Splitting: the world and others in black and white

Splitting is a defence mechanism first posited by Freud and later developed by various proponents of psychoanalysis and psychodynamic theory including Ronald Fairbairn and Melanie Klein within Object Relations Theory.  Each development has different perspectives on the splitting phenomenon but all broadly agree that splitting describes an individual’s way of forming conclusions about the world in absolutes of black and white: either all good or all bad, as a means of protecting ourselves from perceived threats to our esteem, identity and sense of value.  When applied to our judgements of other people and ourselves, it entails an unwillingness or habitual avoidance of recognising the complex reality of the person:  that we are each of us capable of a wide range of variable behaviours, ideas, beliefs, opinions, feelings and character traits that involve both the acceptable and the unacceptable, comfortable and uncomfortable, good and bad all within the one individual or event.  Splitting is an early childhood inability to discern this complex reality in favour of a simple, binary conclusion: good or bad.

Good and Bad Emotions

There are, however, emotional underpinnings to this phenomenon as we grow older, often described in cognitive terms as ‘black and white thinking’.  For many of us our tendency to engage in splitting is rooted in how we have learned to relate to ourselves and our own emotional responses from childhood.  Difficult or painful emotional responses to others can prompt us to draw conclusions about people to whom we experience such feelings by determining such persons to be ‘bad’ because they elicit ‘bad’ feelings in us (this same equation can be applied to the self).  This is a short, uncomplicated route to personal safety when we are young and vulnerable to attack.  Pleasant experiences, by contrast, can prompt us to conclude that the other person towards whom we experience such feelings is all ‘good’.  The drawback of this side of the strategy is, of course, that we can misperceive the other’s complex reality, lower our defences to them, and expose ourselves to unforeseen threat.  Splitting can be reinforced in us at an early age if we are influenced by caregivers who use splitting or in parenting styles that are contradictory, ambiguous or conflicted.

Some people who have had their way of relating described by psychiatry or psychology as ‘personality disordered’ exhibit relational styles that are rooted in splitting tendencies e.g. Borderline and Narcissistic Personality Disorders.  It is also common in depression.  Splitting, however, is not confined to any one group or ‘type’ of person, and is fairly commonplace, varying only by degree.

Angel or Devil?

Another difficulty with this way of relating to the world and others is that we literally begin to relate to others as if they were objects, rather than other beings capable of a multiplicity of changing behaviours, values and characteristics that cannot be legitimately categorised as ‘all bad’ or ‘all good’ for all time.  By dismissing or rejecting the other on the basis of our own discomfort in relation to them we deny their capacity to be fully human, to correct mistakes, to make amends, and to change.  We also rob ourselves of the possibility of forming a mature, balanced account of other human beings that includes all of the various ‘shades of grey’ that we are capable of.  By elevating some people and rejecting or demonising others, we also create a fictional world marked by the drama of people being cast in the roles of angels or devils.  However, those who are initially experienced as seemingly all good, in reality will never fail to disappoint by simple virtue of being imperfect, human and flawed as all people are.  Those we label devils also never get the opportunity to change or make amends once categorised as such.  This is not to suggest that there aren’t broadly wicked and broadly good people in the world, merely that splitting is a way of polarising our views of all people.

Splitting as an Attempt at Self-protection

Idealising or rendering ‘special’ some people, whilst demonising or devaluing others can result in extremes of emotions and behaviours, volatility and drama in our lives.  It can take us along long, exhausting roads of seeking justice, becoming the basis of an energy trap that can keep our emotions in turmoil for years as we seek to prove beyond doubt how right we are and how wrong the other is.  When driven by splitting this is done in an effort recover our sense of self and value by gaining justice.  In therapy, the therapist who supplies us with good feelings may be elevated and lionised, whilst discomfort or challenges may be perceived as threats from a bad, incompetent or uncaring therapist, when the truth is that discomfort and challenge in a therapeutic relationship is a part of stepping outside our comfort zone into areas of personal growth. Splitting as a way of relating necessarily impacts upon the kinds of relationships we form with others, our own personal sense of stability and identity, as we sacrifice harmony and compromise for a sense of ‘winner’ versus ‘loser’.

Splitting as an old way of coping

Splitting is thus a very common but often ineffective way for us, as adults, to protect ourselves from suffering and from threats to our self esteem, sense of identity or self worth.  It can result in our shaping our world and our pathway through it in ‘all or nothing’ terms, creating a landscape that becomes barren of real human engagement as we raise the bar of our expectations of others too high.  Learning to tolerate the initial ambiguities and ambivalence that we can experience in relation to someone whose qualities we like sometimes and dislike at other times can allow us ways of connecting with others in a more realistic and authentic way.  It can also permit us to be more forgiving towards ourselves for our own flaws and failings as people, helping us step out of patterns of perfectionism, self-criticism, anger, ‘projection’ and the complications that follow on from dividing ourselves along absolute lines of right and wrong.

In simpler terms, if we are in the habit of using splitting as a means of operating in the world then we ultimately set ourselves up for greater suffering as we crave one set of ‘good’ experiences to support our sense of self, whilst becoming averse to all that we have labelled ‘bad’ experiences in an effort to protect ourselves.  This can severely limit the spectrum of our experiences in life as we avoid the one and crave the other.  This is not to suggest that good and bad, right and wrong, good and evil are false dichotomies: clearly we need such categories in order to make wise decisions and have moral codes.  It is simply to suggest that splitting is an extreme version of this division that often has destructive consequences for us in a world comprised of many subtleties and shades of grey.

In Therapy

Working with splitting is a task within the psychotherapy relationship, and my personal approach is to begin by discussing its presence openly with the same degree of care and advocacy of the patient’s best interests as in any other feature of the work we might do.  By forming a trusting, honest, frank relationship within which to explore old ways of being, any difficult emotions and responses can be looked at in safety.  Self-esteem can be built by recognising our inherent value, thus lessening the need for us to use splitting to protect a fragile sense of worth.  Responsibilities and ownership of experiences can be made clear, and a greater tolerance and understanding of seemingly opposing and complex feelings can be developed, allowing us to enjoy relationships with greater maturity, depth and personal security, whilst stabilising our own inner sense of self, self-worth and identity.

Ultimately, addressing splitting as a style of relating involves greater commitment to personal authenticity as we learn that discomfort within ourselves can have a variety of meanings, purposes and needs contained within it beyond the perceived ‘badness’ of the other person.  Indeed, it is our willingness to tolerate some discomfort within an honest therapeutic relationship that provides us with the best example of how ‘bad’ feelings don’t necessarily mean bad people or bad experiences, bad therapist or bad therapy.  Discomfort in the context of a caring, authentic relationship can signify the edge of a new way of being that can liberate you from old habits that no longer serve your best interests.

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Stock image used under Creative Commons licence. Source


5 Comments Add yours

  1. asiavettergreen says:

    Brilliant post! Splitting isn’t discussed enough in relation to BPD, and the discovery of it a while back helped me further understand my disorder from as far back as childhood. It prides me to see people writing and explaining splitting to their audience! I’m working on a BPD blog and this gives me such inspiration to keep going and keep explaining my experiences with BPD 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Stephen says:

      Many thanks for your kind comments. I’m grateful for your feedback, especially as a person who has experienced this. I’ve experienced it myself and, you’re right, it is very helpful to begin to identify these habits so that we can begin to release ourselves from the trap we can find ourselves in. Look forward to reading your blog.


  2. A clear and insight explanation of a complex coping mechanism. Many thanks.

    Liked by 1 person

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