Splitting: The Basics
A lot of confusion is generated by the incorrect use of the term ‘splitting.’ It can be difficult to recognise and even more difficult to work with. So, what is it, how do you recognise it, and are there ways to work with it?
What is Splitting?
Splitting is an unconscious mechanism deployed to defend the ego because a person is unable to reconcile both the ‘good’ and the ‘bad’ aspects of themselves or others. This can mean that they are unable to reconcile the ‘good’ and bad’ as being part of a single person. As a result, they ‘split’ a whole person into two different entities that represent a ‘good’ and a ‘bad’ entity, and are only able to perceive one at a time. In many cases, the same rule is applied to the self.
Splitting can also result in an excessively ‘black and white’ view of others – those who differ from them become ‘bad’ people.
How can you recognise Splitting?
Since splitting is a subconscious defence mechanism, it is up to the counsellor to identify the phenomenon. Symptoms of splitting include:
Idealising a single individual at one time and demonising them unrealistically at other times.
A tendency to think in absolutes, seeing themself or other people as either all good or all bad.
A tendency to reinforce self-worth by condemning those who have different value or belief systems.
A tendency towards instability and impulsiveness in inter-personal relationships.
A varying perspective of others that changes from positive to negative and back again.
Mood swings and sudden changes in self-image are brought about by changeable perspectives.
Splitting is particularly common in those with Borderline Personality Disorders or Narcissistic Personality Disorders.
Splitting is also more frequently seen in adolescents, but is usually a passing phase.
Splitting is sometimes a defence mechanism employed by those who have experienced trauma, particularly during childhood.
How can you work with Splitting?
Dialectical Behaviour Therapy (DBT) has been found to be an effective means of dealing with splitting. The therapist becomes an ally who accepts the clients feelings, but who is able to objectively point out more positive ways of dealing with the same situation. The aim is to bring about mindfulness, which allows the client to impartially weigh a situation and his or her reaction to it.
Distress tolerance is an essential element of DBT. If the client is distressed, they will be unable to weigh situations with perspective and are more likely to react in a negative or destructive manner. Once a person is able to think calmly in distressing circumstances, they are better able to be mindful and weigh both the situation and various means of reaction.
As clients begin to master mindfulness and distress tolerance, they become better able to view situations as a realistic combination of what they perceive as good or bad, allowing them to make more rational judgements as to how to deal with situations. This limits self-destructive behaviours and improves quality of life.
BURTON, N. (2012) The Psycology of Self-deception. United Kingdom, Acheron Press
FREUD, S (BOKANOWSKI, T) (2009) On Freud’s splitting of the ego in self defence’. London: Karnac Books
SIMON, G. (2008) Understanding ‘Spiltting’ as a Psychological Term. [Online] October 28, 2008. Available from: counselling resource.com. http://counsellingresource.com/features/2008/10/28/splitting-as-psychological-term/ [accessed 13th October 2014].