ERP 113: How To Identify Manipulative & Emotionally Abusive Relationships with Paul Colaianni [Transcript]

ERP 113: How To Identify Manipulative & Emotionally Abusive Relationships with Paul Colaianni

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Welcome to The Empowered Relationship Podcast, helping you turn relationship challenges into opportunities and setting you up for relationship success. Your host, Dr. Jessica Higgins, is a licensed psychologist and relationship coach who shares valuable tips, tools and resources for you to dramatically improve your relationship.

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Dr. Jessica Higgins: Hi, thank you for joining today’s podcast episode. Today’s episode is 113 – How To Identify Manipulative And Emotionally Abusive Relationships, With Paul Colaianni. Before we get started, let’s set the tone for our conversation, here on the Empowered Relationship Podcast. Ultimately, these conversations are designed to help you cultivate strong, happy, lasting love, and how to navigate the ups and the downs, knowing that we wanna increase our capacity for intimacy, connection, and feel alive in our partnerships. Also, navigating those lows, times when we might feel pain, insecurity, fear, and that that is good indication that it is being brought up for healing, for growth and for transformation, if we choose to listen and do the work.

Recently I was visiting a family member and he was kind of talking about this concept of stability, and is it always a good thing to be reaching and growing and expanding? And there is value in the consistency, the stability and the constant connection and safety that a really healthy relationship can provide… So I guess we’re trying to round this all out, we are trying to have the base be solid, secure and healthy; we wanna expand our capacity for more intimacy and growth, and also navigate those lows more skillfully and productively, and that’s the goal here, that’s happening on this Empowered Relationship Podcast.

Today I’m gonna be interviewing Paul Colaianni, and if you are interested in gaining access to the notes and the links mentioned on this show, you can find that on my website, which is, click on Podcast and you can find the most recent episodes at the top. Again, this is episode 113 – How To Identify Manipulative And Emotionally Abusive Relationships, With Paul Colaianni. Let’s get started.

Paul Colaianni is host of The Overwhelmed Brain podcast and author of the book: The Overwhelmed Brain: Personal Growth for Critical Thinkers. He helps people all over the world become empowered so that they can make decisions that are right for them. He currently lives in Atlanta, Georgia. Paul, thank you so much for joining us today…

Paul Colaianni: What an honor, thank you so much! I wanna call you like Doctor J., but I don’t think that’d be respectful, so I’ll just call you Jessica.

Dr. Jessica Higgins: No, go with it, I love it!

Paul Colaianni: Doctor J.? Alright, great! Doctor J., it’s good to be here.

Dr. Jessica Higgins: Nice, excellent. And I’m actually particularly excited to share you with my listeners, because I love what you stand for as far as helping people navigate personal growth topics in a way that’s heartfelt, but practical, and really emphasizing the critical thinker and helping them be able to have some real depth and substance to navigate some of this terrain. It can be very grey and diffuse, so thank you for what you’re doing. I know your bio is humble… I know you have a huge following and I’m just excited to share you.

Paul Colaianni: Thank you so much. I think you’re right, there’s a big grey area… I think that’s why I came up with my show – I looked online for things that I myself believe, that I talk about, that I have taught in the past… I went down a coaching road in the past and then I got out of it, and I came back to it and I realized “Wow, all this stuff that I’ve learned from my own toxic childhood, from my own dysfunction, and everything I learned in the classes that I took, I don’t see being spread out into the world”, so that’s why I came up with my show. I’m like, “This needs to be said. People need to know about this stuff.”

Dr. Jessica Higgins: I love it, and I know that it can be therapeutic, as you’re describing, and I do love that about coaching – that it’s a little more specific and directive around some of these things that have real foundations in research or theory that can be extremely helpful, and that people don’t usually have access to unless they self-study… So thank you for what you’re doing.

Paul Colaianni: Thank you for what you’re doing, too.

Dr. Jessica Higgins: Okay, so today’s topic may be a little heavy, but I’m hoping that we can make this practical and empowering at some point… We’re talking about toxic relationship and emotional abuse, yeah?

Paul Colaianni: Yes, and it is a heavy topic. At the same time, once you are armed with information, it is empowering.

Dr. Jessica Higgins: Nice, I like it. Can we get a bit of a foundation for how you’re defining a toxic relationship and emotional abuse, so people can connect?

Paul Colaianni: Yeah, you can look at emotional abuse as a toxic relationship, but I like to look at toxic relationships as – and this is a really simplified definition of it – if you’re in a relationship that you feel bad more than you feel good, it’s probably toxic in some way, to you. It doesn’t mean they’re a toxic person, although that happens often, but you feel bad more often than not, which means you’re exposing yourself to that (I don’t know, I’ll just coin a term here) “relationship radiation”, where there’s something wrong for you in the relationship.

