their own sanity, memories, or perception of reality. It is a method of gaining control over someone else.

It works by breaking down a person's trust in themselves while increasing how much they trust or depend on the abusive or controlling person.

Gaslighting sounds like: 

  • "You are wrong; you never remember things correctly."
  • "You are imagining things. That never happened."
  • "Stop overreacting."
  • "You are too sensitive."
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Healthy response:

  • "I'm not debating with you what I know I experienced. My feelings are valid."
  • "I know what is real; this is my truth."
  • "You are entitled to your distorted opinion of me, but I know who I am and what is real." 

Blame-shifting (aka deflecting)

Blame-shifting, or "deflection," is a tactic used by manipulative people to remove any attention and relevant discussion from themselves and place it on the other.

It's used to make you doubt whether your feelings are valid and blames you for causing a problem, freeing the blame-shifter of self-responsibility and helping them maintain the control they want.

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Deflecting sounds like:

  • "I can't win with you; nothing is ever good enough."
  • "Well, if you're so unhappy, why don't you just leave?"
  • "Because you're never satisfied with anything I do, I don't see the point of trying."
  • "If you were a good child, I wouldn't have to punish you."

Healthy response:

  • "Your effort to blame me for the same concerns I am sharing with you about your behavior is manipulative. I am not playing this game with you, and I refuse to be disrespected."
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Triangulation is when a toxic or manipulative person brings a third person into their relationship in order to remain in control. The goal is to divide and conquer or play people against each other.

There will be limited or no communication between the two triangulated individuals except through the manipulator. 

Triangulation sounds like:

  • "You are so much more difficult than your brother. He is so easy to get along with and never gets in trouble." 
  • "My ex is still reaching out and would have no problem doing what you don't want to do. Honestly, I'm not sure why we broke up anymore."
  • "Your cousin told me she was so mad at you and thought you were being selfish." 
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Healthy response:

  • "I don't like being put in the middle and would rather not hear about this."
  • "I think having a direct conversation with them would be best. Please leave me out of it."

Playing the victim

The victim role is a way to shift the blame onto others. By portraying themselves as innocent and helpless, toxic people, narcissists, and manipulators are able to garner sympathy and support from others while deflecting responsibility for their own actions.

Playing the victim looks like:

  • There is always something wrong in their life. When you bring up something about you, looking for support, it always comes back to their issues, pain, or dilemmas.
  • They are always complaining about their situations and the bad luck they have.
  • They may argue that their suffering gives them the right to act in ways that are unacceptable to others or that they should be given preferential treatment because of their supposed victimhood.

Healthy response:

  • "Our relationship is important to me, but it's not helpful to keep feeling sorry for yourself. I can only listen for a few minutes unless you're ready to discuss solutions."
  • "You know, in all the situations you've told me, the common denominator is you. I personally like to see what my role in the situation is so I can make positive change. Maybe you want to try it."

Crocodile tears

Crocodile tears can be used for superficial sympathy, and/or a false, insincere display of emotion. They are tears that are fake or are meant to deceive.

You can tell when they are crocodile tears because it feels like a show or an act—the tears are disingenuous and often come on very quickly and end even faster. 

Crocodile tears could look like:

  • Sharing personal or sad information on a first date (or early in a connection) and crying to seek a response and quick empathy from you. 
  • Overly exaggerating the situation with quick outbursts of tears

Healthy response:

  • "There is a time to express your feelings, but your attempt to feign emotion after hurting me is dismissive, dishonest, and inappropriate."
  • "I don't appreciate insincere attempts to manipulate my emotions. Please stop trying to deflect and deceive me."

How to protect your peace

Prioritize your own peace by realizing your worth and knowing that you deserve better with these steps.

  1. Start to realize that not everyone has your best interests at heart. Some connections may act as if they value you but really only value how you make them feel or what you do for them.
  2. Clarify anything you are told before acting on it.
  3. Stay in touch with loved and trusted people in your life and tell them about any problems or issues that arise.
  4. Maintain a healthy balance and put up boundaries between family, friends, or work connections that employ these tactics.
  5. Remove yourself from a conversation if you sense it turning into an unhealthy or dysfunctional one.
  6. Walk away from any connection that tries to pit you against another person. 
  7. Educate yourself. Free yourself from toxic connections by diving into your own life and focusing on your health and happiness.
  8. Create a support team, join healing groups, work with a trauma-informed life coach and/or therapist, read books on healing and personal development, etc. 
  9. Prioritize self-love and self-care.
  10. Raise your standards for how people treat you and be more decerning about who has access to your energy, time, and money. 
  11. Set clear boundaries.
  12. Limit contact, step away, or move away if you need to and are able to.
  13. Go no contact. 
  14. Practice self-respect with self-care and self-love.

The takeaway

We cannot control the way others treat us, but we can control how we respond and move forward. By knowing how to spot (and respond to) manipulative behavior, you'll be better equipped to protect your own peace and guard yourself against toxic people who do not have your best interests at heart.

Shannon Kaiser author page.
Shannon Kaiser

Shannon Kaiser is the best-selling author of 5 books on the psychology of happiness and fulfillment including The Self-Love Experiment and Adventures for Your Soul, Joy Seeker, and Unshakable Inner Peace Oracle card deck, and the forthcoming book Return to You. She has a B.A. in journalism and communications from the University of Oregon. As an international life coach, speaker, and retreat leader, she helps people awaken and align with their true selves so they can live their highest potential.

She's been named top 100 Women to Watch in wellness by mindbodygreen, alongside Cameron Diaz, Gwyneth Paltrow, Kris Carr and Gabriel Bernstein, and was listed as of the freshest voices in mental health and wellness by Chicken Soup for The Women's Soul. She's been named one of Entrepreneurs Must-Follow Instagram Accounts for Inspiration and Top Facebook Accounts for Daily Motivation by Mind Body Green.

Her website has been names top 75 Personal development websites and top 100 self-help websites by the institute for the Psychology of Eating. She's an international life coach and author mentor, and a full time world traveler with a home base in Portland, Oregon with her best friend, her Golden Retriever Chance, who she flew to China to Rescue.