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9 Subtle Signs of Gaslighting – And the Best Ways to Respond

If you’re here you’re probably looking for some subtle signs of gaslighting and how to handle this type of behavior. And this is exactly what we are going to cover in this guide.

You’re overreacting because no one’s ever loved you right.

The words hit me hard. I haven’t ever been loved right in relationships — but this doesn’t feel right either.

Am I overreacting? Am I easily triggered because of past relationships, or am I reacting to the current situation appropriately? I don’t know anymore.

And I won’t know — not until months afterward when I finally was able to label this behavior.

Gaslighting isn’t always someone telling us “that didn’t happen; you’re crazy!”

Sometimes, it’s much more subtle.

Subtle Signs of Gaslighting, According to a Former Therapist

Here are some of the most common subtle signs someone is gaslighting you.

Why listen to me? I’m Crystal Jackson and I was a master’s level licensed therapist. I worked with couples and individuals and specialized in trauma recovery and empowerment. I now write content about relationships, self-improvement, and psychology. My work has been featured in large publications such as Elite Daily, Your Tango, Positively Positive, and Mamamia.

1. “You’re Overreacting.”

Someone telling us that we’re overreacting is just one of the subtle signs of gaslighting in relationships.

It’s invalidating and dismissive of our real, lived experience. How we feel matters — even if it seems like an overblown reaction to the other person. 

The truth is that sometimes we do overreact, but even when that happens, the last thing we need is someone to tell us that.

Overreactions often stem from past trauma, and a sensitive partner with good communication skills can talk to us about what we’re experiencing without invalidating our feelings.

Recommended read: 9 Signs of a Toxic Relationship

2. “That’s Not What I Meant.”

Has anyone ever told you that the way you took their words isn’t the way they intended them? It’s one of the most subtle and insidious signs of gaslighting.

To take their words and try to give them new meaning is another way to dismiss the harm they’ve caused.

While some people can certainly twist the words they hear, sometimes the words being said don’t leave room for misinterpretation.

Trying to backtrack later and say that’s not what was meant shows that they are refusing to take responsibility for their words and the harm they caused and that they can’t even admit to being in the wrong.

These are big red flags of poor communication skills at best and abuse at worst.

subtle signs of gaslighting
Photo by Ahtziri Lagarde on Unsplash

3. “You Can’t Take a Joke.”

You can’t take a joke or it was just a joke are both forms of subtle gaslighting. Especially if we hear it too often and consistently feel it wasn’t a joke.

We probably have a great sense of humor, but whatever was said or done wasn’t funny. Instead, it was likely hurtful. 

Making jokes at someone else’s expense can be insensitive or even abusive.

This bullying behavior can be dismissed as “just a joke”, but in our hearts, we know better. If it was a joke, we were the punchline, and it doesn’t feel good. 

4. “You’re Too Sensitive.”

Sensitivity isn’t likely the problem. Rather, their insensitive behavior might just be to blame.

Dismissing our feelings in this way is gaslighting, plain and simple. It makes us question ourselves instead of trusting our instincts. 

Believing that we’re too sensitive, we may not hold them accountable for their behavior. We might laugh off what’s happening while feeling deeply uncomfortable about the relationship.

We might even allow ourselves to believe their version of events because we can’t trust our own feelings.

Recommended read: 5 Examples of Gaslighting — and How to Respond According to Experts

5. “You Need Therapy.”

The reality is that every single one of us can benefit from the help of a good therapist.

Sometimes, therapy is used against us when the one we’re with keeps telling us we need help any time we bring up an issue in the relationship.

Making us question our mental health is a key part of dismissing our concerns and undermining our instincts. If we’re “crazy”, they’re not the problem.

If we’re paying attention, we might realize that we’re always the problem according to them.

They don’t ever take responsibility for what they did, and if they do, it’s only when blaming us for their behavior — effectively making it still our fault.

6. “That’s Not What Happened.”

Questioning our version of events is a gaslighter’s bread and butter.

This primary tactic is meant to make us doubt ourselves.

Retelling events in their favor invalidates our experience of them and will likely make us question if our memory is the problem or if it’s our interpretation to blame.

The truth is that our memories are fine, our reactions are understandable, but we’re dealing with someone who either consciously or unconsciously refuses to be held accountable for their behavior.

Gaslighting is a psychological manipulation that makes us question ourselves. It only works when we believe it.

Making us think that we’re remembering things incorrectly is a key strategy to make us question everything. 

7. “You’re Being Paranoid.”

But are we being paranoid — or are we recognizing signs of dishonesty, infidelity, or inconsistency? Dismissing our instincts as paranoia is a subtle sign of gaslighting that makes us second guess ourselves.

