Emotional manipulation, or “negging,” can be so subtle at first that you don’t see it for what it is. After all, everyone says something they wish they hadn’t on occasion.

But negging isn’t a mistake or a slip of the tongue. It keeps happening. And slow escalation can desensitize you to its effects.

You might think that because it’s not physical, it’s not abuse. And doesn’t that person do nice things, too? You may wonder if you’re being overly sensitive or believe you have no recourse.

Make no mistake about it. That’s part of the manipulation.

Over time, negging can damage your self-esteem and change the way you live. It can also spiral into severe emotional or physical abuse.

It can happen to anyone. It might come from a parent, boss, co-worker, friend, spouse, or significant other.

No matter who you are or who’s doing the negging, it’s not your fault and you don’t have to accept it.

Continue reading for examples of negging and what you can do about it.

They get you feeling pretty good — then they knock you down. It’s a tried-and-true method of keeping you on unsteady ground.

It’s particularly effective when there are witnesses, so you’re more likely to grin and bear it.

For example:

  • “Well, don’t you look fabulous? I would never have the courage to wear my hair like that.”
  • “I’m so proud of you for quitting smoking! Too bad you already have all those little lines on your face.”
  • “Congratulations for winning the ice dancing competition! Maybe some day you’ll give a real sport a try.”

It’s a comparison in which you never come out on top.

Whether the statement is true or not, it’s an obvious ploy to highlight your shortcomings and make you feel “less than.”

For example:

  • “Great improvement on your report card. Maybe next semester you’ll do as well as your brother.”
  • “Your old college roommate runs a successful company now, so why can’t you make something of yourself?”
  • “Your sister is in such great shape. You should take a cue from her and start working out.”

There’s actually nothing constructive about their criticism. It’s intended to hurt, not help. There’s no mistaking it when you hear it.

For example:

  • “That report was terrible, but the subject is completely over your head.”
  • “Not to rain on your parade or anything, but I thought you should know that outfit makes you look dumpy.”
  • “I know you put a lot into writing that song, but it grates on my nerves.”

You’ve got some great news, but they’ve got something to top it.

Timing is everything in this scenario, and the point is to knock the wind out of your sails and keep attention on them.

For example:

  • You’ve just announced that you’re engaged, so they choose this time to announce their pregnancy and show off the baby bump.
  • You’ve mentioned that you have a terrible head cold. They respond by telling you about the time they were hospitalized and almost died of pneumonia, so you shouldn’t be such a whiner.
  • You’re talking about the 5-mile hike you just took, so they launch into a long story about that time they backpacked through Europe for a month.

A carefully worded question can easily serve as an insult. If you bristle at all, you’re told it’s just an “innocent” question and you’re making something out of nothing.

For example:

  • “I’m surprised you did so well on that report. Who helped you with it?”
  • “You really don’t care what other people think, do you?”
  • “Don’t take this wrong, but are you really going to eat all that?”

“Joking” is the ultimate excuse when you try to push back. It can’t be their fault that you can’t laugh at yourself, right?

Here are some things they might say to belittle you:

  • “Lighten up!”
  • “I was just teasing.”
  • “You’re too sensitive.”
  • “You know I didn’t mean it.”
  • “Where’s your sense of humor?”
  • “Wow, I can’t say anything without you taking it the wrong way.”

Sometimes, you just can’t let it slide. You want to talk about how negging makes you feel.

They’ll try to make you regret it by:

  • denying your accusations
  • minimizing their mistreatment
  • tuning you out
  • dredging up your faults, real or imagined, to show that you’re the problem
  • disregarding your opinions as uninformed, unintelligent, or juvenile
  • yelling, screaming, or swearing
  • throwing things, hitting the wall, or getting in your face

This classic ruse is used to completely turn the tables and make you the instigator.

For example:

  • That ugly tirade? It’s your fault for getting them upset in the first place.
  • They had to get physical because you wouldn’t stop pushing their buttons.
  • If you only showed a little respect, they wouldn’t have to call you names.
  • They wouldn’t have to be jealous or keep checking on you if you didn’t have a wandering eye.
  • They ask you why you’re always picking on everything they say and do.
  • They complain that you’re too needy.
  • They keep talking about how much they love you and all the good things they do for you that you don’t appreciate.

We all say bad things once in a while and accidentally hurt people we care about. But we recognize our errors, apologize, and try not to do it again.

But emotional abuse isn’t an accident. It’s a regular occurrence, and the perpetrator typically doesn’t attempt to change or improve their behavior.

You may be experiencing emotional abuse if any of the following applies to you:

  • You’re frequently experiencing some of the behaviors listed above and it’s starting to feel all too familiar.
  • You often feel humiliated and disrespected.
  • You’re changing your behavior to please the other person.
  • Your relationship is defined by the other person.
  • Everything seems fine. Then there’s a blow up for reasons you don’t understand.
  • The other person shows little or no remorse for their behavior.

Everyone’s situation is different, so there’s no one solution.

You may find it helpful to consider the following and move forward with what feels appropriate for your situation:

  • Don’t get dragged down to their level by insulting them back.
  • Don’t engage in pointless arguments.
  • Do express your feelings. How they respond will tell you a lot.
  • If they offer a sincere apology, accept it. Even so, don’t let them off the hook by saying something like, “Don’t worry about it.”
  • Make it clear that this behavior is unacceptable and demand change.
  • Decide if the relationship is worth continuing.

Here are some of the signs of escalation:

  • You’re becoming isolated from family and friends.
  • Emotional abuse is now happening in front of other people.
  • Your things have been destroyed or taken.
  • They’re keeping tabs on your activities or following you.
  • You’re being pressured to do things you don’t want to do.

If you’re experiencing one or more of the above, your situation may be more dangerous than you realize.

The following may help you acknowledge and address your circumstances:

  • Start keeping a written record of what’s happening.
  • If you’re isolated, break the cycle. Reach out to people you trust, such as friends, family, teachers, guidance counselors, or clergy.
  • If you don’t feel that you can deal with this on your own, consider seeing a therapist who can help you figure out what to do.
  • Join a support group.
  • Have a plan in place in case you have to leave in a hurry.
  • End the relationship, if that’s possible.

Verbal and emotional abuse can escalate to physical abuse. When someone corners you or holds you so tightly that you can’t break the hold, it’s physical. They’re sending a clear, threatening message.

If you ever feel that you’re in immediate danger, call 911 or your local emergency services.

If you aren’t in immediate danger and you need to talk or find someplace to go, contact the National Domestic Abuse Hotline (800-799-7233).

This 24/7 hotline can put you in touch with service providers and shelters across the United States.

Long-term effects of remaining in a verbally or emotionally abusive relationship can include anxiety, depression, and chronic pain. You don’t deserve that.

If you find yourself on the receiving end of negging, know that it’s not your fault. And it’s not your responsibility to “fix” the other person. That’s entirely on them.