What Splitting Is
“No one has ever understood me the way you do. Past therapists have just sat there, taken my money, and basically fallen asleep while I’m talking. You’re the only one who has ever listened to me at all.”
Many therapists have heard this before. People with borderline personality disorder (BPD) may have a hard time seeing gray areas and, as a result, resort to a defense mechanism known as splitting. Splitting can also be identified when a person with BPD interprets people, thoughts, emotions, and situations as black or white, all or nothing, wonderful or evil. Kristalyn Salters-Pedneault, PhD, defines splitting as difficulty in the capacity to hold conflicting thoughts, feelings, or beliefs about oneself or other people. It’s a common defense mechanism used by people with BPD symptomology and is listed in the DSM-5 as one of nine symptoms of BPD.
Splitting makes it hard for people with BPD to accept that everyone is imperfect and can make missteps. They may have contradictory ways of thinking about themselves or others, but rarely or never at the same time. A client told me that this defense mechanism allowed her to divide people and the world into good and bad, making them easier to understand.
Splitting can lead to great resentment and self-destructive activities, which can be very puzzling and frustrating for people with BPD and the people around them. Family members may wonder why their loved one is happy and loving one moment, but scornful and repulsed the next.
How to Tell When It’s Happening
One effective way to tell if friends or family members with BPD symptoms are splitting is to listen to what they’re saying. If they use words like “destroyed,” “always (or never),” “perfect,” or “ruined,” they may be using this defense mechanism. If your loved one describes others by alternating between the extremes of idealization and devaluation, they may be splitting.
Therapists struggle with splitting behavior in their clients as well. A client may idealize and idolize her or his therapist in the beginning of the therapeutic relationship, when therapists work to build rapport by offering, often for the first time in a client’s life, complete understanding and acceptance.
We all enjoy being appreciated and respected and can easily be won over by a client or friend who admires us. Who doesn’t want to hear that we’re brilliant, and that our clients are so thankful to have us in their lives? And of course we all want to believe our clients are getting better.
But then we get down to business, and we may push our clients into uncomfortable emotional territory, which they may see as rejection or criticism. Thus, their admiration turns into contempt, petulance, and argumentativeness. As we recognize or internalize this occurrence, we may become reluctant to rock the boat with probing questions. Keeping our need for recognition and admiration from clients and others in check can help lessen the likelihood of avoiding these “real” conversations.
What To Do About It
As DBT therapists, we cope ahead with the symptom of splitting We can be mindful of entering emotion mind ourselves, instead handling issues firmly and briefly – validate what is valid, agree to disagree, and then move on. For example, if a client says we’re the only person who has ever understood her we can validate her by pointing out she’s often felt misunderstood, and that’s gotten in the way of her recovery. Or if a client tells us, possibly in the same session, that she feels completely misunderstood, we can recognize the defense mechanism protecting her from dangerous emotions surrounding attachment and rejection, validate we’ve failed to understand a part of the situation, and move forward to fuller understanding.
What else can therapists do with people who are splitting? We can try to model our own ability to see middle ground. We can try not to get obviously angry or retaliate, intimidate, or force ultimatums. We can pay attention to moods—ours and those of the people around us—and work on decreasing our vulnerability factors by eating properly, getting enough sleep, being mindful, and caring for ourselves. Above all, we can have compassion for ourselves and our clients or loved ones with BPD.