As you try to make sense of narcissism, a primary pattern to watch for is gaslighting in relationships.

Let’s remember first that narcissists are self-enamored individuals who want to have the dominant position over you. They are controlling, entitled people who will exploit and manipulate you to gain dominance. Sometimes their control techniques are so obvious that it’s impossible to miss.  But other times, narcissists can be coy and sneaky as they ply their skills…and that’s where gaslighting in relationships comes in. 

Gaslighting in relationships is a form of passive aggressiveness that allows the narcissist to claim an edge over you by suggesting you are less normal than you really are. 

When gaslighting in relationships is happening, the goal is to create confusion. They want you to ignore your good instincts in the hope that you will defer to their schemes.  

For instance, you may recall an event from earlier in the week, putting the narcissist in a negative light.  But the narcissist can gaslight by saying:  “You have your facts mixed up. Let me tell you what really happened.”  Or even more subtle, you might hear:  “Your description of the event is factual, but if you knew why I said what I did, it would put an entirely different light on it.”

The more exposure you have to a narcissist, the more you realize that they don’t have the same goals as normal people. 

In healthy relationships, we engage for the sake of blending, encouraging, sharing goodness, and creating bonds. Narcissists, however, have one primary goal…finding narcissistic supply.  That means they are looking for angles that allow them to feel superior, to feel as if others are beholden to them.

Here are 9 common red-flag phrases used by narcissists to illustrate how gaslighting in relationships works:

By no means is this list exhaustive (you, no doubt, could add many more.).  But it will give you a good idea of the kinds of ways they attempt to twist you into questioning the validity of what you think, feel, and perceive.

As I go through these, try to identify how they invalidate with these phrases, how they shift responsibility of any problem onto you, and how they presume you are really the problem.

1. “We just don’t communicate.”

Commonly, when narcissists feel frustrated by their inability to change your mind or direct your behaviors, they pull out this phrase:  ”We just don’t communicate.”  First, let’s underscore how inaccurate this comment is.  There is no such thing as no communication.  You can go two weeks without speaking to each other, but that still communicates something.  When narcissists use this phrase, they really mean:  “I’m upset about the net results of our communications.  I wish I could make you see things just as I do.”  That would be a more honest way of addressing the situation, but narcissists cannot do that.  In their gaslighting, they seek to create confusion.  And this phrase is intended to convey the false message that you are defective because you don’t flow with their messages of invalidation and control.

2. “If I did anything wrong, I’m sorry.”

This phrase is the classic non-apology apology.  (BTW, they often use another, “Forgive me if I made any mistakes.”). The key word indicating gaslighting in relationships is “if.”  They actually admit nothing specific, and as they address problems, they cloud the issue with the presumption that you could be perceiving the event wrongly.  The focus is not on the problems they committed, but on your dubious interpretation.  Slyly, they are transferring the responsibility of problem resolution over to you even though they created the problem in the first place.

3. “You just won’t let go of the past.”

Narcissist’s are pathologically uncomfortable talking about problems or hashing out ways to make amends.  To them, that dredges up feelings of shame and unworthiness that would leave them feeling too mortal.

So, to create confusion, they shift the focus by questioning why you have lingering tensions and frustrations. Rather than acknowledging the need to discuss problems, or showing empathy for your struggles, they insinuate that you are unnaturally invested in negative topics.  Feeling awkward about their imperfections being discussed, they want the spotlight to be anywhere except on them.  So, it is your memory, your need for closure, your pain that is the problem. 

4. “That just wasn’t me.”

In another attempt to get off the hook when they have erred greatly, gaslighting narcissists will downplay the significance of their problems by attempting to create a comparison to all their other wonderful qualities.  For instance, if they had a major temper outburst, moral failure, or lack of good judgment, they can pull out the phrase:  “That just wasn’t me.”  Of course, that begs the question:  “Well, then who was it?”  A more honest reaction would be:  “That is a part of my character that is flawed,” or “This illustrates how I have demons in my closet I have to tend to.”  But they are incapable of such self-reflection. 

5. “I wasn’t angry, I was just frustrated.”

