Gaslighting. Ever since president Trump took office, the term has been hard to avoid. It hasn’t just seeped into our vernacular, it’s damn near saturated it. The psychological term describes a form of manipulation that makes someone question their own reality or mental state. It’s a tactic that works to convince someone that, Hey, maybe what I’m thinking or feeling isn’t actually valid… At its most severe, gaslighting is a purposeful and systematic means of slowly eroding the trust someone has in their own point of view or feelings. At its least, it’s an accidental form of bad communication that easily pisses people off and ruins arguments. Chances are, you’re guilty of using at least some gaslighting phrases.
The term gaslighting comes from the 1940 film Gaslight that centers on a woman who, over a long period of time, is systematically convinced by her husband that she’s going mad. But the behavior is a tactic of abuse that has been around for a long as people have been in relationships. A gaslighter is a master at turning the tables and twisting the narrative to shift responsibility and blame.
For example, if someone suspects their partner of cheating and confronts them about it, a gaslighter will turn it around, using phrases like, “Are you crazy? You’re so paranoid! I can’t believe you’d accuse me of something like this.” After a while, the accuser is left wondering who’s to blame after all.
“Typically, people use this behavior to make you think you are the problem, and they aren’t,” says Susan Trombetti, a relationship expert, matchmaker and CEO of Exclusive Matchmaking. “It’s actually very abusive and there is no basis in reality to the claims that you are crazy, jealous, warped, or whatever nonsense they throw at you.”
While the term “gaslighting” is often associated with toxic and abusive behavior, the truth is, gaslighting can creep itself into even a healthy relationship. If you say things like, ‘You’re remembering things wrong,” or, “You’re acting crazy,” even if you mean them lightly or harmlessly, you’re accidentally gaslighting your spouse and fostering negative interactions.
“We all bring our backgrounds to our relationships,” says Lesley Koeppel, a Manhattan-based licensed psychotherapist. “And not everyone goes to therapy to try and understand their background and how it impacts them today. A lot of people that I work with try and go back and see why they might be gaslighting. Maybe it comes from feeling inferior as a child or not being heard as a child. It’s important to at least acknowledge some things that may have happened in your past that make you feel like you need to control the situation.”
Dipping into gaslighting during a relationship is a common tactic when you’re on the defensive or even when you’re trying to calm down a situation. Even though you might be saying “I’m not upset, you are” during an argument without the intent to bend the truth, it is a manipulative statement that can raise the volume on arguments and invalidate your partner. Thus, it’s important to know the signs and avoid the behavior. The first step towards avoiding gaslighting behavior, either as the one doing it or the one receiving it, is to recognize certain gaslighting phrases that might slip into conversations with your partner. Here are six to be aware of.
1. “You take things too personally”
This is a classic gaslighter sentiment that, similar to “You’re too sensitive,” can diminish and invalidate your partner’s feelings. Sometimes a statement like that can come from a person realizing that he or she may have pushed the argument too far.
“People are not comfortable sitting in the muck,” Koeppel says. “So this person isn’t comfortable with the fact that he or she has made their partner upset and now they just want it to stop.”
How to catch yourself: It’s important to keep an eye out for — and extract — such classic invalidating phrases from your vocabulary. Phrases such as this say to your partner “You’re feelings do not matter to me” while also making them question their motivations.
Koeppel has a technique she uses called the “magic mirror” that she says is a great way to understand someone else’s feelings. It works like this: Imagine you’re holding up a mirror to your spouse and saying, ‘It sounds like this is bringing up a lot of past feelings.’ This gives your partner a chance to say, ‘Oh my gosh, yes, it’s actually making me upset because of an argument I had with a friend…’
2. “I’m not upset, you are.”
Saying this gaslighting phrase, you might think that you’re trying to be rational and even bring some calm to the situation, but what you’re actually doing is making your partner question the world around them and forcing them to go on the defensive, says Koeppel.
How to catch yourself: “You need to hit your pause button and ask yourself why you feel the need to turn the conversation back on someone else,” she says. “Instead, say, ‘I hear you. I see that this is an upsetting topic for both of us. Let’s take a few deep breaths and find a way to hear each other.”
3. “I don’t even know what I did wrong.”
A lot of people use this phrase, even if they know full well what they did wrong, as a means of either shifting the blame or trying to minimize their actions, as if to say, “Was it really that bad?” But it’s a classic gaslighter’s phrase because it makes the recipient doubt their reactions.
How to catch yourself: Koeppel recommends using what she calls “The Template” as a means of confronting this kind of an argument. The template goes like this: You fill in the action and you say, for example, ‘When you don’t take out the garbage, i feel invalidated, unimportant, even unloved.’ “It’s hard,” Koeppel says, to argue with someone’s feelings.”
4. “You can’t take a joke.”
This is a common gaslighting tactic, in which the gaslighter says something hurtful or offensive, and when their partner calls them on it, they turn it around and claim they were only teasing. It’s a classic method of invalidation and blame-shifting.
How to catch yourself: It’s important, per Koeppel, to make it clear that, even though you may have been joking, it wasn’t taken that way. “I say to my kids, ‘It’s only a joke if the two people involved are laughing,’” she says. “If both people aren’t laughing, then the other one is likely crying on the inside. So the person making the joke has to have some awareness.”
If you’re often the recipient of this type of gaslighting phrase, make sure you make it clear that you know exactly what is going on. “Lay your boundary down,” says Trombetti. “Refuse to accept this damaging statement that doesn’t allow you to feel a certain way because it was just a joke as opposed to a passive aggressive stab.”
5. “You need to calm down.”
The intention behind this sentiment might be a good one. You might be trying to get your partner to take a breath and gain some perspective. But phrasing it this way can make it sound like you’re talking down to your partner and making it sound as though they’re being hysterical or irrational.
How to catch yourself: “In a situation like this, you can say, ‘I think it has been very upsetting for both of us. This is an upsetting topic. And I think we need to just pause for a second and find a way to hear each other.”
6. “You’re lucky I put up with you.”
You might think this is kind of a light-hearted, playful jab, but it is actually very harmful. It suggests to its recipient that they are not lovable or worthy of love from anyone else, and that they should be grateful that you are even deigning to spend your time with them.
How to catch yourself: “This isn’t healthy,” says Koeppel. “It needs to be axed out of the equation. I wouldn’t mind flipping that on its side and saying, ‘I’m so lucky you understand me, because a lot of people might not. Point the finger in, never out. You’re both lucky. You both have crap, and you both can say, ‘Thank goodness they’re standing in front of me and not running away.’”