Relationships

The Gaslighting Risk: Why Adults with ADHD Are Particularly Vulnerable to Manipulation

Gaslighters often target women and men with ADHD. Here’s how to recognize when you are being psychologically or emotionally manipulated, and how to shut down the abuse.

What Is Gaslighting?

Gaslighting is a form of psychological or emotional abuse — a series of manipulative techniques designed to gain control of another person. By blatantly and repeatedly lying or challenging reality, the gaslighters keep their victims off-kilter and make them question themselves. Many times, a person’s diagnosis of ADHD is used against him or her by the gaslighter. I have been a therapist for 20 years, and lately I have seen more and more clients with ADHD reporting being gaslighted in their relationships and at their jobs.

One of the best defenses against gaslighting is to educate yourself about this kind of emotional abuse. Adults with ADHD may be more vulnerable to gaslighting due to issues with self-esteem, difficulty with past relationships, and feelings of guilt and shame. Know that there is hope, and you can rebuild your life after living with gaslighting for months or even years.

Gaslighting Behaviors

Gaslighters sometimes hide their partners’ belongings and blame their partners for being “irresponsible,” “lazy,” or “so ADHD” when they can’t find the items. A gaslighter may also tell their partner that they don’t need to take medication for ADHD because “I know what you need better than some doctor does.”

Gaslighting behaviors include:

  • Telling you that you didn’t see or hear something
  • Cheating often, but obsessively accusing you of cheating
  • Saying that other people think you are crazy
  • Pitting you against people (this is known as “triangulating”)
  • Idealizing you, then devaluing you, and finally discarding the relationship

[Take This Self-Test: Emotional Hyperarousal in Adults]

Why and How Gaslighters Target People with ADHD

Gaslighters sense vulnerabilities in a person. They specifically target people who are grieving a loss or who feel inadequate or isolated. If you have ADHD, you probably grew up with the feeling that you were “less than.” You may have had difficulties maintaining friendships or relationships. You may have been dismissed by others who said you were “difficult.”

When you meet a gaslighter for the first time, he or she will do something called “love bombing.” They will tell you everything you have wanted to hear from someone, especially after a lifetime of rejection. The purpose of the behavior is to hook you. Once you are committed to the relationship, the gaslighter begins abusive behavior.

Early on, the gaslighter asks you about your fears and inadequacies. It feels good to have someone listening to you and caring about what you have to say. However, the gaslighter is gathering data to be used as ammunition against you later. You may eventually hear, “No wonder your sister doesn’t talk to you anymore. She knows you’re crazy, too.”

[Download This: 6 Ways ADHD Sabotages Relationships]

If you leave the relationship, the gaslighter will “hoover” — drawing you back. They will send messages through friends and family that they miss you. They will promise you the world, but will never apologize. They don’t think they did anything wrong. The threat of losing their ability to manipulate you motivates a gaslighter to get you back in their clutches. But once you return, everything promised to you disappears, and your relationship becomes more abusive than before.

How to Escape Gaslighting In a Relationship

For most people, leaving a gaslighting relationship means “no contact — at all.” Block phone numbers and email addresses. Tell friends and family that you will not listen to any messages sent through them. You should also meet with a licensed mental health professional; having ADHD makes you vulnerable to anxiety and mood disorders. Set up and follow through with an ADHD treatment plan, and re-establish connections with the healthy people in your life. If you have children with a gaslighter, meet with an attorney to establish a detailed parenting plan.

Gaslighting at the Workplace

Sometimes bosses and coworkers take advantage of the fact that someone has ADHD. They will accuse you of being forgetful or not caring about your work.

Ask your boss or coworker to send you an email with instructions or details of an assignment. If you complete the assignment and are told later that you didn’t do what was asked, refer to that email, instead of blaming yourself. Also, get to know the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission’s definition of workplace harassment, found at eeoc.gov/laws/types/harassment.cfm.

[Read This Now: How ADHD Impacts Sex and Marriage]


Stephanie Sarkis, Ph.D., the author of Gaslighting: Recognize Manipulative and Emotionally Abusive People, is a licensed and board-certified mental health counselor, and a Florida Supreme Court-certified family and civil mediator based in Tampa. She is a best-selling author, the host of the Talking Brains podcast, and is a contributor to Psychology Today, Forbes, and HuffPost. You can reach Stephanie at stephaniesarkis.com.

