Defense Mechanisms I: Splitting

Although this post will look at splitting as one of the defense mechanisms, I’d like to begin by noting that splitting also represents a normal and constructive part of our mental processes.  We couldn’t think or process our experience without it.  To understand the useful functions that splitting serves, we need to go through the same kind of imaginative exercise I presented in my recent post on post-traumatic stress disorder — that is, to try to envision the emotional life of an infant.

For centuries, philosophers and scientists have debated whether human beings enter the world with some kind of a priori knowledge, but for this exercise, let’s just imagine a clean slate.  Nearly everything the newborn experiences is thus brand new and unfamiliar; a central need is to make sense of it all, to attempt to understand the environment and its powerful effects.  From the beginning, maybe even in utero, the infant divides its experiences into those that feel “good” or gratifying vs. those that cause pain and/or frustration and feel “bad”.  Good vs. bad (though not in a moral sense) is therefore the first organizing principle.  It depends upon the infant splitting the confusing mass of its experience into good and bad, dividing it up so that it becomes more understandable and predictable.

The accumulation of “good” experiences, linked to repeated sensory gratification, eventually gives rise to the idea of “mother”; the bad ones (a bit later) give rise to the idea of her absence or failure to appear.  An important developmental milestone occurs when the infant can understand (on a very primitive level) that the “good” experiences largely occur when this mother-entity appears and tends to it, and the bad ones (hunger, cold, etc.) tend to occur when she is absent.  At this point, the infant becomes aware that other people exist, and if you’re a parent, you know that there’s a noticeable difference when this occurs.  (I’m not going to talk about the good mother/bad mother issue just now; I’ll save that topic for another post.)

Splitting as a mental process thus enables us to makes distinctions.  Throughout life, splitting serves this exact function:  it allows us to take an undifferentiated, confusing mass of experience or information and divide it into categories that have meaning.  Without splitting, nothing would make sense to us.  We wouldn’t be able to understand because we couldn’t divide the mass of sensory input into meaningful categories.  Projection likewise has valuable and normal functions, as do other so-called defense mechanisms.

Splitting can also serve the exact opposite function:  that is, it can remove meaning by separating parts of a whole that actually belong together.  This is where it becomes a defense mechanism and is used to ward off unbearable feelings and emotions.  Although they’re not actually separate experiences, as I’ll discuss below, it’s useful to think about splitting either (1) the self or (2) the other person.

So far, this has been fairly abstract and I think it’s time for an example. Let’s say that I have a hard time bearing my anger and aggressive feelings; maybe they were unacceptable in my family of origin and I was expected to be “nice”.  In truth, I’m a nice and also a not-so-nice person, with a mixture of loving and hating impulses; when the anger and hatred can’t be tolerated, however, I will split them off:  The loving and socially acceptable feelings — those are ME — and the hostile aggressive ones are NOT ME.  Thus I have split myself (more accurately, my awareness of myself) into parts and disowned one of them, which almost always goes hand-in-hand with projecting it outside.  (For a more in-depth discussion of the disowned “shadow” self, see Marla Estes’ post on the film ‘Wolf’ starring Jack Nicholson, or mine on ‘Black Swan‘, both available on ‘Movies and Mental Health’.)

When we split off a part of our experience and project it outside, the disowned aspect of ourselves often leads to a distorted perception of reality, in particular the misperception of other people.  Nearly everyone understands this phenomenon:  it’s what we mean when we say, “Oh, stop it, you’re just projecting.”  Splitting also enfeebles the self.  As Marla Estes and I both point out in the above posts, aggression is a powerful and often useful force; ridding ourselves of it (our awareness of it) makes us weaker even if by doing so, we avoid some of the conflicts that come up when we feel aggressive.

We may also split the other person, which sounds strange; what actually occurs is that we split our perceptions of that other person.  Again, it’s our own self that we split.  It’s easiest to see this process at work in idealization, especially when it occurs in romantic love.  We’ve all known someone who has fallen in love and we wonder, “What does she see in him?”  Or, “Is he blind?”  The person in love, often craving the drug-like feelings associated with infatuation, may want to avoid any inconvenient personality traits in the loved one that might deflate the feelings of love.  So the awareness of faults and flaws is split off; it often  winds up in (is projected into) friends or family members, who then have to carry all the doubts.  The infatuated person may then avoid or even turn against those people so he or she won’t have to confront the split-off perceptions.

