ADHD Self-Doubt, Shame & Gaslighting: My Anything-But-Perfect Storm
“Gaslighting is deeply personal and driven by reinforced shame, which the victim usually works to hide. It makes you question your core beliefs and cognitions, and thus it completely erodes your self-confidence, your judgements, your memories, and your motives. That confusion means you can be led astray as you look to others for help.”
I am vulnerable to gaslighting. I have experienced it and I have been accused of it. I also lost (arguably) the love of my life because I was gaslit 5 years before I even met her. And as with all things in life, ADHD complicates the picture.
How Gaslighting Infects the ADHD Brain
When something goes wrong, my brain leaps to my defense, analyzing the mistake and seeking to place blame. Most times, I realize it’s my fault, panic, assume responsibility, and explain what happened — often forgetting to outwardly apologize.
In an intense and confusing emotional situation, my brain fills in the missing pieces so that the full narrative makes sense while I search for more evidence. The “truth” is then argued and reinforced through rumination. More times than not, the analysis becomes the story. This is the perfect storm for gaslighting.
Gaslighting is the act of manipulating someone by forcing them to question their thoughts, memories, and the events occurring around them, wherein the victim may be pushed so far that they question their own sanity. These situations usually involve confusion, insecurity, and forced accountability.
In my experience, the true damage of gaslighting is long term. It is deeply personal and driven by reinforced shame, which the victim usually works to hide. It makes you question your core beliefs and cognitions, and thus it completely erodes your self-confidence, your judgements, your memories, and your motives. That confusion means you can be led astray as you look to others for help.
[Take This Self-Test: Emotional Hyperarousal in Adults]
How Gaslighting Escalates
An accusation over a questionable event becomes fact through the other person’s consistent, often dramatic, emotional pressure that you hurt them. They then blow the event out of proportion to the point that the hurt you’ve allegedly caused becomes focal and fundamental to the nature of your relationship.
This gets you backpedalling, which offers the gaslighter constant leverage: It doesn’t matter what good you do and it doesn’t matter what bad they’ve done, you are unworthy of their love and kindness. In spite of your heinous crime, they are “doing their best to forgive you.” You feel you are indebted, so you do whatever they want you to do to resolve the issue, but it’s never enough.
You start to see yourself as a fundamentally demonic person and a failure, even though you did everything you thought was right, which makes you question that, too. Instead of being rightfully angry, you look to the gaslighter to tell you the truth because you no longer trust yourself and you don’t understand why they would manipulate you. Then, when you realize you were right, you hate yourself for being manipulated and feel humiliated and weak.
It’s a form of conditioning that makes you constantly on edge about every tiny mistake you make. It happens when you’re put on a Performance Improvement Plan at work, too – constantly working harder to appease people who are only keeping you there while they find someone to replace you.
[Download: 9 Truths About ADHD and Intense Emotions]
My Gaslighting Story
When I was gaslit by a narcissistic ex at university, I wanted to be her hero. I respected her, but she did not respect me as I had no firm boundaries. She cheated on me, but persuaded me that she hadn’t and that I had, in fact, cheated on her with women to whom I’d spoken about her upsetting behaviour (I didn’t; people just tend to hug you when you break down). She used her insane narrative to obscure my judgment through systematic lies to avoid any repercussions for her actions and instead held great power over me for the following years. She used guilt, along with sex, clinginess, and love bombing when I wanted out, plus violence and threats every time she got jealous or felt insecure, which was all the time.
I gradually became conditioned by her disproportionate physical, emotional, and psychological reactions, which I now know was abuse. Still, I often react like the world is going to end whenever there’s a relatively minor misunderstanding.
But in the absence of clear, objective truth, a confusing mistake boils down to perspective, intent, and communication wherein gaslighting can be unintentional.
A more recent ex and I were both quite insecure at the time that things went wrong. She lied about her past to impress me and I blindly believed every word she said because she had no reason to lie or withhold information. She was my best friend and I loved her stories. She was also an extremely secretive person but said I was special, that I understood her perfectly and exclusively. We were a great team, too.
But one of her stories was about her often going swimming with her ex on his boat. We’d swum in pools together before ourselves, but the catch is that she couldn’t actually swim. The ex and his boat were fictional, too.
So when I took her to a lake she said she’d rather not go in the water even though she was wearing her swimming stuff. I really wanted her to join me in the water, so I picked her up and jumped off the pier with her in my arms.
As a result of the panic I caused, she was diagnosed with PTSD 10 months later. What was evident at the time was that something had gone deeply wrong. I spent every day after that trying to fix it, hating myself, and questioning why I threw her in when she didn’t want to jump. Yet she still withheld the fact she had made up her ex and the lake trips for a further year because she was scared of losing me if she revealed her lies.
Meanwhile, I still don’t believe she ever told me a flat, serious “no” about jumping in, as she later claimed. I’d never had a situation like that before and I’d been caring and attentive and always put her safety first. My intentions had been good. Still, she accused me of gaslighting, telling me I’d said I heard her say she didn’t really want to jump off the pier before we got there, yet I did it anyway.
Neither that ex nor I were malicious. We loved each other very deeply and I still think she’s one of the greatest people I’ve ever met. But she kept that lie about her background for so long throughout the serious stress and pain of trying to figure it all out to the extent that I can never truly know what was/is real with her.
My history being the victim of gaslighting made it all the harder for me to understand and accept my impulsive error as being an honest mistake. I felt overwhelming stress and self-loathing that I had triggered her PTSD and, in the end, I felt unworthy of her love and respect. I couldn’t comprehend genuine forgiveness and, ultimately, I couldn’t accept that we could go on as a couple. Because of past gaslighting, I feared another destructive relationship was inevitable and we both lost out on the future we had planned.
Gaslighting and ADHD: Next Steps
- Understand: The Gaslighting Risk: Why Adults with ADHD Are Particularly Vulnerable to Manipulation
- Download: Manage ADHD’s Impact on Your Relationship
- Read: Save the Date! Dating Advice & Strategies for Adults with ADHD
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