Again, they could be a good person, they could be a person doing bad behavior, a real bad person, but you’re still exposing yourself to that. I call that a toxic exposure.

Now, with emotional manipulation – I think I wrote this one down, because I wanted to make sure I said it right… One of the main functions of an emotional manipulator is to get what they want, the way they want it, by controlling people and the environment. I think I like that — I mean, that’s one of the main functions; so if you’re in a relationship where someone seems to have control and you feel like you’re tagging along – and there’s a lot of stuff involved in how you feel about it and what you think about it, but that’s one of the main signifiers… And another function of the emotional manipulator is to make you feel bad and create mistrust in yourself, so that you believe they’re the only person that you can trust. And also – and this is the hard part – you believe that person is the only person that will show you love. They lock you in.

Emotional abuse is when you just feel like you can’t go anywhere else. You feel like you can’t trust yourself, because they’ve set up this environment where you feel less and less trust in yourself, so you have to trust them, and of course, they’re coercing you and manipulating you into doing what they need you to do or want you to do.

Dr. Jessica Higgins: Yeah, and I like that you’re pinpointing some common aspects, particularly the second one… I get the first one, about one being more dominant and really occupying more space and taking more leadership; I think in personality style that can be something, but it’s a whole different ball game if one person’s feeling less than and not good enough, and the power differential and inequality of that is substantial, and then the isolation… Yeah, that’s really complicated.

Paul Colaianni: Well, the first one is, like you said, someone taking a more dominant role – that can work. You probably know this – if you’re more of a “Hey, I need a leader in my life. I need someone to follow, I need someone to kind of guide me along, to have sort of a mentorship relationship” – that can work if you like that arrangement. It’s sort of like a healthy dominant/submissive type of relationship. I don’t like using those terms, it could mean other things, but in the sense of having a relationship like “Okay, yes, that person takes care of all the bills. That feels good to me, because I’m terrible at bills.” It’s just when it gets to, like you said, that second part, where you start to feel inferior. You’re not treated as an equal. The leader really makes the rules in a way that’s manipulative and deceptive, and it’s not really a partnership anymore, it’s more like “You’re gonna do what I say”, but it’s never direct like that. That’s where the manipulation just turns into that grey area of “Am I being manipulated? What’s going on here? I just can’t figure it out.”

Dr. Jessica Higgins: Yeah, and I’m even sensing as you’re describing it just this inner sensation in me, a fear that I’m afraid of what they’re gonna say, what they’re gonna do, their reaction, and I very much censor and edit myself based on what I’m fearing.

Paul Colaianni: Have you been through…? It sounds very much in line with that. [laughs]

Dr. Jessica Higgins: Well, my training… Right? I’m a psychologist, I work with people and I know all of — you know, this isn’t my area of expertise per se, but it’s something that people very much… On the spectrum, I like that you’re saying that there’s a grey are here. I guess one question for you is I do know that sometimes people get challenged with differences in conflict, and the strategies around how people try to communicate or take care of themselves, that they feel protective or threatened… It can get a little ugly. In my book there’s a difference between something’s getting brought up and needs attention and it basically is a call for “Okay, something here is not working and we need to look at this differently.” It’s an opportunity for growth and healing… Versus this manipulation and this dynamic that is a little more pervasive and insidious, I guess.

Paul Colaianni: Yeah… You brought up the idea of fear, like “I have this fear coming up when I think about it, when I put myself in that position.” I also see in my experience with a lot of clients that I’ve had and their manipulative partners, I also see the manipulative partners have like a really old fear that’s driving their behavior. That fear usually starts in childhood – their mom, their dad, some caretaker instilled in them a behavior, or the child came up with a coping behavior, a survival mechanism to how to treat others, how to manipulate the situation so that they get what they want, because when they get what they want, they’re surviving, they’re having a better life because of that, so they’ve learned how to manipulate.

I see a lot of manipulative behavior, unless they’re completely antisocial or non-empathetic. I see a lot of that is based on fear, like “I better do this to get what I want, otherwise I’m in trouble.” Sometimes a primal fear of pain, rejection, death, whatever it is, is still driving that behavior and causing other people to be in fear, except the manipulator has the control, so they feel good most of the time because the victim of that manipulation is following along in their game, I guess I could call it.

