Is there a connection between ADHD and this phenomenon called gaslighting? Potentially. But, as with most ADHD-related topics, it’s complicated. In this post, I examine the topic from a few angles.
I’m seeing more talk of gaslighting in an ADHD context. In website articles. In social-media posts and groups. Unfortunately, some of it is not accurate, even rather skewed.
Why is this inaccuracy a problem? It risks compounding the pain of being on the receiving end of this behavior — by believing it is always intentional. That is, intentionally, verbally abusive behavior.
Here’s the thing: Living with unrecognized or poorly managed ADHD — in oneself or a loved one — can be confusing and hurtful enough. Finding clarity requires honest education and self-awareness. With compassion for all parties. That’s why I developed my online course: Solving Your Adult ADHD Puzzle.
With more accurate interpretations of negative behaviors — and strategies to stop those behaviors — each partner in the couple can become “gaslight-proof.”
Does this mean rationalizing abusive behavior with “My ADHD partner can’t help it”? Absolutely not. It means making efforts to navigate gray area.
In This Post:
ADHD Roller Coaster blog readers saw the first version of this post in 2010. Back then, a Google search for gaslighting would have returned very few online mentions.
Now the term is everywhere. It’s increasingly used to increase traffic to sites poorly qualified to educate on this complex issue. To help clarify the confusion — especially vis a vis ADHD — I’ve expanded and updated the post today, 12 years later. I hope you find it helpful.
Here’s the general flow. Skip around or read straight through:
- Defining gaslighting, briefly
- A snip of the film that inspired the term, Gaslight, with Ingrid Bergman and Charles Boyer
- Controversy flares at the farmers market — and the gaslight targets me
- Is there a connection between ADHD and gaslighting? (Sometimes, but it’s more complicated than most articles online claim)
- The role of “denial” about ADHD symptoms in alleged gaslighting
- Does this mean we should excuse the perpetrators of gaslighting?
- A precursor event: What’s with the angry meditators trashing ADHD?
- A validating ending at the farmers market, where I could finally returning to my mission: buying produce
- What I mean by becoming “gaslight-proof”
The phrase to gaslight harkens to the 1944 film Gaslight. Charles Boyer’s character manipulates Ingrid Bergman’s character (Paula) to believe that she is “losing it”. Seeing things that aren’t there. Not seeing things that are there. That sort of thing. Why? He seeks control. Of everything. Especially his wealthy new wife’s money.
In one scene, Paula sees the flickering light on the wall (pre-electricity, this was a gas light in her home). When she asked him, he doubts her. Hints that she’s imagining things. In truth, he was in the attic — and using the lights. Hence the flickering drain on the lower-level lights.
In short, gaslighters seek to make their victims question their perceptions, their knowledge, and their beliefs. Commonly, say mental-health professionals, they do this to feed their egocentric needs. For example: financial gain, a psychological need to control others or to force them to conform to their distorted beliefs and perceptions, etc..
Technically speaking, a gaslighter acts consciously predatory and willfully manipulative. With some nefarious goal in mind.
2. A Snip of the Film Gaslight
3. Gaslighting at the … Farmer’s Market?
Gaslighting takes many shapes or forms—and shows up in surprising places. For me, one sunny Saturday, it was our farmer’s market. Who knew that wearing a certain t-shirt would raise a ruckus? Who’d have predicted that a man would soon be screaming at me, his neck veins bulging?
Instead of chatting with vendors about English peas or when we might get rain, I was pulled into a public “debate” about ADHD. Public gaslighting, if you will. Hence the original inspiration for this post.
Sure, I’d grown accustomed to ranting ADHD-deniers on the Internet. But the farmer’s market? I was heartened to learn that my verbal “gaslight-proof” skills stood up there, too.
When it comes to the denial of ADHD, too, you also never know where, when, or with whom it’s going to pop out. When it does pop out, though, expect for some degree of anger fueling it.
One often gets the sense that the mere mention of the word ADHD strikes a little too close to home. Call it the “methinks thou doth protest too much” phenomenon. In other words, the gripe about ADHD is that someone suggested they might have it — and it came as a mortal blow to their ego.
Many people with ADHD are eager to blame “ADHD denialism” on so-called neurotypicals. They say that other people with ADHD would understand. Not so fast. In my long observation, the most ferocious “ADHD deniers” aren’t neurotypicals. They are people with ADHD. Perhaps with oppositional defiance in the mix.
If such a person can succeed in discrediting you—browbeats you into questioning yourself—they’ve denied the possibility of ADHD for themselves. At least in their mind. They fight it as if their very existence depends on it. And maybe it does.
4. Does Gaslighting Apply to ADHD?
Again, I first posted this article on gaslighting in 2010. The term was largely unknown. Now you’ll find gaslighting abundantly online. The trouble is, it is often mis-used. Especially in the context of ADHD.