A common emotion that narcissists show when they are gaslighting in relationships is they cannot hide is their anger. Being easily critical, it takes little to set them off.  Sometimes the anger is expressed as irritability and annoyance, while at other times it is much more egregious.  And once that anger has come into the open, it needs to be addressed.

Narcissists are deflectors.  When they err, they prefer to sidestep the obvious because they do not like the accountability you seek.  True to the nature of gaslighting in relationships, they wish to create enough confusion about the anger that they can claim a form of innocence at the expense of your poor memory.

6. “It’s not what you think.”

Often you will become aware of a narcissist’s misdeed, so you bring attention to it.  Perhaps you catch them in a lie, or you learn of a failure or some sort of questionable judgment.  But as narcissists hear your concerns, instead of owning the issue, they become dismissive. At that point, you will hear blame-shifting.  This is a subtle way of transferring the problem off themselves and onto you.  You see, in their minds, you are just an unenlightened soul, and if you could just quit making erroneous assumptions, the problem would dissolve.

7. “After all I’ve done for you.”

Sometimes narcissists realize they cannot adequately defend poor actions and decisions, but that does not mean they have no more tricks up their sleeves. They take the focus off their misdeeds (and your concerns) by trying to shine a light on how wonderful they have been historically.  This phrase has guilt-induction written all over it.  Not denying wrongs, they want you to weigh their imperfections alongside good deeds.  They reason that if they can present enough evidence of good deeds, their bad deeds then are not so bad.  They want you to rationalize with them that their goodness cancels out your discomfort. 

8. “Just relax; you’re always in crisis mode.”

This phrase represents yet another form of evasiveness and invalidation.  You have expressed concerns about an important matter, but you receive a patronizing comment like:  “You need to chill out.”  At that moment, the narcissist implies: “My behaviors are not the problem, your mood is the problem.”  They overlook how they set your mood into motion with poor decisions, focusing instead how your tension is somehow misapplied.  It is the narcissist’s way of letting you know that you don’t have the right to feel as you do.  True to the nature of gaslighting in relationships, the purpose of this comment is to create doubt about why you are troubled, insinuating that you are not a very stable person. In the meantime, the real topic is shelved.

9. “Ok, you win.”

In any ongoing relationship, differences of opinion occur, as do confused emotions or perceptions.  That necessitates the need for clarifying discussions.  Handled well, this can improve the quality of the relationship since you will know each other in a fuller way.  Narcissists, however, are not as concerned about knowing as they are about conquering.  Consistently, they turn relationships into a contest about who is better or worse, right or wrong, smarter or dumber.  So when you attempt to discuss differences, they frame the conversation in that light. 

The phrase:  “OK, you win,”  illustrates that they see themselves in competition with you. And it also has a condescending tone to it, although, of course, they would deny that. 

Your response to gaslighting in relationships:

Undoubtedly, you could come up with quite a few more phrases used by a narcissist hoping to sow seeds of doubt and confusion.  Keep in mind, they have learned that there are many ways to be controlling.

That being the case, let’s resolve that you cannot have honest discussions with narcissists who are expert at being coy and slippery.  They will win that game every time.  Healthy relationships are not built upon one-upmanship anyway.

Instead, you will need to do whatever makes sense in the moment…as you deem appropriate.  And when the narcissist indicates an unwillingness to flow with your good reasoning, that is not your problem to solve. You can still establish consequences for improprieties.  You can have boundaries. You can decide how much time you will or will not invest in a relationship that is going in the wrong direction. You can follow your best intuitions.

Narcissists thrive on your lack of confidence in yourself.  But they do not have the final word.  When they attempt to sow seeds of doubt within you, remember, that is less a commentary about your character and more a commentary about their need to compensate for their own hidden tensions.

Knowledge and insight are power.  As you develop a growing understanding of the nature of gaslighting in relationhips, you can proceed with the thought:  “I’m onto you, and I’m not falling for your tricks.  I’m comfortable with the ways I prioritize my life.”

Les Carter, Ph.D.

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gaslighting in relationships