You know how in the third act of Mean Girls, Cady Heron becomes her own monster? After months of doing things like failing math on purpose to get Aaron Samuels to be her study buddy, Janis Ian has to send her a reality check. “See, at least me and Regina George know we’re mean,” she says. “You try to act like you’re so innocent, like, ‘Oh, I used to live in Africa with all the little birdies and the little monkeys.'” It’s not one of the movie’s classic quotes, per se, but it does bring to light an interesting concept. While some people are full-on seducer narcissists, exhibiting behavior that’s Regina George–level manipulative, others are more like Cady: unintentionally or at least unknowingly manipulative. Until somebody pulls a Janis Ian and brings the whole thing to light. The whole line of thought is enough to make me wonder: Am I manipulative? Am I a mean girl? Am I a bitch?
First, let’s acknowledge what manipulation actually is first. One study on non-Machiavellian manipulation suggests that in order for manipulation to occur, there needs to be a combination of intent and recklessness. The subtle aim of getting the other person to do what you want is the intent, and the recklessness is in the way in which you go about reaching that goal. This recklessness doesn’t have to be something conscious or dramatic or even negative; it could be as simple as “treating” your co-worker to a coffee when you ask them to cover your shift on Thursday. Still not clear on whether you might be unintentionally manipulative? Check out three signs below.
3 signs the answer to “am I manipulative unintentionally?” is likely a yes.
1. You have distinct patterns in your language
“Often when we think someone is unintentionally manipulating, we can see a pattern,” says psychotherapist Jennifer Silvershein, LCSW. “For example, if every time someone gets sick, ‘it’s the worst sickness,’ or when they have a bad meeting with their boss, ‘it’s the absolute worst meeting and the world is ending.’” If this describes you, there’s likely an intensity in how you tend to recap events and situations, and it comes in a highly self-contained, fatalist tone.
If you tend to just skew negative in vibe, that’s not the same thing. However, if you play up every trial and tribulation to be the end of the world and expect others to respond to you, that’s a pattern in language, and, my friend, it might point to you being manipulative.
2. You find yourself embellishing or twisting the facts of a situation
“Unintentional manipulation can show up in exaggerating the facts,” Silvershein says. “If someone had an early-morning flight that takes off at 8 a.m., they may say their flight is at 6 a.m. since they technically have to leave for the airport at 6 a.m. They know that this story is better and will gain more empathy.”
3. You lean on slivers of deception to get what you want
The core of manipulation is concept of twisting your language and behavior as a means of satiating a desire to gain a specific result. Maybe you have people-pleaser tendencies and are quick to accept favors or give gifts or tell tiny lies so someone will be indebted to you.
“Unintentional manipulation traditionally meets a need or benefits the individual in some way,” says Silvershein. Her litmus test for gauging your level of of unintentional manipulation? “I would encourage individuals to reflect and see how truthful they’re getting as well as what benefits they’re getting from exaggeration, leaving out key facts, and so on.”
Now that you’re hopefully clearer on the answer to “am I manipulative even if unintentionally?” check out other personality-type zingers: This is the big difference between being introverted and being rude. And you can reel in your perfectionist tendencies by asking yourself four simple questions.