[Subscribe to the ADDitude Newsletter for Women with ADHD]

Updated on May 1, 2020

14 Related Links

  1. This article’s diagnosis’ are far too vague to be of any analytical value. I don’t doubt that the tactics outlined could be used for abusive purposes but many are too typical to be conclusively identified as gaslighting. For example, this article suggests that idealizing somebody, then devaluing them, then leaving the relationship constitutes gaslighting. First of all everybody idealizes their romantic interest in the beginning of a relationship, firstly, because in seeking a romantic interest we seek people who meet our conceived ideal and secondly because as we seek that ideal we attempt to put our best foot forward so to speak presenting the best of ourselves and hiding our weaknesses. Second, devaluing our partner in the case a relationship turns sour as we come to know the actual person and separate them from our ideal is typical. This is not to say that it’s healthy but that it justifies to ourselves the ending of a relationship that doesn’t meet our expectations in order than we may move on. Finally, it seems like it is the contradiction of all contradictions to label leaving a relationship that goes through this fairly typical life cycle as gaslighting. If gaslighting is about controlling somebody what control over a person does one gain from leaving them? I do believe that this is a topic worth discussion and consideration but to write with such broad examples opens the door to misinterpretation and could lead many to become overly paranoid in relationships and lead to unhealthy consequences and may make identifying actual gaslighting more difficult not less. By this article’s standards I’ve been gaslighted by ever person with whom I’ve ever been in a relationship.

  2. What about the Non partner being gaslighted by the ADHD partner? Gaslighting and abuse are abuse, not necessarily related to ADHD.
    As someone who was gaslighted by my ex husband, I know firsthand the destruction it causes. His behavior was all the more insidious because he did these things behind closed doors. There were no witnesses which means it was my word against his, and it might as well have never happened.

  3. I believe the statement: “idealizing somebody, then devaluing them” refers to someone who builds you up, then tears you down, to make them feel powerful.
    Sometimes we enter into relationships with others who do not show us their true selves until after we marry them, or are living with them.
    The only way I could break my ex husband’s control over me was to leave him. I tried to make it work for 10 years.
    Gaslighting versus a “typical relationship life cycle” are not the same thing.
    Yes, we often hurt the ones we love and are closest to, but there is no excuse for someone to take advantage of someone’s weaknesses and drive them deeper into depression with constant beratement, fits of rage and gaslighting.

  4. I agree that this article seems off-base in terms of useful value to Adults with ADHD:

    QUOTE: “Gaslighters sense vulnerabilities in a person. They specifically target people who are grieving a loss or who feel inadequate or isolated. If you have ADHD, you probably grew up with the feeling that you were “less than.” You may have had difficulties maintaining friendships or relationships. You may have been dismissed by others who said you were “difficult.” ”

    The examples given give an impression that “all gaslighting is intentional and/or malicious”. Though that is for sure the intent of some people who get cheap thrills out of another’s anguish, especially if the gaslighter enjoys creating torment out of thin air. The term originates from the Hollywood film where a husband drives his wife into believing she is crazy.

    But there is an all-together different kind of gaslighting that I have experienced specifically with respect to Adults with ADHD, which for me is a recent diagnosis, only made last year (2019). For me the more egregious kind of gaslighting is that which comes without specific intent to injure, harm, or exploit someone’s vulnerabilities, but rather out of total ignorance about the disorder itself. As I have researched this issue very deeply the past year, it is stunning to me just how off-base and simplistic the typical person’s understanding is about “what is ADHD”. And I will include myself here. The societal norm and mainstream public understanding is focused on really just 3 tell-tale indicators that drive a diagnosis: #1 “distractibility”, which often impacts and impairs academic performance, giving rise to simplistic trait #2: learning challenges, with #3 being “hyperactivity”.

