“Am I a Gaslighter? Or Just Scared of Losing People Over My ADHD?”
“All gaslighters are liars. But are all liars also gaslighters? No. Sometimes, those of us with ADHD lie almost out of reflex. Our symptoms of impulsivity or inattention or forgetfulness cause problems, and sometimes we just want those problems to go away and for us to appear in control of our lives, so we lie — though rarely do we consciously make the decision to do so.”
In the 17th century, hysteria gripped the village of Salem as local misfits were systematically branded “witches” — a powerful label that accused a person of being a malicious actor under confusing and emotional circumstances. The characterization of the beautiful but scheming evil antagonist has persisted in popular culture; every Disney stepmother seems to prove this point. And while it’s easy to hate and fear Snow White’s nemesis, the fact is that real relationships rarely boil down to witches vs. princesses, evil vs. good, wicked vs. pure.
I would argue that, just as “witch” was used to falsely condemn misunderstood outsiders more than 300 years ago, the term “gaslighter” is being thrown around much too carelessly — and largely without context — today.
By definition, a gaslighter is someone who consciously and purposely manipulates another person through lies, trickery, and psychological warfare. Gaslighters methodically develop a false narrative in order to make another individual (usually a partner) doubt their own perceptions and sanity.
All gaslighters are liars. But are all liars also gaslighters? No.
Sometimes, those of us with ADHD lie almost out of reflex. Our symptoms of impulsivity or inattention or forgetfulness cause problems, and sometimes we just want those problems to go away and for us to appear in control of our lives, so we lie. It’s the fight, flight, or fib phenomenon and almost all of us have experienced it, though rarely do we consciously make the decision to lie.
This is true for me. I have lied to people who matter to me. And at least one of those people has responded by calling me a gaslighter; the subtext of the accusation was this: “You lied to me and let that lie spin out of control instead of facing or revealing the truth for my sake. You intentionally chose to keep me ignorant of something that matters to me so that I would act in the way you wanted. You are selfish and now I don’t think I can trust or respect you and what you say.”
In my case, this person truly felt they had been gaslit, which adds an extra layer of disbelief and confusion to the pain of being betrayed by someone you loved (i.e. me). For those who feel gaslit, it’s a struggle to believe that a trusted partner or friend intentionally manipulated you and to come to terms with the fact that you failed to stand up for yourself having trusted them and sacrificed everything including the beliefs and values you thought you shared.
Usually something bad happens that no one can fully explain, trust issues grow as the situation escalates and someone’s views inevitably dominate. Then accusations and suspicions start to creep in.
This is terrifying for both the accuser and the accused if they actually, really care and aren’t intentionally gaslighting. If the accused believes they are telling the truth, the ‘gaslighter’ label can spark anger and resentment as they feel under attack and are forced to explain and adequately resolve chaos, insecurities, and confusion that may not be entirely their doing or of their understanding. Suddenly, you are the evil stepmother, everyone is siding with Snow White, and you see no way out except over a cliff.
It boils down to intent: Well-intentioned people also often lie because they don’t know all the facts, they make assumptions, link disjointed memories or perspectives to fit a more logical narrative, they are simply afraid to face the truth, or they just don’t know and feel pressured to provide an answer. Sometimes they try to adapt both perspectives and come out with something that’s no longer accurate. They can feel deeply insecure (consciously or not), so they say the thing that makes the most sense to them, the thing that will absolve them or resolve the problem, or the thing they think you want to hear at the time. They then double down under scrutiny until the narrative is a mix of lies and the truth, particularly when their head is pure panic. This was the case for me, and though this perspective does not absolve me of my wrongdoing or make me right, it does help to explain it.
It takes a lot of courage to stand down when you thought you were right, or to abandon a “safe” narrative as the stakes get high and you risk losing another person’s respect, trust, or love. No one wants to lose that, but a lot of people lack the maturity and bravery to admit their wrongdoing; they are also scared of the consequences of coming clean as the objective truth becomes clear. But consequences follow us no matter what; it’s far better to admit your mistakes and lies early than it is to be mistaken for a gaslighter down the road, when even you are no longer sure what’s true anymore. It’s OK to just honestly say that you really don’t know instead of trying to fill in the gaps.
Who is the fairest one of all? Maybe it’s the one who can own up to their mistakes and say, “I’m truly sorry” and accept the risk that they may never be forgiven.
Gaslighter Accusations: Next Steps
- Free Download: 9 Truths About ADHD and Intense Emotions
- Blog: “A Lifetime of Apologizing — and Lying — to Cover My ADHD Tracks”
- Read: “You Can’t Buy Forgiveness for Your ADHD. But You Can Learn to Apologize Without Accepting Shame.”
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