Updated: Apr 24
When All or Nothing Thinking Takes Over
This post respond to the questions: What is 'splitting'? Is it a kind of trauma or mental illness like PTSD? If so, what are its symptoms and signs?
Splitting is one of those terms that has a history, meaning that its definition has changed. Some people talk about it referring to an old version of the term, while others are using it with more information from neuroscience.
The term “splitting” was first introduced by Sigmund Freud (psychoanalysis), who defined it as a way that the ego copes with the conflict between the id (primitive impulses) and the superego (moral standards). He said it was a defense mechanism. After him, Melanie Klein (Object Relations) developed and expanded upon Freud's ideas and described it as the creation of internalized "good" and "bad" objects, which could then influence an individual's relationships and sense of self.
The main idea of splitting is to describe how a person feels when they can't hold together polarized emotions. When a person splits, they may perceive themselves, others, and the world in black-and-white terms, with no shades of gray or nuance. They may see people and situations as either all-good or all-bad because they have no mental space to experience both at the same time. This splitting pushes the brain to a different way of operating, which causes struggles with emotional regulation, leading to intense and rapid mood swings, impulsivity, and difficulty with relationships. The disconnection between one emotion from the other pushes these individuals to idealize or devalue others, depending on whether they perceive them as "good" or "bad" at any given time. In more extreme cases, splitting is described as leading to an unstable or incomplete sense of self, identity disturbance, and a chronic feeling of emptiness.
What has been observed lately is that splitting is a characteristic present in certain mental health conditions and that it can be at the root of the development of personality disorders such as borderline personality disorder and narcissistic personality disorder.
But is splitting in itself a mental illness like PTSD, or if it’s a manifestation of traumatization?
Splitting is not an illness in itself. It’s just an adaptation or a consequence of brain circuitry when a child is conflicted between loving and hating/fearing the caregiver. To deal with such conflict in a time when their life depends on not rejecting or disposing of the parent, the brain adapts by disconnecting the circuit that has positive feelings towards the parent from the circuits that have negative feelings. That way they can be “close” to the parent that feeds, cares for, and attends to their needs while remaining cautious.
Why would a brain do that? Most probably because the parent of the child was unpredictable, or because they were sometimes loving and sometimes scary, neglectful, aggressive, or rejecting the infant. If the infant’s brain rejects that “bad” parent, they could die or be abandoned. But if they keep the “bad” parent separated from the “good” parent, they can get what they need from the good parent, and their chances to survive increase.
There is a positive adaptive way to split, and many of us may do it from time to time. It becomes a pathology when those two circuits never connect or live in an eternal conflict, and when the person is not aware of those 2 “parts” and shift from one extreme to the other. That's why some people identify this characteristics as "flip-flopping."
Some researchers think that splitting could be the explanation for the development of multiple personalities. Splitting can become dysfunctional when it interferes with your ability to form and maintain healthy relationships and experience a sense of inner stability. Some examples of when splitting may be dysfunctional include:
Inability to tolerate ambiguity: Splitting can lead to a rigid and inflexible worldview, in which people and situations are seen as either "all good" or "all bad." This can make it difficult for individuals to tolerate uncertainty, respond negatively to the assumption of rejection, or develop the need to control everything to reduce ambiguity.
Difficulty with emotional regulation: Individuals who split often experience rapid and intense mood swings, which can make it difficult for them to regulate their emotions effectively. This can lead to impulsive behavior, difficulty with interpersonal relationships, and other negative outcomes.
Unstable sense of self: Splitting can contribute to confusion about who the person is, and a lack of coherence and mental organization, as individuals struggle to integrate conflicting aspects of their personality and experience into a cohesive sense of self. This can lead to chronic feelings of anxiety, depression, and identity disturbance.
Interpersonal conflicts: Splitting can make it difficult for individuals to form and maintain healthy relationships, as they may idealize or devalue others based on their perception of their "good" or "bad" qualities. Additionally, depending on the part of themselves that is present, they may react unpredictably, making them unreliable.
Here are some examples of how splitting manifests in daily life and hinders the formation of relationships because of the presence of internal conflicts.
In a romantic relationship, a person might idealize their partner as being perfect and wonderful one day, only to view them as a terrible person and feel intense hatred towards them the next day, based on minor or imagined flaws.
In a work setting, an employee might perceive their boss as either being entirely competent and supportive or completely incompetent and hostile, without considering the nuances or complexities of the relationship.
A person might view certain groups of people as either all good or all bad based on superficial characteristics like race, religion, or nationality, without considering individual differences.
A person might hold extreme political views and view those who disagree with them as being completely wrong and bad, without considering the possibility of differing opinions or nuances in the debate.
Even in cases where a child's brain had no choice but to split to adapt and survive, that does not mean they will be dysfunctional as adults. If they become aware of the splitting, they can start integrating both sides of the conflict and feel more integrated. That's why counseling and therapy are so useful. It is hard to develop that level of awareness and integration without professional help.