Borderlines Can Make You Feel Insane Via “Gaslighting”

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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:

(from From Grief to Advocacy: A Mother’s Odyssey)

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.

Recognizing Gaslighting

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.

  1. You constantly second-guess yourself.
  2. You wonder, “Am I being too sensitive?” a dozen times a day.
  3. You wonder frequently if you are a “good enough” girlfriend / wife / employee / friend / daughter.
  4. You have trouble making simple decisions.
  5. You think twice before bringing up innocent topics of conversation.
  6. You frequently make excuses for your partner’s behavior to friends and family.
  7. 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.
  8. 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.
  9. You actually start to enjoy the constant criticism, because you think, “What doesn’t kill me will make me stronger.”
  10. You start speaking to your husband through his secretary so you don’t have to tell him things you’re afraid might upset him.
  11. You start lying to avoid the put-downs and reality twists.
  12. You feel as though you can’t do anything right.
  13. You frequently wonder if you’re good enough for your lover.
  14. Your kids start trying to protect you from being humiliated by your partner.
  15. 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.

Further Resources

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.

Amazon provides free Kindle reader applications for PCs, Macs, Android phones and tablets, iPhone, iPad, and Blackberry platforms. For more information, click the banner below.

  1. Sad Dad
    July 21st, 2010 at 23:57 | #1

    My ex gaslights our kids, she has them convinced any little mistakes I make are intentional. Dads, like moms, sometimes forget to buy something at the store. But I do that and she convinces them I don’t care about them.

  2. Many Sad Dad’s out there
    July 22nd, 2010 at 02:53 | #2

    @Sad Dad
    We hear you loud and clear.
    Statistics clearly show that Fathers are far more responsible when it pertains to steering clear of any negative language regarding the mother whilst kids are in earshot.

    Numerous books I’ve read also allude that mother’s can’t seem to “get over it”, and move on with their lives. Instead, they slander the father directly in front of the children, causing life-long problems for the soon to be adults. A small percentage of fathers do this also, but it is far more common with mothers.

    And fathers typically get the shaft from family law judges. Mostly panty-waist, politically correct types of judges. They are the worst, and also are what is wrong with America today.

  3. shattered
    August 1st, 2010 at 07:31 | #3

    We’ve been apart as long as we were together, & I’m still hurting. It’s amazing how this experience has galvanized me, but I refuse to succumb to it. I don’t mind hurting, but I will not crawl back. She is the meanest person I have ever come into contact with.

  4. Cindy
    September 13th, 2011 at 17:30 | #4

    I’m finding that my soon ex- has done years of distortion campaigns, my daughter and youngest son appear to have ubherited his family illness. Believe me they had me all over the place. My daughter faked a full term pregnancy ending it in a fake stillbirth she could not hide from. One goes to the hospital for this. My sister has apparently listened for years of distortion campaigns; my brother told me this year that he had witnessed it for himself but did not want to tell me this from years ago, he didn’t want to cause trouble. Along with that, it was my son’s psychiatrist that said Borderlines make excellent actors, all three fit the bill. I had no idea my daughter had been lying about me to my mom at the small age she was, she had come to me a few years ago laughing at how she manipulated my mom saying to her I and my husband had been hurting her. I had wondered at odd reactions from family and friends even. Friends reacting badly to me that once were great friends I would find out if any brave enough Dave was giving false statements of me. He had followed me from church to church to church. As soon as I started making friends, he would then go in and continue with his disinformation campaigns. I did not realize why, I gave the excuse that he just did not understand. I could not deal with the fact that, yes, he did know exactly what he was doing. Having always grabbed her daddy’s legs she learned what worked so she used it. My youngest son has this with the histrionic kind. It’s been the most devaststing year. I knew I had to leave and when I told my husband I was leaving him, even though he had a mistress, he brought his truck right back saying he had called the police and the kids saying that he told Jeremiah that I had wanted to commit suicide. He came storming in the house having said that and this: “Me and the kids we’ll decide just what to do with you.” I had been in contact with a counselor for having terrible pain and sickness, he was teaching me to stand up for myself, I was doing that and my husband felt threatened in losing control of me because his secrets could get out. The emergency counselor he knew I was meeting with because the pain physically had been so horrible, but then my husband’s abuse of me got so much, much, worse. He was screaming in my face the last three weeks, told a doctor that he did not know what was wrong but that I had deteriorated in the last 3 weeks for some reason. Instead of ending up at a pain control clinic he socked me away in a mental hospital that many agree needs to be closed down. I was misquoted there many, many times. With a diagnosis my counselor feels were used to get paid was used because the would not get paid with the crisis I was having as anyone would, in only calling it adjustment disorder, which means a crisis caused by outside stressors. He’s managed to completely isolate me trying to run me out of town even placing his mistress in my place without a flinch, and tightly with my sister as well. I beg God to reveal the lies.