    But because I was always an A-Student from grade-school thru college, and didn’t exhibit hyperactivity, I did not fit these very coarse metrics. Thus I was not observed or diagnosed as a kid because the understandings of the disorder were very crude and limited throughout the 70’s, 80’s and 90’s. But after getting the diagnosis last year, upon diving into the research, I was shocked like a bolt of lightning to discover that the simplistic “3 obvious traits” model society generally uses — as well as by the mental health providers I had seen through 40 years of therapy from a dozen or more professionals in 3 major cities — up to and including my current mental health providers at Kaiser Permanente in the Bay Area — is so outdated as to be describing something alltogether different from the far more complex model I have since learned. Meaning the one featured constantly on this website and at CHADD.org and at the ADHD Meetup I now go to— comprised of things like “Rejection sensitivity dysphoria”, “oppositional defiance”, depression, anxiety, insomnia, impulsivity vs hyperactivity, “communication density” (pushing people away from you due to ADHD people’s literately speaking in paragraphs vs sentences, and this frustrating others used to bullet points), often pairing with relationship formation and maintenance problems, career mis-steps, and financial mismanagement.

    And that’s still only part of the co-existing conditions that form the gigantic underwater iceberg that is ACTUAL ADHD determined from longitudinal and brainscan imaging research. Thankfully I don’t have some of the other equally weighty problems like substance abuse addiction. But what is so stunning in all that I’ve learned this past year is just how painfully UNINFORMED and ignorant the vast majority of mental health practitioners in America are. This is confirmed time and again on this website, but it is so unthinkable to me how grossly unqualified most mental health professionals are re the actual ADHD complex, knowing only the tiny “visible above water” tip of the iceberg of the disorder: this simplistic mythical “childhood ADHD”, solved by stimulant meds and some simple coaching strategies. How in the world in this information rich internet age can this tip of the iceberg be the sum total of any and all training these people have ever received?

    So WHO ARE THE REAL GASLIGHTERS? It’s so clear, it is the vast majority of mental health practitioners in America. One would think that due to their domain of expertise, they would somehow in their professional lives even accidentally stumble across some kind of article describing even a cursory summary of the much more evolved and complex neurological signal-processing understanding researchers have about ADHD. I get it that they can’t possibly be up-to-date on every update on all the subcomponents of their practice areas— bi-polar, schizophrenia, narcisssistic personality disorder, #MeToo trauma, PTSD, and so on, on top of the perennials “depression & anxiety. But the level of complete and total unawareness of the host of serious co-morbid conditions is really unheard of.

    So, my comment here is not at all about the intentional malicious gaslighters, but rather the mental health professional gaslighters who keep telling you you need to concentrate harder, and “work on time management”, and “be sure to take your meds” and ridiculous bromides like “try to stay away from distracting environments to lessen the chance of being knocked off-focus”. These are the people who gaslight every day of the year, thousands of patients, who tell their therapists about what they’ve learned online about this larger complex, only to be greeted by a shrug in return, or in the case of many, this complete “faking it” like “right… yes, that’s difficult to deal with”— when in fact they have no subject matter knowledge of the complex.

    Are they doing it on purpose? Of course not. But this article is so light-weight as to misrepresent the full-spectrum of gaslighting we deal with every day …. when the general public, as well as close family members, yawn or act like “everyone’s a little ADD, right?”, or implicitly invalidate the enormity of your struggles with unspoken language communicating “geez, aren’t you just exagerrating a bit much?” or “get over it” and so on. That kind of dismissiveness or constant minimization or skepticism or assumptions like “doesn’t medicine handle all that?” are all painful enough to bear. But here too, are these behaviors typically done with mal-intent — just to exploit your vulnerabilities as this article suggests? NO! They are born of just plain ignorance from all they don’t know but think they know.

    But at least in the case of the general public, they are not expected to have anything remotely resembling an up-to-date understanding of ADHD. But when this kind of total ignorance is exhibited routinely by mental health & behavioral health practitioners, that is one serious mega-problem.

    So let’s reframe this gaslighting article. If it was limited to just the domain of psychopathic people seeking a thrill from your misery by misplacing your socks, that would be one thing. But when more times than not the actual gaslighting is coming from your THERAPIST? You need to get your house in order.

  5. Hm… How about the other side of the coin? I’m non ADHD wife of an ADHD husband, being gaslighted by him for many years. Why did he do that? He declared me inadequate in order to dismiss all the concerns I raised about ( as I learned now) typical ASHD symptoms and their effects on married life together. Or – calling me inadequate was the way set up conflict/ drama kind of stimulation that I now know ADHD brain craves as means of self stimulation.