Dr. Jessica Higgins: Paul, it’s so interesting to me… When you started talking, I thought we were gonna be speaking more to the person that feels manipulated or feels like they’re in a toxic relationship, but it also sounds like you work with people that, whether or not it’s lack of awareness, or they’re aware of it but they don’t know how to change it, but you also work with the manipulator, it sounds like…

Paul Colaianni: Well, here’s an interesting little tidbit about me… [laughter] I was actually quite adept at manipulation. I was the manipulator for a long time. I didn’t know I was; I honestly didn’t know I had these qualities until I read a book called “The Manipulative Man” by Dr. Dorothy McCoy. I opened that book and I started reading, and she has all these classes and categories, and I fit three of them. I was like, “What?! This is what I’m doing in my relationship?” As soon as I figured that out, I realized something needs to change in me. Now, it took me a few years after that, but I started working on myself and realized, “Oh, this is the reason I keep losing relationship, this is the reason my partner in life, my girlfriend and then eventually my wife – these are the people that keep leaving me. Oh, I’m the common denominator, not them. I want them to change so that we’ll be happy, so I don’t have to change.”

So yes, my experience with manipulators is myself, and yes, I’ve had clients that have reached out to me – one in particular definitely had a lot of the traits, and it took a while to get through all these layers and why he does what he does. So yes, I work on that end, and I also want to address the victim of a manipulation or a toxic relationship because there are signs and symptoms that if you are in one — first of all, I’ve heard from people who didn’t even know they were in one. “I didn’t know I was in a manipulative relationship.” My girlfriend was married to her ex for several years and she read a book called “The Verbally Abusive Relationship” by Dr. Patricia Evans… She read that book and she goes “Oh my god, this entire checklist is everything that my husband does to me”, so she learned about that from her last relationship.

I got to meet him, I got to see some of the qualities there, and I also see how my girlfriend has survived that and healed from that as well. So yes, I think it’s important (and I think we’ll discuss it) for someone to know the signs of being in a manipulative relationship as well.

Dr. Jessica Higgins: I’d love to go there. Before we do, I just wanna respond to something I feel like you’re saying, which is that there’s hope. [laughter] Because some people, like you said, as they’re beginning, it’s like naming something, and then just even the language of emotional abuse or toxic relationships – a lot of the times it’s like “How do you get out of this?” or “How do you take care of yourself?” and that’s very important, but I think it can feel hopeless.

Paul Colaianni: Yes, absolutely. And you said it, there is hope… There’s more than hope. The hardest part about this whole thing, if you’re in a manipulative relationship, the hardest part is first deciding what you’re gonna do about it. “Okay, now I’m in this manipulative relationship. I know my partner is being manipulative, or I know I’m being manipulative…” I’ve heard from people that said “Wow, I just listened to your show and I realize I’m the manipulator.” So I hear from both sides, but “What are we gonna do about it?” Okay, there has to be a lot of introspection and there has to be a lot of self work.

The next hardest part is trusting your — like, if you’re with the manipulator, trusting your decision to take the next step. Because what happens is there’s a lot of victims of emotional abuse that will end up not trusting themselves. They come up with an idea like “Well, maybe I should go see therapy, but my partner will rationalize and tell me we don’t need to see therapy, and then I’ll believe him/her, because they always know better.” The victim starts to developer this walking on eggshells personality; “I’ve gotta run everything through my partner”, and they stop trusting themselves, because that’s how the relationship was set up, because you always go back to the manipulator.

So yes, when you get to a place of “Oh, all these signs… This is me… Oh no, what do I do about it?” the next step is “Okay, what if you have to leave?” There’s another step, “What if I do have to get out of this relationship, because I know it’s toxic, what happens then?”, the manipulator has set this up that if you wanna leave, you’re gonna feel so guilty. “I can’t leave him.” A lot of manipulators will set you up to make you feel bad for them. “I have this terrible childhood, I went through all this pain”, and they might be 100% right, and they might deserve your sympathy, but you don’t deserve their continued toxic behavior. So now you have the choice of “I’d better get out of this.” But there’s all this guilt, and the guilt is one of the main symptoms of emotional manipulation. When you’re feeling a lot of guilt in your relationship, it’s so hard to leave. And then there’s all kinds of other things that I’m sure we’ll get into, but just that feeling of “I can’t leave because of all of these…” I don’t know what you might wanna call them – like tendrils are attached to the relationship because of the way it’s set up.

Dr. Jessica Higgins: Okay, I like it. Now you’ve got me super interested, so can we go with you in the signs and some practical things to think about that help people recognize if they are in a toxic relationship or in an emotionally abusive relationship?

Paul Colaianni: Yes, let’s go there. It’s so vital, so important. I’m creating a worksheet called “The mean worksheet”, and it’s where you get your manipulative and emotional abuse number; it’s like a score. What I’m about to read is some of those things. It’s like a three and a half, four-page checklist. “I’m like this, I’m like that. Is this happening? Does my partner do this? Does my partner do that?” This is some of them.

