Monday, July 23, 2012

Lying and Borderline Personality Disorder - Part 5 - Gaslighting

As promised, there’s one last issue in this Series of Lies that I wanted to address. That’s Gaslighting.

Gaslighting is the practice of systematically convincing an individual that their understanding of reality is mistaken or false.

The first question I usually come up with is where the hell did that name come from. So here you go:

Gaslight is a classic suspense thriller set in nineteenth-century London. In the movie, Paula (Ingrid Bergman) marries the villainous Gregory Anton (Charles Boyer), not realizing that he is the one who murdered her aunt and is now searching for her missing jewels.

To cover up his treachery, he tries to persuade Paula that she is going mad, so he can search the attic for the jewels without her interference. He plants missing objects on her person in order to make her believe that she has no recollection of reality. He tries to isolate her, not allowing her to have visitors or to leave the house. However, she uncovers the truth when she notices the dimming of the gaslight.

When this technique is used on someone, at first they might be frustrated that they’re being told their memory or perceptions don’t match reality. However, after a while, after the manipulation is repeated over and over, the person beings to believe the gaslighter. That person may actually believe that they are imagining things, has some kind of mental illness, or has a faulty memory. When someone doubts their own perception of reality, the gaslighter is able to control that person; and in extreme cases they can become completely dependent on the gaslighter for the "truth".

Some examples of this include:

  • -         A family member steals something from you then tries to convince you that it belongs to them, that you misplaced it, or that you gave it as a gift.
    -         A person acts threateningly and then accuses you of abuse when you react in self-defense. My Evil-Ex used to do this all the time. In addition, he’d try to shame me for standing up for myself as well.
    -         A spouse tries to persuade you that you said or did something that you know is inaccurate. 

Gaslighting is something that has been given a lot of attention to some other “Cluster B” Personality Disorders like Narcissistic Personality Disorder or Anti-Social Personality Disorder (think Sociopaths and Psychopaths).  It can happen with Borderline Personality Disorder as well. I don’t usually bring the other personality disorders into it, but in this case I think it’s important. Gaslighting is awful and can reek havoc on the psyche of the person it’s directed towards. However, the motivations of why someone would use gaslighting techniques can be very different. I’m not saying any of it is right, but with BPD gaslighting is often unintentional, whereas with NPD or ASPD it’s quite intentional and meant to purposely manipulate and discredit the victim.

Gaslighting isn’t something I do. It’s something my narcissistic Evil-Ex tried to use on more occasions than I care to remember though. It usually something subtle, especially at first. Questioning if you remembered something right or simply denying that certain events occurred or that certain things were said. They may deny your perceptions, memory and very sanity, even if you know differently. It’s so insidious because it’s not always a grand story, but something small and often a little obscure. Maybe you did hear something wrong, maybe that thing didn’t happen quite the way I thought it did…. Simple as that.

If you’ve ever been told something that’s upsetting you is, “all in your mind”, or that what you experienced never actually happened, you’ve been gaslighted. If you’ve ever asked yourself, am I insane? Am I losing my mind or my memory? After someone has told you how events happened that seem radically different than you remember, than you may be on the receiving end of a gaslighting attack. My Evil-Ex would often use my stress levels or my lack of sleep to encourage that maybe I was just so tired I didn’t remember straight or I was so stressed out that I was overreacting to something that didn’t really happen how I remembered it.

Gaslighting is often begun as an attempt to hide circumstances or truths that a person doesn’t want brought to light. Actually trying to drive the partner insane isn’t the goal, though it can feel like that’s what they’re doing. Regardless, this is a deeply manipulative type of lie that is incredibly hurtful to anyone on the receiving end of it.

Remember my BPD friend #2 that I’m no longer friends with? The thing that ended our friendship was when she tried convincing me that I was a bad friend because of things she did. Forget that I knew how to diffuse the situation before it started. Forget that the other person offered to leave. Forget that I offered to take care of it before things got out of hand. She turned down every offer of assistance so that she could throw herself into a situation that neither one of us were emotionally capable of dealing with. By the end of the night I had fallen into one of my worst dissociate breaks. After 2 years (particularly the last 10 months) of trying to keep her from emotionally imploding, and her continually pushing my limits, I broke. I offered over and over to help her prevent the situation we both knew would come. It did. I looked out for her through it all until finally at the end of the night I couldn’t deal with it anymore. Literally I dissociated and felt like I was floating above my own head. She accused me of being a bad friend because I couldn’t be sympathetic. Tried to convince me that it was my fault that she was deteriorating emotionally when she needed comfort. Made me apologize as she drove us home…. And that was it. I could see in her eyes that she believed she was the victim there, but she was taking it out on me. She honestly believed that she hadn’t done anything wrong, that her actions shouldn’t have affected me, and was instinctually reaching to any reason to shift the blame from herself. I saw that. I could understand it. But it didn’t make it right. It still hurt like hell. And it was absolutely too much for me to deal with. I’ve made a HELL of a lot of mistakes in my life. Big, explosive, atom bomb sized mistakes, but where I try to make up for those mistakes in ways that are grossly over compensatory, she blamed everyone else and refused to take any responsibility for the situation. She absolutely believed the things she said, absolutely believed that I was treating her poorly by not taking responsibility for her actions and emotions. She was the victim.

