What is Splitting?

A Defense Mechanism Found in BPD

Trying to make him understand
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Splitting is a term that describes difficulty with the ability to hold opposing thoughts, feelings, or beliefs about oneself or others. In other words, positive and negative attributes of a person or event are not joined together into a cohesive set of beliefs. It's both a distorted way of thinking and a coping mechanism used to keep yourself from feeling hurt or rejected.

Splitting in Borderline Personality Disorder

Splitting is actually one of the nine symptoms of borderline personality disorder (BPD) listed in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5).

 Splitting is a very common defense mechanism in people with BPD, leading sufferers to view others, themselves and life events in all or nothing terms. For example, a person with BPD may view one family member as always good and another as always bad. 

Because of splitting, it is difficult for individuals with BPD to recognize that good people sometimes do things imperfectly or make mistakes. The experience of splitting is very confusing and frustrating for people with BPD and their loved ones. Splitting can interfere with relationships and work life, and can lead to intense anger and self-destructive behaviors.

Examples of Splitting

Example 1: Sophia gets laid off of her job because of budget cuts. She tells herself and everyone in her life that she'll never get another job again.

Example 2: Eva has a new boyfriend who she describes as "perfect" and "amazing." She feels deeply in love. Her boyfriend reveals a bad habit that she doesn't like, so she refuses to speak to him for days because she no longer sees him in a positive light.

Example 3: John goes back and forth all day between feeling like he's a really great person to feeling like a terrible, even evil, person.

Words That Indicate Splitting

If you are using these words, you are likely splitting:

  • Always
  • Never
  • Impossible
  • Awful
  • Perfect
  • Ruined
  • Terrible

Other Defense Mechanisms Common in BPD

There are other defense mechanisms along with splitting that research has found to be common in people with BPD.

They include acting out, idealizing others, denial, devaluing others, engaging in passive-aggression, projection, omnipotence, emotional hypochondriasis and projective identification.

Symptoms of BPD

There are nine symptoms of borderline personality disorder and you must have at least five of them to be diagnosed with it. These symptoms include:

  • Intense and stormy personal relationships that involve splitting
  • Often feeling empty or bored
  • A warped view of yourself that changes and affects everything in your life including opinions, values, mood and relationships
  • Impulsive behavior such as abusing illicit substances or driving recklessly
  • Anger problems, such as angry outbursts, showing anger in inappropriate situations or being unable to control anger, usually followed by feeling guilty or ashamed
  • Extreme attempts to avoid abandonment or feeling abandoned by loved ones
  • Suicidal thoughts or behaviors and/or self-harming behaviors
  • Times of extreme depression, anxiety or irritability that last from a few hours to a few days
  • Feeling dissociated from yourself, like you are not a part of your own life or you don't know who you really are, which can also include paranoid thoughts

Sources:

American Psychiatric Association. “Practice Guideline for the Treatment of Patients with Borderline Personality Disorder.” American Journal of Psychiatry, 158:1-52.

Perry, J.C., Presniak, M.D., Olson, T. "Defense Mechanisms in Schizotypal, Borderline, Antisocial, and Narcissistic Personality Disorders." Psychiatry Interpersonal & Biological Processes, 76 (1), 2013.

"Borderline Personality Disorder." National Alliance on Mental Illness (2016).

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