What Is Splitting in Borderline Personality Disorder?

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borderline personality disorder splitting

Borderline personality disorder (BPD) is a type of personality disorder characterized by instability in relationships, impulsivity, and fear of abandonment.

People with BPD adopt unhealthy patterns and coping strategies to try to reduce the risk of being abandoned, and often use defense mechanisms to manage their fears and symptoms.

One common defense mechanism is called splitting, which is the tendency to view the world in absolutes, such as “good” or “bad,” especially in regards to other people. Splitting causes people to change their view of another person, situation, belief, or themselves based on small mistakes or when things do not go as expected.

Symptoms

Personality disorders, including BPD, are characterized by a range of symptoms which vary in intensity at different times throughout a person’s life:

  • Efforts to avoid abandonment (real or imagined)
  • Unstable and chaotic relationships
  • Unstable self-image
  • Impulsivity in areas such as spending, sex, substance use, eating
  • Recurrent suicidal ideation or self-harm behavior
  • Inability to regulate mood
  • Feelings of emptiness
  • Intense anger

Splitting to Protect

As with many mental health disorders, it is generally unknown why a person develops borderline personality disorder. There is evidence indicating a high correlation between early childhood trauma and the development of BPD later in life. Some evidence suggests that BPD is associated with abuse and neglect in childhood more than any other personality disorder. The presence of early childhood trauma also informs the theory behind the development of the defense mechanism of splitting. 

The theory of how splitting develops begins in childhood. When a baby is born, they have basic needs that they rely on their caregiver to meet. When the caregiver meets their needs, the caregiver is good. When the caregiver does not meet their needs, the caregiver is bad.

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As a child grows, they learn nuance. A caregiver can have both bad and good inside them, and does not have to be all good or all bad at any given moment.

When a child experiences trauma or has an uncertain/insecure attachment with the caregiver, they do not know what to expect and cannot rely on the caregiver to meet their needs.

The child does not develop the understanding that the caregiver is both good and bad. The caregiver stays all good or all bad, depending on the situation. 

As a child develops into an adult, they continue to view people in absolute terms – as good or bad. When a person makes a mistake or does something they don’t like, they are bad. When they are happy with the person, they are the best! This is jarring and unsafe for the person as they struggle to trust and maintain security in relationships because the loved one can never be always good. It is challenging for the loved ones, too, as the shift from good to bad can happen rapidly and intensely based on small disagreements. 

Treatment for Splitting

If you or a loved one experience splitting, consult with a mental health professional to manage your symptoms and address the root trauma. Here are some strategies that can help during the moment.

  • Stabilize in the Present– Engage in grounding techniques to calm the nervous system and remind yourself that you are safe in the current moment. This means paying attention to any surface that your body touches – whether it be your chair, floor, bed. Notice the connection, the pressure, and then sensations. Notice the room and the safety of the space. Notice the sounds, smells, colors, textures.
  • Develop a Plan with Loved Ones– It is a good idea to have conversations about splitting when tension levels are low or when splitting is not actively causing issues. Discussing patterns and tendencies can help in developing a plan to support the person when they feel abandoned. The plan should include reassurance of love, support, and safety. The plan should also include support for the close loved one.
  • Get SupportSeek out a therapist who is trained in trauma therapy and personality disorders. Therapists with training in Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR), Somatic Therapy, or Dialectical Behavioral Therapy (DBT) will be able to help process past trauma and develop strategies to manage the splitting defense mechanism. It is important to note that splitting tendencies may occur within the therapeutic relationship, giving an opportunity to process the defenses differently.

Living with BPD presents many challenges both for the person with the disorder and their loved ones. The presence of the splitting defense exacerbates these challenges and can be difficult to manage. Splitting tendencies can be reduced with the awareness of the patterns, the right support, and therapy. 

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Katie is a licensed professional clinical counselor (LPCC). She has a passion for healing trauma using body-based somatic therapy. Katie believes that healing trauma and restoring physical and emotional health comes from healing the body and nervous system.
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