One of them is during and after a conversation with your partner, you can often feel one of the following: embarrassed, ashamed, guilty, anxious, angry, uneasy and especially feeling like you’re blamed or responsible for what’s wrong in the relationship. That’s just one of them.

Here’s the thing – when I read through these, any moment in time you can feel any of these things. You can have an argument with your partner and then you feel embarrassed or ashamed, because whatever, and it might happen once every six months or a year. I wouldn’t call that emotional abuse or manipulation. The biggest thing about emotional abuse is it happens over a period of time, sometimes years, and it’s like a grooming process. The emotional abuser is grooming their partner to feel a certain way, to isolate them from friends and family, and to make them feel like it’s all their fault, everything wrong in their relationship is their fault.

Often times friends and family won’t even see the abuse at all, and they’ll often say – and it’s typically a guy, but there are women that do this, too – that “Oh, he’s the nicest guy. I don’t see what’s wrong with him. I don’t see the problem. I don’t know what you see.” And then sometimes they’ll even side with the abuser… Your friends and family will do this, because they can’t see the prolonged exposure to that abuse that you’re going through. So that’s one of them.

The next one is before you met your partner, you felt pretty good about yourself. That happens a lot. You know, “I felt pretty good about myself, and then I meet this woman or this guy, and I just feel bad about myself more often than not.” That’s another one.

Everything in the relationship seems so complex. Nothing is easy. It’s like you’re trying to have a good night and you set everything up, but something about it is complex, and then you have this conversation and it just can’t be easy to say “Oh, I’m sorry” and “I’m sorry, too.” There’s no equanimity, there’s no balance there. It just seems harder than it should be. Relationships shouldn’t be THAT hard. This always takes work, but if it’s that hard and complex, that might be something to look at.

And again, each of these by themselves – you can’t just weigh it on its own, but along with the others, over a period of time, it can be point to that.

Another one is you allow your boundaries or your values to be violated. This happens a lot. I had a client once that said (I’ll try to be clean) “I did things in the bedroom that I thought I would never ever do, and I was very uncomfortable”, and I was like, “Wow…” and I’ve heard stuff like this. So your boundaries get violated, your values get violated, and that slow chipping away at your foundation of who you are, of who you define yourself to be, that chipping away helps them gain more control over you and the relationship.

You feel bad honoring your boundaries – that’s another thing. After it’s chipped away, then you feel bad honoring your boundaries, because if you’re on your boundaries, they make you feel bad about it. So there’s that part of it, too.

You’re always trying to find ways to make your partner happy, even at the cost of your own happiness. I think that’s tough. What happens with a lot of emotionally abusive relationships – and I’ve seen this 98% of the time – there is one who’s a people pleaser and the other one who’s the abuser. They gravitate towards each other. You’ve seen this… The people pleaser loves to give, and giving makes them happy. The other one is the taker – they love to take, and they’ll continue taking. And this is what happens – it’s great in the first one or two months; it’s great, the relationship is everything they both wanted. Then the people pleaser realizes that the taker never gives back, and continues to take, and continues to take advantage, and continues to take, and take, and take, and suddenly the people pleaser feels burnt out, because usually there is some sort of reciprocation along the lines… People pleasing is a dysfunction in itself that we could talk about another time, but the idea that “Hey, I should at least get something from this…” The taker loves to take, and will continue to take.

I know there are people listening right now that have experienced this or might be experiencing this now. “It started off great, and then he/she changed.” Not really… It just got worse because the giving kept going and the taking kept going.

Dr. Jessica Higgins: Right. I can remember a young woman that was in my office, and it was like fast-forward this dynamic seven years and she was in great turmoil. She just didn’t recognize herself anymore; she’s like “Who have I become? I am not this person”, and just the shell of a person that she had become, and it was like so much grieving, so much sadness around how much it had evolved. It’s enormously painful to let this continue, and the end result is usually — I mean, it tends to just get worse.

Paul Colaianni: Yes. In fact, the words you just said, the very words – “I feel like a shell of my former self”, you said something like that… It’s exactly the same words I’ve heard several times, including from my own girlfriend when she split from her husband. That’s what happens. You are getting cored out. The core of you is getting ripped out, and you’re getting rebuilt to kind of follow the path of the manipulator.

What happens is your foundation gets chipped away, like I was saying, and your boundaries and your values and your beliefs and everything that you really appreciated about yourself gets sucked away. Now you feel like you can’t go anywhere because the manipulator is really the only one that will ever love you. Those are the words… They’ll sometimes say things like “Do you really think you’re gonna get anyone else?” They’ll start to make you feel guilty and inferior and insecure in so many ways.

