What to Remember When You’re Feeling Overwhelmed

I tend to get overwhelmed easily. I hate this about myself—mostly because I feel in a constant state of inner conflict, wanting to be a part of every gathering, spend time with every friend, travel to every place in the world and accomplish more and more in my career—and at the same time knowing there is only so much I can handle.

There is only so much any of us can handle, but it seems sometimes like I get overwhelmed more readily than most. Too much light. Too much noise. Too many people. Weird smells. Too many notifications, too many emails and text messages—the beeping, the buzzing—all the unfinished items on my to-do list…



If you’re not easily overwhelmed, none of this bothers you all that much. You can stand lots of external stimulation and you can still stay pretty calm and centered within yourself. But if you’re like me, even a tiny bit “too much” of anything and you risk a total meltdown. Too much traffic on the highway, too much caffeine, even too much volume in someone’s voice when they are speaking to you.

You notice all the little subtleties and differences in “too much”. You notice things other people probably don’t notice.

Very often I find myself overwhelmed and wondering what to do about it.

Can you relate?

A Lesson In Staying Calm.

I’ve been taking this new yoga class and recently my instructor said something I thought was so profound. Despite the fact that I have always looked at yoga classes and thought, “oh that’s cute… they’re stretching…” I am now eating my words. Yoga is so much harder than what I was expecting.

Often in class I feel overwhelmed.

I feel overwhelmed with what is being asked of me and my body; I feel overwhelmed with the thoughts that are going through my head (“you suck at this,” “you’re an idiot,” “everyone is staring at you,” “you’re so weak!”); and I feel overwhelmed by the fact that everyone else seems to be able to do the postures with ease, while I’m wobbling all over the place, limbs flailing in the air, like an idiot.

My response in the moment is usually to, first, push myself to the point of injury to save face in front of the others who are stronger and more flexible than me. Second, to get angry with my body when it won’t comply and try even more aggressively to force myself into the postures. And then third, to burst into a sort of frustrated fit for being such a horrible failure.

It’s really cute. You should be there to see it.

But this past week at a yoga class, when my body wouldn’t comply with one of the very simple postures (or at least that’s how everyone around me made it look), I did my usual frustrated sigh and angry look, and then I heard the instructor say something I won’t soon forget. She said:

If you get overwhelmed, that’s totally normal. Just breathe. Your only real job in here is to breathe.

In fact, she said that if we needed to, we could either lay down on our backs to recollect ourselves when we are feeling overwhelmed, or we could take an easier or modified version of the pose. But no matter what, our first and most important job was/is to breathe.

I found her advice to be hugely profound for me—and I don’t just mean in the yoga studio.

Are you A Highly Sensitive Person?

There’s a book by Elaine Aron called The Highly Sensitive Person and I have to admit, the first time I picked it up, I thought to myself, “What a crock. There’s no such thing as a Highly Sensitive Person (HSP). That’s just a label for a bunch of losers and cry babies who aren’t strong enough to face the world like I am.”

Disclaimer: if that doesn’t give you a peek into my self-destructive and highly critical inner-voice, I don’t know what will.

But just because I’ve resisted it doesn’t make it not true. It is scientifically proven that there are some folks who are more stimulated by their environments than other people. We’re more sensitive to sights, sounds smells, loud noises, people yelling at us or raising their voices, and to changes in our environment. And I know because I am one.

Here’s what I didn’t realize about HSPs until I actually opened the book and read it:

You can be highly sensitive and also love adventures.
You can be highly sensitive and also love people.
You can be highly sensitive and also be a high achiever.

Having a sensitive nervous system is normal, a basically neutral trait. You probably inherited it. It occurs in about 15-20 percent of the population. It means you are aware of subtleties in your surroundings, a great advantage in many situations. It also means you are more easily overwhelmed when you have been out in a highly stimulating environment for too long, bombarded by sights and sounds until you are exhausted in a nervous-system sort of way. Thus, being sensitive has both advantages and disadvantages. —Elaine Aron

I’m not sure why I felt so resistant for so long to admitting I was more sensitive than other people. But maybe you can relate.

What if you didn’t have to feel so overwhelmed, so often?

What would it look like if we started paying very close attention to how our bodies were responding in certain situations—and rather than measuring our “success” by how other people are responding under the same circumstances (like other people’s yoga poses) we simply said to ourselves: at least I’m here, at least I’m present, and my only job is to breathe?

This very simply lesson has helped me so much over the years. It has helped me have grace for myself in those moments when it feels like my body is betraying me because it gets exhausted. It’s helped me take the breaks I need, even if no one else needs them, because I can only measure my body against my body. It’s helped me to squelch that nasty inner-critic who sometimes likes to make me think I’m “weak” or “ineffectual” because I am not the same as everyone else.

