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What is ‘Splitting’ in Psychology?

what is splitting

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by Andrea M. Darcy

What is splitting in psychology? Unlike the expression ‘splitting hairs’, here the word has nothing to do with being finicky. It’s instead to do with the way you see things.

What is splitting?

Splitting refers to a distorted way of thinking where you see things in extremes, and is most often an issue in your way of seeing others. You idealise them, or demonise them. They are amazing, or horrible. Unlike others, who can hold opposing thoughts and feelings at the same time (‘I don’t like the way they do this one thing but can see they have other qualities’), you instantly compartmentalise.

Also called ‘black and white thinking’, splitting is most common in those who have borderline personality disorder. But splitting can also form part of narcissistic personality disorder, and severe depression.

Note that we can all use ‘splitting’ now and then in life, when we are overwhelmed or don’t want to do the work of understanding someone or a situation. It’s in the way religious people make others ‘sinners’, or the way we see all criminals as ‘bad’ without attempting to know their personal history. But if you have an issue with splitting, then it’s your constant perspective on situations and others. 

Splitting and BPD

Again, splitting is mostly an issue if you are struggling with borderline personality disorder. BPD (more correctly titled ‘unstable personality disorder’) revolves around a fear of rejection and abandonment and an issue with emotional dysregulation, where feelings are intense and quickly go from zero to one hundred.

Those with BPD are prone to throwing themselves into intense relationships, where they at first idealise the other, only to demonise them the second they feel they are about to be rejected or abandoned.

You’ll find that the splitting tends to be related to your unregulated emotions. Your mind turns to splitting when big emotions come, using it as a coping mechanism.

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Note you might also turn splitting on yourself, seeing yourself as special and different one day, then hopeless and evil the next.

Examples of splitting

A classic BPD example is that when you meet someone you are attracted to, they are very quickly called ‘the One’, ‘the love of your life’, and ‘different than all the rest’. Up they go on the proverbial pedestal. Then you see a text to another person you suspect they used to date, or might like, you don’t know for sure but the suspicion is enough. You are full of sudden rage and feel hatred and fury for them. Suddenly they are ‘the worst’, ‘a total narcissist’, and ‘a fake’.  

what is splitting

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Splitting can also be seen in the way you attempt to communicate your needs in relationships when you have BPD. You see things in terms of ‘always’ or ‘never’. When you are angry at someone, you tell them they ‘are never there for you’. And your friends have to ‘always be there for you’. Of course in reality nobody can be there for us all the time, and everyone will disappoint us now and then.

Your habit of splitting can also spill over into the way you see things in general. Things are amazing, or horrible. You are having the best day, or the worst day ever.

How do I know if I am splitting?

Look at the words you are using when you think of a situation or person. Are you using opposites and extremes? Like:

  • always/never (you always pick on me, he never notices me)
  • everything/nothing (you ruin everything, you did nothing right)
  • good/bad (he was the best person I ever met, she was a terrible person)
  • none/all (none of the people cared, all of the people were staring at me)
  • truth/lie (this is ‘the total truth’ about what happened, what you said is ‘fully a lie’)
  • then extreme adjectives like completely, absolutely, undoubtedly, totally.

Why do I use splitting?

Again, it is a coping mechanism, a ‘defence mechanism‘. You suddenly have really big upsetting emotions, such as fear of abandonment or anger, or even an overwhelming need to be loved and sense of joy. Splitting helps your mind outsource the big emotions. Indeed, it projects your emotion onto the other person.

We end up as someone with splitting issues and/or BPD generally because of childhood trauma.

what is splitting in psychology

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When our brain was totally overwhelmed by an unbearable experience like abuse, the mind can cope by compartmentalising.

In fact this is what all of our brains do as young children, we see things in terms of like/dislike and good/bad. As our thinking matures, and learn to understand a wider perspective, we learn to see nuances. We might, when teenagers forming our identities we’ll carry into adulthood, resort back to some splitting for a while, as it gives us a sense of adult power. Then, yet again, our perspective grows. But trauma can keeps the brain from going towards these nuances and keep it stuck in simplicity.

Why splitting is such a problem

When we see everything in terms of extremes, it’s exhausting. It means constant drama for ourselves and our relationships, and constant emotional and mental highs and lows. Which can eventually drive away the people around us away, leaving us lonely and full of self-hatred.

Splitting can also mean you are often in unhealthy relationships. Perhaps you idealise the other person so much it puts a great strain on them. Or you rely on them for everything, and are trapped in codependency.

At worst it can mean you are dating someone who is actually dangerous. A classic example here is when a woman is dating someone known for violent tendencies, but she sees him, through her rose-coloured splitting glasses, as ‘a misunderstood angel’.

Splitting and narcissistic personality disorder

Narcissists use splitting in an entirely different way. Here the splitting is used to prop up very low self-esteem, which is the hidden root of narcissistic personality disorder. So the narcissist makes themselves ‘right’ and admirable, and everyone who dares to contradict or go against them ‘wrong’ or ‘bad’. 

Splitting and depression

Severe depression can also involve black and white thinking. You might see yourself as ‘all bad’ and others as ‘all good’. Or yourself as good and all suffering and everyone else as out to destroy you. Either way, it all keeps you depressed and feeling hopeless.

How can I stop splitting?

Recognising you are doing it is a big step forward. The next step is getting help with your thinking and emotional management.

You can try some self help. But as BPD and extreme thinking can be trauma related, they can be hard to navigate alone and therapy is recommended. Cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) is a good first therapy to try. It focuses on helping you recognise your distorted thinking, question it, and replace it with balanced thoughts. It is shown to be very effective for anxiety and depression.

If you suspect you have borderline personality disorder, note that dialectical behaviour therapy was created by someone who had the issue herself, and is targeted to help those with BPD. Schema therapy is also useful, designed to help those with treatment resistant issues or a personality disorder.

Sick of your thinking and behaviours leaving you lonely? We offer a team of highly regarded therapists who can help with relationship issues, as well as therapy for BPD, at comfortable offices in central London locations. Or use our sister booking site to source an online UK-based therapist.

Andrea M. DarcyAndrea M. Darcy is a health writer and mentor. Find her @am_darcy

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Blog Topics: Common Mental Health, Personality Disorders

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