Although gaslighting is not a clinical term, the word refers to another person attempting to make you doubt what you believe to be true as a form of manipulation.1 For example, you confront your mother after she embarrasses you in front of your friends. Most parents will apologize and ask for forgiveness. If she doubles down and tells you that you are being too sensitive, this is likely gaslighting.
Nobody wants to have their mother embarrass them and be treated this way. Whenever someone denies your feelings, thoughts, or behaviors, especially if it is part of a pattern, you are right to suspect gaslighting.
Knowing these common phrases can help protect yourself from gaslighting. Remember, you are the expert on yourself. Check-in with yourself and listen to your gut. Ask yourself, what does the other person have to gain if I believe them.
The following are 25 phrases abusers will use to gaslight you:
1. “You’re being paranoid.”
This is a favorite phrase of abusive or cheating partners. It may be combined with projection—accusing you of cheating. When combined with accusations, the likelihood of your partner manipulating you increases. Ask yourself, am I generally paranoid? What is making me think this? What does my gut say?
2. “You’re overreacting.”
Does your boss take your ideas and present them as their own without giving you credit? When you try to talk to her about it, do they brush you off? This phrase is used to shut down further dialog and the other person gets off scot-free.
3. “That never happened.”
Although it can be hard for parents to hear when their child opens up about bad things that happened to them in childhood, healthy parents want to learn all they can about it and support their adult children. Wholesale denial that it even happened can indicate you are being gaslit. Remember, the goal of gaslighting is to get you to deny your own reality.
4. “You are making that up.”
Similar to “that never happened,” this statement is even more damaging. Telling you that you are making things up leads you to not only doubt your reality but it accuses you of trying to gaslight and manipulate them. Most of us take some pride in being open and honest people, and this phrase turns that upside down.
5. “You have always been crazy.”
Watch out for “always.” Nobody is always one way. Ask yourself whether this person benefits from me thinking of myself that way. Do other people in my life think of me that way? It may help to think of past times you were not angry, crazy, bad with money, and so forth.
6. “I don’t know what you want me to say.”
This may be said when you are trying to get them to understand your point of view. Or, they may not like hearing calm, reasonable questions about their behavior. It is a way of prematurely shutting down the conversation.
7. “It’s your fault.”
Suppose you left some food for your partner that just needed to be heated up. They refuse to pop it in the microwave and instead blame you for their hunger. They wanted you to serve them hot food and nothing else would do. Same with anger. When you have to walk on eggshells around someone, gaslighting is likely at play.
8. “Everyone agrees with me.”
This has the added bonus of making you feel isolated. If they can convince you a reasonable person would agree with them, you will likely back down and question your own reality. If you already harbor doubts about yourself in this area, it can be hard to see the manipulation at play.
9. “It was just a joke, can’t you take a joke?”
If you get upset over an insult, you may hear that it’s “just a joke” or they were “just joking.” Of course, close friends, partners, and relatives joke around with each other. But if these often come at your expense and you can’t reply in kind without negative consequences, pay attention to this.
10. “How dare you accuse me of doing that!”
I never did that. You are the one who is hurting me. This is a tactic known as DARVO, deny, attack, reverse victim, and offender. This tactic, often used by narcissistic abusers, tends to work because normal people are horrified that they have hurt another person. It gets you to drop your valid concern and focus on earning forgiveness.
11. “Why can’t you be more like your sibling?”
This phrase may indicate a golden child/scapegoat dynamic. The golden child can do no wrong, while the scapegoat can do no right. This leaves everyone unbalanced as they compete for love and attention from the parent.
12. “I can’t have any negative emotions around you.”
When defending yourself from abuse, watch out for blanket statements like this one. Perhaps you called them out and their reaction is a torrent of abuse. When you point that out, they become hysterical or cold, claiming they can’t be their true selves around you.
13. “There is something seriously wrong with you.”
