puppet 1Is someone else pulling the strings in your life? Beyond the realm of “normal” influence, many people live in a much smaller world, where the influence has become coercive, the pressures specific, the rules constricting to the point of profound discomfort. Sometimes, those who are trapped into a relationship with a predator know full well who is pulling the strings. However, it is much harder to keep abusing someone once they realize there is no reason to stay: because of this, many predators will use gaslighting and other methods to hide or minimize their abuse, couching it in terms of “I know best,” to confuse all concerned as to whether any abuse is actually taking place.

Although there are definite signs you are dealing with a predator or an abusive group, sometimes these traits are so well-masked, and the abuse so subtle, that the only way you can tell that something is wrong is by how the person or situation makes you feel. Here are eight signs that someone else might be pulling the strings in your life:

1. You feel worthless.

Many people think that those who get into abusive groups or relationships do so because they have low self-esteem. This is not, in fact, true, but it is understandable that it might seem so: although you might not have had problems with your self-worth going into the situation, you certainly will end up viewing yourself negatively if you stay in an abusive relationship for any amount of time. That’s the point of abuse – to take away your feeling of self-respect, robbing you of your rights by manipulating you into thinking that you haven’t any. The predator might be disguising their disrespect for you in any amount of mind-games, but the feeling of being worthless and de-valued hits us at the visceral level. Those born into an abusive family may need years of recovery and work with a qualified therapist to “grow their own” self-esteem as an adult.

2. You feel unequal.

Make no mistake: this is all about power. The leader might deny being in charge, but any “agreement” is really a unilateral pronouncement. The relationship where one “partner” makes all the decisions is just as much a high-control situation as the abusive group where a self-appointed guru is doling out orders to the “faithful.” Through a systematic course of belittling comments and condescending remarks disguised as “help,” the predator cuts you down from independent adult to helpless pawn, dependent and compliant.

3. You doubt your decisions.

You might not notice the constant barrage of tiny “cuts”, those little jabs and “playful” remarks you’ve come to accept as part of the experience, but their cumulative effect can be debilitating. You know, instinctively, that whatever decision you make will be the “wrong” one; after a while, “What do you think?” becomes the only safe response.

4. You blame yourself – for everything.

pulling the stringsThis is especially true for those born to traumatizing narcissists; rejected by the people they instinctively turn to for love and comfort, the child of a predator can only surmise that their unhappiness is due to their own shortcomings. But even if the narcissists pulling the strings in your life are not your parents, they will be careful to shift any blame onto you. If only you were only more cooperative, less clumsy, more careful, more tactful, less awkward, less everything, then they wouldn’t have to take the reins so often.

5. You question your own sanity.

Whether the manipulator is an intimate partner or a life-coach, a religious leader or an employer, they will use gaslighting to subvert your reality. This system of crazy-making denials and psychological manipulation will leave you questioning your own memories and perceptions. You might not be able to express exactly why you feel crazy, and the covert nature of the manipulation guarantees that no one else can validate your feelings that something just isn’t right. The abuser will be careful to highlight these feelings, reassuring you that “no one else has this problem” with them.

6. You feel incompetent.

In any abusive situation, your actions are viewed through the filter of the manipulator pulling the strings. Your successes are not yours, but are only due to the techniques of your guru, your narcissistic father’s “good genes,” or even the blessing of Jesus. Your failures, however, are all yours, and always due to you not following their directions, or even just thinking the wrong sort of thoughts – whatever bad thing has ever happened to you, it’s all your fault, and the predator will keep you painfully focused on your shortcomings and vulnerabilities. Robbed of your achievements and with your faults magnified, you feel as if you cannot do anything right – at least, not without your leader’s guiding hand setting you straight.

7. You are a “doormat.”

It is sadly true that some children of narcissists grow up to be narcissists themselves, but whether you are born into it or seduced into an abusive relationship later in life, most people learn to deal with the onslaught of criticism by becoming incredibly good at pleasing their abuser, hoping that if the predator is kept supplied with praise, attention, and power, the “bad” parts of the abuse might be kept at bay. Those raised with constant emotional and psychological abuse carry this habit over to the rest of their relationships: fearful of rejection and abandonment, the survivor of a narcissistic parent must work hard to develop normal boundaries, often defaulting into “people-pleasing” in order to keep everyone around them happy. Even those who are captured into an abusive situation after childhood have had their sense of personal rights and dignity taken away, and may do anything to please everyone they meet.

8. You feel “fake”.

pulling the strings 1When you’re in the grip of a narcissist or predator, you’re not allowed to have your own identity; your whole existence as a cult member is to service the group, and your life as an abused spouse is to give narcissistic support to your partner. Your own authentic self has either been taken away from you, or even – if you were born into an abusive family – was never properly developed. The abusive group or relationship has subsumed your entire lifestyle, and become your only purpose. If you cannot easily name a half-dozen interests, hobbies, or activities that you enjoy purely for the sake of doing them, then someone else might indeed be pulling the strings.


Whether we experience undue influence in the context of an individual relationship or in a group, whether the manipulation comes from a stranger, a friend, or our own family, abusers do not advertise their methods. It is up to us to listen to our own “gut” feeling, and to insist on our own rights to live free from coercive control. These warning signs, taken individually, might not necessarily mean that you are being abused, but if you feel most or all of them when in a particular group or with a particular person, it might be time to back up and take a serious look at the situation.

Editor's Note: While we at OMF value all free expression of opinion, the views expressed by our contributing authors are their own and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of OMF, its board members, or trustees.

What do you think about this article? Do you agree? Have you read Spike’s dystopian novel? Do you have a story about undue influence that you’d like to share? We’d love to hear from you!