It helps me to thank myself for showing up and remember: your only job is to breathe.

Making Space for Yourself

A few years ago I learned another lesson that would become a huge help for me as I worked to fight my own battle with overwhelm. I went away for a week-long retreat at a place here in Tennessee called Onsite. One of the things we did during this program was work with horses.

It’s amazing how much our work with animals can tell us about ourselves. The first time I read that dogs reflect our energy back to us, like mirrors, I joked that there was no way that was possible, since my dog is clingy, moody and a little bit codependent :)

Of course I knew it was more than a little bit true.

So I was excited to spend some time working with the horses because I knew it would give me some insight into myself.

The first person I watched go into the pen couldn’t get the horse to come near him. Over time, he learned to coax the horse, to woo him, and to invite him into a shared space. The second person to go into the pen somehow spooked the horse and he started bucking. She couldn’t get him to calm down; and the handler eventually explained that, again, she was going to have to control her energy a bit and invite the horse into shared space with her.

Next was my turn and my lesson came before I even entered the pen.

I walked up to the handler and she asked what I was hoping to work on that day. I told her I was feeling a little apprehensive about even going in there. I don’t know, something about a 1000 pound animal kicking his iron-clad feet in the air made me feel a little less-than-calm about sharing a space with him. Maybe even a bit overwhelmed.

She said to me something I’ll never forget. She said:

“You can always decide to leave the pen.”

She explained how, at any point, if I was feeling overwhelmed, or anxious or like I was being threatened inside the pen with the horse, it was always my right to leave the pen. And suddenly it occurred to me: DUH. It is always my right to create space or distance for myself.


I never have to ask for permission or offer any kind of explanation for myself. It’s kind of me if I choose to do so, but I don’t owe it to anyone.

That single piece of advice has helped me with so many experiences in my life where I feel overwhelmed. I can always, always, take the space I need for myself, no matter what is going on. I can always breathe. I can always take a break. I can always say, “this isn’t going to work for me.” And no matter what anyone else in the room is doing, I can always lay down on my back and take a minute to breathe.

It doesn’t mean I’m a failure.

I can always leave the pen.

You Don’t Have to Do Anything Now.

Another important lesson that has helped me fight overwhelm I learned came this past summer at a conference called World Domination Summit in Portland, Oregon. The event—in case you’ve never heard of it—is so much less threatening than it sounds. It’s basically a group of leaders gathered together to dream and talk about how to influence the tiny “worlds” we live in.

One speaker I heard at WDS who really left an impact on me was named Lissa Rankin. Lissa told a story about a time she felt overwhelmed—actually “overwhelmed” might be an understatement. She was doing her residency to become a physician, and she was sleep-deprived, starving and beyond her human capacity for functioning.

That’s when she found herself at the grocery store.

And when she was checking out, she found that the clerk was moving very slowly to count her change. She felt perturbed, but at first didn’t say anything. The longer it went on, however, the harder it became to contain her anger.

Finally, she burst out yelling, something to the effect of: “If I did my job like you did yours, there would be dead people everywhere!”

She described that moment as being one of those out-of-body experiences where you think to yourself, first, “is this really happening?” and then “who is this alien person saying these awful words to a complete stranger?” and then finally, “how did I become this woman?”

Then Lissa said something I’ll never forget. She talked about going home and trying to decide what she should do next. She talked about weighing all the options. She talked about the opportunity cost and feeling stuck and not knowing how to move forward. And then she told herself something I now say to myself all the time. She told herself:

You don’t have to do anything right now. You just have to make peace with what’s true.

And when I’m feeling overwhelmed, sometimes this is what I need most: to make peace with what is true. Maybe that’s something as simple as, “I’ve pushed myself too far” or “I cannot do everything.” Maybe the truth is, “I have a really difficult choice to make,” or “I can’t be all things to all people.”

And in those moments when I’m most overwhelmed, it helps me to know I don’t actually have to make any changes right this very minute.

My first job is to make peace with what is true. The actions I need to take will follow suit.

Practical Tips for Avoiding Overwhelm.

In addition to fighting the shame we inevitably feel in a world where Highly Sensitive People are considered “broken” or under-developed, we also live in a world that favors non-HSPs because, to put it simply, in order to thrive in our highly-connected, fast-paced world you have to get good at managing lots of input.

So how can HSPs learn to function in this world—practically speaking?

The short answer is this: we can get good at filtering out all of the unnecessary input so that we can focus on what really matters. That means we can work to control all the dinging, ringing, unnecessary background noises, TV, electronics, crowd noises, weird smells, etc that make us go insane so we can find more peace in our environment.

Here are some very practical steps I’ve taken (and still am taking) to manage the input in my life so I can still stay sane and bring my gifts to the world.