If every time you talk about your feelings, you are met with a version of this statement, consider the source. If they are walking away feeling superior and you are left wondering if there is, indeed, something wrong with you, who does this benefit?
14. “The Bible commands us to … ”
Using religion to gaslight you is a special type of malice. Inserting themselves into your relationship with god to benefit them often works well for them, while leaving you shaken and guilty. This is a form of spiritual abuse, and it’s not okay under any circumstances.
15. “You’re not perfect, either.”
When you try to bring up a grievance, the conversation quickly shifts to mistakes you’ve made in the past. There is no room for the current issue you are trying to discuss. This puts you on the defense, which is the point.
16. “Stop exaggerating.”
Your concerns are not important to them, so you must be embellishing. Ask yourself, does this person usually brush off issues I bring up? Do other people in my life accuse me of exaggeration?
17. “Don’t blame me, I never meant to hurt you.”
This is frustrating to hear. Intentions aside, you were hurt, and hearing this stonewalling technique stops the conversation cold. Sometimes the silent treatment will follow. This is a time to be extra kind to yourself, as you wrap your mind around what just happened.
18. “Let’s forgive and forget.”
You’re a forgiving person, or at least you like to think so. If you have heard this in your religious tradition, you may feel bad about not letting it go. Remember, forgiveness is not reconciliation. You can forgive and still honor your boundaries.
19. “Why are you always bringing up the past?”
Likely because nothing has been resolved. If you are trying to point out a pattern of behavior, they do not want to hear it. They have no interest in being held accountable for past abuse.
20. “This is how you treat me after everything I’ve done for you?”
The ultimate guilt trip. If said by a parent, remember they are supposed to care for their children. Holding normal parenting over your head is a sure sign you are being gaslit and manipulated.
21. “We talked about this – don’t you remember?”
Perhaps your partner stayed out late without telling you ahead of time. Most people will stop for a while and comb through their memories to see if this has any merit. Healthy partners would want to apologize if true, but now you are doubting your own memory.
22. “I think you need professional help.”
Be wary when you are being told any variation of this. Like the play and movie of the same name, the gaslighter’s goal may be to break you completely. Convincing you that you are having a nervous breakdown is an effective way to do this.
23. “You think you’re so smart.”
Especially if your abuser is threatened by your intelligence, this cutting phrase is meant to knock you down a peg or two.
24. “You have an active imagination.”
This implies that you have made everything up, or at least embellished heavily. It is designed to get you to go back over the facts you are trying to assert and hopefully make you doubt yourself.
25. “You always have to be right.”
Projection at its finest. When this is projected onto you, don’t take the bait. Of course, we all like to feel that we are right, but when used as a weapon, it’s about them, not you.
Responding to Gaslighting
Knowing these common phrases can help protect yourself from gaslighting. Remember, you are the expert on yourself. Check in with yourself and listen to your gut. Ask yourself what the other person has to gain if you believe them.
“Once people know that this is happening to them, they can acknowledge that their own feelings are valid, they are not to blame, and they are not “going crazy.” It is important to know that gaslighting is a form of manipulation that can happen to anyone and the person being gaslit did nothing wrong and is not at fault. Self-compassion is crucial because the person being gaslit must now use additional energy to challenge feelings of doubt. Seeking consultation from trusted people can help to gain insight on the situation, validate the experience, and create allies to help.” – Erin Garwood, Psy.D.
A technique called “grey rock” is helpful when you are being gaslit. Be as boring as a grey rock. Do not engage, do not argue. Agree and end the conversation, or at least change the subject. There is an expression, “Never wrestle with a pig. You both get dirty but the pig likes it.”
Check in with other people in your life, too. It can be helpful to find a therapist, especially if you think you may be in a long-term relationship with someone who is abusive or just not good for your mental health.
Be kind to yourself as you deal with the gaslighter in your life. It can be exhausting and overwhelming to be in this type of relationship, whether it’s your boss, parent, partner, or friends.