The Gaslighter’s Dictionary: 15 Common Phrases

And what they truly mean.

Martina Petkova
Feb 16 · 6 min read
Photo by Gerd Itjeshorst on Unsplash

There are many kinds of hell on earth.

One of them is to be unsure of your reality: to not trust your senses, your perception, your thoughts or feelings.

It’s a paralysis. How can you move with any autonomy if you’re not sure what is real and what is “just in your head”?

You can’t. And this is the point of gaslighting.

People who gaslight others want, fundamentally, one thing. Control. They might be calculated manipulators, they might think gaslighting is the only way to preserve (their idea of) a healthy relationship, they might not even know that they’re gaslighting you.

But, in every case, they are driven by fear and the desire to control.

Are you under someone else’s control? If you trust them more than your own eyes — then yes, you’ve surrendered your autonomy.

In close relationships, where all kinds of behaviors exist under the labels of “love” and “care”, it can be difficult to figure out if you’re dealing with miscommunication or emotional abuse.

But it’s possible.

There are several innocent-looking but insidious phrases that are a part of every gaslighter’s repertoire. If you’re hearing them from someone with regularity, in this person’s eyes you’re a marionette.

1. “You’re so sensitive.”

Translation: “You’re reacting too visibly to the feeling of pain.”

Have you heard of the “Learned helplessness” experiment? In a cruel attempt to investigate psychological conditioning, dogs were subjected to electric shocks with no means of escape. By the end of the experiment, they just endured the shocks even though they were now free to move away.

This is what happens when the very important signal of pain is not heeded.

Being repeatedly told, “You’re too sensitive”, “I was just joking,” and “It’s no big deal” is another way to say, “You’re not free to react to pain.” If this happens over a prolonged period of time, most people just learn to take more and more pain — in silence and without knowing they can step away.

2. “You’re overreacting.”

Translation: “You’re shining a light on something I want to be kept hidden.”

Used interchangeably with, “You’re being dramatic,” this phrase is used when your reaction to something shifts the desired focus of the narrative.

A very common example is when a man makes a joke to a woman about how she’s “asking for it” by wearing this dress or that shirt. If the woman tries to challenge the assumptions behind this or brings up rape culture, the picture he was trying to paint with his joke now starts changing shapes and colors. Her narrative clashes with his and makes him “look bad.”

Hence, “she’s overreacting to an innocent joke.”

3. “You sound crazy.”

Translation: “Check yourself before you speak.”

The implication that you are crazy is clearly there. But this phrase is doing something else.

It’s telling you that whatever thoughts form in your mind, whatever perceptions you might have, they’re best kept hidden.

It’s also telling you that you’re not articulating yourself clearly. Whatever it is that you’re trying to communicate, it’s not making sense, it’s not valid, it’s not reaching the other person.

It puts the entire weight on you and the other person is free to not “have to deal with it.” In healthy relationships, both partners work to reach a deeper understanding of the other person’s perspective.

4. “You’re twisting things.”

Translation: “You’re contorting the reality that’s already in my head.”

The go-to phrase when you call out the other person on a behavior they feel justified in doing — and, specifically, on the consequences of this behavior.

They’re doing something with good intentions but to you it is hurtful? Oh, how you’re twisting things.

4. “You’re imagining things.”

Translation: “I tell you what’s real.”

What is the true message of this phrase? What you’re seeing with your own eyes is not real. Your sense of reality should therefore be entrusted in — and dictated by — this other person. Anything that makes them feel uncomfortable or look bad can just be made to “not exist”- and if you saw it, you’re imagining things.

It’s one of the cruelest and most obvious ways to hijack your autonomy.

5. “You’re paranoid.”

Translation: “You’re seeing bad things that I don’t want you to see.”

An alternative to “You’re reading too much into this,” this phrase discourages you from noticing red flags and other signs that things are not as they “should be.”

Truly paranoid people are completely preoccupied by intrusive, possessive thoughts. If you’re not seeking out a pattern but noticing it, this is not paranoia — it’s reasonable suspicion.

