Borderlines Can Make You Feel Insane Via “Gaslighting”Written by: Rob Print This Article
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Some emotional abusers are particularly adept at using a technique called “gaslighting” (from a movie starring Ingrid Berman and Charles Boyer) to drive their victims to question their own grip on reality and even to make them feel like they are going insane. The essence of gaslighting is to make somebody believe a falsehood and to wonder why they didn’t remember or recall it previously. It is a mind game often used to distract from their own problematic behaviors and to create self-doubt in their target of abuse. Many Borderlines and some with related personality disorders from the DSM-IV Axis II Cluster B group (including Borderline, Narcissistic, Antisocial, and Histrionic) personality disorders are particularly skilled and prone to using gaslighting on their partners and people close to them.
In The Gaslight Effect: How to Spot and Survive the Hidden Manipulation Others Use to Control Your Life, Dr. Robin Stern sums up the behavior like this:
Gaslighting is when someone wants you to do what you know you shouldn’t and to believe the unbelieveable. It can happen to you and it probably already has.
I’ve personally experienced this, the effect is very disturbing. It is especially so when the abuser makes casual matter-of-fact references to behaviors in which you never engaged and then acts incredulous that you cannot remember. It created a great deal of self-doubt in me, as if I was losing my mind from the stress of living with my ex-wife.
Not until years later, when I learned about Borderline Personality Disorder, did I realize exactly what she had been doing. So much of what abusive Borderlines and other Personality Disordered Abusers do to cause trouble is based upon skillful acting. Unfortunately, for many victims, this realization could be years in the making as it was for me. Meanwhile, one’s confidence and self-esteem are being sapped away as the abuse continues.
Borderlines Make Great Actors
Interestingly, Valerie Porr, a BPD advocate whose daughter suffers from the illness, suggests that acting is a great career for Borderlines:
As a child I had seen a film called “Gaslight” in which Ingrid Bergman, an heiress who is newly married, remarks to Charles Boyer, her ne’er-do-well husband, that the gaslights in their home seem to be dimming. “No, they aren’t darling,” says Boyer, as he fawns over her, “You are imagining things.” Ingrid soon feels that she is going mad when, over time, what she perceives as reality is not being validated by her doting husband. The dimming gaslight is the perfect metaphor for the experience of living with someone with borderline personality disorder, and advocating for education, appropriate treatment and research for this painful disorder.
The person suffering from borderline personality disorder, a severe and persistent mental illness, may appear completely “normal” and may often have the ability to act “as if” he or she has no problems. In fact, many people with borderline personality disorder become professional actors. This “as if” ability of people with borderline personality disorder can be particularly devastating to those who love them.
Pushing You To Silently Question Yourself
One example of gaslighting that comes to mind is a situation in which your abusive partner wants to make you believe you have been abusive and aggressive yourself, perhaps to distract from something she has done wrong. When you come home from work, you see that the rear bumper of your partner’s car is smashed in. You realize she’s had yet another car accident, something you’re used to as Borderlines often drive recklessly. But you know that if you say anything, it will provoke a nasty fight and you’re just too tired for that. So you stay quiet and just ignore your partner. But your partner can see you are angry as Borderlines are adept at reading the emotions of others, possibly because they had to learn this skill to assist at avoiding the child abuse that caused so many of them to become personality disordered.
The night passes without a fight or even a word. But the next morning, your partner tells you that she didn’t appreciate your yelling and screaming last night. She makes repeated references to what you did, perhaps even “quoting” your words. “You called me a f*cking b*tch and slapped me across the face and scratched me with your fingernails.” She might even show you red marks and bruises on her face, not telling you that it happened in the accident. To make it look good, she slapped herself to prepare to confuse you.
Of course you can remember doing none of this, yet you see the “evidence” of your actions. So you start to question whether you are losing your grip on reality or your memory is failing. This could be a particularly devastating type of abuse for older people who may already have impaired memories due to the effects of advancing age, Alzheimer’s, dementia, or other neurological problems. Yet it can happen to anybody of any age, even very physically healthy people in their teens or twenties.
Making Others Question You
An abuser who is using gaslighting on you is also likely to behave similarly with others to make them dislike you. This is a common attack used during what can become tremendously damaging distortion campaigns that these abusers will use against people close to them to maintain control and a sense of superiority. Such abusers may report you to police to get you falsely arrested and perhaps prosecuted for absolutely no reason other than they want to be in control of you and how others perceive you. They are likely to make remarks to their friends, family, neighbors, and others to “prove” they are being abused, often behind your back for years until you learn what they have been doing.
