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?