Good to Know

7 Common Gaslighting Phrases, And How To Respond

It can be hard to know what to say when someone — accidentally or otherwise — makes you distrust yourself. These words can help.

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Man and woman having serious discussion on couch

Gaslighting is a form of manipulation that makes someone question their own reality. The psychological tactic is surprisingly common — whether the guilty party used it intentionally or otherwise — and harmful to relationships. It’s a tactic that works to convince someone that, Hey, maybe what I’m thinking or feeling isn’t actually valid… Used intentionally, it’s a means of slowly eroding the trust someone has in their own feelings or point of view. Used accidentally, it can aggravate and bring conversations to an abrupt end. In both cases, it hurts relationships.

And it can be tough to respond to because it instills doubt. So, first and foremost, you need to recognize the signs of gaslighting, key into some common phrases, and respond accordingly. Here are seven common gaslighting phrases, along with some expert-sourced methods on how to respond to them.

1. “That’s not what happened”

True gaslighters very much like to find ways to control the narrative and deny the truth of a situation. They will cling rigidly to their version of events and try whatever they can to convince you that you’re wrong, or at least that your memory is wrong.

How to respond: It helps to be firm in this situation. Psychologist and Hope For Depression Research Foundation Media Advisor Michelle Goldman suggests saying something simple and clear, such as: ‘I know what I saw, I’m not confused about what happened.’ “Depending on the context of the situation, the person’s motives, and your relationship with this person you can even follow up with, ‘It’s okay that we see things differently,’” says Goldman.

2. “This is your own fault.”

This is an attempt to shift blame. If employed enough times, the person being gaslit may start to believe that a given situation actually is their fault and eventually shoulder the blame for most of the problems in a relationship.

How to respond: Try saying, ‘I hope we can both keep accepting responsibility when we’re at fault, to reduce blaming each other,’ says Goldman. “This neutralizes the situation, reminds you that you’re both human and make mistakes, and hopefully takes down their defenses.”

3. “I did that because I was trying to help you.”

Depending on the context, this can be a very manipulative and controlling tactic designed to make a person feel like they are in the wrong and that the speaker’s actions are kind and well-intentioned. “This can alter the way people see their reality,” says Goldman.

How to respond: According to Goldman, a possible response to this type of statement would be ‘I love how much you try to help me. Thank you for that. In this instance, showing me you care for me would look like ________,’ and fill in the blank based on what you need at that moment. “This,” she says, “gives you back your voice, gives you the ability to name what you want or need from that person.”

4. “It’s not that big of a deal!”

Intentional or not, this phrase invalidates a person, letting them know that whatever is important to them is, in fact, not important at all. It makes a person doubt their feelings.

How to respond: “The main goal in the response is to communicate that your emotional reaction is valid,” says Goldman. “Your emotions are real, deserve to be seen and acknowledged.” She says that responses to this type of comment can vary from ‘This actually is a big deal to me’ to ‘My feelings are valid; I would appreciate it if you would respect my emotions.’”

5. “You’re overthinking it.”

A person may have the best of intentions when saying this, trying to tell someone not to stress or labor too much on a given problem. However, it can also minimize that person’s feelings. “On the one hand, people can indeed overthink unnecessary things,” says Dr. Rosmy Barrios, MD, medical advisor for Health Reporter. “But on the other hand, it can cause panic if there is no plan for the future.”

How to respond: In this situation, it would be best to constructively say, ‘I need clarity and a plan for several future situations to feel calm and safe. Thus, I would really appreciate your help.’

6. “It was just a joke!”

Usually said when someone is angry or has clearly taken offense to something that was said as a way to push blame back on the audience. After all, the speaker rationalizes, it can’t be my fault, they just can’t take a joke. “Such a statement in the form of humor can be a way to hide insensitive remarks about appearance, character traits, or actions,” says Barrios.

How to respond: The key here is to firmly explain to someone that you don’t like such statements or jokes because they make you uncomfortable.

7. “You’re too emotional.”

This is another tactic designed to invalidate a person and reduce what are most likely genuine feelings of hurt into overreaction. “Such a phrase tries to understate your feelings, reducing the scale of the event that caused them,” says Barrios.

How to respond: Dr. Barrios suggests taking the high road here. “If someone says this to you, a proper response would be, ‘How do you feel about me being so emotional?,” she says. “If you're uncomfortable or overwhelmed, what can we do to minimize it? But I can get space to express my emotions as well?’”

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