16 Gaslighting Phrases that Are Red Flags
Gaslighters control you by getting you to doubt your own reality. These gaslighting phrases can help you spot this manipulation tactic.
Gaslighting is a form of abuse in which someone—your doctor, your boyfriend, your boss, your “best” friend—uses manipulation and distraction to distort the truth and make you question your own reality. It can be difficult to spot, but it’s incredibly damaging, says Robin Stern, PhD, a licensed psychoanalyst, co-founder and associate director of the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence, an associate research scientist at the Child Study Center at Yale, and author of The Gaslight Effect: How to Spot and Survive the Hidden Manipulation Others Use to Control Your Life.
“When a loved one undermines your sense of reality, you become trapped in this never-never land,” she says. “You feel crazy because there isn’t anything concrete to point to as ‘bad’ so you end up pointing to, and blaming, yourself.” The term comes from a play and the subsequent 1944 movie, Gaslight, in which a husband tries to convince his wife that she is insane; one method he uses is dimming the gas-powered lights in the house, and—when she notices—insisting that they’re still bright.
Gaslighting can happen in any type of relationship: between boss and employee, parent and child; among friends and family members. But the most common form happens in romantic relationships.
The stages of gaslighting
Abusers generally don’t start off at full force; otherwise their victims would leave immediately. Rather, they start slowly and gradually become abusive until the victim feels too trapped or confused to leave, says Stephanie Sarkis, PhD, a psychotherapist and author of Gaslighting: Recognize Manipulative and Emotionally Abusive People—and Break Free. In fact, gaslighting often starts out as a fairy-tale romance.
“Gaslighters will ‘love bomb’ you with affection, attention, and gifts, as a way to gain control and make you trust them,” Sarkis says. “Then once you love them, little by little, the gaslighter will start to pick you apart and criticize you.” This red flag can show up as early as the first date, with the gaslighter asking a lot of personal questions, pressing for intimacy very quickly, and giving lots of gifts or declarations of love, she says.
Once in the relationship, there are three main phases that a victim goes through during the gaslighting process, says Stern.
- Disbelief The first few times someone tries to change your reality, you will likely not believe them. You may tell them that they’re wrong or they have misunderstood the situation.
- Defense The more you are gaslighted, the more you begin to question whether the gaslighter has a point. But you will still try to defend yourself. You will try to disprove their statements with logic or try to reason with them but you will try to “be fair” and see it from their point of view, as well.
- Depression After a while you begin to believe they actually do have a point, particularly if their criticisms are rooted in a fear you have. The more the gaslighter can keep you feeling insecure and questioning your reality, the more you’ll believe their explanations. Over time, you’ll eventually reach a point where your self-confidence is destroyed and you no longer trust yourself.
The gaslighter’s ultimate goal? To make you doubt yourself so much that you become totally dependent on them and only them, allowing them to control you, says Stern.
How to know if you’re being gaslighted
The underhanded nature of gaslighting can make it particularly tricky for victims to recognize and deal with. “Gaslighting is a type of brainwashing and coercive control,” says Sarkis. “It can be so subtle that the victim may not even be aware it’s happening. Part of gaslighting is training the victim not to question it. It depends on them believing that their experiences and their feelings are wrong.”
There are some telltale signs to look for, starting with what the gaslighter is saying. We’ve asked our experts to share some of the most common, and insidious, red flags of gaslighting.
“I never said that. You have a terrible memory.”
The hallmark sign of gaslighting is making you doubt your own memories and experiences to the point that you replace them with the version fabricated by the gaslighter, Sarkis says. They will often tell you that your memory is bad or faulty in general.
“You’re too sensitive!”
Normal reactions, like crying or getting upset, are treated like they are histrionic and unwarranted, particularly when you’re upset about something your loved one has done or said, Stern says. “The idea is to turn the attention away from their bad behavior by making it about you doing something wrong,” she says.
“You need to lose weight.”
Criticizing your appearance is another common gaslighting tactic, according to Stern. “Anything to make you feel bad about yourself,” she says. This ensures that you are dependent on them for love and validation.
“Your friends are idiots.”
Close family and friends are often the first ones to see the signs of gaslighting. So the gaslighter will try to isolate you from your loved ones, sometimes getting you to cut all contact, Sarkis says. “They don’t just want to be the primary relationship in your life, they want to be the only relationship in your life.” It’s often a double standard, she adds, and they will maintain many outside relationships.
“You’re frigid and bad in bed.”
