June 26, 2024


Imagine you have a serious talk with your partner—yet when you bring it up a couple weeks later, they say: “We never had that conversation! You must be thinking of something else.” Or your boss gives you an assignment but omits crucial information, later berating you for falling short and claiming you were provided with the exact instructions you know you never received. Maybe you keep hearing that you’re overreacting, too sensitive, or misinterpreting things.

All are possible examples of gaslighting. The (frequently misused) term describes “the act of when someone is talking to or communicating with you, making you feel like your reality is being questioned,” says Laura Sgro, a therapist in Los Angeles who specializes in helping people navigate dysfunctional families or relationships. Over time, it can take a serious toll on mental health: “A lot of times people feel like they’re losing their grip on reality,” Sgro says. “What that can look like is a lot of self-doubt, and perhaps internalizing your own feelings and needs and not communicating them.” Anxiety and depression can follow.

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Gaslighting exists on a spectrum, Sgro adds, and it’s not always possible—or safe—to engage with the person doing it. That’s because their goal is to win, not to problem-solve, she says, so you won’t get anywhere. But sometimes, especially if the gaslighting isn’t a behavioral pattern, you can effectively shut down the conversation and prevent it from happening again. We asked experts what to say, and why it works.

“We seem to have different memories of that conversation. Here’s what I remember happening.”

Asserting your reality without blaming or accusing can go a long way, says Deborah Gilman, a psychologist in Pittsburgh. “This approach disrupts the gaslighter’s attempt to control the narrative,” she adds. By calmly stating your experience, “you plant a seed of doubt in their manipulation and show you won’t be easily swayed.” She advises speaking clearly and confidently, while making eye contact. Gaslighters thrive on emotional responses, Gilman stresses, so stick to the facts and avoid getting defensive. If the other person tries to twist your words, simply restate your perspective: “Yes, that’s part of what happened, but what I’m focusing on is…”

Read More: Gaslighting, Narcissist, and More Psychology Terms You’re Misusing

“I’m not comfortable with how you’re characterizing the situation. Let’s talk about [original topic] instead.”

Gilman likes this way of setting a boundary and redirecting the conversation. “It takes control back,” she says. Plus, it directly addresses the other person’s behavior. If they continue gaslighting you, repeat the boundary: “I already said I’m not comfortable with this. Can we move on?” Becoming a broken record, she notes, helps ensure that what you’re saying resonates, while putting a stop to further arguing.

“We may not agree, but my feelings are still valid.”

If traffic signals regulated conversation, this response would be a “screeching red light,” Sgro says. As she puts it: “Where do you go from there?” Ideally, the other person will use it as an opportunity to look inward and reflect on the fact that their partner is feeling invalidated, which can temper the argument. Plus, “this approach really calls out that we’re not trying to be right,” Sgro says. “We’re just trying to express the way that we each feel.”

“Let’s take a step back and write down what happened from both our viewpoints.”

When you’re not feeling heard, the best solution is often to take a break for a few minutes. Natalie Rosado, a licensed mental health counselor in Tampa, suggests taking it one step further and using your time apart to write down your perspective on what happened to spark the disagreement. While it’s impossible to reason with some people who gaslight, others are open to having a conversation and arriving at a resolution—just not, perhaps, in the heat of the moment. Spending time together reviewing what you each wrote can be eye-opening. Plus, it serves another purpose: “You’re able to go back and review things that you’ve written down during previous incidents, so you can recall situations or conversations and have tangible evidence,” Rosado says. “It’s a way to combat some of those thoughts when you’re wondering if you’re losing your sanity or questioning your reality.”

“I feel like we’re not on the same page. Can we involve a neutral third party to help us understand each other better?”

If gaslighting starts to become a pattern, you might benefit from working with a therapist—either together or separately. The goal isn’t necessarily to improve the relationship, Rosado notes. “More than anything, it’s to provide psychoeducation and support for the person who’s in a relationship with the gaslighter,” she says. “It’s an additional person who can be an objective party—someone who can help them gauge their experiences.” It’s always good, she adds, to have a second set of eyes, especially on unhealthy relationship dynamics.

Read More: How to Tell if Someone Is Lying to You, According to Experts

“Wow, that’s an interesting way to remember things! Let’s try to stick to the facts.”

Using humor can help take the power away from the gaslighter and make it less likely that they’ll continue to try to manipulate you, says Jenny Maenpaa, a licensed clinical social worker in New York. She advises keeping your tone lighthearted and flashing a quick smile. Ideally, the other person will laugh and move on to a different topic of conversation. If they continue fixating on their version of events, Maenpaa suggests responding: “That’s interesting. Maybe we can look at [evidence like texts or photos] to refresh our memories?”

“I’ve noticed a pattern in our conversations where my recollections are often questioned. Can we focus on finding solutions rather than debating memories?”

Rosado thinks of this response as “soaring above the content of the argument.” Instead of getting into a power struggle over the details of the incident, she says, it allows you to adopt a 360-degree view. “What you’re trying to do is say, ‘Let’s move past exactly how we remember that situation, and figure out possible ways forward,’” she says. “A way to do that would be to identify, ‘What would be a goal of mine in this relationship moving forward?’ and then, ‘What would be a goal of yours?’” It’s a constructive way to ensure you’re both on the same page—and that gaslighting doesn’t cast a shadow over your future relationship.


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