Control your technology (so it doesn’t control you)

The other night we were having dinner with a close friend who happened to be in town for a wedding. At one point, he got out his phone to show us something, and I noticed he didn’t have any applications on the face of his phone! Like almost exactly none.

He had text messages and the phone application at the bottom, but other than that, his phone seemed to be application-free.

Obviously this became a topic of conversation, because in the world we live in, that’s like a pink unicorn or something. How do you have no apps? What do you do when you need to look something up? How do you check your email? What if someone sends you an emergency email? (Big gasps).

He proceeded to explain to us his strategy with his phone, which he has turned into a glorified flip phone. He answers calls on it. He responds to text messages. But he gets no notifications. He doesn’t use it for the internet. And he doesn’t respond to emails from it.

This of course, incited another barrage of questions.

  • You can TURN OFF notifications? (for the technologically challenged of us) And the answer is yes. It’s true. You can actually get those little red dots on your phone that cause you (okay me) so much stress to go away. You have control.
  • How did you delete the apps that come already loaded on the iPhone and won’t go away? He told us how a friend of his found a workaround for this, and had to enter a special code, etc, but an alternative, he said, is just dropping them into a file and putting them on your third page over from your home screen. You never see them. It’s almost like they aren’t there.
  • How do you do email? He told us he has a system for checking email twice each day that doesn’t involve his phone. He told us the whole system, which is too long to explain here, but which simplifies his email time down to less than two hours per day. Other than that, he just doesn’t pay attention to it. Can you imagine!?

The result is obvious, in some ways. He doesn’t waste time scroll through social media—which provides lots of input that can easily become overwhelming. He doesn’t waste time on email or lose track of emails (a major, major source of overwhelm for me). And when he’s waiting for a friend, or for the five minutes between meetings, his first response isn’t to go directly to his phone.

He creates more white space in his life for thinking, dreaming and being creative.

It’s amazing how easy it is to think that we don’t have control over our technology, that it has taken over our lives and that there is simply no going backward. This is a fallacy. We have control. We can turn our phones off, leave them at home, program them to meet our needs, and plug them in in another room for the night.

You control your technology. It doesn’t control you.

Take care of your physical body.

As I was thinking about practical ways to deal with overwhelm, I also remembered a dear friend who once told me that when she is up against feelings of overwhelm, she goes through a list of very simple questions she asks herself.

The questions go like this:

  • Have you eaten?
  • Have you slept?
  • Have you exercised?

As it turns out, these three things—food, sleep and exercise (or being outdoors) play a profound role when it comes to mental and emotional overwhelm. In her book, Aron shows how HSPs actually need more sleep than their less sensitive counterparts. Not to mention, HSPs are more stimulated by the stimulants we put in our bodies every single day—caffeine, alcohol, sugar.

And one of the main ways we can counteract overstimulation in our life is by exercising or getting outside, reconnecting with our bodies and with nature.

More often than not, our emotional overwhelm is connected to our lack of care for our physical selves. When we can learn to take care of ourselves physically, we are also taking care of ourselves mentally and emotionally.

Create rituals and routines.

One way Aron suggests HSPs can minimize their feelings of overwhelm is to create a mostly-predictable schedule you can follow from day to day. The benefit of this is that HSPs tend to be stimulated by change. So, in other words, those who are highly sensitive might have a hard time during seasons of transition—where they don’t know what to expect next, or where plans are changing from moment-to-moment.

It’s not impossible for an HSP to deal with change, or to manage transition, but as far as it lies in your control, why not create a schedule that can minimize your feelings of change and free up space for you for to be your sensitive, creative, happy self?

Here’s an example.

Because I travel all the time, and I work for myself, it isn’t possible for my schedule to be exactly the same every day. But one thing I’ve done is to create rituals and routines I can take with me on the road.

  • First thing I do every morning is stretching or yoga. Then, I drink a big glass of water while I take my vitamins.
  • When I’m getting ready in the morning, I listen to This American Life or Radio Lab (or, let’s be real, sometimes I watch Netflix). But it’s this predictable thing I do everyday and its comforting.
  • Before I go to bed, I make a cup of tea and watch a TV show on Netflix.
    I also bring a small, travel-size candle with me when I travel. The predictable smell feels familiar and helps calm my spirit.

Additional Resources.

If overwhelm is something you struggle with and you want more resources for handling it, here are a few books, resources, etc I love and that have supported me and continue to support me on my journey toward accepting myself—sensitivity and all.

Quiet by Susan Cain—If you haven’t already read this book, you need to get your hands on it. It’s a beautiful reminder of the strength and quiet wisdom we sensitive people have to bring to the world.
Becoming Minimalist—living more simply is one thing I’ve done that has helped me majorly with my feelings of overwhelm. Imagine a life with less debt, less clutter and more freedom and open space! Ahhh! There is really no one better at helping you simplify than my friend Joshua Becker.
No Sidebar—speaking of minimizing and simplifying, if you don’t already subscribe to the newsletter at No Sidebar, it’s definitely time to do so.
The Highly Sensitive Person by Elaine Aron—I linked to this book earlier in the post as well, but it’s a great resource if you think you might be one of those people who is extra sensitive.