So absolutely, I’m along those lines. I have five or six more if you’d like me to read these.

Dr. Jessica Higgins: Yeah, please.

Paul Colaianni: Great. I mean, I’ve got 105 more if you want, but let’s just keep it condensed here. [laughter] Unfortunately I have that many. So one of them is you apologize a lot. You’re always saying “I’m sorry. I’m so sorry.” When you do that a lot, and your partner hardly ever does” – that’s one of the questions I ask: “Does your partner ever apologize?” They have to stop and think, and they’re like “No…’ and I’m like “That says something.” That says… You know, whatever it says; we can get into that. It’s like he doesn’t want you to feel good or he doesn’t wanna be responsible. There’s more to that.

This one’s one of my favorites – in the sense of study, not in the sense of behavior… Your partner talks and talks and talks and talks, and then he/she sounds like the most rational, reasonable person there is. I’ve seen this over and over again. Manipulation can often happen through continuous dialogue.

I actually had a client – I didn’t ask for it – send me an audio conversation she recorded, and I got a chance to hear it in real time. She didn’t really know he was manipulating, but when I heard that, I was like “Wow…” He explained himself and explained to her exactly everything in a calm – manipulators are often calm – rational manner, and she was crying. She’d have an emotional reaction, but he sounded calm and rational and logical. This is where crazy-making can happen. Crazy-making – you feel like you’re going crazy in the relationship and you don’t know why, you can’t pinpoint it. She feels like “I’m going crazy” and he points out that she’s going crazy, because “You’re just overreacting. You’re just so emotional all the time”, and she’s going crazy because she doesn’t know how he does it. So I listen to this and I’m like “Oh, it’s awful”, but it’s a fascinating study. That’s a sign that sometimes can lead to a manipulating quality.

Another one is you don’t know where your passion for life is. “Where’s my spark, where’s my zest?” This happened to my wife when I was married to my wife. This is why I can speak to this, because I saw it happen. I was the one who was helping her lose her zest for life. I was a highly judgmental person, and I took a long time to heal from that, get that out of me. But I saw her just get more and more depressed, and I thought “What’s her problem? Why is she doing that?” When I look back, I realize “Oh my god, of course she’s doing that, because I’m so judgmental. Everything she shares with me I’m just judgmental about, and she doesn’t feel safe with me.” One of her highest values in a relationship – and she told me this – is to feel safe in that relationship. After we split up I’m like “No wonder she was getting more and more depressed. She didn’t feel safe.” She couldn’t even meet her highest value in a relationship with me, so she just secluded herself, isolated herself and just got more and more in herself and more and more down and depressed. So that’s another one.

I’ve got four more. You dread losing the relationship, even though you’re mostly unhappy in it. That’s something I touched upon earlier – you feel guilty, you dread losing it because “He/she is the only one that will ever love me.” I exaggerate/emphasize it because I put myself in that position. I can feel it when I talk about it. “That person is the only person that will ever love me”, and that is an unhealthy belief and absolutely not true, but you’re convinced it’s true because that’s how it was set up. You dread losing the relationship. It’s so hard to get out of the relationship because you feel so insecure without this person. They’ve taken control over a lot of things and they’re your only supply of love and happiness. They did that on purpose. You’re gonna get that elsewhere, believe me; it’s just that they’ve made you think that you can’t get it anywhere else.

I know I’m really beating down the manipulator here and I’ll talk about that in one moment, if we have time. Like you said, there is hope for both ends of this.

Last three – you feel like you’re going crazy… I already said that, and I kind of mentioned this earlier. This crazy-making or this craziness that you feel is often exacerbated by friends and family thinking that your partner is the nicest person in the world. It’s typically what happens. Manipulators (this is my own theory) make the best of friends. They’re always there; they come to your aid, they come to your need, but they make the worst of romantic partners, the worst of lovers.

It’s like my girlfriend’s ex-husband – nice guy, he’s always saying “Hi, how are you doing?” and when he’s in a relationship, you don’t wanna be near him.

Last two. You feel guilty almost all of the time. I already addressed that. It’s pretty self-explanatory — no, not really, but there’s a lot of ways they make you feel guilty. The last one I kind of addressed, as well… You believe you’re not worthy or loveable, and that goes along the lines of them wanting you to feel insecure without them. So there’s my shortened version.

Dr. Jessica Higgins: Thank you for that. Are you publishing the full version, is that available yet for people?

