Gaslighting explained and 17 things that gaslighters say to manipulate you
- Gaslighting happens when an abuser tries to control a victim by twisting their sense of reality.
- An example of gaslighting would be a partner doing something abusive and then denying it happened.
Abusers gaslight their victims in order to maintain control in the relationship, and make their victim question their own sanity.
In the news: Merriam-Webster, the US dictionary publisher, announced that its 2022 word of the year is "gaslighting" due to the tremendous growth in the word's popularity. Compared to previous years, searches for the word's definition on Merriam-Webster's website increased 1,740% in 2022.
Additionally, the effects of gaslighting may make it even harder for the victim to leave an abusive relationship as they may not even realize it's happening.
Here are 16 examples of common gaslighting situations to help you recognize and address this very real form of emotional abuse.
Gaslighting examples in relationships
Marriam-Webster defines gaslighting as: "The act or practice of grossly misleading someone, especially for one's own advantage."
Gaslighting can happen in any situation including in a doctor's office, the workplace, and perhaps most notoriously in romantic relationships.
Below are 16 examples of what gaslighters say to manipulate you to help you recognize what's happening so you can respond the right way.
1. "That never happened."
Gaslighting often causes the victim to doubt themselves. Someone will do or say something abusive and then deny that it ever happened, says psychotherapist and licensed marriage and family therapist Tina B. Tessina, PhD, in private practice.
"The victim starts questioning [their] instincts and relies more and more on the 'reality' that gets created and manipulated by the abuser. It also heightens a sense of dependency on the abuser," says Tessina.
2. "You're crazy — and other people think so, too."
On top of making victims experience doubt, gaslighters may even make their victim question their own sanity, Tessina says.
The gaslighter might also try to convince the victim's family and friends that they're mentally unstable so that they can further discredit any claims the victim is making.
"This decreases the likelihood that the victim's stories will be believed and disconnects them from the resources that would make it possible for them to leave [an abusive relationship]," says Tessina.
This is particularly common in male-female romantic relationships where the man is gaslighting the woman. According to a 2019 paper, this may be due to the way society can sometimes depict women as more irrational and less in control of their emotions than men.
3. "I'm sorry you think that I hurt you."
While this statement might seem like an apology, it isn't. Instead, Tessina says this is a way for an abuser to deflect responsibility and blame the victim.
This kind of apology leaves the victim questioning their own judgment and wondering if they really did overreact. It can lead to the victim relying on the abuser's interpretation of events.
4. "Do you really think I'd make that up?"
An abuser most often will use this phrase when they are accused of lying or fabricating details.
This is another example that an abuser will use to make a victim question their reality. In using this phrase, abusers are manipulating the victim's understanding of trust. They are attempting to make the victim feel guilty for not trusting them. When victims hear this phrase, they will doubt whether the abuser is actually lying, questioning their own understanding of the truth.
5. "You're just trying to confuse me. You aren't making any sense."
This phrase is used to shift blame away from an abuser and onto a victim. Its purpose is two-fold: on one hand, the victim might feel foolish and unable to articulate how they are actually feeling. On the other hand, they could feel guilty, questioning their own intentions.
Using this method of gaslighting, the abuser is attempting to make the victim seem like "the bad guy" in the interaction.
6. "You know I'd never intentionally hurt you."
This phrase is another example of an abuser manipulating their victim's understanding of trust. By making themselves out to be pure in intention, they alleviate themselves of any guilt. At the same time, the abuser covers their bases for future offenses.
When a victim hears that their abuser would not intentionally hurt them, they question the validity of their emotions and if they have the right to be upset with their partner.
7. "I did that because I love you."
This phrase is an extremely common example of gaslighting in romantic and familial relationships. By justifying their intentions as loving, abusers manipulate victims into thinking that the abuser has their best interests at heart.
Therefore, victims will question their natural, negative reactions to abuse. Because they believe the abuser is acting with love, the victim may feel guilty for feeling angry, afraid, or upset with the abuser.
8. "I don't think your family has your best interests at heart."
A gaslighter can try to isolate their victim from their support network to gain greater control over their life.
Clinical psychologist Perpetua Neo told mindbodygreen: "By making verbal abuse look like support, they are isolating the victim from their own discernment."
Gaslighting examples with family
Gaslighting can also occur in a family context, between parent and child, or siblings.
9. "You're too sensitive."
This is a phrase used by gaslighters to minimize and invalidate the victim's feelings.
If the victim tries to express hurt or disappointment, the gaslighter may tell them that they are making a big deal out of nothing. When parents say this to their children, the child will likely feel guilty or foolish for bringing their emotions into the conversation.
