(Mind) Games People Play

Every game is a mind game, isn’t it? Don’t we play mind games as children, during courtship, and even in marriage?

Some of us love games – puzzles, cards, sports that rely on physical prowess as well as strategy and teamwork. We play for fun. We play for thrills. We play because we enjoy competition. Games ignite creativity, encourage problem-solving, inspire ideas and polish interpersonal skills.

Some of us especially love the games and challenges we set out for ourselves – in which we strive to beat a personal best.

Short of a true “game of chance” – can we agree that every game is a mind game to some degree?

Mind Games

What about mind games with the intent to damage? Mind games that take manipulation too far? Or mind games that callously disregard the consequences to others?

Are some of us more likely to maneuver ourselves into these situations? Are we too trusting? Too naive? Are we repeating self-sabotaging behaviors unconsciously, the result of childhood patterns? Are we simply on the receiving end of someone highly skilled at reading our vulnerabilities?

Are some of us perpetrators of the mind game because we find it “fun” to stick it to another person?

On the subject of mind games, deception, and specifically, social manipulation, Psychology Today addresses this topic. It’s a fascinating article by FBI veteran and author Joe Navarro, who offers this:

Sometimes there are relationships…  where we are repeatedly taken advantage of and made to feel as if we are merely puppets – controlled and manipulated… [T]hese toxic relationships… involve a very devious, insufferable or calculating type of individual. There are individuals who leave you bewildered in their unbridled disregard for the rights and dignity of others. Individuals who are so brazen, indifferent, or cruel, or who are simply financially or emotionally exploitive.

The article goes on to explore the Narcissist, the Predator, and the Emotionally Unstable manipulator. These are adversaries you don’t want to tangle with in games that will leave you hurt, depleted, and even devastated.

Marital Mind Games… and More

We love our mind games when they don’t go too far. We love our master manipulators when they appear on the big screen. But when you live the mind games in a relationship, it’s a different story – and not a pleasant one.

You may find yourself in bed with a classic Narcissist. Who doesn’t recognize that our culture seems to be breeding them more and more?

You may find yourself engaged with a needy personality; what feels manageable in Year One may become intolerable by Year Three. Who wants the constant guilt trip, pulling at the heart strings, exploiting your sympathies and your insecurities?

When you live with a person who plays on your weaknesses (or creates them), who takes your trust and twists it (abusing the nature of your relationship), when you love a person who manipulates or you’re raised by a parent who can’t seem to interact in any other way, how do you see your way clear? How do you disengage from the toxicity?

Theoretically, you can divorce a spouse, though when children are involved it’s rare that you can escape the issues altogether. When the player is a mother or father, the words and acts of manipulation are intertwined with our earliest experience and the cruelest inner voices. We may spend years working to disentangle what is real from distortion.

Don’t Be a Victim

I’m not a psychologist or counselor of any sort. I do enjoy the exploration of human nature and behavior. A little manipulation? We all do it. Mind games? They can be useful. We like to win. We like to achieve. We learn the power of persuasion and its rewards, and we exert our influence without explicit intent to harm.

The challenge lies in not crossing the line, and recognizing when those we let into our lives are doing it.

Unfortunately, it’s not so simple to separate the Good Guys from the Bad Guys. There are no uniforms, no labels, no assumptions we can make based on looks or family or education. There’s only time, self-awareness, observation, and maybe a little luck. There is also fighting the isolation that manipulative personalities may cause – which is, of course, to their advantage.

Returning to Joe Navarro’s words in Psychology Todaywe must wrestle with tough questions when it comes to potentially toxic relationships:

The questions that need to be asked are very simple. No matter how hard you try, “Are they using their charms or behavior to control you or others for their own benefit? Are they manipulating you? Are they doing things that hurt you or put you at risk?… If the answer to these questions is yes, it is time to untangle yourself from the toxic strings that control you so you can get your life back. Take heed – you have no social obligation to be victimized – ever.


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  1. says

    You raise some very interesting questions and observations. It’s always entertaining to watch two master manipulators use mind games against each other in an attempt to win. But I agree wholeheartedly, no one should ever feel a social obligation to be victimized. Separating oneself from a toxic relationship is, sometimes, easier said than done.