Depression, Indecisiveness, Anxiety and What Finding Yourself Actually Means

I got an email recently from a woman who was struggling to make a big decision. She had been dating a guy for several months and he was ready to to take the next step of commitment with her. But she wasn’t sure. She felt torn, she said, and that made her a bit anxious. But she couldn’t put her finger on why she felt that way.

Maybe you can relate to the position she was in—having a big, life-altering type decision to make, but not sure which way to go. I know I can.

The guy was great, she told me. Her friends loved him and he treated her well. On top of all of that, usually her mother didn’t like her boyfriends, but in this case she would make comments about how this was the “best guy she had ever dated” and how disappointed she would be if it didn’t work out.

And so as her boyfriend waited for her to make up her mind and her friends doted over her with compliments about him and her mother made jokes like, “don’t screw this up!” she felt beside herself with anxiety.

Am I supposed to feel like this? She wondered.

Why “Finding Yourself” Matters So Much.

You hear people talk about “finding yourself” all the time and yet most of us don’t really know what it means or why it matters. In fact, I think the term gets sort of watered down. We think of “finding yourself” as this cursory thing we do, on the side, if we have time, after we get the more important work of life done.

We forget what an incredible danger it is to live life without knowing who you are.

We forget there is very little progress we will be able to make in this life if we don’t have a firm grip on who we are and why we matter.


The language psychologists use for a person who hasn’t “found themselves” is: lacking of a sense of self or a lack of personal identity and psychologists recognize that when a person lacks a sense of personal identity, their problems extend into every aspect of their life: relationships, career, even mental and emotional health.

A person without a strong sense of identity tends to suffer from:

Not to mention, it can be really difficult to make a decision—even a small one. When we don’t know who we are, we end up spending more time wondering about what other people want from us than about what we want and need for ourselves. Which, of course, can be incredibly anxiety-producing.

How can you possibly measure your success or progress or integrity in life if you’re measuring by other people’s standards? The measuring stick is constantly shifting, depending on your circumstances, your situation, your surroundings, or who is doing the asking. You feel pulled between your boss, your mom, your friends, your spouse, and maybe, just maybe, some very quiet, inner-voice.

And at some point, you will let one or more of them down. You cannot possibly meet so many expectations.

It’s exhausting. It’s awful. I’ve been there. And in many ways we are all there at some point in our lives—including the young woman who sent me that email—because finding yourself is not a one-time event. It’s a journey we’re on together (tweet that).

Lack of Personal Identity and Depression.

There is a psychologist and author named Albert Bandura who has done a considerable amount of research around something he calls self-efficacy, which could be translated: a strong sense of self. He makes a specific connection between a weak sense of personal significance and depression.

I know depression is a complicated issue with lots of complicated answers. Not to mention, I have gone around and around with depression in my life. I’ve spent years on medication and in therapy and it hasn’t been until the past five or ten years that I’ve discovered some freedom from it.

Just the thought depression is something that sort of haunts me to this day.

But it hasn’t been until I’ve begun to develop a stronger sense of self that I’ve been able to find a bit of freedom from my depression. That is not a prescription, but it is a suggestion to consider that if depression is as much a part of your life as it has been of mine, it’s worth considering it might help to work on finding yourself.

Bandura says, “A weak sense of personal-efficacy operates on the cognitive source of depression in several ways.” He lists three ways specifically, and since his prose gets a little thick from there, I figured I would translate them so they’re easier to understand. You can see his full text here.

Here’s how a weak sense of self could contribute to a person’s depression:

  1. First, it impacts how we interpret positive and negative experiences. When someone with a strong sense of self experiences something negative in their life—anywhere from a bad grade on a test to a death in the family or a personal illness—here is how that person interprets that experience: “what a bummer that happened to me. I wonder how I can turn this around.” On the other hand, when someone with a weak sense of personal-efficacy experiences the same thing, they say to themselves, “this always happens to me! Why is my life such a disaster? There must be something wrong with me!”
  2. Second, it impacts the degree of control we believe we have moving forward. When the events of life are less-than-ideal, a person with a strong sense of self puts the locus of control inside himself for moving forward. So, for example, if he scores poorly on a test, he thinks to himself, “I’ll have to study more next time.” Or if he suffers an illness he thinks, “I need to take better care of myself in the future,” or “I will approach this with a good attitude.” On the other hand, a person without the same sense of self-efficacy puts the locus of control for moving forward outside herself. When the events of life are less-than-ideal, she says, “I wonder when my time will come,” or “I can’t catch a break. Everybody is out to get me!”
  3. Third, it influences the story we tell ourselves about personal accomplishments and failures. Bandura’s research actually showed that people with a strong sense-efficacy felt slightly better about themselves socially and emotionally than their peers. The story they told themselves about their successes was, “that’s because I’m smart and capable,” and the story they told themselves about their failures was, “well… I couldn’t have been expected to do well because I didn’t get much sleep [or that person was distracting me… or whatever.]” This isn’t to suggest we should have inflated egos (which can cause depressed states of their own) but rather that the story we tell ourselves about our successes and failures influences how we feel about ourselves.
  • How do you process successes and failures as they happen to you?
  • What does this tell you about how much control you have moving forward?
  • What is the story you tell yourself about your personal accomplishments or failures?