Dr. Stern has developed a a list of 15 common symptoms of gaslighting that may help you to recognize you are being abused and manipulated via gaslighting.
- You constantly second-guess yourself.
- You wonder, “Am I being too sensitive?” a dozen times a day.
- You wonder frequently if you are a “good enough” girlfriend / wife / employee / friend / daughter.
- You have trouble making simple decisions.
- You think twice before bringing up innocent topics of conversation.
- You frequently make excuses for your partner’s behavior to friends and family.
- Before your partner comes home from work, you run through a checklist in your head to anticipate anything you might have done wrong that day.
- You buy clothes for yourself, furnishings for your apartment, or other personal purchases thinking about what your partner would like instead of what would make you feel great.
- You actually start to enjoy the constant criticism, because you think, “What doesn’t kill me will make me stronger.”
- You start speaking to your husband through his secretary so you don’t have to tell him things you’re afraid might upset him.
- You start lying to avoid the put-downs and reality twists.
- You feel as though you can’t do anything right.
- You frequently wonder if you’re good enough for your lover.
- Your kids start trying to protect you from being humiliated by your partner.
- You feel hopeless and joyless.
If you recognize you are engaging in more than a couple of these behaviors, it is possible that gaslighting or other emotional abuse or manipulation is the culprit. Some may point out that depression and anxiety could also explain a number of these symptoms. Yet depression and anxiety are also normal reactions to being emotionally abused and manipulated. So if these behaviors sound familiar, you owe it to yourself to learn more about emotional abuse as you may be suffering its effects and not realize it.
Overcoming the Book’s Gender Bias and Limited Advice
Several reviewers of the book have remarked that Dr. Stern still falls into the inaccurate pattern of blaming most abuse on men. Even the foreword of the book, written by Naomi Wolf, comments on this:
Men and women alike suffer emotional abuse and control when they are boys and girls at the hands of adults; while the majority of the example here, drawn from Dr. Stern’s practice, are about the abuse of women, I have also seen countless men open up and describe their own struggles to be free of such toxic interactions when Dr. Stern has described what she is working on — and gain a measure of release and freedom from hearing her analysis. Parents in particular should read this book: so often the ways in which we wound children’s sense of self — or manipulate them emotionally — are entirely unconscious. The more aware we become about the fact that any of us, no matter how well-intentioned, can inadvertently emotionally wound or manipulate a child in our case, the better it will be for the next generation.
Further, the book doesn’t have enough information on recovering from this kind of emotional abuse. Its strength is helping the reader recognize what is happening as it contains far more information on gaslighting than other books on personality disorders or emotional abuse.
Both of these shortcomings are the sorts of problems common with many pop-psychology books and academic tomes. Readers of books like this one can and should learn to mentally adjust what they are reading to get read of the gender bias, but the relative scarcity of clearly expressed emotional abuse problem solving tips is harder to overcome.
In my recent article Relationships and Divorces with Someone Who Suffers Borderline Personality Disorder, I mentioned Beverly Engel’s book The Emotionally Abusive Relationship: How to Stop Being Abused and How to Stop Abusing. She addresses a couple of the weaknesses in The Gaslight Effect: How to Spot and Survive the Hidden Manipulation Others Use to Control Your Life by making it very clear that women can be emotional abusers and that many men are victims of emotional abuse. She explains that the cycle of child abuse where victims become abusers also occurs with adult abuse victims. Many of them learn to abuser their abusers in retaliation. Further, Engel admits that she herself was abused by her mother and in turn became emotionally abusive herself. It’s a very brave admission. More importantly, it also lets all of us who have endured such abuses be alert to the very real possibility that we ourselves have learned how to be abusers. She acknowledges that it took years of work experience as a therapist and the writing of her first book for her to come to these realizations about herself.
If you recognize BPD-like behaviors such as gaslighting in an emotionally abusive relationship, you likely will be able to benefit from the large numbers of books and resources created to help people understand BPD and find a way to deal with the abusive behaviors.
Here are a few more links to articles discussing gaslighting from one of my favorites websites called A Shrink for Men:
These links are to more general information on BPD and personality disorders that may help you deal with emotional abuse and difficult people who suffer personality disorders:
There are also a variety of excellent books available on BPD and its impact on relationships, divorces, and children. Below are a few excellent titles.
Please note that High Conflict People in Legal Disputes has sold out of three printings but is currently readily available as an Amazon Kindle electronic book title or as a used book.
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