Gaslighting can occur in unique ways in some of the most damaging, unhealthy relationships, where the other party manipulates conversations to minimize your feelings. But there are hallmark expressions and tactics that most can learn to associate with this toxic practice once they've learned to do so — “You’re blowing things way out of proportion.” “You’re misunderstanding what I’m saying.” “You’re just crazy.” If you're catching yourself recognizing these phrases while confronting your partner, sibling or your boss, all while constantly second-guessing yourself or apologizing for things you can't recall, you've fallen victim to gaslighting.
Gaslighting takes place when someone “tries to get another person or a group of people to question or doubt their own beliefs or their own reality,” explains Danielle Hairston, M.D., assistant professor of psychiatry and psychiatry residency training director at Howard University. “It’s a manipulation tactic.”
She adds that gaslighters accuse their victims of exaggerating or misunderstanding a situation and sometimes deny that an event ever happened. This leaves victims of gaslighting questioning a past or present situation, as well as the intentions of others’ statements or actions and whether they’re reacting appropriately.
What is gaslighting, exactly?
Gaslighting is a form of emotional abuse, where someone is manipulated into “doubting his or her perceptions, experiences, or understanding of events,” according to the American Psychological Association (APA). It previously referred to extreme manipulation that could lead to someone developing a mental illness or needing to be committed to a psychiatric institution, but the APA says it’s used more generally now.
The term originated from a 1938 play by Patrick Hamilton and the 1944 film adaptation Gaslight. In the movie, a wife starts to doubt her sanity after her manipulative husband starts slowly dimming the gas lamps in their home and making other changes to their environment. When she brings it up, he tells her she’s forgetful, imagining things and behaving oddly, and isolates her from others.
Gaslighters strive to make someone lose trust and confidence in themselves or feel confused about reality, Dr. Hairston says, “It’s trying to distract you or deflect guilt or accountability and responsibility. Sometimes, it’s even harsher, like someone is trying to belittle you or damage or chip away at your self-esteem.”
Here are 18 common phrases gaslighters use, and more information below about how you can empower yourself to respond to gaslighting. You can also use the details below if you find yourself gaslighting others.
This is a common phrase that gaslighters use to avoid taking responsibility or being accountable for their actions, Dr. Hairston says. It leads the victim to self-doubt and question the reality of the situation, and worry about their own judgment and sanity.
Since isolation is a key tactic of gaslighting, perpetrators try to make you feel alone or powerless. Usually, instead of using specific names, gaslighters will use general terms like, “everyone thinks there’s something wrong with you” or “all our friends know you have problems,” explains Stephanie Sarkis, Ph.D., psychotherapist and author of Gaslighting: Recognize Manipulative and Emotionally Abusive People—and Break Free. “I call them invisible armies,” she says. “They’ll use this as a backup of people who aren’t there to solidify their point.”
Telling a victim that something never happened or that it occurred differently than how they remember is a covert form of gaslighting, Sarkis says. It causes someone to doubt their perceptions and feel confused. “It can be very traumatic,” Dr. Hairston said. “It can be a very negative experience when you’re trying to express something that happened and someone is repeatedly telling you, ‘No, it didn’t happen.’”
Making you doubt your memory or reality is a covert, passive-aggressive tactic of gaslighting, Sarkis says. Telling someone that something didn’t happen is a common phrase that downplays someone’s experiences and feelings. This comment can be especially harmful if it revolves around a traumatic event.
This statement enables a gaslighter to avoid taking responsibility. Discrediting a person’s opinion, personal experience, credibility or intelligence are common gaslighting tactics, explains Jennifer Douglas, Ph.D., assistant clinical professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Stanford University School of Medicine.
In romantic relationships, a gaslighter may use their partner’s love against them as a way to excuse their own bad behavior. They may also incorrectly accuse partners of cheating or causing problems in the relationship. So they’ll say things like, “If you cared about me, you would let me look through your phone,” Sarkis says, which forces a victim to break down their boundaries. “The purpose is to undermine your sense of reality and to make you feel like you can’t trust yourself,” she says.
Absolutisms like always, never, everyone and no one are “red flags” of gaslighting, Sarkis says. Accusing someone of overreacting trivializes a victim’s feelings and makes them feel like their judgment of the situation is skewed.
This statement is meant to attack someone’s self-worth and alienate them from others — so they’re more dependent on the gaslighter. Perpetrators may also attack your friends or families or suggest that you stay away from certain people. Dr. Hairston says this can be a subtle type of manipulation.
Similar to telling someone that they’re crazy or overreacting, this statement discredits or minimizes a victim’s intelligence, emotions, or credibility, Douglas says. It’s essentially telling someone how they should feel, possibly making them worry that they aren’t reacting appropriately.