6. “You have terrible memory.”

Translation: “Don’t rely on your own mind.”

Here, you’re told there’s a whole pattern. You’re not just confused at the moment, this is how you always are. Your memory is shaky. It has always been shaky and this is treated as an established fact.

7. “I never said that.”

Translation: “I decide what happened.”

Even worse, “I never did that.” Reality stops being objective. It becomes a subjective thing that only one person can see — and this person is not you.

8. “We talked about this. You don’t remember?”

Translation: “I want you to doubt yourself and not me.”

The goal here is to use your confusion against you. You’re being told something that contradicts your memory. Then the problem must be with your memory.

Worse, this is a very effective way to make you feel crazy — so that you trust your own mind even less.

9. “You always jump to the wrong conclusion.”

Translation: “Don’t trust your cognitive skills.”

Even if the facts are clear and undeniable, what they mean is not for you to decide.

10. “You’re taking things the wrong way again.”

Translation: “I dictate how you perceive what happened.”

Just like with “You always jump to the wrong conclusion,” this phrase tells you there is a pattern of you seeing things in a distorted way. Even if you see something, you misinterpret it. You can’t trust yourself to understand what is truly happening.

11. “Why do you always have to argue with me?”

Translation: “You’re clashing with my narrative too much.”

It’s very common for someone who’s used to molding reality to use this phrase when they’re being challenged. If you call out lies, inaccuracies, red flags, this is not a sign of clear vision. It’s a sign of an argumentative character. You’re the attacker, the abuser even, for speaking up.

12. “Why do you always bring up the past?”

Translation: “I don’t want you to see patterns.”

Manipulators don’t like anyone digging in the past because this is a sure way for their carefully constructed narratives to collapse like a house of cards.

There are unmistakable patterns in abusive behavior that are bound to repeat. If something happened in the past and was swept under the rug, it will happen again, and again. It’s much easier for abusers to handle this one event at a time. If you notice patterns, they’ll blame you for dwelling in the past.

13. “You need to let it go.”

Translation: “I decide what’s valid.”

Speaking of controlling the past, manipulators dictate what is worth remembering, what is worth forgiving, and what your feelings should be.

“You need to let it go” is an insidious way to tell you that your feelings about something are not valid. The implication is that if you don’t “let it go” and move on, you’re not a healthy person — you’re in fact too hung up on something unimportant.

14. “I really don’t know what I’ve done.”

Translation: “I’ll make you explain this over and over again until it starts looking silly.”

A very painful form of gaslighting is when your very words are being denied. When you try to explain something one way, then another way, but the other person is just “baffled” until, finally, you drop it.

15. “You’re the only person I have these problems with.”

Translation: “You’re all alone. And confused.”

The even more cruel alternatives to this phrase are: “Nobody else feels this way” and “Nobody else thinks that.”

The main goal here, like with all other phrases, is to make you feel a little crazy. Not sure of your own reality. But there’s more.

It isolates you. It’s telling you that nobody else will agree with you. Nobody else will understand you. It erodes your trust in yourself and others, so you’re less likely to confide in another person.

What’s the takeaway?

Looking at all these phrases, do you notice something? They’re all showing how very hard manipulators work on maintaining control.

It takes vigilance, and a great degree of obsessiveness, to keep up with this kind of manipulation. Why? Because even with the smallest slip, the illusion will shatter.

This is how powerful your instincts are. Even if they’ve been denied and manipulated for a long time, they’re still there, waiting for an opening. Even if you’ve been trained to not trust your eyes, your eyes still see what they see.

The takeaway is simple: Turn to your senses and listen to what they’re telling you.

Hello, Love

Love changes us. Love makes us human.

Martina Petkova

Written by

I tell stories about history and the human psyche. Corporate world veteran. Recovering simultaneously from Communism and Capitalism.

Hello, Love

Love changes us. Love makes us human.

Martina Petkova

Written by

I tell stories about history and the human psyche. Corporate world veteran. Recovering simultaneously from Communism and Capitalism.

Hello, Love

Love changes us. Love makes us human.

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