Paul Colaianni: Yeah. If you go to you can sign up — the full version is almost done; I’ve got it 99% done. Just put yourself on the waiting list and you can get the rest of it. It’s gonna be a checklist and it also tells you what your score is and where you are on the scale, and once you figure out where you are on the scale, what can you do about it, and so on and so forth. I think it will be an online only workbook, but definitely if you’ve not heard anything before the stuff I’ve talked about, if you’ve not seen this online, if you’ve not recognized this in your own relationship, I highly recommend either you look it up online, start researching it… Sign up for the workbook  – I can certainly send it to you, and check that out.

The workbook itself is several pages long of a checklist like “This is true, this is true, this is true…” and then it gives you the classes, it describes where you are, where you might be and what you can do.

Dr. Jessica Higgins: This is outstanding, I’m super excited that you’ve developed this. I know just having background around psychological testing that there’s a lot that goes into this, so that’s a huge offering. And also what you’re describing – if there’s some inclination of wondering, or just feeling like something’s not right, this is an extremely helpful tool, even if you don’t rank super high on a toxic relationship or emotional abuse, that it’s like awareness around what is healthy and unhealthy. Sometimes people have no sense of like — maybe their family upbringing, there were certain things going on… They just don’t know any different.

Paul Colaianni: Exactly.

Dr. Jessica Higgins: So it’s like, “Oh, that’s not okay that this is happening?” It’s just eye-opening that some of these things are not constructive and not productive, so I think it’s a great tool and resource.

Paul Colaianni: Yeah, totally about what you just said – people don’t even realize something’s toxic. I had a client say “You know what? I tuned into your show and it was the first time I’ve ever heard about boundaries.” I was like “Really? I thought everyone knew about boundaries.” I teach it just in case, but I never really thought I’d hear from someone who’s like “I never knew about boundaries. That’s where I learned what they were and how important they were to honor in yourself and just make it clear what’s acceptable in your life and what’s not to others.” I was like “Wow, then I need to keep doing this.”

Dr. Jessica Higgins: Yes, exactly. And for people listening, I will make sure that link for this assessment, or this — what are you calling it?

Paul Colaianni: It’s the Mean Worksheet.

Dr. Jessica Higgins: The Mean Worksheet, okay. I’ll make sure that the link is easily available on the show notes. Paul, take us to where you wanna go next, because I have several questions, but I also know that you have an offering here that you’ve put some time and energy into and I would love to just follow your lead here.

Paul Colaianni: Oh no, this is great. What we’re doing is fine. I did mention that the manipulator also has hope; you had a great comment in the beginning, like “There is hope.” There is absolutely hope. I unfortunately was a former manipulator. I like to think I’m not a manipulator anymore…

Dr. Jessica Higgins: Can I ask you a question on that?

Paul Colaianni: Sure, please.

Dr. Jessica Higgins: What prompted you to read that book?

Paul Colaianni: Well, here’s the thing… With the manipulators, one of the ways to get them off their butts and do something – if they really care about keeping the relationship – is to provide absolute accountability. I saw in my marriage that my wife was ready to leave. “This is it. If you can’t figure yourself out, I’m out of here.” Our whole marriage was me going “Hey, if you change, we’ll be great.” So that helped (bad word) me be more manipulative toward her, and when she said that, I suddenly felt accountability. “This is real. If I don’t do something, I’m gonna lose this. I don’t wanna lose this. I care about this relationship.”

That’s what happened. I was like, “Okay, what do I need to do?” I think I started looking in the self-help section of a book store, and I’m looking for — I don’t even know what I was looking for.

Dr. Jessica Higgins: It jumped out at you.

Paul Colaianni: Yeah, it had this bronze, copper-looking cover and I’m like “The Manipulative Man… Well, that’s not me, but let’s check it out”, and then suddenly I found out it was me. So that’s kind of how it went.

Dr. Jessica Higgins: Well, hence your Mean Worksheet that you’re inviting people to just check out, even if they feel like they’re not sure; this can be illuminating.

Paul Colaianni: Yeah, absolutely. When you get to that page,, you’ll se some of the sample items on there. It’s not a free worksheet so to speak… I don’t wanna make them think that it’s completely free, but you’re gonna find so many free resources on my site, in my podcast, and I talk about manipulative relationships in several of my podcast episodes. I’ve just condensed it into that worksheet. But absolutely… If you’re not interested in buying it or you just wanna see a sample of it, there it is. But certainly, go to my podcast library and you’ll see several episodes where I talk about manipulative relationships and emotional abuse.

Dr. Jessica Higgins: Okay, and I can do some heavy lifting there and try to streamline that for people, and put those links too on the show notes. I encourage people — I have looked at Paul’s website several times and I’m very excited about all the free resources that you have.

Paul Colaianni: Thank you.