Excessive or overly rigid splitting may lead to black-and-white thinking.  When splitting and projection are extreme and predominate, it makes people’s personalities, along with their perceptions of other individuals, highly unstable.  One minute, they may love and revere you, the next, turn on you with vicious anger.   Grandiose feelings of self-importance may suddenly give way to self-loathing.  These are the hallmarks of individuals who suffer from borderline personality disorder.  The attempt to split off and discard the damaged self lies at the heart of the bipolar disorders and also concerns highly competitive people who are preoccupied with winners and losers.  To some degree, splitting (and its companion defense, projection) plays a role in most psychological disorders.

Finding Your Own Way:

Can you think of ways in which you resort to defensive splitting?  As I discussed in my piece about how to tell if you’re projecting, it’s extremely difficult to identify our defenses at work.  On the other hand, because of our innate tendency toward integration, the splitting-and-projection always threatens to come undone; keeping the split in place therefore involves some extra mental effort and that’s where where you can spot splitting at work.  Justifying certain opinions or actions to yourself, arguing with other people in your thoughts, or dwelling on a particular point when there’s no obvious reason to do so — these are all examples of ways we exert effort to preserve a split.

A dear friend of mine who “came out” in his mid-20s used to tell himself over and over again during his teen years, “Boy, am I glad I’m not gay.  That’s the last thing that’ll ever happen to me!”  He obviously understood on some level that he was homosexual but split off that awareness and kept it “outside” of himself with such repetitive thoughts.

Here’s a way I notice it in myself:  I’ll be carrying on an internal argument with someone who (in my distorted fantasy) believes I made a mistake or misbehaved.  That other person holds my own split-off perception of error so that I don’t have to experience my guilt or shame.  Maybe you do something similar.  Or maybe you tend to become critical, overly so, around certain issues.  Take a look at those issues and see if they resonate with something inside you’d rather not recognize.

People who have disowned their anger and aggression often make a display of their nice-ness.  Such people can sometimes be irritating to be around; they actually make me feel hostile, which is how I know they’ve split off their own hostility and placed it outside.  Does that describe anyone you know?

Joe is the author and the owner of AfterPsychotherapy.com, one of the leading online mental health resources on the internet. Be sure to connect with him on Google+ and Linkedin.

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18 Responses to Defense Mechanisms I: Splitting

  1. Stephanie says:

    Excellent posting!

  2. Scott says:

    Very enlightening post, sir. I think I irritate people with my niceness sometimes, and I usually “disown my anger” as you say. I think excessive niceness can be an act of underlying aggression in itself, as you’ve experienced hostility around people like me. I really want to show compassion for others, especially friends, and it can be to the extent of overkill. Off the subject – I am just curious, what do you think of Byron Katie’s work? My therapist highly recommended her website and books to me. Thank you.

    • Joseph Burgo, Ph.D. says:

      Hi Scott, I hadn’t heard of Byron Katie so I gave her website a quick look. Hers is a very different approach from mine, with the goal being to achieve certain kinds of feeling states such as love. I believe that the goal is to feel everything deeply, all your emotions, without being overwhelmed by them. That would include anger, envy, jealousy, hatred, etc.

  3. RecoveringBorderline says:

    Another insightful and articulate post to chew on – looking forward to Defense Mechanisms II….

    “I believe the goal is to feel everything deeply, all your emotions, without being overwhelmed by them.” Hear, hear!

    • Matty says:

      Now I feel stupid. That’s cleared it up for me.

    • LAURA says:

      I think Byron Katie is about not being so judgmental or other people, as well as learning how to question whether we are in some ways the same as the other person, so this allows us to see the world from the other person’s perspective and an objective perspective so we can eventually own our own stuff (or, stop splitting ourselves and other people)

  4. Madeleine says:

    Thank you for your informative and excellent article.

  5. Jones says:

    Sorry but splitting doesn’t mean necessary that I am not at easy with my own aggression and I project it out of my person. Many times it is the others aggression as well. I mean this splitting is sometimes as objective as feeling unsafe in the middle of a jungle. It’s safe to feel unsafe because you now you need to survive.