  6. Quicksite your comment is excellent – ever thought about writing an article on these complexities so that the ‘professionals’ can extend their understanding and knowledge base and therefore be of more help to people with ADHD?

  7. What the author is describing here is actually an almost verbatim description of a true narcissist. I wonder if she is using the word “gaslighter” in order to avoid the more sticky issue of narcissistic behavior?

    I was gaslighted for most of the 11 years I lived with what I now understand is a “covert altruistic narcissist.” Covert meaning not obvious, a quieter and more passive aggressive form of narcissism. Altruistic meaning he does lots of nice things for people, volunteers at his church, makes some minor sacrifices for his friends (all of whom are extremely needy) – but not out of compassion or love or friendship, but as “transactions.”

    In exchange for whatever nice thing he’s done for you, your job is to reflect back to him what a generous and caring person he is. There is a giant price tag on everything he does. Narcissists rely on other people to make them feel real, this is at the base of their personality disorder. But more importantly, because THEY feel “less than,” they need to feel special by seeing you as inferior to them – and that’s where all the games come in. And it’s why they pick people with a shaky sense of self, or poor self-esteem.

    I have ADHD and my short-term memory is pretty unreliable, unless I write things down, which I do quite a bit (my bathroom mirror is ringed by sticky-notes).

    I write down what time I walked the dog because he needs to be walked three times a day, preferably no more than 6 hours apart and I tend not to notice what time it is.

    I use my phone to remind me to take my RX a half hour after I eat breakfast.

    My (now ex) partner, saw me doing things like this and he knows that I am self-conscious about this and other issues that complicate my life because of ADHD.

    So, he used this against me by, for example, saying that he told me about an appointment, or told me he was going somewhere for a few days, and I’d later realize he lied because I always write down those kinds of things – I even would have him write things on our kitchen calendar so I’d remember.

    The worst example of this was when I mentioned a mutual friend who’d been very ill, about maybe visiting her, and he looked at me with utter contempt and said, “I told you. She died more than a month ago.” I can tell you with 100 percent certainty that I remember things like that — anything that would provoke strong emotion always gets stored in my otherwise on-again/off-again memory.

    So, let me explain that what the author is describing is not normal falling in/falling out of love cycles. It is narcissistic manipulation (abuse) that is quite calculated and deliberate. And cruel.

    My ex praised me to the skies when we first met (“love-bombing). We met when I was ending another relationship and feeling depressed and lonely. He continually told me we were meant to meet, and that I was his other half. He moved in with me about three months after we met (turns out, he was about to lose his apartment). He frequently talked about getting married (and something in my gut told me “Don’t!”)

    He would listen to me talk about my feelings and act interested, but his responses were always a bit weird. Once I said that I was struggling with getting through my days because I was being hit with a wave of depression and he said, “Well, I’m happy with MY little life.”

    About a year into the relationship, he was ignoring me, gaslighting me on a daily basis, cheating on me with his ex wife (didn’t find this out until much later when I read his email), lying to me sometimes just for the sake of laughing at how trusting I was, spending money on get-rich-quick schemes and abandoning them and telling me about them after the fact, smoking pot three or four times a day (and selling his PLASMA to pay for the pot), and other very unloving behavior.

    When I came home from heart surgery (16 months ago), the next day he flew out of state to visit his family for a week.

    He left me three months ago, after 11 years together (during which he would occasionally revert to Mr. Nice Guy, just to string me along), saying very casually on Oct. 1 that he’d “met someone” and would be moved out by the end of the month, like giving notice to a landlord. In fact, I know he didn’t “meet someone,” except for a friend of a friend who had a cheap apartment to rent.

    He left because I finally woke up to how much damage he’d done to me, and realized I’d been in some kind of fog for years and years. I am positive that I had a heart attack because of the stress of wondering if I was crazy and feeling crappy about myself as an inadequate partner and so on. After I had heart surgery, I snapped out of it, and I laid down some rules — how dare I! — and he fled.

    By the way, the term “gaslighting” comes from an old movie, “Gaslight,” starring Ingrid Bergman. Among other things, her husband tried to make her think she was crazy by lowering the lights, then powered by gas, when she was alone so that’s where the title comes from.

