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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 was in denial about the fact that she had told me a flat, serious “no” to jumping in. 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, referring to messages where I’d said I heard her say she didn’t really want to jump off the pier in the car 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


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Updated on July 15, 2021

2 Comments & Reviews

  1. This article is so helpful to me. This gaslighting thing happens to me all the time. There was one person who was actually manipulating me, whilst doing this.

    I notice that, if people do this to me, they might not realize it, AND, I’m very sensitive, so I usually take things upon myself. I take responsibility for everything, apologize for every little hiccup, and I have so little confidence that I gullibly believe anything people tell me.

    My boyfriend gaslighted me yesterday. He interrupted me yesterday after saying 2 words because ‘he knew he didn’t care because the story was going to be super long.’ So, learning to step up for myself, I said ‘come on, I barely said two words’, after which he went on a defensive preach/rant about me. In my defense, I told him I sit listening to him for hours daily because I think it’s a total d*ck move to interrupt people just because you’re not interested.

    Then he accused me of guilt tripping him, of manipulating him, for defending I listen to him as well. He thought I held it against him, when it’s only my focus to treat each other respectable and fairly. So I think it’s important to point out the other side of the story when he accuses me of things. I did become furious, and separated myself for a while. I came back saying that he shouldn’t think so low of me.

    We didn’t talk about it anymore. I did app him, saying that it was stuck in my head, that he tinks so negative of me. That I wanna talk about it again, but I think, based on previous arguments that he’ll wave it away. Saying he doesn’t wanna deal with shit.

    I love this guy, I’ve been with him for 7 years. These kind of arguments do make me wonder though, whether I’m better off without him.

  2. I could completely identify with this piece having been gaslit in a very destructive relationship involving a full sociopathic cycle of “ love bombing “ to the end stage rejection. I also lost the right person subsequently that I felt I could never trust to not abandon me . I could only take the relationship so far and she got tired of it and married someone else . I was widowed with children at a young age so the abandonment piece became reinforced . The resentment I have carried is toward myself . Twelve step work in aa helped me a lot with this fortunately but trust is always an issue .

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