When it comes to finding yourself, depression and making big decisions, it shouldn’t surprise us that the mind and body are profoundly and miraculously connected.

How Do I Know If I’ve Found Myself?

A lack of a strong self often flares up during times of change or transition in our lives, since often times we mistake our sense of self for things like: the city we live in, the person we are married to, our job, career, money, family, status, etc.

Our true self does not come from our outer-life. It comes from our inner-life.

So when we move to a new place, leave a job, have a baby, see our grown kids leave the house, get married, or start in a new position, we often find ourselves thinking, “who am I?” This is normal and also an invitation into a deeper journey of finding yourself.

Here is my own personal definition for finding yourself:

Finding yourself is the process of discovering who you are and why you matter apart from outside achievements, relationships, and even in the face of great challenges or in life’s shifting environments. A person who is finding herself is learning to trust the the sound of her own voice, listen to her intuition, take action based on her convictions, face conflict and criticism with grace and power, and to visit that place of peace inside herself, despite what is happening around her.

When you have a strong sense of self, you are able to adapt well to changes, to soothe yourself in times of sadness or discomfort, stay true to your convictions (even when there is outside pressure), avoid codependent or manipulative relationships, set boundaries with pushy people in your life, leave behind a constant need for approval, drop the guilt, receive criticism, act authentically, lead gracefully, and take responsibility for your life—no matter how it turns out.

Yes, it is a huge task to “find ourselves” and one that is never fully finished. In fact, once we feel like we’ve “mastered it” life usually hands us more challenging and interesting situations to help us continue our path of growth.

How Do I Find Myself?

One hard truth about developing a strong sense of self is that so much of this important development takes place in childhood. If you have faced some kind of trauma in your childhood, or if your parents didn’t help you establish a strong sense of self—or if you came from a religious background where developing a strong sense of “self” was considered selfish—you might still have a lot of work to do when it comes to finding yourself.

The good news is that it is never too late to begin your work. In fact, if you are feeling profoundly lost as you read this, you are in a beautiful place.

“Not until we are lost do we begin to understand ourselves.” ~Henry David Thoreau

Below I’m going to include a list of things that have been vital to my own journey of finding myself as I’ve been guided by great therapists, friends, advisors, mentors and my own intuition. Your journey will look different than mine, no doubt, but still, I hope this list helps.

Know and own your story.

Like anyone, there are parts of my story I haven’t wanted to own. Namely the fact that I was sexually abused when I was very young, and kept that secret to myself for nearly two decades. Although I’ve shared this before, I’m sensitive about how I talk about it and how often, in part because I want to protect those involved, but mostly because I don’t want this to be my story.

Truly. Honestly. Please God anything but this story.

And yet, this is my story.

When we deny our stories, they define us. When we own our stories, we get to write a brave new ending —Brene Brown

I am in process of writing my own brave new ending to my story. It is not easy. In fact, sometimes it feels downright awful. It means re-routing old beliefs, re-wiring brain patterns, letting go of ways of coping, learning to face the conflict and the joy and the pain of life unguarded, and it means I end up failing and losing my temper and crying in public more often than I would like to admit.

But it is worth it every single step because what has happened to me in the past does not define me (tweet that)

See a therapist.

I avoided seeing a therapist for years because I thought to myself, “oh, it’s not that bad. I’ve got this. Look at me. I have so many opportunities. I have a great family. What am I complaining about?” All the while, deep down I knew I needed some help to sift through the more complicated parts of my story.

Do not try to walk this path alone. It’s too treacherous. If you aren’t comfortable finding a therapist, ask a few trusted friends or family members to walk with you.

When you begin to re-write your story, parts of yourself you never knew existed (hint: less-than-pretty parts of yourself) will inevitably come up. When this happens, thank God for the support around you and for the opportunity you have to heal and grow.

Learn about yourself and how you are wired.

