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The Effects of Gaslighting on Someone With Borderline Personality Disorder

Gaslighting is one of the most painful experiences for someone with BPD.

Key points

  • Gaslighting is hurtful to others and destructive to relationships.
  • Gaslighting is particularly hurtful to individuals with symptoms of BPD.
  • Targets of gaslighting can protect themselves by identifying gaslighting and not taking it personally.

Being the target of gaslighting is a painful experience for everybody, but individuals with symptoms of borderline personality disorder (BPD) suffer intensely. Many symptoms of BPD are markedly exacerbated by gaslighting, causing harm to the individual and your relationship with that person.

Gaslighting Is a Form of Manipulation

Image by Venita Oberholster from Pixabay
Gaslighting and BPD are a bad mix.
Source: Image by Venita Oberholster from Pixabay

Gaslighting is a form of manipulation where targets are urged to doubt their memories, beliefs, feelings, or sanity. It is often used to gain some sort of advantage over the target by weakening their clarity and hence their judgment so that they can be taken advantage of in some way.

Gaslighting causes people not to trust themselves and undermines their self-confidence and self-esteem. It attacks the most precious relationship anyone can have: their relationship with themselves.

The stronger or more stable relationship you have with yourself, the less vulnerable you are to the disruptive effects of gaslighting. Healthy individuals resist the efforts of others to change their self-perception and get angry when they try.

In the following dialogue, Jennifer gaslights her husband, Jimmy, to deflect blame/guilt for forgetting to get their son, Gary, a COVID shot before he got infected.

Jen: It’s your fault Gary got COVID.

Jim: How is it my fault?

Jen: You were supposed to take him for his shot.

Jim: We never discussed that.

Jen: Yes, we did.

Jim: I don’t remember that.

Jen: Then there is something wrong with you.

Jim: I don’t appreciate your effort to gaslight me. Let’s just focus on Gary’s health.

Jen: That’s what I’ve been trying to do.

Jim: Well, we need to do better.

Healthy Jim is immune to Jen’s gaslighting because he is not fragmented and knows what happened and what did not. The gaslighting is unable to upset his sense of reality. He just gets annoyed that Jen would do that to him rather than take responsibility.

Gaslighting and BPD

Symptoms of BPD make sufferers more vulnerable to the painful effects of gaslighting, which makes immunity impossible. Below are some of the symptoms of BPD that make gaslighting more harmful.

  • Unstable mood challenges memory storage and retrieval as it diverts attention away from cognition and toward fluctuating emotion.
  • Emotional dysregulation accentuates the distracting effect described above.
  • Dissociation also interferes with memory storage and retrieval and negatively impacts their conviction about what happened and what they think might have happened.
  • Paranoia causes sufferers to anticipate being tricked or taken advantage of by others, so they are particularly sensitive to any exchange that can be seen from that perspective.
  • An unstable sense of self leaves them vulnerable to suggestions that might not be consistent with their experience and awareness. This is experienced as being told they are “crazy,” and it often enrages them.

The impact of these symptoms is apparent when the individual with symptoms of BPD feels that they are being gaslighted.

Here is how the above dialogue between Jen and Jim might have gone if Jim suffered symptoms of BPD.

Jen: It’s your fault Gary got COVID.

Jim: How is it my fault

Jen: You were supposed to take him for his shot.

Jim: We never discussed that.

Jen: Yes, we did.

Jim: I don’t remember that.

Jen: Then there is something wrong with you.

Jim: Something wrong with me! What kind of a lousy mother are you to our child?

Jen: You wouldn’t attack me like that unless you knew I was right.

Jim: Now you are a mind reader? You make me feel crazy.

Jen: Maybe you should get some help.

Jim: I think I am going to be sick.

Unhealthy Jim is wounded by being gaslighted. He is not sure anymore whether the conversation with Jen about taking Gary for the shot happened or not. He can’t admit that he is no longer sure because that is like admitting to being flawed. He lashed out at Jen and then got sick with an intense mixture of feelings. He got completely overwhelmed.

There is no place for gaslighting in a healthy relationship. It is disruptive in any relationship but destructive to individuals who struggle to stabilize their emotions and sense of self. It undermines trust and respect.

Jen had the opportunity to build trust and respect by being honest about her mistake and partnering with Jim to provide better parenting to their son. Instead, she decided to blame Jim and gaslight him. It damages the relationship and deprives the child of the opportunity to benefit from two cooperative parents.

Healthy Jim does a good job of rejecting the gaslight and attempting to initiate a corrective cooperative process. Unhealthy Jim gets wounded and lashes out, discouraging a corrective cooperative process and increasing conflict and injury.

Individuals like Unhealthy Jim, who are particularly sensitive to gaslighting, will do well to learn to take a more mindful approach towards others suspected of gaslighting. The following tools may be helpful.

  • Inhibit impulsive response. Do not act out of anger.
  • Take a moment to consider the situation.
  • Try not to take it personally. It is a reflection of the person who chooses to gaslight, not on you.
  • Determine the best outcome of the exchange and the best way to effect it.

If Unhealthy Jim can inhibit his lashing out, he will realize that Jen is deflecting blame to avoid her uncomfortable emotions rather than objectively judging him.

Like Healthy Jim, he can determine that improved cooperative parenting is in his child’s best interest, and refocusing Jen is the best way to make this happen.

More from Daniel S. Lobel Ph.D.
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