7 ‘Positive Thinking’ Phrases That Can Actually Cross the Line Into Gaslighting

One person in the foreground is sad, while another in the background is talking

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“Don’t cry.”

As a sensitive child, adults often told me this, but hearing it only made me feel more ashamed of crying. They told me not to let bullies get to me, which made me feel weak for letting them. They told me people have control over their emotions, which made me wonder why I was the one exception.

When we tell children these things, we hope it’ll make them tougher, but it actually makes them feel like they’re not tough enough. And, in my experience, it makes them wonder if there’s something wrong with them for feeling the way they do.

And when well-intentioned advice starts to make people question their own mental stability, it becomes gaslighting.

Gaslighting – manipulating people into questioning their own perceptions – is often described as an emotional abuse tactic.

But beyond its employment by verbally and emotionally abusive people, gaslighting is actually built into our language.

It rears its head every time someone with hurt feelings is accused of being too sensitive, taking things too seriously, or taking offense too easily. It also shows up in some of the supposed wisdom we teach our children – and often continue teaching people well into adulthood.

After constantly hearing that I shouldn’t be feeling what I was feeling and that my observations couldn’t be trusted, I began to label myself hysterical, dramatic, and other words used to make people – especially women – discount their emotions.

To this day, when someone offends or hurts me, there’s always that little voice in the back of my head saying “Maybe you’re just blowing it out of proportion” or “Maybe this is your problem.”

In our current culture of gaslighting, people not only blame individuals for their emotional reactions, but also dismiss the concerns of entire communities as the complaints of the “PC police” or “social justice warriors.”

Professors complain about pressure to provide content warnings for assigned readings even when nearly 8% of Americans experience PTSD at some point and could be forced to relive their trauma if they encounter triggers.

As a culture, we do not honor people’s feelings or lived experiences.

If we were more careful about what we told other people, encouraging them to examine and address their emotions rather than suppress them, we might be able to create a culture where individuals felt comfortable expressing their feelings in healthy ways and others took them seriously.

Here are some things we should stop saying to our children and stop telling one another as adults if we want the people we care about to trust their perceptions and honor their emotions.   

1. ‘Sticks and Stones Can Break Your Bones, But Names Can’t Hurt You’

Contrary to this popular platitude, it is absolutely normal for names to hurt you.

Being teased can be just as damaging psychologically as being beat up is physically.

Saying that names can’t hurt anyone ignores all the kids who have suffered from mental health issues and even died by suicide due to verbal bullying. It also ignores the effects of comments that are racist, sexist, transphobic, homophobic, ableist, or otherwise oppressive.

Perhaps those who say “names can’t hurt you” don’t mean that names never hurt people. Maybe they’re just saying they don’t have to.

And there is value in telling people that the hurtful things people say about them aren’t necessarily true and don’t deserve to be taken to heart. But even when we logically know this, what does and doesn’t hurt us is largely out of our control. 

We’d be better off telling people that the names people call them are not objective facts and usually have more to do with the person saying them than the person receiving them, but it’s still normal to find them hurtful.

That would do more to prevent people from hurting than denying that they are hurt. 

2. ‘There’s No Use Dwelling on the Past’

This saying implies that remaining hurt over something in the past is a character flaw, especially when it means we don’t forgive another person.

But we can’t always control when unpleasant memories resurface, and we can’t always “get over” hurtful incidents at will.

If someone has wronged you and never apologized, it’s understandable to still be angry, and the fact that their offense occurred in the past does not excuse it.

Sometimes, the people who say “there’s no use dwelling on the past” are the same ones whose actions you’re dwelling on – in which case, they’re trying to defend themselves at the expense of hearing you out.

Other times, people just want you to feel better because they know it feels awful to replay something unpleasant – and it does. But again, it’s largely out of your control. Nobody is trying to dwell on the past.

Telling someone not to dwell can also trivialize what they’re dwelling on, especially if it was traumatic.

For example, telling someone who was emotionally, physically, or sexually abused not to dwell ignores the fact that abuse affects people throughout their entire lives.

And saying “there’s no use” in any scenario promotes unrealistic expectations.

Since when did people only do useful things? There’s no use in getting sick, but that doesn’t mean it won’t happen sometimes or that sick people shouldn’t receive medical attention or time off work.

3. ‘Nobody Can Make You Feel Inferior Without Your Consent’

This quote is usually attributed to Eleanor Roosevelt, but actually of unclear origin. It can be used to impart one useful message: What other people say about us is not the word of God, and the fact that someone else views you as inferior doesn’t mean you have to agree.

But people have taken the phrase too far and used it to shift responsibility from people who make others feel inferior toward those who are feeling inferior. It’s a worthy goal not to let unconstructive criticism affect us, but that doesn’t make the criticism okay.

I’ve also heard a variation of this phrase: “Nobody can make you feel anything.”

A friend first told me this after I complained that someone else “made” me feel bad, and I thought it was clever. I felt empowered by the idea that I was impervious to others’ comments (even though, in reality, I wasn’t). But later on, the same friend used this phrase when something she said made me feel bad, as if my thin skin were the problem and not her.

After hearing “nobody can make you feel anything” from several people repeatedly, I began to question myself whenever someone actually did make me feel bad. “You’re just thin-skinned,” I’d tell myself. “Nobody can make you feel inferior without your consent, so why are you consenting?”

