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The Relationship Between BPD Dissociation and Gaslighting

How memory gaps may affect relationships for people with BPD.

Key points

  • Gaslighting increases the instability of relationships where one or both parties has BPD.
  • The symptom of paranoia may cause those who dissociate to see others as gaslighting them.
  • To avoid gaslighting, it is suggested that loved ones not challenge accusations based on BPD-related dissociative memory gaps.

Gaslighting is a form of emotional abuse in which efforts are made to make someone feel crazy for believing what's true. When successful, it undermines a person’s self-confidence and weakens their ability to function, making them more vulnerable to manipulation and control by others.

Gaslighting is by no means unique to individuals with borderline personality disorder (BPD), but certain symptoms make it more likely for people with BPD to feel gaslighted by others and create circumstances where others feel gaslighted by them.

image by mohamed-hassan/pixabay
Gaps in memory result from dissociation.
Source: image by mohamed-hassan/pixabay


Many individuals who cope with symptoms of BPD experience periods where they become less aware of their surroundings while they become inwardly focused or non-focused. Dissociation is also common in other disorders, most notably posttraumatic stress disorder and dissociation disorder, where it is a primary symptom.

While experiencing these periods of reduced awareness of their environment, individuals miss events and conversations or parts of events or conversations, resulting in gaps in their recollections. Through the unconscious process of confabulation, they often fill in the gaps with things that might have happened or were said, resulting in a distorted memory of events. When discussing these events with others present, there is often disagreement about the details, resulting in conflict.

Following is an example where dissociation resulted in distortion and the experience of gaslighting.

Zina: What kind of friend are you? I told you I wasn’t feeling well, and you didn’t even call.

Gary: I called you yesterday.

Zina: I don’t remember anybody calling me yesterday.

Gary: You told me that you were exhausted, and then you went to bed.

Zina: Liar. Don’t play with me.

Gary: I'm not playing with you. We had a conversation.

Zina: Either you're crazy, or you're gaslighting me.

Zina did not remember Gary calling. She felt gaslighted because she thought he was lying to make up for not checking in on her while she was sick. And Gary, in turn, ended up feeling gaslighted by her too, because he clearly remembered their conversation but she wouldn't acknowledge it.

The tendency to dissociate is increased in those prone to it by fatigue and/or sickness, weakening cognitive abilities. Zina might have entertained the idea that Gary called her and she had forgotten, but she may also be coping with paranoia, another symptom of BPD. It causes her to choose the most malignant explanation when in doubt.

Unstable Relationships

Zina’s view of Gary quickly changes from someone close and capable of caring and affection to a liar who doesn’t care about her and gaslights her as an excuse for his neglect. A core symptom of BPD is a pattern of unstable relationships associated with alternating between idealization and devaluation.

In the above example, Zina began with an idealized version of Gary—that he will dote over her, especially while she is sick—which led to her being disappointed by his not being as present as she would have liked.

Her experience of disappointment was followed by devaluing him. Her behavior towards him changed from receptive and encouraging to aggressive and accusatory. This made her more likely to feel gaslighted and to gaslight Gary, in return a pattern that further destabilizes the relationship.

Chronic Emptiness and Fear of Abandonment

Several symptoms of BPD increase the likelihood that the affected person and those around them will experience gaslighting in some form or another. The chronic feelings of emptiness and fear of abandonment that most affected people experience predispose them to view communications with people they are close to as either reassuring of the attachment or evidence of abandonment or impending abandonment.

In this example, the dissociation—as a symptom of BPD—set up the gaslighting. Once this spark is ignited, other symptoms of BPD make the experience and the relationship worse. BPD is a perfect storm for introducing gaslighting into relationships.

Ideally, individuals with symptoms of BPD can learn to accept that they dissociate at times and that this can leave gaps in their awareness and memory. Knowing this can mitigate the paranoid bias and decrease both the experience of feeling gaslit and the volatility of relationships.

Unfortunately, many individuals with symptoms of BPD do not acknowledge these symptoms as doing so makes them feel flawed. This tends to add to the tendency to see other people as gaslighting them and makes them generally untrusting.

What Loved Ones Can Do

People whose loved ones have symptoms of BPD should understand that gaps in memory associated with dissociation are a frequent source of gaslighting and note that their loved one is not deliberately trying to make them feel crazy. Rather, they are searching for an explanation for a memory gap that they are not even aware exists.

Trying to correct the memory gap of a person with BPD who dissociates is generally not recommended. They may see acknowledging that they have gaps as admitting that they are flawed, which often increases feelings of self-loathing. Trying to make these corrections typically results in the angry and defensive reaction that Gary experienced.

To avoid gaslighting, it is suggested that you not challenge accusations based on gaps. A better outcome will be achieved if you validate their feeling. You should never validate an untrue fact, but you can validate the feeling. For example, Gary might have said to Zina:

“I understand that you're disappointed that I didn’t contact you more while you were sick. In the future, I'll try to do a better job of being more attentive.”

This allows Gary to authentically validate her feelings and address them appropriately without forcing her to accept that she had a gap in memory that was confusing to her. It spares her shame, and this will benefit the relationship.

More from Daniel S. Lobel Ph.D.
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