Dr. Jessica Higgins: Okay, so you were about to talk about the manipulator, and then I asked you that question, because you were sharing just the accountability, that until you had that real hard line of like “There are consequences here…”

Paul Colaianni: Yeah, so… Hope for the manipulator. I’m gonna tell you this – it’s hard to not be one. It’s sort of like for a period of time I was on unemployment. And I tell you what – when you’re on unemployment and you’re getting a weekly check, it’s hard to stop that. It’s like “I’m getting a weekly check and I don’t have to do much work at all.” [laughter] So it’s hard to stop that… But I stopped that. I’m like, “Okay, I can do that.” And being a manipulator, I was like “How am I gonna stop this?”

One of the things that a manipulator can do is put the focus on him or herself. I spent my marriage trying to figure out how my wife could change to make things better.

Dr. Jessica Higgins: It’s so important, yes.

Paul Colaianni: Yes. I was so externally focused on someone else changing to make my life better. I just turned that around and said to myself “What can I do to make my life better?” and there’s some hard answers that come up when you ask that question… Because I wanted to say “If she would just – and I’m gonna share some of my shallowness; I mean, back then, not now – lose weight…!” Because I had a real problem with her eating. She was an emotional eater. “If she would just stop eating junk food, then I would be happy!” When I turned that around and do it from my perspective, “What do I need to do to be happy in this relationship, to be more comfortable in myself, to enjoy my time with her?”, one of the answers that came up said “I wouldn’t be in a relationship like this”, and I was like “Whow… Wait a minute, what does that mean? That means if I really truly hated her behavior, disliked what she does with her body, with food, with whatever it is, if I really disliked it, then I should leave. Because if I’m unhappy with it, then I shouldn’t be in this relationship… Because obviously, it’s triggering me in some way. So why am I blaming her for something I keep exposing myself to?” I’m the one who’s staying in this relationship where I have a disagreement with, that…

Dr. Jessica Higgins: It’s a deal-breaker, yeah.

Paul Colaianni: Yeah, it’s hard for me to come up with that and to go “Whow…!” After I turned that around and turned inward, and went “What would I do if I wanted to be happy in this relationship? If I had no control over her, and – this is important  – she never, ever changed?” And once I grasped onto that and realized “If this person never changed no matter what I did, what would I do then?” and that question really resonated with me in a way that shocked my system… “Oh my god, I would leave.” It didn’t mean I left; it just meant I had to come up with these answers in myself, which really made me realize “Oh, I am the common denominator. I am in charge, I am responsible for me and me only.”

After I broke through that and focused on myself and what I can do to have a better relationship, to have a better self, to improve me, I realized that I need to bring the best version of myself into this relationship, that’s what I need to do. And if she chooses to do the same thing (whatever her definition of best version of herself is), great. I started working on myself, I started healing, I started breathing, I started doing everything I possibly could to heal through this stuff. This was around the time she actually separated from me, but we were still communicating, we were still wanting to get back together, and I started showing up as this sort of “starting to heal” person. And she goes “I don’t even know how to respond to you anymore, because you’re not the same person.” And I’m like, “That’s weird… I’m still the same person.” She goes, “No, you’re not. It’s very strange”, and I’m like “That’s good, right?” She goes, “I think so.” She only knew the toxic me, and it was so weird for her to see this other personality, because it was just a completely different person.

So I think for the manipulator that might hear this conversation, it just has to be a matter of focusing on yourself and stop trying to change the world and those around you, because that’s what creates unhappiness in every situation in your life. You think you’re creating happiness, because “If I can control that person, then I’ll get what I want. If I can control this environment, I’ll get what I want.” What ends up happening is you start building resentment in all these people. It happens over time, and then you become unhappy and you think it’s everyone else’s fault. Turning that around, and there’s where I give some of the manipulators hope out there that maybe they can start to heal themselves.

Dr. Jessica Higgins: Thank you for sharing some vulnerability there too, because I do know from people that I’ve worked with and even when I’m hearing you that there’s some real discontent, that it’s not just for fun or entertainment, that there is something going on, but that the means, the strategy of trying to control outwardly isn’t effective, isn’t helpful, can be toxic, but that what you really found is turning it inward and really making that connection… It can feel overwhelming for people too, that like “Oh, now I’m responsible for all of this?” but at the same time, incredibly liberating and freeing that like “I actually have power here, I actually have some choice. I don’t need to be so driven by fear (like you were saying) or controlling others to feel okay. I actually can be my own change agent.” That’s immense work, and I just honor your journey.

This is the reason why I’m in this field – how powerful relationship can activate and give us curriculum for growth and development, and we don’t always choose to do the work, but what can come from it, and like you said, the person — she didn’t even really know how to relate to you, and the transformation there is enormous.