I read all the time. I’m always trying to figure out more about myself, how I operate and why it matters. This has been a lifeline for me as I walk this journey of finding myself. Figuring out the driving motivations behind why you act the way you do not only helps you own your story, it also helps you interact and communicate in a positive way with others.

Below, I list a few resources I have used that have really helped me to discover how I’m wired. This list is certainly not exhaustive but I hope it helps.

Stop avoiding.

We often “find ourselves” in the situations we most want to avoid. We find ourselves in unrest, conflict, discomfort, fear, illness, distress, loss, transition, change, disappointment, failure, even in bad relationships. So if we spend our lives trying to avoid these things, we may miss the very messages and lessons life has to offer us.

These days I tell myself, over and over again, “everything that happens to me in life is an opportunity to learn” because I have learned the hard way—it is.

What seems like the worst thing that could possibly happen to you might turn out to be the very best thing. Because sometime it takes losing ourselves to find ourselves. And when we resist these lessons, we resist the very beauty and joy life is trying to offer us.

Learn to look “in here” rather than “out there”

Think back for a moment to the young woman I mentioned in the beginning of this post who is trying to make a decision about whether she wants to marry her current boyfriend. Notice how much time she spent explaining what other people wanted from her, thought about her (and her boyfriend), or what they were expecting her to do. And trust me, I’ve been there.

Here’s my advice for her: you already know your answer. It’s inside of you.

That isn’t to say we don’t need the support and help of those around us. But it is to say we must be careful who we ask, because what we really need from those sources of support is not advice or direction. What we really need is someone to help us discover the answer we have always known all along.

What we really need is to find ourselves.

The Trap of A Manipulator And The Only Way Out

I worked for a boss once who made me feel terrible about myself. He would often make unrealistic requests of me—sometimes long after work hours—and make me feel guilty if I didn’t act like it was “my pleasure” to do it. I worked hard for him. Really hard, always thinking that if I could finally prove myself, he would trust me, and I could relax and feel normal again.

But that moment never came. In fact, the longer I worked there, the more anxious I felt. I kept having to work harder and harder, just to keep him even moderately happy. I never knew how he was going to act. Sometimes he would be jovial and fun. Other times he would raise his voice and scream at everyone in the office.

To make matters worse, he would constantly make comments about how I should be more grateful for my job, or joke about how he paid me too much.

The longer I stayed, the harder it felt to leave.


Then one day, at a work party, I finally had a wake-up moment. I listened to him recite an idea I had presented to him at a meeting months back—and play it off like it was his. When I first presented him with the idea, he shrugged it off like it was stupid. And here he was, announcing it to our coworkers, taking all the credit as if it were his own.

Still, after that night, it took me several months to finally quit that job—for reasons I’ll explain later in this post—but I never looked at him, or at myself, the same. And I did eventually find my way out from under his thumb.

A Lesson In Manipulation.

One thing I didn’t realize about manipulation is it can happen to you without you realizing it. In fact, this is probably how it happens most often. We feel things like anger, frustration, anxiety, depression or low self-esteem. What we don’t necessarily realize is that these feelings can be simply different faces of what we really feel, which is manipulated.

In fact, it wasn’t until I was in my late twenties and finally in therapy that I started realizing just how many times I had been manipulated in my life—including by the boss I described above.

And once I realized how often I had been manipulated, and still was being manipulated, the sensation was overwhelming. On a daily basis I would find myself feeling furious about a phone call I “needed” to make, a friend I “had” to meet for lunch, a party I was “supposed” to show up for, or a work project with an impending deadline.

It was a bit of a personal crisis.

I actually found myself feeling suspicious of everyone—including myself, by the way—not to mention resentful, rebellious and totally uncertain of who I was or what I wanted in life.

So I started seeing a therapist. And together we talked about areas where I felt manipulated, and even about a few ways I had been manipulative myself. We worked on forgiving myself for using manipulation as a way to protect myself when I didn’t have any other method, and on developing healthier boundaries and strategies for creating space and safety.

She also taught me two lessons about manipulation that have changed my life.

The first one goes like this: if you’re feeling manipulated, ask yourself what you need from that person. If you don’t need anything, they can’t manipulate you. She explained how one of the most common manipulation tactics is a sort of unhealthy “exchange.” For example:

  • Between a parent and a child: “If you obey me, I will love you.”
  • Between spouses: “If you keep me happy, I will stay with you.”
  • Between a boss and employee: “If you never upset me, I will keep paying you.”

She talked about how manipulation thrives because each person is upholding his or her respective end of this distorted agreement, and how the only way for the manipulated person to come out from under the thumb of the manipulator is for her to realize she doesn’t need the thing that is being leveraged anymore.

So in other words, as a grown child, the love and approval she craves is already inside of her. As an employee, she can find another job if the demands become unreasonable. As a spouse, she doesn’t need her partner’s approval in order to feel good about herself.