Your sexuality or sex life is another common target of gaslighters, often used as an excuse or a distraction from them cheating or sexually acting out. “Then the conversation becomes, ‘You never give me enough sex and that’s why I had to sleep with someone else,’ which makes it your fault,” Stern says.
“I’m not angry. What are you talking about?”
Many gaslighters use the silent treatment as a method of punishment and control. Yet when you question them about it, they act as if they don’t know what you’re talking about, Sarkis says. “Now, not only are you confused about what they’re upset about, but you are questioning your feelings that they are upset at all,” she says.
“If you really loved me, you would…”
Gaslighters love to wield your love and affection for them as a weapon against you and will use this phrase to excuse a wide variety of bad behaviors, Stern says. But the bottom line is that you can love someone and be upset about something they did at the same time. Loving someone doesn’t mean you let them get away with just anything.
“It’s your fault I cheated.”
“Gaslighters love to turn the conversation around and blame their victims for their bad behavior,” Stern says. If it’s your fault that they crashed the car, maxed out the credit card, or did something else harmful then they don’t have to change anything, she explains.
“You make me furious.”
Gaslighters will also blame you for their emotions, making you responsible for upsetting them and for keeping them happy, even when it is something you have no control over, Sarkis says. “The truth is that no one can ‘make’ you feel anything,” she adds. “That is a choice they are making.”
“No one else would ever love you.”
“One of our greatest fears is that we are broken or unloveable and a gaslighter will play off that,” Stern says. Getting you to doubt your basic worth makes you dependent on them for love and ensures that you won’t leave them, she says.
“You’re supposed to love me unconditionally.”
Using your beliefs against you is another common gaslighting tactic, Stern says. “If you become upset or question them, they may say, ‘You’re supposed to love me unconditionally, no matter what’ as a way to ignore or excuse their bad behavior,” she says. And because you do love the person, you begin to question your initial reaction and wonder if you’re being fair.
“I remember you agreed to do that.”
Replacing your memories with theirs is a hallmark red flag of gaslighting, Sarkis says. “They can be so convincing that you may believe you did actually say or do something that you didn’t,” she says.
“If you’re lucky, I’ll forgive you.”
“A gaslighter will often make you beg for their forgiveness and apologize profusely for any ‘wrong’ you committed, even if it’s something they did,” Stern says. Sometimes you may not even know what you’re apologizing for, other than they’re upset and it’s your responsibility to calm them down. “When they do ‘forgive’ you, they’ll remind you how lucky you are they put up with you,” she adds.
“This is why no one likes you.”
This is another phrase gaslighters use to manipulate you into staying with them, Sarkis says. “This may take the form of shaming or guilting you into avoiding gatherings or by telling you that people are saying bad things about you,” she says. “This behavior can escalate to taking away (your) phone, internet, car keys, and anything else that would allow (you) to communicate or escape.”
“You look terrible in red. You should never wear it.”
Gaslighters will attempt to control every aspect of their victim’s lives, including things like clothing choices and food preferences, Sarkis says. Eventually, you can get to the point that you don’t even know what you like or don’t like anymore. “If someone asks you what kind of ice cream you like and you immediately look at your partner for the answer, that’s a red flag,” she says.
“You’re gaslighting me!”
In a terribly ironic twist, a favourite tactic of gaslighters is to accuse their victim of gaslighting them, Sarkis says. “The goal is to keep you so busy defending yourself and being emotionally distraught that you don’t pay attention to the gaslighter’s own behavior,” she says. “By accusing you, the gaslighter has bought themselves time.”
How to respond to a gaslighter
The first step to knowing how to answer any of these phrases is being able to recognize them for the gaslighting that they are, Stern says. You may come to see it on your own. But many gaslighting victims need help from family, friends, and/or a therapist to detangle all the lies and twisted memories, she says.
“I tell people to focus on how they feel during a conversation rather than what is ‘right’,” she says. “It’s OK to say, ‘I don’t care who is right or wrong, but the way you are talking to me is aggressive and abusive. I won’t continue this conversation’.”
Unfortunately, many gaslighters do not respond well to their victims standing up for themselves as it takes away their ability to control them, Sarkis says. “Often the only way to stop the gaslighting is to walk away from the relationship,” she says.
Once you decide to leave, you need to do it very carefully as it’s not uncommon for gaslighting to escalate to physical violence, Sarkis says.”Talk to your loved ones or a therapist and make a plan to leave safely,” she says. “Once you’ve left, you need to go full no-contact because they will try to ‘hoover’ you back in with promises and gifts.”