This often happens not because we have a suspicious nature but because we’ve caught onto something they’d rather us not have seen. 

This sometimes sounds like you’re imagining things or you’re so insecure. The reality is that there are red flags we’re seeing that they don’t want seen.

The gaslighter wants us to question ourselves, not them.

They’re often successful at shifting the attention away from their own actions, which allows them to continue to manipulate and deceive us.

Recommended read: 9 Relationship Red Flags You Should Never Ignore

8. “Don’t Be Dramatic.”

Like accusing us of overreacting, dismissing us as drama llamas allows them to question our behavior rather than their own.

Oftentimes, our reactions are proportional to the situation, but they won’t benefit by acknowledging it. The same person who plays the drama card will likely tell us to calm down — as if that ever worked!

Once again, this goes back to the gaslighter’s need to dismiss our emotions and thereby avoid accountability.

Keeping us off-balance and making us question our reactions is often a subtle way of throwing us off their trail. It’s a redirection to look at our behavior, not theirs. 

9. “You’re So Emotional.”

This is similar to you’re so sensitive with one key difference — it’s often used to stereotype women. Some subtle forms of gaslighting happen by using stereotypes to discriminate against someone.

Calling a woman emotional to dismiss a response to an event is one such example. 

Any time our reactions are dismissed based on demographics of race, gender, sexual orientation, or any other factor, we’re dealing with a subtle form of gaslighting meant to distract us from the situation at hand and dismiss our experience.

This is easy to see in U.S. politics any time women are involved.

Calling women emotional is the default gaslighting response, a manipulative tactic meant to prevent women from achieving positions of power and unseating men in the process. It happens in relationships, too.

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How To Handle Gaslighting Behaviors

Gaslighting hurts. Because you not only start to doubt yourself, your mind and your memory, but you also feel invalidated. In the long term it can seriously affect your self-confidence and your mental health.

However, there are a few things you can do to handle a gaslighter.

1. Don’t Be Distracted

Gaslighting isn’t always intentional, but it does need to be addressed.

If we’re constantly questioning our reactions, memory, and feelings, we might be the victims of gaslighting behavior.

It’s important to recognize these behaviors when they’re happening so that we can hold fast to how we’re feeling and refuse to be distracted from confronting the problem at hand.

2. Refuse to Be Invalidated

Another way to handle this is to point out that these gaslighting tactics are invalidating. Our feelings are always valid. Always. Even if we are overreacting.

Even if we’re triggered by problems of the past.

Our feelings matter, and a partner should respect them even if they don’t yet understand them. 

3. Insist on Respect

Dismissing our feelings or point of view isn’t okay. Insist on respectful communication. Condescension, criticism, or name-calling aren’t acceptable ways to disagree.

Make it clear that respectful communication is a boundary that won’t be crossed.

4. Dispute Their Version

When they try to make us question what we saw, heard, or feel, it’s important to remind them that they can speak for themselves but not for us.

It’s essential to dispute the version of history they’re trying to re-write.

We need to call them out on trying to wriggle out of accountability by blaming their behavior on us. 

5. Be Kind

Remember that some of us didn’t grow up with healthy models of communication. Many of us carry the scars of past trauma. Be kind.

Even when defending our version of the truth and insisting that our emotions are valid, we can remember that not all gaslighting is intentional. 

Learning to communicate better is hard. We need to be compassionate to ourselves and to other people as we learn to navigate difficult conversations.

It won’t be easy, but if the relationship is worth keeping, it’s important to make sure it stays healthy — or gets that way.

6. Trust Yourself

Above all, we need to love ourselves enough to trust our version of events. A big part of trusting our instincts and intuition is becoming more self-aware and working on our issues. We all have them.

When we recognize our flaws and past trauma, we’ll have a better handle on when we might be reacting to the past rather than to the present.

We’ll be able to know when we’re being triggered and what we need to do about it without taking it out on other people.

This self-awareness is so important because we’ll know right away if someone else is trying to manipulate or gaslight us.

We’ll know our reactions are appropriate and not caused by unhealed trauma because we’re aware of and working on any issues.

This awareness can lead to stronger self-love and self-trust. We know our instincts are good, and we won’t be deterred from addressing conflict as needed.

Subtle Signs of Gaslighting – Final Thoughts

I remember questioning myself often.

Was I overreacting because of past relationship trauma? Was I just a broken person who wouldn’t let anyone love me? He told me that often enough that I began to believe it.

For a long time, it made me question myself. 

That’s how subtle gaslighting works. It undermines us. As we grow in our personal strength and self-awareness, it doesn’t have to. 

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Photo by Ahtziri Lagarde on Unsplash

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