This lesson changed my life.

The only thing that changed my life more was the second lesson she taught me, which I’ll share with you in just a few paragraphs.

9 Different Kinds of Manipulators.

Before I share the second lesson I learned from my therapist—the one that helped me to figure out why it took me several long, awful months to leave that unreasonable job—I thought I’d share another lesson I learned, thanks to a book I read by Harriett B. Braiker called Who’s Pulling Your Strings?.

There are several different ways a person can manipulate you. In fact, according to Braiker, there are nine different kinds of manipulators. No wonder it can be so difficult for us to know if we’re being manipulated, not to mention to find our way out of those relationships.

Below are the nine different manipulative personalities Braiker lists in her book.

As you read, you may begin to recognize some of these tendencies in relationships that are taking place right now in your life. If so, keep reading, because in the following section I’ll tell you the lesson that finally helped me break free.

The Machiavellian. This personality type is named after the sixteenth century political philosopher named Italian Prince Machiavelli. His philosophy toward all of life—romance, military movement, all other matters—went like this: the end justifies the means. In other words, as long as I get my way in the end, it doesn’t matter who is hurt in the process. And the Machiavellian personality is no different. Machiavellian personalities tend to exploit others to their own (often self-serving) end.

The Narcissist—this is a personality you have probably heard of, and although the term is widely overused, it is characterized by an inflated sense of self-image, along with a sense of entitlement. So not only does this person think very highly of himself, he also believes he deserves to be paid special attention, even to be given certain things, simply because he is himself. Narcissists characteristically have a hard time feeling empathy for other people. That, along with his feelings of entitlement, allow him, like the Machiavellian, to use others for his own sense of personal gain.

The Borderline—a person with borderline personality has highly unstable relationships and constantly shifting moods.

For example, the borderline may think of her lover or partner as the most wonderful person she has ever met. But this attitude can shift drastically to one of devaluation and even contempt triggered by a disappointment that somehow proves to the borderline that the partner does not care enough about her or understand what she needs. This sudden precipitous shift catches the mark off balance and makes him vulnerable to manipulation (Braiker).

You can tell the borderline apart from the other manipulative personalities because when you are around her, you likely feel sucked up into her drama and chaos. And despite the fact that borderline personalities can be highly manipulative, they are also great at playing the victim. Since they are acting from a place of their own desperation, fear and other feelings of overwhelm, they have a hard time understanding how their actions could be as destructive as they ultimately are.

The dependent—this person is very reliant on the support and help of others and is also terrified of abandonment. She therefore manipulates others to stay close to her so she won’t have to function on her own. This is the girlfriend who is clingy, needy, and submissive. She has trouble making her own decisions, so she is constantly looking to others for help and guidance. If you have a friend or partner who you feel like you constantly have to parent, you might be dealing with a dependent manipulator.

The histrionic—In addition to the drama of borderline, the histrionic is always attempting to be the center of attention. In fact, this is her primary motive behind manipulation. She might use strange tactics in order to keep the attention constantly on her—either leveraging her sexual prowess, dressing provocatively or in outrageous styles, or even feigning injury to regain attention when it seems to be fading away. The histrionic is usually vain and self-absorbed, and much like the dependent and the borderline, she manipulates largely out of evocation—evoking negative reaction in others.

The passive-aggressive—passive aggressive people are sneaky manipulators. Despite the fact that their behavior is hostile and aggressive, it flies so completely under the radar that you can’t always notice it. Not only do I recognize myself in this form of manipulation, it was a huge shock to realize this behavior is actually quite hostile. Passive aggressive people are filled with rage but haven’t found a way to express it healthfully, so they act passively resistant. Procrastination, dawdling, stubbornness, intentional inefficiency, forgetfulness—these are all tactics of manipulation. Rather than confront the person who they feel puts unfair demands on them, they complain whine, and sulk. THIS WAS ME WITH MY BOSS!

By not doing what is required of them or by seemingly complying with requests that are then sabotaged through passive resistance, the passive-aggressive personality manipulates others by evoking frustration and hostility. They are unlikely to change and display very poor insight or understanding of how their passive resistance affects others.

Passive aggressive people easily justify their behavior since it isn’t outwardly aggressive.

The Type A (Angry)—These folks have what Braiker calls “Hurry Sickness” and often get angry in traffic, or in long lines, or when someone holds them up. They also have an almost insatiable need to win. Their anger, hostility and competitive spirit acts not only as a threat to their own health but it is the weapon they use against others to make sure they always get their way. They are constantly trying to stay at the top of the pile, make sure they are always first in line, and make it where they’re trying to go on time, even if it’s unreasonable to do so. They control using intimidation.