I’ve since realized that immunity to others’ opinions is a great achievement, but not a realistic expectation. And if someone else makes you feel bad, the right thing for them to do is to examine what they said, not blame you.

No matter how thick or thin your skin is, people are still responsible for how they treat you. What someone says and how you react are two separate issues that shouldn’t be conflated.

4. ‘Offense Is Taken, Not Given’

Like “nobody can make you feel inferior without your consent,” this phrase is sometimes intended to empower people to reject others’ opinions, but it’s usually used instead to defend people making offensive remarks.

When we’re told that taking offense is our own choice, we start to label ourselves as nitpicky, whiney, or argumentative whenever someone offends us. If something makes us feel bad, we blame ourselves, rather than realizing that our perspectives are valuable and we’re likely picking up on something that was indeed offensive, whether intentionally or not.

Silencing people who take offense also works to the disadvantage of people who make offensive statements without realizing it and want to avoid hurting anyone again.

Listening to people who are offended and asking them what they took issue with can start valuable discussions about language, pop culture, and other means by which oppressive ideas propagate.

It can also help people understand why their words could have been hurtful to someone whose perspective they hadn’t considered and to be mindful of other perspectives in the future.

5. ‘We Seek Confirmation of What We Already Believe’

An ex-partner first used this saying with me when I pointed out a sexist double-standard in a movie (specifically, displaying female nudity but not male nudity when both characters were naked in the scene). He told me I saw sexism because I was looking for it.

Hearing that your thoughts stem from preconceived notions rather than genuine observations can really make you doubt your own intellect.

In my case, I became hesitant to contribute to conversations about gender – a topic I had been studying for years – because I wondered if my insights were even credible. My opinions on gender were not valuable, I told myself, since I was thinking about sexism to begin with and therefore biased. If I noticed something problematic, it was only because I was seeking out an opportunity to be offended.

The assumption that someone has a certain experience simply because they expect to is just wrong.

The fact that you think about an issue makes you more credible, not less. It insults someone’s intelligence to say their observations are merely the results of chips on their shoulders.

6. ‘Smile’ (Alternatively, ‘Don’t Cry’)

When people tell you to smile or not to cry, what they really mean is that they wish you would feel happier (unless they’re a street harasser who just wants you to become more aesthetically pleasing to them).

However, what you do with your face is 1) largely involuntary and 2) nobody’s business.

People don’t generally cry on purpose. In fact, many people are embarrassed to cry.

When you tell someone not to cry, you’re telling them to fight even harder to hide their emotions. And while smiling may put some people in a better mood, it can also feel disingenuous.

After people are repeatedly told to smile or not to cry, they start to feel like they have to pretend everything is okay when it isn’t. And, beyond that, they start to doubt that they’re not okay, as if feelings can be objectively evaluated and theirs are incorrect.

When people believe their feelings are wrong, they repress them rather than addressing the problems behind them. To avoid silencing others in this way, we have to provide a safe space for people to show their true emotions, even if these emotions are unpleasant.    

7. ‘Thought Shapes Reality’

Once, I was feeling a bit depressed for no particular reason.

When a family member asked me why, I said, “I don’t know. It’s not like I’m deciding to feel this way.” She said we do decide how we feel, which made me think there was something wrong with me for deciding to feel depressed.

Saying that we choose how we feel trivializes mental illness by implying that we could just get rid of anxiety or depression through the power of positive thinking if we tried hard enough.

Some people also gaslight others by applying this reasoning to physical illness: Mind trumps matter, the argument goes, so you could think away that migraine if you really wanted to. 

Positive thinking is useful, but it’s limited.

Sometimes, all the positive thoughts in the world cannot make you feel better, and that’s not a failing on your part.

***

Some of these phrases aren’t always harmful, and some contain valuable messages, but often, these messages could be conveyed in different ways that help people feel better without blaming them for feeling bad in the first place.

For example, instead of saying “You shouldn’t feel _______,” you could say “You ought not to have to feel _______.” Though this phrasing may sound awkward, it makes it clear that it’s okay for someone to feel what they’re feeling, but you’re sorry they do, and the negative thoughts they may be having don’t necessarily reflect reality.    

Doubting people’s experiences isn’t just unproductive; it’s counterproductive.

Telling people that what they’re thinking or feeling is incorrect doesn’t help them work through these thoughts and feelings. It just represses them so that they come back to haunt the person later.

When we trust other people’s perceptions and emotions instead of implying that what they’ve experienced didn’t really happen, we help them gain control over their feelings.

So, if we truly want to help people take others’ words and actions less personally, we’d be better off letting them feel hurt so that they can gain a greater understanding of where that hurt is coming from.

Blaming people for getting upset or offended is also simply not accurate.

People usually feel upset for a reason. And taking these reasons seriously is far more productive, healthy, and compassionate than denying that someone’s feelings exist.

Suzannah Weiss is a New York-based writer whose work has appeared in The Washington Post, Salon, Seventeen, Buzzfeed, The Huffington Post, Bustle, and more. She holds degrees in Gender and Sexuality Studies, Modern Culture and Media, and Cognitive Neuroscience from Brown University. You can follow her on Twitter @suzannahweiss.