    Here’s a great clip: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kFhDGoJh4O4

  8. Something was feeling very familiar when I was reading this article. I soon realized that the author was describing narcissism. I did some research and found that gaslighting and narcissism do, indeed, have overlapping traits. Below is an excerpt from an article I found on the overlapping. My opinion on this matter is that until the narcissist reels you in, you are not susceptible to being gaslighted. I’ve been reading up on this subject for the last two years and just recently escaped my relationship with the narc. Narrowly! I may be too raw at this time to be objective – this is just my initial impression. My own experience is that I seldom trust anyone enough to gaslight me when we are just beginning our relationship, whether it be a friend, a romantic relationship, or a new job.

    “5. Emotional Invalidation and Coercion

    Although narcissists and gaslighters can be (but are not always) physically abusive, for the majority of their victims, emotional suffering is where the damage is most painfully felt. Both narcissists and gaslighters enjoy spreading and arousing negative emotions in order to feel powerful, and keep you insecure and off-balance. They habitually invalidate others’ thoughts, feelings, and priorities, showing little remorse for causing people in their lives pain. They often blame their victims for having caused their own victimization (“You wouldn’t get yelled at if you weren’t so stupid!”).

    In addition, many narcissists and gaslighters have unpredictable mood swings and are prone to emotional drama — you never know what might displease them and set them off. They become upset at any signs of independence and self-affirmation (“Who do you think you are!?”). They turn agitated if you disagree with their views or fail to meet their expectations. As mentioned earlier, they are sensitive to criticism, but quick to judge others. By keeping you down and making you feel inferior, they boost their fragile ego, and feel more reassured about themselves.” Link to full article: http://bit.ly/36Z0UDt

  9. When my husband of 16 years started to gaslight me it had everything to do with making me unsure of my mental capacity to properly raise our kids and to leave him alone so he could hyperfocus on his video games. When I would ask him to help me out with something on the computer, and it interrupted his game, he would come in and tell me that I had learned this before and I obviously couldn’t remember anything because of my ADHD. That would get me Upset and I would respond that I needed him just give me a few clues to jog my memory. He would throw some main barbs at me about how useless I was with any computer skills and that he would just come in and do the project for me since he knew I was going to mess it up. But then he would go back to his game and tell me that he would help me when he was done. It really made me feel like I could not do anything right! And now that I am learning about narcissistic personality disorder, and how they really try to throw you off of having any confidence in yourself in order to game emotional and mental control over you, I see that it was very orchestrated to make me feel incompetent so that I did not interrupt anything he wanted to be doing. He could have told me that he was playing a game and would help me later, but instead he belittled me and my abilities to get me to stop asking anything of him. Gaslighting is extremely emotionally and confidently destroying

  10. While abuse and how abusers will target someone with ADHD because of their vulnerabilities is informative reading, I feel like what Quicksite is saying is much more relevant.

    When you have ADHD, and the further you are from the stereotype of the hyperactive 10 yr old white boy, you’re going to get gaslit constantly about *ADHD itself*, and how severely harmful that is when it comes from the very people supposed to help you.

    I was similarly diagnosed late, this January at the ripe old age of 26, but I’ve been screaming for help my whole life, only to get told “You can do anything you put your mind to” “just try harder” “You’re smart, why can’t you just do this?” “Stop making excuses” “You’re just being lazy” “I know you’re better than this””why can you sit on the computer for 12 hours straight but not do homework for 5 minutes? Clearly concentration is not the problem” From every person who could help me. Parents, teachers, guidance counsellors, psychologists, therapists, even doctors would dismiss my symptoms as simply a lack of willpower or poor character. Hell, not even six months ago a psychologist told me “you can’t have ADHD, you’re far too intelligent for that.”

    These people are not gaslighting you out of malice, but as Quicksite put it, ignorance. But that doesn’t make the harm any less severe. How do you handle that?

    What happened to me is I internalized all those voices and even now there’s a nagging voice in the back of my head telling me I’m just faking my ADHD to have an excuse for being lazy and stupid. Now that I have my diagnosis I can tell it to officially shut up, but it’s been nagging me for over 20 years and it’s going to be extremely hard to get rid of entirely.