In Facebook groups, I see women complain of being “gaslighted” by their husbands who have ADHD. Given the details, though, it often seems they are more likely facing their partner’s poorly managed ADHD — poor memory, defensiveness, and so forth. But who can really say. It can be a murky mix. More about that in a minute.
Another example: A psychologist who publicly discloses her own ADHD diagnosis warns about the people who routinely gaslight their ADHD loved ones. The goal, she claims, is taking advantage of their poor memory to some warped end.
Surely that happens. Human predators walk among us. They take advantage of the vulnerable, especially those who have issues with recall and memory. Easy targets.
In fact, a well-known male psychiatrist with self-disclosed ADHD was known over the years for sexually assaulting women with ADHD at conferences. Impulsive? Intentional? Entitled? Predatory? A bit of all? I think it’s safe to say that even some people with ADHD can be intentionally gaslighting — and perhaps intentionally target other people with ADHD.
After all, who would believe these “confused” women with ADHD? Especially over a well-known psychiatrist with an avuncular style? Moreover, these women often have learned not to trust their perceptions and memories. They don’t expect to be believed. They apologize.
ADHD education and treatment often helps them to become more clear about how something happened, what someone said. They become less vulnerable to other people’s forceful opinion. Yet, this, too, can be a double-edged sword. They might be able to better deflect the gaslighter’s glare but they might also reject anyone attempting to shed light on problematic behaviors.
5. What About “Denial” of ADHD Symptoms?
Back to the psychologist writing about gaslighting and ADHD. She makes valid points about the potential vulnerability of people with ADHD to gaslighting. This much is obvious. Yet, she entirely neglects the possibility of “denial” in the ADHD partner.
That is, the ADHD partner doesn’t believe the partner’s claims. Even when they absolutely are doing those things. So they accuse their partner of manipulating them. Gaslighting. Therapists might support such distortions. They can’t conceive of alternate scenarios.
For example, the ADHD partner forgets how many speeding tickets she’s gotten. She accuses her partner of exaggerating, of gaslighting, in order to gain control, to weaken her confidence and self-esteem.
Another example: The ADHD partner ignores/forgets many polite requests until the other partner finally blows up. Then, the ADHD partner says, “Why didn’t you tell me before? You have an anger-management problem!” Is that gaslighting? Or, is that poor self-observation? Both? Anything’s possible when unrecognized ADHD is a factor. Moreover, we humans are complicated!
It’s worth remembering: Sometimes these relationships are dual-ADHD. Can’t blame the neurotypical when it comes to “remembering things differently” or “that tone in your voice.”
Here are a few phrases familiar to many partners of adults with (“in denial” or poorly managed) ADHD:
- You’re exaggerating or imagining things
- I never said that
- Can’t you take a joke?
- You’re too sensitive
- Stop trying to control me (by asking for basic cooperation with domestic responsibilities)
- It’s your fault; you should have told me (but you did)
- You need help
And yes, these are phrases you’ll see typical of so-called gaslighters. See how we tread some difficult gray area here? Much in popular psychology simply fails to account for neurocognitive challenges. It’s that behind the times.
6. So, Do We Excuse This Behavior?
These are simple examples of a not-so-simple phenomenon. But I hope you get my point.
That point is: Sometimes behavior looks like —and feels like— gaslighting. But it actually is not fully intentional. That is, it springs from something else. This might include frontal-lobe issues affecting memory, self-awareness, reflection, empathy, and the like. It’s not intentional manipulation. It’s neurobiological manifestations and defensiveness.
People who do not realize the extent o their challenges might get angry at accusations that feel unfair to them — and respond in anger or spite. “Why don’t you ever help clean the kitchen?” “I clean it all the time; you just don’t notice.”
What do we do with this information? Do we excuse this behavior — “He has ADHD, he can’t help it”? In my experience, no, that’s not a wise coping response. Over time, it bodes poorly for each partner and the relationship.
If you are the recipient of this quasi-gaslighting behavior, does knowing it’s not “on purpose” make it any less hurtful? Maybe. Viewing problematic ADHD behaviors as intentional gaslighting can dig a deep and painful hole for both partners. As I see it, the point is this: When we see things more clearly, we can stop blame-shifting and start problem-solving.
The Internet and social media thrive on simple tropes. Complex subjects such as these deserve respectful approaches. The consequences of bad information wields real-life effects, sometimes lingering.
5. A Precursor Event: Back to the Farmer’s Market
That Saturday morning, I wore a strikingly good-looking t-shirt created for a Stride for ADHD Pride —a fund-raising event. My friend Natalie Knochenhauer, founder of the [now former] Philadelphia non-profit ADHD Aware, sent it to me as thanks for serving on the board.