Paul Colaianni: Yeah. And with my marriage – to close that kind of story – she had separated from me because she had already fallen out of love with me. That’s how the emotional manipulator really creates havoc in their life – the other person will build resentment and they’ll fall out of love. If you’re in a romantic relationship with them, they’ll fall out of love. And then you don’t want someone to stick around when they’re not in love with you. It has to be really clear in your mind that “What am I doing to make them fall out of love with me? What am I creating here?” and it is hard for a lot of manipulators to see what they’re doing, because they’re so focused on everyone else. “I’m so focused on them changing, and them changing. If that person did this, then I’d be happy. If that person did that…”

Turn that focus around and say “What can I do to make myself happy?” because I can’t change a soul. And just to top this off with the victim of manipulation, I think one of the best pieces of advice I can give you is to start trusting yourself and make decisions regardless of if you believe you’re right or wrong. Just start making decisions, because what happens is you just don’t trust yourself. “I don’t trust my own decision-making ability.” Start making decisions quick, because what happens is you start programming yourself to start trusting yourself again. “Alright, I’ll make a decision. I might be wrong…”, just live with it. Do it. Because you can deal with being wrong, in most cases. You don’t make a decision on a life-or-death situation, but “Okay, I’ll make this decision. I could be wrong. That means I could get yelled at, that means somebody might not like me”, it doesn’t matter. Make it and deal with it, because what you end up doing is creating a better system of decision-making in you and you start trusting yourself more, because you’re gonna learn what doesn’t work and what does work.

The victim of a manipulation, they’ve learned that nothing works without someone else’s guidance, and you start guiding yourself again. You go “You know what? I’m gonna make this decision even if there’s a risk of failure. Alright, I failed, that sucked. I’m gonna now make this decision. Hey, that worked. Now I know what doesn’t work, now I know what does work. I’m starting to trust myself more.” So that’s kind of the last tidbit I would like to give the victim of any of this.

Dr. Jessica Higgins: Yeah, thank you for rounding that out. I know we’re probably transitioning our time together and wrapping up soon, but as you’re inviting a victim or someone that’s experiencing the emotional abuse to make decisions and act on it, it’s almost this feeling I’m getting of someone bringing themselves into the relationship… The whole shell of a person, like they’ve taken themselves out – without naming all the things you’ve just talked about and why, but that there is a vacancy there, and really saying “Okay, what do I want?” and making some decisions from what’s real. I just think it’s so important.

I’m stopping myself from talking, because I feel there’s so much to say about this topic…

Paul Colaianni: [laughs] Yeah, we could talk some more.

Dr. Jessica Higgins: Just as far as getting support to do that, do you offer coaching? How can people connect with your offerings around this?

Paul Colaianni: Yeah, great. I think the first thing is to search for my show. If you go to any browser, just type in “the overwhelmed brain”, I take up like the first ten pages. You can go directly to, you can find it on iTunes for the podcast… Yes, I do coach; I do one-on-one, I also have an e-mail coaching program that you can join… I always recommend instead of just going straight for coaching, start listening to the show. The show is kind of like the entry point. I want you to learn as much as possible about yourself, about boundaries, about values, about empowerment, how to get into a good space in yourself, how to start dealing with, or if you have to, even eliminating toxic relationships. Just start listening to episodes of the show so that you get a feel for who I am, although this interview kind of gives you a feeling about that probably. Then you can tell what subject matters you might need help in, too.

Start listening to the show, definitely listen to Doctor J’s show… Because I’ve looked at your list of podcasts and there are a lot of similar topics. I totally appreciate and love when there’s more people out in the world teaching this stuff. If my neighbor’s happy, I’m happy. If my mom is happy because she heard a podcast, that makes my life easier. The more people out there that learn this stuff, that find this stuff, that teach this stuff, the more people just have a better overall balanced life.

Dr. Jessica Higgins: Yes, I like it. Okay, well I will make sure to have all of those link on the show notes, and again, thank you so much for sharing your valuable time with us, and your teachings. I know people will get great value out of this, as well as your other offerings.

Paul Colaianni: Thank you so much, Doctor J. I appreciate your time, too. Thank you for the invite, I enjoyed being here.

I hope you have enjoyed this episode. Again, this is episode 113 – How To Identify Manipulative And Emotionally Abusive Relationships, with Paul Colaianni. Again, if you are interested in accessing the show notes and all the links mentioned, you can visit my website, which is, click on Podcast, and you can find the episodes there. If you have any questions or would like more support, please feel free to reach out to me. My e-mail is

If you are patiently waiting for my episodes around trust, please know that that’s coming up very soon, and I appreciate your patience around that. Until next time, I hope you take great care!

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