"The intent is to make you feel stupid for even trying to stand up for yourself. Once an abusive partner has broken down the victim's ability to trust their own perceptions, the victim is more likely to put up with the abusive behavior and stay in the relationship," says Tessina.
10. "You should have known how I would react."
This is another way an abuser will deflect responsibility onto the victim. This can make the victim feel guilty or hurt about a situation where they really didn't do anything wrong.
When a parent says this to their child, they're putting responsibility on the child for the outcome of the situation, making the child feel as though their actions caused a negative reaction.
"Gaslighting involves twisting facts so they can avoid personal ownership of their behaviors. By telling the victim they should have known better, the gaslighter places the blame on the victim for not only speaking up but also the abuser's response," says Tessina.
11. "That's just nonsense you read on the internet. It's not real."
This phrase is another example of diminishing or minimizing feelings. It is another phrase meant to make the victim question their reality and can make them feel stupid or incompetent. It also undermines the validity of information found on the internet, a useful tool for seeking community during difficulty.
When older children are confused about new emotions they're feeling, they might turn to the internet for information and comfort. When this information is undermined, they question not only what they're feeling but the source that gave them comfort.
Thus, this phrase can also isolate the victim: they may no longer turn to outside resources for information, causing increased dependency on their abuser.
12. "It's not that bad. Other people have it much worse."
When this phrase is used by abusers, it makes victims feel guilty for the natural emotions that crop up surrounding challenging situations.
This example is difficult to recognize as gaslighting because it seems as though the abuser is empathetic toward human suffering. It also may seem like they are attempting to comfort the victim by putting their pain into perspective. However, it undermines the victim's personal emotions and invalidates the challenges they are facing.
13. "You don't really feel that way."
This phrase is another example used by abusers to stifle a victim's emotions. This phrase is dismissive and meant to make the victim question whether what they are feeling is valid or normal.
When parents say this to a child who may not understand their full range of emotions, the child is likely to recognize their natural feelings as somehow wrong. They might later repress those feelings, causing self-doubt down the line.
14. "I'm worried about you. You keep forgetting things."
This phrase is another example of using feigned concern to undermine a person's reality. By acting concerned about the victim's memory, the abuser seems like they're acting in the victim's best interest.
This phrase not only undermines the victim's reality, but it also cements the abuser as a trusted person in the victim's life. Because they show concern for the victim's memory, the victim may feel the abuser is a good person who wouldn't hurt them.
Gaslighting examples at work
Gaslighting can also occur in a workplace, between a manager and employee, or colleagues.
15. "You have a terrible memory."
This is a common phrase gaslighters use to make victims doubt themselves. Of course, everybody experiences trouble with recalling certain details, but Tessina says gaslighters will make their victim doubt their memory as a whole, spanning a multitude of situations.
In a work environment, abusers might say this to undermine a coworker's work performance, causing them to doubt themselves and potentially embarrassing them in front of other coworkers.
"They do this because getting a victim to question themselves is at the core of gaslighting. When a victim no longer trusts their assessments, the abuser is in complete control," says Tessina.
16. "I emailed you about the meeting. Are you sure you didn't get it?"
This phrase and sentiments similar to this one is meant to shift blame away from the abuser and onto the victim. In this situation, the abuser likely forgot to email the victim or intentionally left them off the email thread in order to undermine their work performance.
Shifting the blame onto the victim is meant to make them question their understanding of reality, as well as feel personal blame, guilt, and incompetence about their ability to do their job.
17. "You seem stressed. Not everyone can handle new responsibilities."
This example of gaslighting is tricky to recognize, as it is masked in concern for the victim. By feigning concern for the victim's stress level, the abuser gains the victim's trust. However, they are also slighting the victim, making them feel uniquely incompetent for being unable to handle a heavy workload.
When an abuser says this to a victim, the victim will feel like they are personally flawed or somehow "not good enough" to perform the task they've been assigned. This lack of self- confidence can further affect work performance, adding even more stress to the victim's plate.
How to get help
Leaving an abusive relationship — or mending a work or family relationship — isn't a journey you have to undertake on your own. Therapists and trauma-informed counselors are supportive resources for leaving unsafe situations and rebuilding confidence and self-love.
Additionally, community resources like support groups can be helpful in eliminating isolation and feelings of invalidity and loneliness. These support groups can connect you with other survivors in similar situations, reminding you that you're not alone in your experiences.
If you believe you're the victim of gaslighting, there is hope. You do not have to stay in an unhealthy and abusive relationship.
Remember: It's not your fault that you're in an abusive relationship, and it's possible for you to leave. Recognize the signs of gaslighting and open up to friends, family, or a professional to get help.
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