Red Flags: Haughtiness, Piercing Cold Eyes
The man literally stopping me in my tracks wasn’t a fellow shopper. He was soliciting signatures for a political petition.
He appeared middle-aged, soft-spoken, and sincere. At first. That’s why I thought took his initial interest in ADHD — sparked by spotting my t-shirt — as genuine. So, I congenially fielded the usual misinformed opinions.
Looking back, though, I remember red flags waving, via a certain coldly piercing look in his eyes.
The Conversation Went Like This:
Him: Well, you might not be aware of this, but ADHD is an American phenomenon. It’s caused by the culture.
Me: Yes, I can see why you’d have that perception. Surprisingly, though, ADHD’s prevalence is consistent worldwide, according to epidemiological studies.
It’s true that the U.S. might offer more cultural distractions (technological gadgetry, etc.). But it’s often the people with ADHD who have the most trouble resisting the distractions. So you can see how that’s sort of a chicken-and-egg issue.
I’d agree with you, though, that all humans are vulnerable to these distractions. That’s why ADHD is considered a spectrum condition, sort of the extreme end of the human condition. Keeping our focus despite all the distractions is a challenge for everyone, but especially for people with ADHD.
Him, using icily threatening tone: I hope you don’t push medications on people. I practice meditation, and meditation is the only solution.
Me: I don’t push anything on people. I try to share informed information about the choices.
Meditation might be very helpful for some people with ADHD, especially with their anxiety. But others don’t find that its benefits carry over substantially into the tasks of their workaday lives. Many can’t even focus well enough or sit still long enough to meditate. Sometimes medication helps them, though, to pursue a meditation practice.
“Medication is Poison!”
Him: “Medication is poison! You want to poison people. We know that medications don’t solve the problem—they just cover it up— and they create horrible, life-threatening side effects.”
Me, not allowing his personal attack to distract or “gaslight”: No, actually, we don’t know that. We know quite the opposite, that untreated ADHD carries with it higher risks of accidents, including brain injury, suicide, and other life stressors.
But you’re right that medications aren’t for everyone. And you’re right that ADHD medications do suffer a bad reputation. They are too often poorly prescribed and the rest of the physical body ignored (sleep, metabolic issues, nutrition, etc.).
Some reckless physicians create more justified fears about the medications. That’s why I try to share information that helps people to avoid bad side effects and poor outcomes.
Him, showing little capacity for complex thoughts or nuance: No, all medication is bad.
These people with so-called ADHD must stop making excuses and start meditating.
David Lynch Foundation: ADHD Disinformation
A few months earlier, I had met Sarina Grosswald. She represented the David Lynch Foundation at a CHADD ADHD Conference exhibit hall. The foundation promotes Transcendental Meditation in schools.
Standing at their booth, I read through their prominently displayed album of badly reported stories about ADHD.
Finally, I asked Grosswald: “I don’t doubt that most children would benefit from learning some type of meditation. But why not simply share meditation’s potential benefits without promoting scare stories about medications? Where is your empathy for these people?”
Her steely eyes shot daggers at me, much like the guy at the farmer’s market. She recited chapter and verse from their displayed propaganda.
These Angry Anti-ADHD Meditators!
Point by point, I calmly countered her scare tactics and misinterpretation of the research. (Grossly misinterpreted.) In response, she grew increasingly angry.
Concerned that I’d been rude, I later asked the man at the next booth for his opinion. “Well,” he said diplomatically, “you were very clear.”
For a sample of Grosswald’s misinformed scaremongering on ADHD medications,
scan to 2:30 on this video: Update: Unfortunately, the David Lynch Foundation has removed the video.
8. Back to the Farmer’s Market
Finally, the ladies nearby, promoting a different petition, entered the discussion. They showed intellectual curiosity about ADHD. They asked me how I became interested in it. I explained and mentioned writing a book.
One responded: “I was a school psychologist for 35 years and I love your t-shirt. It’s wonderful that you are stating the facts about ADHD. Misinformation hurts everyone.”
Him, facial muscles tightening: “Facts! Those aren’t facts! That’s Big Pharma propaganda. Who do you think you are? Anybody can write a stupid book. In fact, I am writing my own book! “
Notice the continued attempt to discredit me, to continually put me in an extreme position that I do not actually hold.
I avoid the natural instinct to defend myself. That’s what he wants. Plus, this isn’t about me. It about standing up for vulnerable people — people whose challenges are well documented in the published literature. I’m not letting him distract me.
For him, it’s as thought his very life force requires manipulating me into capitulation. I suspect it is to encapsulate me in his own defiance and denial of, well, whatever might be going on with him.
Stepping Out from the Gaslight’s Glare
Me: Who do I think I am? Nobody special. I’m just a journalist who has worked hard to research and understand scientific facts as well as the reality of ADHD. Because this information can help people.