  6. Firecat says:

    Thanks for a really really informative post that was clearly explained spitting defenses. In borderline Pd, That I am recovering from, this splitting of the self can become very extreme at times unders stress. So that extreme that disowned parts of the self express themselves as voices inside the head that run uncontrolled, critisizing, arguing, revealing hidden shameful infomation about yourself, all feel alien and (now I understand that word), “not me”. One of the worst things mental health proffessionals do is classify this as belonging to a schizophrenic like psychosis ( as opposed to a form of dissociation) and tell their patients , they are not real, they dont have any meaning, not to lisen to them and to tell them these voices to shut up and go away. This in fact will worsen people with this kind of spitting as it encourages even further spitting of the self and escalates inner conflict and fighting even more. Thank you.

  7. Peter says:

    Thanks for a very informative article. I know that I have BPD after reading a book called Psychotherapy for the Borderline Adult by Dr James Masterton. It was a revelation for me to realise that I had a severe and complex mental health problem as I was diagnosed and treated for depression and anxiety. Should I tell my psychiatrist about my self diagnosis? THANK YOU.

    • Joseph Burgo, Ph.D. says:

      You probably know how I feel about diagnosis, so ‘no’, I don’t think you should tell your psychiatrist about your self-diagnosis. But I think you could start a discussion with him about whether your current diagnosis understates the complexity of your issues, especially if you’re being medicated for it.

  8. jonathan reddish says:

    Thank you for this very clear layout. It seems to me that splitting is the foundation of what we call consciousness, it is such a simple function, but i think its the main purpose of our cortex. My splitting and projection seems a little out of control right now, but I think you have given me a tool for examination! cheers

    • Joseph Burgo, Ph.D. says:

      It’s interesting what you say, and I agree. I think we start out almost completely unconscious, and it is through a type of splitting that consciousness develops.

  9. Melissa says:

    I can clearly see how I perform splitting behavior around certain individuals. For example, my mother-in-law and sister-in-law. They have an almost incestuous relationship (too close) and intentionally. alienate me (eventually they projected this on my husband as well and began treating him poorly). My MIL and SIL (due to their enmeshed relationship and SIL’s sibling jealousy) both exhibit PA behavior constantly in hurtful ways. It is/was crazy-making for me/us. So, I tried talking to them individually, talking with MIL&FIL and even talking to SIL. My husband has tried as well -jointly and individually. But they continued to posture by ignoring, silently bullying, being catty and sullen etc. So to the point, I believe what I did (splitting) was a healthy defense mechanism or coping strategy for facing them each holiday/occasion in order to “keep the peace”. I tried to address the behavior in nonthreatening and neutral ways. They refused to acknowledge their behavior and continued to claim I/we “imagined” it. Eventually, this drove them nuts and they got progressively (more aggressive) worse and built a family fort of PA supporters (a maternal aunt and granddaughter) . Finally, we stopped pursuing the relationship, enacted a “no contact” rule and said it would remain in effect until they sought counseling with us and a neutral mediator. Regardless, they refused. So, my question is this…isn’t this a type of splitting? Is it a healthy type of splitting since they refused to recognize the problems, accept responsibility for their actions, communicate effectively and work toward equitable solutions? After much reflection I believe my MIL is more narcissistic that just the run-of-the-mill PA. Is this me trying to justify my splitting? I don’t think so. However, I don’t know and probably never will as they refuse to attempt to communicate or reconcile. They even refuse to speak to me or my children in public. I would like to know your thoughts. Just trying to seek some clarity here. Thank you.

    • Joseph Burgo says:

      That doesn’t sound like splitting. It sounds like a healthy “divide and conquer” strategy but it’s not a defense mechanism, which is about keeping certain feelings out of awareness (unconscious)

  10. Eva says:

    When I was a very young child, I was terrified of my mother, who was always angry, and often and unpredictably attacked, usually verbally, but also using physical force some times. There was no other adult with which to take shelter or to hope would protect me. I can remember doing something that a later therapist called splitting, which was that my consciousness went somewhere else, when I was endangered. Not out of body so that I watched myself. Just “away” to get away from what was being done to me. Is that splitting? I’m in my sixties. These memories were pretty submerged, until someone very unhealthy started attacking me in multiple phone calls to my desk while I was at work. I felt myself going “away”, and remembered doing it when I was very little. I have always wondered what in more detail I was doing as a little girl. I’ve had a couple rounds of therapy over time. Twice, different therapists voluntarily said that my mother’s behavior was that of a borderline & narcissist, if that helps give context.

    Thanks for your straight talk online.

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