The same innocent phrases and claims used in everyday language by empathic people can also be used in manipulative ways by narcissistic individuals to gaslight their victims. Although theoretically these phrases can be said by anyone to manipulate, it’s common for narcissistic and psychopathic individuals to misuse these common phrases to maintain control over their relationships. It’s important to consider the context of when, why, and how these phrases are used so we can better identify manipulation and resist self-blame when it is unwarranted.
1. You’re insecure, jealous, and controlling.
While empathic people may use this phrase occasionally to call out excessively possessive behavior, narcissists use it to gaslight others and blame them for reacting to their manipulation. Research indicates that narcissistic and psychopathic individuals deliberately engage in jealousy induction, provoking jealousy in their partners for the purposes of power and control. If this phrase is said by a narcissistic person after they have tried to repeatedly provoke jealousy in their partner, deceive or betray them, it is a way to pathologize the victim for having valid reactions to the narcissist’s mistreatment. Narcissists will also use this phrase to depict their victim’s basic questions as interrogation and as “paranoia” to prevent them from discovering the truth. They will also project their own jealousy and possessiveness onto their partners. For example, even if the narcissistic individual regularly interrogates their partners about their whereabouts or keeps in constant contact with them, they will project this onto you as soon as you call them out on their suspicious behavior.
When an empathic person is being subjected to countless outlandish accusations, unwarranted possessiveness, and control despite no evidence of betrayal, the phrase, “You’re insecure, jealous and controlling” may very well be a founded, valid claim. However, in a relationship with a narcissist, this phrase is used to make victims believe that their reactions to their abusive behavior are the problem rather than the abuse itself. If you are feeling chronically insecure, jealous or on-edge in a relationship and do not usually feel this way or have reason to believe your partner is deliberately provoking you, it is important to resist internalizing this accusation and look at the evidence for why you may be feeling this way.
2. My ex was toxic.
When empathic people say this phrase, they’re usually speaking to the reality of an ex-partner who was abusive or mistreated them in some way. When narcissists say this, they are often creating a false narrative about a partner they themselves mistreated and are now mischaracterizing in order to play the victim. The key to identifying the difference is in their patterns of behavior: if they claim their ex was toxic yet frequently engage in crazymaking and manufacture chaos, chances are they’re misrepresenting who was the true instigator of toxicity in their previous relationship.
3. I just need space.
Healthy, empathic people might need space to reset, take time to recharge, or think about an issue more deeply. If an empathic person is in a relationship with a narcissist, they might also need a break from their mistreatment. Narcissistic individuals, on the other hand, use the phrase “I need space” to chronically stonewall their partners and end productive discussions before they’ve even begun, usually to evade accountability for their actions. Narcissistic individuals will even claim they need a “break” from the relationship, only to use that time to pursue more convenient targets.
4. That’s not healthy.
While empathic people may use this phrase to point out unhealthy behavior that harms others or oneself, the narcissist will use this phrase to frame any behavior from others that does not serve them as “unhealthy.” For example, the narcissist might claim that trying to hold them accountable for emotional abuse or asking them basic questions to clarify inconsistencies in their behavior is “unhealthy” or “toxic.” This is a way for them to deter any of your behaviors that don’t cater to their excessive sense of entitlement, and project onto you their own toxicity. It also allows the narcissist to morally grandstand and suggest that they are more “mature” than you, even if their behavior suggests anything but. It convinces you to work on your own unproblematic behavior rather than discern their red flags.
5. How are you? I miss you.
Empathic people use this phrase to check in with loved ones they are consistently attentive to or may have lost touch with organically. Narcissists use this phrase to check in with former partners and friends they want to exploit even after the connection is over. Research indicates that narcissists tend to stay connected with exes for more pragmatic reasons such as sex and access to resources. If a narcissist is the one saying this phrase after mistreating you, it’s likely they only miss the control they once had over you.
6. That’s selfish or immature.
Ironically, when victims decide not to prioritize the narcissist who has been harming them or do not forgive or reconcile with them easily, narcissists consider this to be selfish, vindictive, or immature. Narcissists expect that you be at their beck and call at all times and to allow them to trample on your boundaries. They expect you to prematurely forgive them for heinous transgressions – otherwise you will be labeled self-centered, immature, or vindictive. On the other hand, when a healthy and empathic person calls out selfish behavior, they are usually identifying that someone’s chronic self-centeredness is genuinely harming others.
7. I love you.
Healthy partners use “I love you” as a genuine expression of love and affection. Narcissists use it to control you by using it to love bomb and hook you during the honeymoon stages of the relationship. They also use “I love you” to press the reset button when you are beginning to identify the red flags of the relationship and beginning to detach from them and the trauma bond of the relationship. “I love controlling you” is a more accurate interpretation of this phrase when the narcissist is the one weaponizing it.
8. Please respect my boundaries.
Empathic people set healthy boundaries that protect themselves from being violated mentally and physically. They may let others know to respect these boundaries. The boundaries of narcissists, on the other hand, can be summed up as, “You’re not allowed to speak up for yourself and stand up to my abuse, and I am allowed to continue engaging in all the behaviors that actively harm you.” When narcissists use this phrase, they are usually defending themselves against their victim’s legitimate reactions to abuse and protecting their own excessive sense of entitlement. For example, a narcissistic cheating spouse may tell their partner to respect “their boundary” by not asking them where they have been when they come home late. This is drastically different from an empathic, faithful spouse who tells their abuser that they need space from their constant rage attacks and sets boundaries to get that reprieve.
9. I just want you to be happy or I want to make you happy.
The narcissist may claim that they want you to be happy throughout the relationship, but in reality, they use this phrase when they are the ones about to do something that makes them happy. They may use this phrase to ensnare their ex-partners back into the toxic relationship by claiming that their partner’s happiness is their priority and that they will do everything to secure it. Or they may use this phrase when they are in pursuit of other victims and need time and space away from their primary partner to do it – thus seemingly wishing their primary partner happiness and expressing their willingness to let go even though they plan to come back. Healthy, empathic people may let others know they care about the happiness of others, but they will genuinely be willing to let go of people without manipulating them, and authentically contribute to the happiness of others.
10. Leave me alone.
Narcissists use this as a stonewalling phrase to shut down basic conversations where they’re being held accountable or as a way to push away a partner right before instigating a silent treatment. Empathic people use it in contexts where they’re being continually harassed, stalked, and violated.
11. I’ve never had this problem with anyone else.
When narcissists claim this, it is an attempt to depict their partners as defective for daring to defend themselves. This phrase is used to pathologize the reactions of their partners to abuse and convince their partners that they are the only ones who have reacted to this abuse, further isolating them in the abuse cycle and gaslighting them into believing that the narcissist’s behavior was never the problem. When healthy, empathic people say this, they may be genuinely calling out blatant mischaracterizations or issues they are innocent of contributing to. For example, a person who is usually positive and cheerful may say this in response to a narcissist’s claim that they are bitter and negative – a clear falsehood and projection.
Better understanding the context of these phrases can help you recognize when you are being gaslighted and to resist manipulation. It will help you pinpoint if someone’s abuse is causing you to react in specific ways and shift away from excessive self-blame. If you are in a relationship with a narcissist, it’s important to get support. You may want to process your traumas with a mental health professional as you begin the journey of detaching from the narcissist and freeing yourself.