If you’re an old Hollywood movie buff like me, you’ve probably seen the 1944 classic Gaslight more than once.
In the movie, Gregory Anton (a master manipulator portrayed so convincingly by Charles Boyer) routinely dims the lights in the house in an attempt to drive his new wife Paula (played to haunting perfection by the great Ingrid Bergman) insane so that he can have her institutionalized.
This way, Gregory can steal her jewels which are hidden somewhere in the house.
The modern term gaslight was coined from the original 1938 play Gas Light, and it means to manipulate someone psychologically so that they end up questioning their own sanity and ability to reason and use judgment.
Manipulators tend to use a myriad of common phrases that act as tools to help them deceive their targets.
Here are ten such phrases to be aware of.
1) “You’re too sensitive”
If someone tells you you’re too sensitive—especially consistently so—what they’re trying to do is invalidate you and dismiss your feelings, says Diane A. Ross, Executive Coach and Leadership Mentor and Facilitator.
When someone says you’re too sensitive, it can be especially triggering because the subtext is that there was nothing wrong with what they said and that you just have thin skin,” Ross says. “Or maybe you can’t take a joke and have no sense of humor. Or perhaps you need to lighten up and not be so serious.”
In other words, they’re basically invalidating you. It’s also dismissive, condescending, and patronizing.
Ross says that’s not to say that there aren’t times when someone is genuinely being overly sensitive about something, “but in the context of a difficult conversation, that phrase is generally used as a deflection tactic.”
2) “It’s for your own good”
Manipulators usually fall into three basic categories or styles, says therapist Timothy L. Sanford from Focus on the Family.
The first is The Master (the person in charge who exerts their control), then you have The Savior (who is the enabler and the rescuer), and finally you have The Victim.
The Master is the one who will often say, “It’s for your own good.” In other words, it’s your job to do what they want without question. “They tend to be pushy and easily angered,” says Sanford. “They’re a bully. Force is their primary tactic although they might sweet-talk you into submission with mesmerizing charm.
But it doesn’t matter what playbook they go by, the point is that a master manipulator will use the phrase as a means of commanding the action you’re supposed to take without any pushback whatsoever.
“If you notice this pattern in any of your interactions, you may be in an unhealthy relationship with a manipulative person,” says Sanford.
“It’s for your good” usually means that you should be grateful, not upset, but the plain truth is that “for your own good” actually translates to “for their own good”.
3) “That never happened”
Saying something never happened—when you know that it did—is a tactic used by a manipulator to confuse you and make you question your own reality, says Jabeen Begum, MD.
“The manipulation happens when you confront the abuse or lies and the manipulator tells you that it never happened,” she says.
As we talked about in the introduction, this is what’s known as gaslighting.
This is very frustrating because although you’re calling out and confronting the behavior, there is no validation, no remorse, and no discussion and engagement of the issue.
Again, it’s dismissive and it’s very deceitful.
4) “You’re always so dramatic”
This phrase is a common one that a manipulator will use as a way to invalidate what you’re saying.
Telling someone that they’re so dramatic is a way to minimize the effect of what they’re saying. It’s turning the tables to make you look unreliable and unhinged even though they are the ones with the insidious behavior.
The idea is to always turn it back on you.
The manipulator will appear calm and composed even though what they’re doing is unhealthy and deceptive. They use your reaction—which you are right to have—against you.
5) “You’re lying”
Most of us like to be thought of as honest, truthful, and trustworthy people. “And because of that, we feel incredibly hurt when others see us as dishonest no matter who those people might be: from strangers to loved ones,” says a guest author at Prowess.
“Manipulators know that by telling you to your face that you are lying makes you get into a defense mode, thereby making you more vulnerable and prone to their wishes.”
6) “That’s not what I said”
As we’ve mentioned, manipulators count on invalidating the other person.
This tactic is used to make them look like the “good one”, be in control, and be free of any blame.
Saying the phrase “That’s not what I said” implies that you’re lying about what was said or skewing the meaning, says Sarah Kristenson from Happier Human.
“People who use these words are essentially attempting to gaslight and deceive since they’re fully aware of what they said,” Kristenson says.
“They may go as far as to say, ‘You’re hearing things,’ Implying that you’re lying or misconstruing their statement is also an attempt to avoid responsibility.”
It also makes you second-guess your ability to hear, interpret, and understand. “Adding that you’re ‘hearing things’ suggests that you’re hallucinating or delusional.”
7) “You are so paranoid”
Compelling you to deny your reality is what a master manipulator does best.
Any attempt to verbalize what is going on is automatically shut down and, again, turned around on you.
If you are feeling paranoid, unnerved, anxious, and feeling like you’re constantly living on eggshells, it’s because they’re the ones who are making you feel that way. Not because you are delusional.
You might always have this underlying worry about what they’re going to do or say next. You never feel on solid ground when you’re around them. You don’t feel safe.
8) “Why are you always so negative?”
Manipulators want and expect you to simply go along with whatever they say and do—even if you feel uncomfortable about it.
Why can’t you be more supportive and go along with what they want, they ask.
They cleverly make you seem like the one who is raining on their parade and the downer.
These kinds of tactics have a way of diverting your attention from the fact that they are attempting to exploit your good nature.
9) “You shouldn’t feel that way”
If there’s one thing a master manipulator loves to do, it’s to tell you how you should feel.
Manipulators want you to feel things only they approve of, says Barrie Davenport from Live Bold and Bloom. “[That means that] having your own emotions and boundaries isn’t in their game plan.”
They will gaslight you into thinking and believe that you’re emotionally unwell and you’ll find yourself negating your own feelings.
“Without proper self-care and reflection, you’ll start to doubt your own feelings,” adds Davenport.
10) “You made me do it”
This phrase is very common amongst abusers who are almost always manipulators as well.
“Meaning, I have no control over myself in this instance; you’re responsible for what I did [and what I said],” says Darius Cikanavicius from PsychCentral.
You cannot make someone do something. Manipulators are often masters at guilt-tripping people for something they themselves caused.
So how do you handle a manipulator when they say these things?
Kristenson says that it’s important to emphasize what you heard and make it clear that you won’t participate in a conversation with anyone who denies the things they say and tries to belittle you in the process.
“If it’s someone you need to continue the conversation with, inform them that you’re willing to revisit the conversation when they can own up to their words.”
Know who you are and never allow someone else to cover your self-image with their highly subjective opinions, or let them use your feelings to manipulate you.
Our words of wisdom: it’s most likely high time to avoid them altogether.