7 Gaslighting Phrases Used to Confuse and Control
Gaslighting phrases to make you question your reality.
Posted Jan 11, 2021
1. "Wipe the slate clean."
After many years of estrangement from a family member who, the last time I had seen him, had acted in a highly abusive manner, his first words to me were “Let’s wipe the slate clean,” followed up by a statement claiming he had no idea why we’d fallen out in the first place. Although I was more than aware that we both knew exactly what had happened previously, his statement achieved a few clever objectives.
First, it showed him to be a generous character, happy to put any differences behind him. Secondly, it effectively wiped out what had happened between us as being "too insignificant to remember." (Did anything, in fact, ever happen? Other than in my head, of course.)
Finally, it placed me in a weak position. It would have seemed petty and bitter to hold onto a grudge when someone was so obviously holding out an olive branch. And so, with that simple, gracious-sounding statement, he was absolved of his abusive behaviour.
Before looking at other statements which can be used by gaslighters, it should be noted that these phrases aren't exclusive to gaslighters. It depends on intention. For instance, someone declaring that they don't know what you're talking about could come from a point of genuine confusion, but equally it could be used to gaslight.
Other statements loved by gaslighters include:
2. "It’s all water under the bridge."
Like “Let’s wipe the slate clean," this statement suggests that anything that happened in the past should be left in the past—no matter what terrible behaviour is expected to be washed away.
Again, if you’re on the receiving end of this, you feel you should be the bigger person and let “bygones be bygones” (another one!)—even if you’re still carrying around the scars from the gaslighter’s previous behaviour. There’s nothing gaslighters love more than to move on without taking any responsibility for past hurts.
3. "I really don’t know what I’ve done."
This sentence allows the gaslighter to play the innocent victim role and is designed to make you feel bad about calling the gaslighter out. When someone looks sad and confused as you start to make your case (and it’s a tactic gaslighting mothers, among others, often employ), it can force you to stop in your tracks and ease up on your accusations. It also suggests the gaslighter has no idea what the problem is, or what their involvement is.
4. "I won’t stand for lies/dishonesty/a lack of professionalism."
Gaslighters have a wonderful ability to get in there first and state their case. Most people take it for granted that they value honesty and fairness and don’t feel a need to explicitly state this to others. Gaslighters often do.
Going back to my own example of the estranged family member, his next statement after “Let’s wipe the slate clean” was a reference to how we had been brought up. “The one thing I won’t tolerate is lies," he said. "I like everything out in the open. If my kids act sneaky, I pull them up straight away.”
I was interested that he felt the need to publicly state this, but found myself less confused a few weeks later when I learned that he’d created a web of lies and cheating which was downright illegal in nature. Do gaslighters know, deep down, that they’re going to spin a complex web of lies and deceit—so they get in there first with a disclaimer?
5. "I have no idea what you’re talking about."
Simple, yet beautifully effective. This statement can be elaborated with add-ons such as, “...but you need to calm down.” The gaslighter can simply claim to have no idea why you’re upset or angry and no knowledge of whatever it is you might be calling them out for. They just don’t know.
And because they play the innocent card so effectively, you’re left questioning if you really are over-exaggerating, or whether they have done anything at all wrong.
6. "Don’t take it so personally."
Gaslighters love to cut you to the core and say some deeply hurtful things. When you react with anger, upset, or indeed in any way, they criticise you for taking what they’ve said personally. Variations on this include telling you that you’re “overly sensitive” or “can’t take a joke.” What the gaslighter is doing in all these cases is invalidating your experience.
7. "Nobody else feels that way."
Gaslighters, who are often also narcissists, need to get other people on their side and are masters of coordinating a group of sympathisers. Within the context of a family, for instance, a mother may seek to get the support of her children against one of their siblings (the scapegoat). If you attempt to state your case based on your experience, it can effectively be invalidated by pointing out that your experience doesn’t match your siblings—thereby questioning whether your experience can be right.
Why It Matters
The language of gaslighting is designed to protect the gaslighter while making you call your own experience into question. It’s designed to silence you, warp events from the past, and make the gaslighter look like the good guy and you look like a highly emotional, over-reactive fantasist.
It’s so confusing to be on the receiving end of a gaslighter’s comments that you may even find yourself shocked into silence. David, a man in his fifties whose brother had launched the most vicious character assassination imaginable—which included trying to turn David’s entire family against him—unexpectedly met up with his brother one day while visiting their father.
When David’s brother brazenly knocked on his car window, David expected a continuation of the insults which he had been subjected to on the phone the previous week. However, David was shocked to see his brother smiling broadly.
“'Hey bro, I don’t know what you think has happened here, but if you feel like there’s something wrong, let me know.'” David told me, “I was so shocked and confused. I started to wonder if I was mad. He was so friendly. I didn’t know what to say.” That example—displaying charm, feigning innocence, and faking an attempt at reconciliation—is likely a classic case of the gaslighter using their manipulation techniques to place the other party on the back foot.
It's important to be aware of the subtlety of these gaslighting tactics and how effective they can be at forcing you to question your own sense of reality. If you need help in overcoming the effects of gaslighting, please seek out the help of a suitably qualified therapist.