    • BigLittleWolf says

      Thanks for reading and commenting, Lisa. You raise an interesting notion of master manipulators going up against each other. That leads me to think of competitors in business or politics of course, and leaves me wondering what could be accomplished when those energies (and talents?) are put to constructive use.

  2. says

    “when you love a person who manipulates or you’re raised by a parent who can’t seem to interact in any other way, how do you see your way clear? How do you disengage from the toxicity?” Oh my… it took me almost 50 years. I now have coffee with my mother every 3 weeks or so and limit my stay to half an hour. It is my way of being good to me/protecting myself AND alleviate some guilt feelings for doing so. Sometimes I think you can read my mind… powerful article :)

  3. says

    I have, sadly, a child who is a manipulator – to a degree it would probably be hard for you to imagine. Hence – we have angst – because I won’t allow it. I don’t engage. Anymore. My huband says I’m like Charlie Brown with her, when he trusts over and over that Lucy will hold the football where she says she will, but then always, inevitably, pulls it out and I land on my back. It’s true. We want to trust those we love. We want to believe they’ll change. But in her case – the manipulating is too strong. So, even when it’s family, we have no obligation to be victimized – hard as it is to turn your back.

  4. says

    “Are they using their charms or behavior to control you or others for their own benefit?”

    One can’t do business with abusive people; the trick is seeing the abuse for what it is. It can be hard enough to recognize a subtle operator abusing others; much more difficult to catch when it’s done to yourself. I spent many years trying to prove myself to a woman who didn’t, fundamentally, like me. I went along in order to be “improved.”

  5. Leslie in Portland, Oregon says

    Is there a way to interact with a pervasive manipulator without being victimized by her? I tried this for 25 years with my stepmother, until finally she exploded and threw me out of her life for my “defiance” of her. She swore that I’d “be sorry” and probably never could imagine what a relief it has been to me to be out of her life and for her to be out of mine.

    • BigLittleWolf says

      Relief. Good word for it, Leslie. Perhaps the only way not to be victimized is to do what you did directly or indirectly. Remove yourself.

  6. Curtis says

    Manipulation occurs all the time in our world, in different manners, in different overt or covertness, and by different people and for various purposes. The salesman will up use tecniques to try to manipulate you to buy, buy now or buy for more. The politician will manipulate for your vote and your five your old for some ice cream. Manipulation can be damaging especially when it causes, danger, damage or for many stress (especially in their personal lives). The manipulator may act intentionally or by their nature. Regardless the key is to be aware of the manipulation and handle it in a healthy manner. In essence, we know what the salesmen and politicians are selling us and can act accordingly. In business (especially from allies) and in personal relationships the manipulations can be more covert, subtle, the reasons obscure or unknown, and the effect more emotional. However like the salesman or politician, with those close to us, we need to identify the manipulation, set boundaries, and use strategies (including avidance) to deal with the manipulation. I always find calling people out on manipulation as an effective but volatile as a technique. Usually a comedic approach can be effective to diffude volatility or the aggreive power approach can cause the manipulator to be put on their heels.

    At the end of the day if there is manipulation in your personal life that causes you damage or danger, it needs to be addressed or avoided. Good luck

  7. Tracee says

    Thank you for your article! I have been researching (Googling) what is going on in my current relationship for months. . . Attempted to end it several times …I seem to always get sucked back in and have even become used to the cycle so much there is now almost fear of the awful relationship ending…which is nutz!! I feel that I know it is toxic…I feel the lack of balance and inner strength and rationality I used to have…I see and feel the downward spiral…the vicious cycle of manipulation and verbal abuse. ..but yet I am still in it. It is so much easier said than done to get out of and end this kind of relationship. It is like a drug or addiction something. All I know is I am surprised I ended up here…surprised by my commitment to the relationship still…but seeing myself working to gain the knowledge and strength to do what is best every time I find information like this that “clicks”. I saved the quotes from the Psychology Today article, read it daily to remind myself what is happening to me is real…no matter how innocent and evasive and victimized he plays. …. this is what is real. . .Thank you.

