WHEN A PERSON WITH BPD IS GHOSTED
It can be incredibly difficult when someone suddenly disappears or “ghosts” from your life — especially once you’ve risked your heart, allowed yourself to be vulnerable, and have become emotionally attached or invested.
When you have borderline personality disorder, BPD traits, or emotional sensitivity, it may also be difficult to experience rejection or ghosting from someone you barely knew. The feeling of being rejected can be so intense that it just seems absolutely unbearable.
Then there are situations when loved ones or support persons seem to be rejecting or abandoning us, prompting our nervous systems to tailspin into memories of past trauma.
This can then cloud our vision in the current situation and have us (often erroneously) convinced, “It’s happening again. They’re leaving me, too!”
In the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM-5) used by mental health professionals it is noted that, with BPD, the sufferer may experience an intense fear of abandonment (American Psychiatric Association, 2013). This can include frantic attempts (including dangerous behaviors, self-harming, and suicidal gestures) to avoid real or imagined abandonment.
So, what is imagined abandonment?
Situations that aren’t ghosting and that may seem like everyday, understandable and tolerable event to people without BPD (such as a therapist taking a vacation, or a partner or loved one needing to travel on business or choosing to travel to visit family) may be so triggering that it causes the person with BPD to experience an emotional crisis.
They may become inconsolable with fear and grief that in an effort to escape or distract from the pain, they may engage in unhealthy behaviors or actions that only make matters worse.
WHEN A PERSON WITH BPD DOES THE GHOSTING
Then, on the other side of the coin, sometimes the person with BPD is the ghoster, and often for a heartbreaking reason. Many people with BPD experience black-or-white, all-or-nothing thinking. When it comes to relationships, this is often referred to as Idealizing vs. Devaluing.
At first, the sufferer might become completely enthralled and even preoccupied with a new friend or lover (idealizing), but if that person does something that sets off a trigger, they might quickly shift to wanting to cut that person out of their life, impulsively blocking them on social media and text, etc. (devaluing).
Trauma is often at the root of this phenomenon. My personal account of how I believe black-or-white thinking formed in my psyche was that my father could be very loving, funny, and nice to be around one minute, but then set him off with the wrong look or saying the wrong thing (and it varied from day to day, so you never really knew what was safe and what wasn’t), and he became incredibly angry, scary, and abusive.
So in my developing young mind, to survive the trauma, I saw my Dad as two extremes: Good (safe) Dad, and Bad (unsafe) Dad. There was no room for a middle ground or in-between when it came to survival.
I went on to continue to see other people, circumstances, and the world in this way. It wasn’t until I learned and integrated into my life DBT Skills that I began to unwind what was happening and started to see this distorted thinking style for what it is.
SELF-CARE FOR WHEN YOU’RE GHOSTED OR PERCEIVING ABANDONMENT
From a DBT skills perspective, one of the first things to do is Check the Facts: Have I really been ghosted or abandoned?
If you gather evidence to support that you’ve been ghosted (i.e., the person has left without a trace, blocked you, and you can no longer communicate with them) one of the first steps that can help on the path of healing from this wound is Radical Acceptance.
This not radical approval or radical I’m-okay-with-this. In this step, it’s more of a “radical acknowledgment” of reality. It’s allowing yourself to acknowledge what’s happened rather than fall into denial or avoidance.
Next, notice your emotions. All emotions are valid. It’s understandable that you could be angry, sad, fearful, or anything else that is coming up for you.
All emotions come with an “action urge,” and it’s time to notice that, too. For example, anger may cause you to want to lash out, not take no for an answer, or even attempt to stalk the ghoster. Sadness may prompt you to isolate or self-harm or self-sabotage in some way. Fear may create anxiety so intense that it begins to feel like an emotional crisis and you may be tempted to reach for a substance to console yourself.
The important thing at this point is to simply NOTICE the urge. Just because you have an urge does not mean you need to act on it. In fact, doing so often will only make matters worse, creating new problems on top of your existing one.
Instead, you can choose to skillfully distract until those urges come down. You might watch your favorite show, get out of the house for a walk, paint, dance, whatever you can do to stay occupied until the emotional urge goes down. No, these activities won’t solve the pain or change the situation, but they can buy time while you calm down so you don’t act on those urges.
Ghosting is a form of rejection and abandonment, and the last thing you want to do is then ghost on yourself. Show up with as much self-compassion as you can. Get into self-care to soothe your nervous system (think of what you can do to soothe yourself through the senses — take a bath, make a warm cup of tea, snuggle up with your pets), and reach out to someone you trust to talk about how you’re feeling. You may need some time to grieve the loss of this relationship.
If you’ve checked the facts and they don’t support that you were ghosted, for example, your friend went out of town, she told you in advance, and you know she’s coming back, using any of the above skills can also be helpful in addition to reminding yourself that the person *is* coming back.
If you find yourself suddenly wanting to check out and abandon a relationship, it’s time to check the facts again. What’s happening? Is what’s happening grounds for totally cutting the other person off?
What are the potential consequences of responding this way (i.e. the person may lose trust in me, see me as unstable, not want to reengage in relationship if I realize this was a mistake), and am I truly prepared to face those consequences?
You might ask yourself, “Am I doing this not because I truly want to leave the relationship but because I want to convey how intense I’m feeling and think this will show them how hurt I am?” If the answer is yes, refer to the list of potential consequences. This could be a pivotal moment in your relationship if you choose to, instead of ghosting, tell the other person what you’re feeling, for example, “I’m feeling really hurt and scared and worried and I need to talk about this.”
What are some coping skills you’ve used when you’ve been ghosted or when you’ve experienced an intense fear of abandonment?
What skills have you used when you’ve noticed you’ve gone into black-or-white idealizing vs. devaluing thinking?
Debbie is an Online DBT Skills Teacher and Coach at DBT Path.
American Psychiatric Association. (2013). Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders (5th ed.). Arlington, VA: American Psychiatric Publishing.