Me, making an appeal to his sense of empathy, just in case he really isn’t the pathological narcissist he seems to be: Hey, I understand that you probably feel you are being genuinely kind and compassionate. You probably believe you are truly saving children and adults with ADHD from what you perceive as a horrible medical alternative. You believe you are giving them a more enlightened one.
We all want treatments that offer the most benefit with the least harm. But could you consider for a moment that your black-and-white militancy might actually be creating more problems for these people—in the form of stigma, fear, and confusion?
Many of them have been told all their lives that their problems are of their own making. That if they’d just do fill-in-the-blank, their problems would be solved. But many people with late-diagnosis ADHD tried for years to help themselves by doing things such as meditating—to little avail.
In essence, you’re telling them that if they can’t meditate, they’re just not trying hard enough. You’re just adding to their pain, not alleviating it.
Not For His Lack of Trying
Him, getting a scary-mean look in his eyes: “Words! Those are just words! How can my words hurt anyone? That is an illusion!
If these people with so-called ADHD meditated, they would know that words don’t matter. You should meditate, too, because you are caught up in the same illusions. Look at you. Your philosophy is causing you problems. Look at how you persist!”
Note this gaslighter’s increasing focus on making my “philosophy,” credibility, and illusions the problem. But I remain undistracted. Why? I am grounded in the facts. Those facts have been validated by both ADHD professional experts and those other experts: the people who have ADHD and their loved ones.
When we are more tenuous in our facts or have low confidence overall, we might find such characters intimidating. He was “tall, dark, and handsome”—and imperiously confident. He had all the makings of an effective psychological bully. A Gaslighter Extraordinaire. In fact, he reminded me of Jonestown’s Jim Jones — without the charm.
“She Can’t Stand to Hear the Truth!”
Please understand: He didn’t even pretend to be “reasonable” on the issue. He refused to consider the gray area I offered matter-of-factly.
People less informed, with less concern about the stakes, might have mistaken his resolve for conviction. They might have believed I was a pharma tool. After all, the loudest voices tend to rule. But I saw something far more disturbing.
Me, understanding there was nothing more to discuss: “Okay, well, it’s nice to meet you. But I need to finish my shopping.”
Him, loudly and angrily, the imperious manner growing more resolute: “See, she’s running away! She can’t stand to hear the truth. She’s hurt by words and can’t take the fact that she’s wrong.”
Me: “I’m not running away. I’m walking away to Contreras Farm’s stand before they run out of eggs. I came here to shop and enjoy myself, not to be provoked into an argument so you can self-medicate with anger and opposition. Have a nice day!”
Him, practically apoplectic, to the ladies at the next booth: “Did you hear that? I never got a word in edgewise. She talked the entire time!”
Ladies nearby, laughing: “No, she didn’t. You did.”
When you ground yourself in solid knowledge, you become less vulnerable to another person’s machinations. That was the initial inspiration for this post, in its original version from 2010. A personal story.
You might also come to see that certain attempts to “gaslight” aren’t a deliberate strategy to persecute you. Instead, you might be coming up against the gaslighter’s neurobiological dysfunction. Yes, that includes ADHD and other frontal-lobe conditions. (You’ll find a link to a post on ADHD and denial at the end.)
Wait! Does this mean that you, the partners of adults with ADHD, should excuse the hurtful behavior? Because “My ADHD partner can’t help it”? No. Absolutely not. For many people with ADHD, the full range of symptoms responds to medication treatment. Education about common ADHD patterns helps to fill in the gaps and create change.
Wait! Does this mean that you, the adult with ADHD, should submit to your partner’s allegedly more accurate recall? Because “My memories are unreliable”? Or, the other extreme: Being blind to your ADHD challenges in this department, you view your own memories as infallible. Therefore, you view attempts to fact-check your memories as “gaslighting”?
No. Absolutely not.
Instead, I am suggesting that everyone involved become gaslight-proof. That is, with clarifying education, we all can better:
- Control our reactions to perceived gaslighting
- Avoid “taking the bait” — getting drawn into these mind-boggling, no-win arguments
- Stop deepening our pain by automatically jumping to “My partner tries to confuse or invalidate me on purpose”
- Consider alternative explanations, such as lack of knowledge about ADHD impairments that affect memory, self-awareness, and recall
- Start finding a path out
Read More About Brain-Based Denial
Are you dealing with someone who is “in denial” of their ADHD? You might find this article interesting: Adult ADHD & Brain-Based Denial.
Yes, the partners and other loved ones of adults with ADHD can be “in denial”, too. I cover that in the three chapters on denial in my first book: Is It You, Me, or Adult A.D.D.?
Have you ever experienced “gaslighting” behavior, about ADHD or anything else? How did you deal with it?
I’d love to hear your stories.
Originally posted April 2010; updated May 2022