  8. Robert says

    In reference to Tracee’s post, I have a couple of suggestions. I have no formal mental health credentials, but I have spent many hours trying to gain insight into a similar sounding problem. If she has not yet considered the possibility of personality disorders, I would suggest doing so. A good general reference point for finding many of the behaviors which they may include is outofthefog.net. Although they list the same behaviors under every disorder, the list itself is a good descriptive, compact reference, and will help give clarity if she is not yet convinced of the severity of what she is dealing with.

    I would also suggest she look specifically into psychological abuse/manipulation, and Borderline personality disorder. There may be a schizophrenic component at work as well. These things can be incredibly complex and interwoven, but these are a couple of likely starting places if she hasn’t been able to narrow things down yet. Again, I am not a psychologist, but I did find the path I mention very informative and reassuring in terms of knowing that what I was dealing with was not a product of my imagination, or something for which I bore the primary responsibility.

  9. Tracee says

    Thank you Robert. I have definitely thought of personality disorders and manipulation. I appreciate the other links you mentioned. I think I realize it’s serious but just can’t seen to make it to the point of un involving myself…which is part of my struggle. I know I don’t deserve it. I think every time I am about to end it or think I have a grasp at whats going on he does something that sucks me back in or I start with self doubt. I wish I could just sit down with a therapist with him…they could tell him what he is doing is wrong and validate my pain and my “diagnosis” if you will. I just want someone to tell him there is a real problem stemming from him. Thank you!!!!

  10. Luna says

    I have found that you cannot win in the manipulator’s game. They will keep changing the rules. It is the same for people who are jealous of you. There is no pleasing any of them. They already have made up their mind they don’t like you. Get away if you can. If you can’t. Just be kind but don’t play their game. Just be aware and never available with your free time. Why waste precious time and good oxygen.

  11. Someguy says

    Sadly I was/am manipulator by nature, I know how to play people emotions, its really easy once you get the hang of it. People manipulate in order to achieve what they want or for perverted fun…believe me I was once there. I even manipulated my friends and even those who were close to me, I am ashamed what I did, I always wanted it to stop, but thank God I stopped. I always hated when I tried to manipulate those who had good heart, but I loved to manipulate those who deserved it…sometimes I used it for better,for everyone around. The only REAL way to stop being manipulated is not to get into the “game”, those who try to be manipulators fail miserably…when they try their “games” just don’t play them, they lose, finito. But problem is with those who are manipulators by nature, people born in the sign of cancer are natural manipulators alas I am cancer too…and I finally won against mine dark side. Defeating natural manipulators can be tricky, when you don’t play the game, they improvise…so its really hard to not get manipulated while interacting with them. So advice is to stick to your gut and if you find out person is manipulator by nature, don’t interact with them, don’t give them chance to do anything. Don’t believe them, the only way to find out natural manipulator is to devise a trap, make a situation that you KNOW he will try to manipulate, but many times they can see through this and play it on the good side, you have to be smart around them.

    • D. A. Wolf says

      Thank you for your comment, Someguy. When you see that your manipulation has caused damage, do you ever feel guilty? Do you stop or at least tone it down? What if the damage is to people who love you?

      Don’t play the game. Smart words. Unfortunately, if you share children with a manipulator, you are forced into dealing with him or her. Not playing the game, as you say, can be extremely difficult.

  12. Jorge H says

    Unfortunately we live under a manipulative system. The powerful manipulate the vulnerable. Be very, very careful when you share children with a master manipulator because once you are gone they’ll have no other choice than to manipulate they are own and this can lead to child abuse, physical, emotional and sexual. If you don’t want to accept the last one then you are being manipulative. Connect the dots people. Mankind unfortunately is filled with evil and evil prevents lives from living!

  13. terrytt says

    I have game players that want me to dump my friend.they go through other people to do their slave work.they even went through my boyfriend to have him say dump your friend..i am sick of hearing it..i want them out of my life..they do bad things to you.mess up your mail,kill your pets,plants anything because im not doing what they say.well I don’t have too..my friend is somebody that has been trying to help me to not deal with users,bums.sex addicts..i want them to move on.waste of time and burden on society..


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