Gaslighters often say this to get away with hurtful comments. They may also start saying hurtful things in a joking way to normalize the situation. Hearing this phrase might lead you to second-guess your reactions and perceptions.
Manipulators often blame someone else for a problem in a relationship, while taking the attention off of themselves. For example, Sarkis says, gaslighters might say, “You have no clue how to manage money. We’re in debt because of you.” When in fact, the gaslighter is the one who’s overspending.
Deflecting and confusing a victim are hallmarks of gaslighting, and perpetrators often refuse to take responsibility for their actions, Dr. Hairston says. Gaslighters might accuse their victim of deliberately provoking them and then blame the victim when they get angry. Victims might feel the need to apologize even when they know they haven’t done anything wrong.
Research published in the American Sociological Review noted the story of a woman whose partner would steal her money and then accuse her of losing it and being “careless” with money. “The purpose is to undermine your sense of reality and to make you feel like you can’t trust yourself,” Sarkis says.
This remark aims to cause “parental alienation,” Sarkis says, which causes victims to second-guess their actions, diminishes their self-esteem, and makes them believe others think badly of them. “They want you to get upset so you align more with the gaslighter,” she adds.
Gaslighting usually features an unequal power dynamic. Sarkis says this comment might come from your boss or a spouse who may have more clout in the community in an attempt to make you feel powerless. “They might say, ‘If you say something, who are they going to believe, me or the crazy person?’” she adds.
If you try to express hurt or other emotions, a gaslighter may say this to minimize and invalidate your feelings. The best way to respond is to stand your ground, Dr. Hairston says, “You should say, ‘Well, I don’t feel like I’m being sensitive. I’m trying to get my point across and express myself.’”
Once a gaslighter gets their victim upset, they might say this, especially if the victim tries to call them out. The goal is to minimize someone’s feelings so that they doubt their emotions or worry that they’re being too sensitive. “The core idea to look out for is the discrediting of one person’s opinion and personal experience,” Douglas says.
Shifting blame is a common gaslighting tactic. Accusing the victim of being the gaslighter causes confusion, makes them question the situation, and draws attention away from the true gaslighter’s harmful behavior, Sarkis says.
Gaslighters manipulate by deflecting or shifting blame or outright denying something happened, Dr. Hairston says. If you’re experiencing gaslighting, you may:
- Doubt your feelings, beliefs, thoughts and reality
- Question your perceptions and judgment
- Feel alone, powerless, or inadequate
- Feel confused
- Apologize frequently
- Second guess your feelings, memories and decisions
- Worry that you’re too sensitive or that’s something wrong with you
- Have trouble making decisions
- Think others dislike you without cause
You might associate gaslighting with romantic relationships, where it can be a form of domestic abuse. And, it is. But, gaslighting can occur in any relationship — with a partner, spouse, friend, sibling, co-worker or boss — where someone tries to wield power over another person and manipulate them.
Gaslighting is “rooted in social inequities,” including race and gender, and is common in instances where there’s a power differential, according to an American Sociological Review report. It comes up in situations where someone feels defensive, such as in arguments and disagreements — but, it can also be unprovoked and occur outside an argument, says Douglas.
“For example, in a harsh work environment where employees are continually disrespected and overworked, a manager may refer to the company as treating one another ‘like family’ when that phrasing may gaslight the experience of the employees,” she says.
Gaslighters sometimes try to isolate their victims from family and friends, who likely recognize and may call out how their loved one is being treated, Dr. Hairston adds. The isolation increases a victim’s dependency on their abuser and downgrades their self-esteem.
Communicating with a gaslighter can be a challenge (even if it's one of your closest friends!). They’re likely to get defensive, angry, lie, or twist things around so you feel confused or doubt your feelings about the situation. Still, it's important to note that gaslighting is happening, Douglas says. And, keep documentation as proof, such as text messages or emails.
“We may not be able to keep the person from gaslighting us, but we may be able to make sure that they hear our case,” she explains, adding that sometimes communicating your feelings in writing instead of verbally works better. Still, things might not change.
“When you confront a gaslighter, be prepared that they usually don’t own up to it,” Sarkis says, adding that the gaslighter might double down on their behavior. “You can’t win an argument with somebody who has this level of manipulation.”
Sometimes, setting boundaries, walking away, and ending the relationship is the best approach. It might also be helpful to talk to a mental health professional about the experience. “If you feel like the situation is making you uncomfortable, making you doubt yourself, and it's impacting your self-esteem and confidence, walk away from the situation,” Dr. Hairston says. “You don't have to engage.”
You can also call the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 800-799-7233, or log on to thehotline.org. The hotline is open 24/7, 365 days a year — and all calls are anonymous and confidential. If you need more info about the warning signs of abuse, or the best way to reach out to someone, log on to the National Network to End Domestic Violence (NNEDV) website at womenslaw.org.