Splitting is a psychological defense mechanism where a person views people, events or even themselves in an all-or-nothing manner. It involves categorizing things as either all good or all bad, with no middle ground. Splitting is common in people with borderline personality disorder, but can occur in other mental health conditions as well. There has been much debate around whether splitting arises specifically due to trauma, or whether there are other factors at play. Below we will explore this question in more detail.
What is splitting?
Splitting, also known as black-and-white thinking or all-or-nothing thinking, involves a failure to integrate the positive and negative qualities of the self, others, or situations. A person who engages in splitting tends to switch abruptly between idealizing and demonizing people and experiences.
For example, a person using splitting might view their romantic partner as the perfect partner one day, only to perceive them as a completely uncaring and evil person the next when faced with disappointment or abandonment. Or they may flip back and forth between seeing a friend as caring and supportive versus entirely selfish and hurtful.
Splitting allows people to tolerate difficult emotions by separating out the good and bad, keeping the good idealized object protected from the bad one. However, it comes at the expense of a nuanced, integrated view. Splitting also leads to rocky interpersonal relationships, with the person flipping their perceptions and reactions towards others.
Is splitting a sign of borderline personality disorder?
Splitting is most closely associated with borderline personality disorder (BPD). In fact, it is considered one of the hallmark characteristics of BPD.
People with BPD have difficulty regulating their emotions and often feel emotions intensely. Their sense of self is unstable, and they struggle with impulsivity and unstable personal relationships. Splitting is believed to be a primitive psychological defense they rely on to help navigate intense and fluctuating emotions, a sense of internal emptiness, and fears of abandonment.
However, splitting does not only occur in BPD. It can also happen in other mental health conditions like bipolar disorder, narcissistic personality disorder, and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Children may also engage in splitting as a normal developmental phase.
So while splitting has a strong association with borderline personality disorder, it is not specific to BPD.
The link between trauma and splitting
There is evidence that early childhood trauma can play a role in the development of splitting behaviors later in life. Childhood trauma interferes with the ability to develop normal emotional regulation and coping skills. It can also lead to an unstable sense of self and fears of abandonment.
Trauma survivors often use splitting as a way manage emotional overload and avoid re-experiencing difficult memories and emotions. By compartmentalizing experiences, splitting allows them to detach from trauma and continue functioning.
Studies show high rates of childhood trauma in people with borderline personality disorder who use splitting. Up to 90% of people with BPD report a history of childhood trauma.
So childhood trauma clearly seems connected to splitting behaviors in adulthood. However, not everyone with childhood trauma goes on to develop BPD or maladaptive splitting behaviors. Some relevant factors may include:
– Severity, duration, and type of trauma (eg. sexual abuse, neglect)
– Age trauma occurred
– Presence of supportive relationships as a buffer
– Innate resilience factors like temperament
So while trauma may set the stage for splitting by interfering with emotional development, other factors interact to determine whether it leads to clinical levels of splitting.
The role of invalidating environments
In addition to childhood trauma, some experts believe growing up in an invalidating environment can contribute to the development of splitting tendencies.
An invalidating environment is one where a child’s thoughts and emotions are frequently rejected, criticized, or punished by caregivers. The child does not learn to understand, label, regulate or express their emotions in a healthy way.
This fosters insecurity and self-doubt, difficulty managing emotions, and relying on black-and-white thinking. Constant invalidation from important attachment figures may cause a child to split off “bad” emotions to maintain a connection to “good” emotions and experiences.
Is splitting adaptive or maladaptive?
Mild forms of splitting are considered normal in childhood development. Children tend to think in more black-and-white terms before they can integrate multiple perspectives. However, as they grow, they ideally develop the ability to see shades of grey.
Splitting becomes maladaptive when it persists into adulthood or reaches extremes. When used inflexibly as the predominant way of viewing oneself, others and the world, it leads to unstable life patterns.
However, some clinicians argue that splitting has adaptive functions as well. It allows people to manage emotional overload, detach from past trauma, and preserve a sense of good objects and relationships from contamination by bad experiences. Splits aren’t always severe or permanent.
So while splitting is associated with borderline pathology, it likely serves protective functions at times as well. The key is whether it is used flexibly versus inflexibly and maladaptively.
Other possible causes
In addition to childhood trauma and invalidating environments, other potential factors may contribute to splitting:
Brain imaging studies show people with BPD have differences in areas of the brain related to emotion regulation, impulse control, and self-perception. Certain brain variations may predispose an individual to splitting when faced with stress or trauma.
Twin studies reveal a genetic component to BPD, suggesting some people may have an innate vulnerability to unstable or extreme emotional reactions, impulsive behavior, and unstable identity/relationships.
Cultural and social factors
Living in an invalidating culture or subculture that does not validate emotions or complex identities may foster splitting tendencies. Ongoing experiences of racism, sexism, homophobia, and other forms of discrimination can also contribute to splitting off “bad” identities versus “good” identities.
Is splitting always pathological?
Most psychologists view splitting as unhealthy when used as an inflexible, long-term coping strategy. However, some clinicians argue splitting serves protective functions and may represent an adaptive response to extraordinary stress in some people’s lives.
Rather than immediately try to integrate splits, they suggest first addressing any trauma or invalidation that caused them. Creating safety and secure attachment relationships allows integration to occur naturally over time.
So while splitting is considered dysfunctional, the path to healing may be addressing root causes first rather than forcing integration.
Treatment approaches for splitting
Psychotherapy is the main treatment for maladaptive splitting. Treatments such as dialectical behavior therapy (DBT) and mentalization-based therapy aim to improve emotional regulation skills.
Key goals include:
– Developing distress tolerance and coping skills
– Mindfulness and emotion regulation techniques
– Learning to understand mixed internal states
– Improving self-identity coherence
– Exploring often avoided emotions while feeling safely held by the therapeutic relationship
Medications like antidepressants or mood stabilizers are sometimes used as adjuncts. However, psychotherapy to build coping skills, self-awareness and emotional stability remains the most effective treatment approach. Consistent validation from the therapist can eventual foster integration of extreme splits.
In summary, childhood trauma appears to play an important role in the development of maladaptive splitting behaviors later in life. However, invalidation, neurobiological differences, genetics, and other factors may also contribute.
While splitting is perceived as dysfunctional, it may represent an adaptive response to manage emotional distress in some individuals. Addressing underlying trauma and building emotional regulation skills are first steps in healing rather than forcing premature integration. With compassion, emotional growth, and support, those who rely on splitting as a coping mechanism can develop more nuanced perspectives.