  5. cuatezon
    May 7th, 2012 at 01:45 | #5

    Sweet Jesus I thought I was crazy for years and reading this stuff confirms it wasn’t me, it was she who was the crazy one. My ex-wife would incessantly accuse me of looking at women in the store, restaurant, driving the car, at the car wash, walking the dog, etc. In her melodramatic accusations, she actually ended up pointing out attractive-looking women to me that I hadn’t noticed before…and I later found out SHE was the one who was emailing some ex-bf of hers in secret, and they swapped a calling card so her calls to him wouldn’t appear on our long distance phone bill. Once, when we were in the middle of an argument (about me staring at women in the mall) she laid down in the bed and began masturbating. Gosh, how did I ever get involved with such a psycho bitch. Why do these people exist…thank goodness I’m free. Just feel for the poor kids now.

  6. Jason
    April 22nd, 2013 at 22:19 | #6

    Is there a term for reverse Gaslighting? I not only have a good memory, I started keeping a journal because of what my ex would do. In short, my ex would do or say something and then later deny it had happened or that she’d said anything about it. Sometimes she would do this within minutes!

    During one argument late in the marriage, I asked her why she’d done a very traumatic thing to me eight years earlier. She remembered it differently, but said she didn’t know. However, she remembered word-for-word something she said to our oldest a few weeks later (our oldest later independently, and without prompting, related the same story with the same quote.)

    A few months my ex not only denied the event happened but that we’d even discussed it. She actually told me I was imagining both the event and conversation. Between that and her extreme demonization of me to family and friends, I began to lose my grip on reality.

    Fortunately, she pulled this stunt in front of our marriage counselor, who, ironically, my ex had been winning over. I saw the epiphany in our counselor’s face–I wasn’t the sick one. I believe this was one of the more extreme case our counselor had seen and she struggled with it. She believed my ex’s ability to disassociate had gotten so bad, she was basically doing it in real time.

    My other source of sanity is that my ex did the same thing with our oldest two, though pertaining to insanely trivial things. Just two months ago, my ex said something to our oldest daughter and five minutes denied saying it and accused her of making it up just to win the argument. The dumb part is that it had nothing to do with winning or losing an argument. Needless to say, our oldest two children thing their mother is nuts.

    (As a side note; I can’t recall my ex ever gaslighting me in the traditional manner. She would tell terrible lies to our children and other people about me and would deny doing so when I confronted her, even when I had the emails! Her response; “I don’t remember writing that.”)

  7. meh
    August 12th, 2013 at 17:23 | #7

    You might want to consider stop writing as if it was always a “she”. I’ve been under years of verbal abuse by my boyfriend and I would never had found out what was going on had it not been for my therapist detecting it and explaining it to me. Stigmatizing BPD as a “female thing” does not help those of us who have to deal with men who are this way.

  8. Gas Lighted
    March 30th, 2014 at 03:36 | #8

    I tell ya this article brought me to tears. I’m still in my divorce and have experienced all this behaviour. It happens to both men and women and I really don’t understand why LCSWs, Marriage counselors and Psy.ds don’t consider that this is going on in a marriage. How can these people define these personality types and then casually and so subjectively presume to be helping couples.

  1. July 20th, 2010 at 22:07 | #1
  2. August 6th, 2010 at 08:19 | #2
  3. August 20th, 2010 at 05:33 | #3
  4. September 23rd, 2010 at 02:10 | #4
  5. September 23rd, 2010 at 02:15 | #5
  6. September 25th, 2010 at 02:56 | #6
  7. March 14th, 2012 at 04:15 | #7
  8. March 20th, 2013 at 02:10 | #8
  9. August 9th, 2013 at 03:12 | #9
  10. August 9th, 2013 at 03:16 | #10
  11. January 22nd, 2014 at 05:39 | #11
  12. May 2nd, 2014 at 12:41 | #12
  13. May 6th, 2014 at 18:50 | #13

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