The Con—This personality typically begins young and starts small, with lying about homework or stealing candy. Then, as the con gets older, the lying and stealing escalate until he is highly impulsive, irresponsible, and even dangerous. When I was reading this description, what came to mind was someone who holds hostages to rob a bank, or a young man who open fires on a university campus. Also in this category would be someone like the main character from the movie Catch Me If You Can. The manipulator uses his charm and charisma, as well as other people, to accomplish his means and end. Ultimately he has no conscience and therefore no guilt for his behavior.

The Addict—for the addict, everything takes a backseat to her addiction. Addicts notoriously lie, deny, exploit others, and wreak havoc on their families, work, and social relationships—all for the sake of their substance abuse or addiction. The motive for the manipulation is simply maintaining relationship with the addiction, whatever that looks like. This leaves those in relationship with the addict feeling guilty, depressed, humiliated, angry, frustrated, uncertain, and with a very low self-esteem.

I don’t know about you, but as I was reading, I was thinking both of subtle ways I have been manipulative in my lifetime and also of various manipulators who have come in and out of my life. I also couldn’t help but think about how manipulative personalities are not developed in a vacuum, and how much pain and personal tragedy must go into someone developing one of these above traits. I have a great deal of compassion for the deep wounds that motivate someone to manipulate.

But just because we have compassion for someone who might be in this position doesn’t mean we don’t take steps to protect our well-being. Manipulators may change, but we won’t be the ones to change them (TWEET THAT).

The only way to deal with a manipulator is to change ourselves. We have to be the kind of people who can’t be manipulated.

More about that in just a minute.

The Great Danger in Manipulation.

The real danger in manipulation, if you ask me, is that manipulators steal your ability to bring your unique beauty and gifts to this world (TWEET THAT).

They don’t do it because they’re terrible people, and they might not even do it on purpose, but that doesn’t make it any less of a tragedy. When you are in the grips of a manipulator, what we miss out on is you—all bright and shining and beautiful in this world. When I think back to all of the years of my life I wasted living for the purposes of other people, at the expense of my own passion and joy and creativity, I cringe. And when I see other people doing the same, I cringe again. We need you and your gifts. The world is a better place with you than without.

This is the real danger of manipulation. What a tragedy. I can think of few things more devastating.

In addition, those who are caught in the grips of manipulation—both the manipulator and the manipulated—can’t experience genuine love. You might experience the thrill of control; that little rush you get when your manipulative tactics earn you the center of attention, or when complying with someone else’s demands get you their temporary praise or adoration. But those things are fleeting. They won’t last for even a day. You will need more tomorrow. In fact, this is why manipulation is so addicting, no matter what side of it you are on.

There is no amount of center-of-attention, praise, adoration or control that will make you feel like you are good enough.

That feeling comes from the inside out.

If you find yourself in the throws of a manipulative relationship, there are really two things you need to know.

  1. The most important thing you can do is alter or end that relationship
  2. It will be very difficult

Why We Keep Being Manipulated

One of the things Braiker mentions in her book that rang really true to me is that certain people, with certain personalities, are more prone to manipulation than others. As I read, I recognized myself as one of those personalities, which meant that I had a lot of work to do when it came to overcoming manipulative relationships.

This was why it took me several months to finally submit my resignation for that job, and it’s why many of the manipulative tendencies of that relationship followed me to other jobs, not to mention other friendships and romantic relationships.

It wasn’t until a conversation about two years ago with my therapist that I realized why.

We were talking about a relationship I was still in that had some manipulative tendencies—both my tendency to be passive aggressive (a form of hostility) and this other person’s tendency to be angry and explosive (just like that old boss had been). She explained to me how I was going to have to find a way to alter this relationship, or end it. My response was, “I’m not ready for that.”

She asked, “why not?

“I’m not ready to give up what I get from it.”

“What’s that?”

“Feeling like I matter,” I said, without thinking about it.

And there it was, standing like a beacon of hope that I wasn’t sure I was ready to walk toward—the true, honest answer that was both my way out and the handcuffs that had been keeping me stuck all along. The reason I allowed myself to be manipulated, over and over again, was because of what I got from it.

I wasn’t trapped. The only thing holding me back was me.

More often than not, we are manipulated because we choose to be. And if we’re ever going to get out of our manipulative relationships, whatever they look like, the best thing we can do is stop hoping the manipulative person will change, to stop playing the victim to their manipulative tactics, and choose to change ourselves.

If you’re interested in reading more about manipulation and how to find your way out, I highly recommend the following resources:

  1. Who’s Pulling Your Strings? by Harriet Braiker
  2. Boundaries by Dr. Henry Cloud
  3. The Power is Within You by Louise Hay
  4. Safe People by Dr. Henry Cloud
  5. Emotional Blackmail by Susan Forward

Have you ever been in a manipulative relationship? How did you find your way out.