Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today


Why Some People with BPD Engage in Character Assassination

... and how to avoid becoming a target.

Key points

  • Character assassination is a special form of lashing out often done by individuals with symptoms of BPD.
  • Character assassination is generally a reaction to feeling threatened by the target.
  • Character assassination can be very destructive to relationships.
  • If this behavior is suspected, you may wish to document necessary dealings with the individual or avoid being alone with them.

Intense expressions of anger towards others are a core symptom of borderline personality disorder (BPD). Lashing out is often the result of frustration or fear, which these individuals struggle to cope with because of the accentuation of these emotions associated with the disorder. These expressions generally take the form of hurtful comments, a lack of cooperation, or undermining others’ efforts.

When individuals with symptoms of BPD feel threatened by others, they may lash out by assassinating the character of those they feel threatened by. Character assassination involves repeated demeaning, and in some cases slanderous, statements and accusations, in the presence of others whenever possible.

The function of character assassination is to attack the credibility of those that are perceived as a threat in an effort to neutralize them. Below are some examples of perceived threats that can incite character assassination from individuals suffering from symptoms of BPD. (These examples are fictional, but they are based on many years of clinical experience.)

Threat to Personal Value

Individuals with symptoms of BPD are particularly sensitive to being seen as less than others, and, hence, feel belittled by those who judge them negatively, know more than they do, or disagree with them.

For example, Harry, who has symptoms of BPD, always loved to play baseball and dreamed of being a professional ballplayer someday. He was thrilled in ninth grade when he made the junior varsity team. He thought that he had played well and expected to make varsity in tenth grade. He was very angry and disappointed when he didn't, but Coach Williams reminded him that most people don’t make varsity until junior year and that he should use sophomore year to hone his skills.

When he did not make the varsity team in junior year, either, he became enraged and quit high school athletics permanently. He had the following conversation with his parents:

Mom: How did the tryouts go?

Harry: Coach Williams should be fired.

Dad: What happened? Was there an incident?

Harry: He's an idiot and he lied to me.

Dad: He lied about the tryouts?

Harry: He told me last year that I would be on the varsity team this year and now I'm out.

Dad: He promised you?

Harry: Yes, because he didn’t want me on the varsity team last year.

Mom: I thought you liked Coach Williams. You used to say kind things about him.

Harry: He’s a monster. He probably canned me because I wouldn’t let him touch me.

Mom: He tried to touch you?

Harry: I know he wanted to. I could tell by the way he looks at me.

Dad: Why didn’t you tell us this before?

Harry: You never believe me. You're as bad as him.

Harry told the same story to his friends when they asked him if he made the varsity baseball team. Word eventually got back to the school administration and an investigation was done. When Coach Williams was exonerated, Harry insisted that he was too traumatized to return to school and he insisted on changing schools.

Threats to Intimate Relationships

Individuals with symptoms of BPD struggle with feeling secure in intimate relationships. Many of them suffer from periods of paranoia and jealousy, which makes them more vulnerable to feeling that their relationship is threatened.

For example, Cory, who has symptoms of BPD, often worries that her husband, Ron, will be attracted to other women and act on it. She insisted that he always tell her where he was and what he was doing when they weren't together. Following is a conversation that she had with Ron:

Cory: Why didn’t you answer me when I called you at work today?

Ron: I did answer you.

Cory: I called at 11:30 and you didn’t answer until 2.

Ron: I was in a long lunch meeting.

Cory: With who? Colleen?

Ron: Yes. Colleen was there.

Cory: And your girlfriend couldn’t wait a minute or two while you take my call?

Ron: She's not my girlfriend, she's my boss.

Cory: What kind of boss walks around dressed like a whore?

Ron: What are you talking about?

Cory: I saw her at the office Christmas party with her breasts falling out of that low-cut blouse.

Ron: I don’t remember what she wore at the party.

Cory: I'm sure that’s how she got the director position in your firm.

Ron: What do you mean?

Cory: She's too stupid to be an executive. She must have slept her way to the top.

Ron: I don’t know anything about that. What does that have to do with me?

Cory: I saw the way she looks at you.

Ron: I don't have anything to do with her being an executive. She's my boss.

Cory: She's disgusting, and you're disgusting for looking at her.

Character assassination can occur in response to any perceived threat; the above are just two examples.

In all circumstances, character assassination is extremely damaging to relationships. In addition to debasing the target of the assassination, which is very hurtful, it can lead to consequences, such as allegations and investigations when these statements are shared with colleagues, school administrators, employers, etc. This damage is, in some cases, irreversible and is likely to cause permanent damage to the relationship. This occurred in the first example, where Coach Williams was investigated following Harry’s accusations. It is strongly suggested that other forms of expression be sought and defamation be avoided in all situations.

If you are the target of character assassination, your best tool is to prepare yourself to invalidate it. Coach Williams would do well to avoid ever being alone with Harry or any other student. He might also be prepared to account for all of his time during the school day by creating a log or journal that can contradict accusations of inappropriate behavior.

Most people do not assassinate the character of others. If you see this behavior in someone you have contact with, consider being guarded in their presence and avoid being alone with them.

Facebook image: Filippo Carlot/Shutterstock

More from Daniel S. Lobel Ph.D.
More from Psychology Today