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.
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
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.”
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.
Gaslighting and ADHD: Next Steps
- Understand: ADHD Self-Doubt, Shame & Gaslighting: My Anything-But-Perfect Storm
- Download: Manage ADHD’s Impact on Your Relationship
- Read: How ADHD Impacts Sex and Marriage
Stephanie Sarkis, Ph.D., the author of Gaslighting: Recognize Manipulative and Emotionally Abusive People (#CommissionsEarned), 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.
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