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5 phrases gaslighters use to manipulate people

“Gaslighting” is something of a buzzword lately, but that’s because it’s such a common form of manipulation. Here are five gaslighting phrases to watch out for.

WRITER
Sep 20, 2021 UPDATED

Am I crazy?

Am I overreacting?

If you have ever felt like this, you might be experiencing gaslighting. Gaslighting: one of the latest buzzwords making the rounds on social media, news outlets, and even our dinner tables over the last few years. But how can we recognize gaslighting? How do we know if we are a victim of this dialogue of doubt?  

Where did the term “gaslighting” come from?

The term “gaslighting” first appeared back in the late 1930s with the movie Gaslight. It tells the story of a woman whose new husband psychologically manipulates her by trying to convince her she’s gone insane. His primary tactic is dimming and brightening the gas lamps in their home. When the woman asks her husband about the gaslight, he says nothing has changed, and she must be delusional.    

As a therapist, I have heard countless times from clients, “Am I the crazy one?” or “My partner told me I am the one with the problem.” 

Since the 1960s, the title of this film has been used informally to describe when someone is trying to distort your perception of reality. 

In fact, gaslighting is a form of emotional abuse that creates doubt in the mind of the victim. The intention is to make us believe we are going “crazy.” And let me tell you—it works!  

As a therapist, I have heard countless times from clients, “Am I the crazy one?” or “My partner told me I am the one with the problem.” 

As soon as I hear these phrases, my gaslighting detector is on high alert! These questions and statements are always red flags that a gaslighting is happening.

A Monarch by SimplePractice illustration of a horizontal face with colorful scribbles coming out of it.

5 common phrases gaslighters use

There are endless phrases that gaslighters can use in their dialogue of doubt that, on the surface, seem to be pretty innocuous. But beneath this harmless facade is real harm. The best indicator of gaslighting is how it makes the receiver feel. 

“You can’t take a joke!”

Have you ever been the recipient of a cruel comment masquerading as humor? You know, the kind of comment that feels judgmental, and stings. When you ask what the person meant by it, they make you feel bad for questioning them. 

“You can’t take a joke!” is a classic phrase that gaslighters use to downplay the harm they’ve caused, and avoid taking responsibility for what they have said. 

“You’re too sensitive!”

A client that I worked with many years ago told me that her father would always say she was “too sensitive” whenever she cried as a child. She would frequently get angry with herself because she had been told she was doing something wrong by showing emotion. Gaslighters will discount and trivialize the feelings of their victims to maintain their power and control.

“You have it all wrong...again.”

A hallmark of gaslighting is to create doubt in the mind of the victim. Questioning another person’s perception of reality and replacing it with a false version gives the gaslighter the illusion of power. They frequently tell you that there is something wrong with your memory. This, in turn, may cause you to question your sanity.

“I have no idea what you want from me.”

Gaslighter's favor a technique known as “stonewalling.” Pleading ignorance and acting as if they have no idea what you said, what you want, or what you are talking about allows the gaslighter to keep the victim guessing—and questioning. 

No matter how clear you are in your explanation of things, the gaslighter will resist acknowledging or understanding what you’re saying, leaving you to question yourself.

“You’re gaslighting ME!”

Yes, it’s true! Gaslighters will accuse you of being the gaslighter. 

Because gaslighters do not want the focus on their own abusive behaviors, they will deflect onto you. This puts you in the position of constantly defending yourself to the point of exhaustion. As a result, you are left with no energy to hold the gaslighter responsible.  

A Monarch by SimplePractice illustration of a girl drinking coffee and thinking with colorful doodles behind her.

How to reply to a gaslighter

Ok, so now that you know some tactics that gaslighters use, how should you respond? The truth is, it isn’t as easy to deal with a gaslighter. 

Gaslighters are emotional abusers; they are most interested in maintaining power and control. This cannot be stressed too much: You cannot reason with a gaslighter. 

Gaslighting is a manipulative trap, so attempting to negotiate and reason with a gaslighter isn’t going to work. Instead, try these tools I teach my clients. With practice, they work pretty well.

First, being gaslit is all about how it makes you feel. It’s not about whether you are right or wrong. 

End the conversation 

Consider telling the gaslighter that you will not continue the conversation because the communication is abusive. It is important to remember that gaslighters do not like when they are not in control and will not like it when you stand up to them.   

Try the “grey rock” technique

Another technique is to “grey rock” the gaslighter. Grey rocking is a technique in which you become the most boring and uninteresting person you can be. Since gaslighters feed on drama and attention, the duller and more boring you seem, the more you undermine their efforts to manipulate and control you. (This tactic can also work when dealing with narcissistic abuse.)

Don’t respond 

Finally, simply not responding to the gaslighter and walking away is one of the best ways to limit the gaslighting interaction. If your gut is telling you you’re being gaslit, leaving the situation may be the most effective tactic.

Whatever you decide to do, it is important to remember that you cannot change an abusive person, but you can seek support for your own needs and safety if you believe you are being abused or in an abusive relationship.  


Other places gaslighting occurs

When we think about gaslighting, the most common examples are likely to be those in personal relationships.

However, gaslighting also occurs in other relationships too.

For example, in the workplace, toxic bosses and coworkers may use gaslighting to harass employees who pose a threat to them. Or doctors may use gaslighting tactics to make patients believe their symptoms are normal or that they are overreacting.

We've collected some additional resources below on other types of gaslighting to be aware of.

In the workplace

‌In the doctor’s office

Parents who gaslight

Article originally published Jul 29, 2021. Updated Sep 20, 2021.

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