For someone with BPD the motivation is usually the same as it is for other kinds of lies; to self-protect. It’s a very maladaptive way of coping with a situation where they may be at fault, which in turn could lead to rejection. The unconscious motivation is usually something like; if I’m not at fault, if they’re at fault, they can’t be mad at me, they won’t leave me, because it’s not something I did, it’s something they did.

Gaslighting can be intentional and it can be unintentional. In the case of my ex-BPD friend, her actions were unintentional. She actually believed the lies herself and was lashing out in perceived self-defense so she wouldn’t be at fault. Same thing with dissociation. If a Borderline is dissociating at the time, the reality they remember may actually be different than what you remember it to be and how they are gaslighting may actually be how they perceived the situation, be their truth, as seen through their emotional filter. Now, my Evil-Ex on the other hand, well he’s a different story altogether. He actually enjoyed making people think they were crazy and figuring out ways to get away with the things he was doing. He would do anything to make himself look good, especially if it made him look better than you. If he could get away with something it would boost his ego and “prove” his cunning, and therefore his superiority, which was an illusion he desperately needed to maintain. That’s the difference between BPD and NPD though. Borderlines actually feel like the victim. Narcissists try to make you theirs.

Regardless, it doesn’t feel good to be on the receiving end. It doesn’t make it right. I do believe it’s important to understand the perception of the other person and especially their motivations, but don’t allow yourself to be taken in. Just because they can run circles around you in an argument or conversation doesn’t mean their right; just clever. Trying to convince them that what they’re saying is false, especially if they believe it, is going to be absolutely futile. You need to wait until emotions have calmed down a little and then approach the subject from a calm place. It’s important to validate their feelings (even if you don’t agree with them; Remember, validation does not mean you agree, just that you acknowledge that what they are feeling is real), but explain that you are not perceiving the situation in the same way. It’s also important to remember that you are not actually crazy, it’s not your fault, and you’re not to blame for this kind of behavior. 


  1. Wow... I can't imagine what this must feel like nor do I want to be in any situation like this one. Sorry for anyone who has or will ever. :/

  2. I had someone do this to me in the past - also known as 'evil-ex'!
    I think people with mental health problems are particularly susceptible to gaslighting, as they are already in a position of questioning their own feelings/beliefs/memories, or having them questioned by others. They are so used to being told what they think/feel is 'wrong' (like when things hurt you and you're 'not supposed' to find them upsetting) that they may actually be unintentionally 'gaslighted' by those close to them who want to avoid their own issues. I also believe that the mental health system in the UK (and psychiatry in general) actually systematically 'gaslights' people, whether it's neglectful/abusive professionals who can't let their behavoir come to light, or a more general "it is wrong to feel that" approach (without validation of individual understanding).

    1. I absolutely agree with you. People with mental health issues are particularly susceptible to this, even unintentionally.

      Exactly as you say, especially from mental health professionals, having an attitude of invalidation on works to further the problem instead of providing validation and helpful techniques to deal with what we are actually feeling. This is why I'm so very grateful to Marsha Linehan and everything she's done with DBT for BPD. Now if only the rest of the world would catch up.

  3. A little gem. A little appropriate for the theme of lying.

  4. My ex would threaten to call the police on me when I would tell him something he did. I would always question i said it, if i came off as threatening. Another thing he did was say things like "Its 12 am you fucking woke me up" When I looked at the time he said and the actual time there was a huge discrepancy. He seemed to make a lot of "mistakes" I wasnt sure if he was just reacting or purposefully manipulating to not take responsibility. He also got his friends to turn on me saying I was a schizophrenic and that I was the manipulator! He always played the victim and by the end of it all it became true. Either way I ended up checking myself into the ER and proving everyone right. :(

  5. I do not believe that people with Borderline Personality Disorder gaslight unintentionally.They do it to escape accountability. During one of our many reconciliations my ex, who was diagnosed with BPD apologized for gaslighting me. Why apologize for something you are unaware of, or for something you do not believe to be true? He gaslit me because he was ashamed to admit aloud that he could do such horrible things, and he wanted people to believe that I am the disordered one. Fortunately, I finally realized that the relationship was a lost cause, and moved on. There is no closure or resolution with people who use these harmful tactics.


Leave me a comment! It makes me feel good and less paranoid about talking to myself =)

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