    At least my parents came to me after I told them I’ve been diagnosed and apologized for gaslighting me, well, not explicitly, but they did say “I know you tried to tell me so many times and I didn’t listen, I’m sorry for the way I treated you, I just didn’t know.”

    Yeah, that was kinda the problem. People don’t know and they sure as hell won’t listen.

  11. @klpalmos
    February 4, 2020 at 4:58 pm

    Thank you for appreciating my comment. I haven’t participated on this site prior to writing this comment last week when I saw the article first posted. I haven’t given thought to writing an article because I am in the midst of serious struggles and urgencies including finding a job, settling some disorganization in my home after moving a number of months ago, and of course trying to get appropriate behavioral help from my provider.

    I understand that to some readers, my earlier comment above could easily sound like I was popping off— part of the common ADHD pitfall, emotional dysregulation. In truth I was initially excited to see the title of the article, further affirming just how often ADDitude Magazine articles hit so many relevant topics squarely on the head. And I was surprised anticipating “Are they really going to take on this prevalent knowledge-gap problem in mental health industry?”. Then upon reading it I found it was not targeting the kind of gaslighting that’s been really crushing my soul these past 10 months trying to navigate the extremely ill-equipped services of my mental health provider. So my impetus was to share this different form of gaslighting I’ve been experiencing, wondering if it would have any resonance for anyone else.

    Housekeeping question: I don’t visit this site everyday and I was checking to see if there is any email notification when someone replies to a comment, or to the article itself. I take it there is no “subscribing to comments” feature here, is that correct? I’m still a beginner here and appreciate this resource. I’m particularly interested in digging into the forums. Any advice or recs appreciated.

  12. Ingrid Bergman all day. I live in a constant state of self-doubt, gaslighting myself. Because my memory is so unreliable and becomes worse when directly, suddenly faced with criticism, I always believe that I am in the wrong. Yes, I forgot the meeting, yes it was my job to do something and I forgot to do it, no I don’t remember you ever telling me that but if you say you did I believe you, no I can’t promise to do it right the next time and every time. Rarely I can stand confidently in the space of memory and say “Sorry, no, you never told me that”, if I have clear recollection. If I don’t at that moment remember there are no lighthouses or breadcrumbs or links, no reliable way to clear a path to memories. It is a terrifying secret and what gives me nightmares is what perhaps I failed to do for a loved one that must have hurt them, and how often, and what promises I walked away from. Self-inflicted gaslighting.
    Thank you for articles like these,
    Pat Nealon

  13. I made a terrible mistake once when I engaged with one such abuser, and she destroyed everything I loved and cared about. I knew she was a manipulative person, but I thought I had her safely at bay; she was a personal trainer, and in that way she was very helpful in reaching my goal of finally getting in shape. I felt comfortable in knowing I could basically fire her if she overstepped. But what I didn’t realize is that while I had a plan of escape, my husband didn’t, and he fell for her manipulations completely. In the end, it was as if he was under her spell; he left me and pulled my world down around my shoulders. She gaslighted me, and I knew it, but when she turned to my husband and started convincing HIM that I was basically a spoiled, entitled witch, he completely turned against me. Her “love bombing” also clearly had an effect on him.
    Ultimately, I think he was afraid of her; we had both seen her turn on other people and her fury was intimidating. I think in the end he found it easier to turn against me than her (bizarre, I know, but I’ve seen this before; people stand behind bullies because they feel it’s easier than becoming their target). He ended up moving in with her (along with his new girlfriend, whom the trainer had introduced him to), and basically financially supporting her.
    As a woman who has lived most of her life with undiagnosed inattentive ADHD, I’ve had a hard life. But his sudden and shocking betrayal hurt me to my core; I’ve never recovered. I never will. After 6 years, I am still trapped in a downward spiral.
    When you encounter someone who is a manipulative gaslighter, just get them out of your life as quickly as possible; find ways to limit all interaction (no so easy when it’s your boss or a coworker, admittedly). They won’t just go after you, they will target others around you.

  14. I totally agree with the writers who point out that this article describes the behavior of the classic narcissist, especially the covert narcissist. It was annoying to have this (narcissistic) syndrome reduced to a mere one of its components.

Leave a Reply