Personality disorders are mental health conditions that impact an individual’s thoughts, feelings and behaviours. One core feature of many personality disorders is a pattern of instability in personal relationships and self-image, which in some cases manifests as a phenomenon known as splitting.
Splitting is a coping mechanism that revolves around an individual’s tendency to view people or situations in extreme and polarized terms of all-good or all-bad. Essentially, an individual splits their view of an individual or situation into only extreme and polarized categories, rather than taking into account the nuances and complexity of a situation.
This pattern of splitting can cause significant impairment in social and personal relationships, as well as lead to confusion and distress within the individual themselves. The majority of research around splitting has focused primarily on Borderline Personality Disorder. However, splitting behaviours also manifest in other personality disorders, such as Narcissistic Personality Disorder, Histrionic Personality Disorder.
What is Splitting?
Splitting is a defence mechanism in which an individual sees people or situations in polarizing and extreme terms. Splitting can occur in anyone, but it is most commonly associated with personality disorders such as Borderline Personality Disorder, Narcissistic Personality Disorder, and Histrionic Personality Disorder.
Persons who struggle with splitting experience intense and unstable emotions that can quickly shift from admiration and love to devaluation and hatred. In essence, this pattern of splitting can create an ongoing push-forward/move-back dynamic. It’s not uncommon for individuals dealing with this symptom to alternate between idealizing and devaluing interpersonal relationships, particularly with authority figures, and romantic partners.
Individuals with Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD) have intense and unstable emotions that can rapidly shift from feelings of admiration and love to feelings of rage and hatred. For example, a person with BPD might have a wonderful relationship with their therapist, but if one day the therapist cancels an appointment at the last moment, they will suddenly become the worst therapist ever.
Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD) is another personality disorder in which splitting behaviour can be observed. In fact it is this splitting tendency that leads the narcissist to swing between idealisation and devaluation during the narcissistic abuse cycle. Thus if a narcissist’s partner is providing the narcissistic supply that the narcissist so desperately craves, they will put them on a pedestal. However if one day the partner is too tired or has a headache and does not readily provide the required supply, in the narcissist’s eyes they suddenly become useless.
A similar phenomenon occurs with people with Histrionic Personality Disorder (HPD). People with HPD often display inappropriate and exaggerated emotions, seeking to draw attention to themselves. They perceive people in black-and-white terms and alternate between idealizing and devaluing others, in the same way that narcissists do.
The Signs and Symptoms of Splitting
Splitting is a common phenomenon associated with people with certain personality disorders, and it is characterized by thought patterns and perceptions that are overly black-and-white or polarized. That said, splitting behaviours are not exclusive to personality disorders and can occur in other psychiatric conditions.
The symptoms and signs of splitting behaviours can vary from person to person, but some of the most common ones include the following:
Extreme shifts in feelings and perceptions of others. This can manifest as idolizing someone one minute and then hating them the next minute.
Struggle to see things in shades of grey. Not being able to see the nuances and complexities of a situation, and tending to think in extremes.
Inability to maintain stable relationships. Splitting behaviours make it very hard to develop and maintain healthy relationships.
Unstable self-image. Individuals who exhibit splitting behaviour have unstable emotions and struggle to form a stable view of themselves, which can lead to feelings of worthlessness and insecurity.
Intense emotional reactions. People who exhibit splitting behaviour are be prone to intense emotional reactions that may not correspond to the situation’s severity.
Impaired judgment and decision-making ability. A marked difficulty making balanced, rational decisions in difficult situations.
Difficulty recognizing the positive and negative aspects of a person or situation. People who display splitting behaviour tend to view things in terms of all-good or all-bad, which means they struggle to recognize the positive aspects of a negative situation or the negative aspects of a positive situation.
Chronic feelings of emptiness. Individuals who exhibit splitting behaviour often report feelings of emptiness and internal disintegration.
Treatment Options for Splitting
Many people with personality disorders that exhibit splitting struggle with a pattern of extreme and polarized perceptions. However, treatment options are available to help individuals manage this symptom and work towards a more balanced and integrated view of themselves and others.
The following are the various treatment options available for people with splitting tendencies:
Psychotherapy, specifically cognitive-behavioural therapy (CBT) and dialectical behavior therapy (DBT), can help people with splitting. CBT focuses on identifying and changing unhelpful thought patterns, while DBT combines multiple therapeutic techniques to assist clients in accepting reality and managing their emotional responses.
Medication can help manage the emotional dysregulation associated with personality disorders, especially those that manifest in splitting behaviours. Doctors commonly use antidepressants, antipsychotics, and mood stabilizers. Several medications are available for treating specific conditions and symptoms.
Group therapy programs help provide a support system and help individuals practice relating to others in a healthy way. These sessions provide a space for individuals to share their experiences and learn from others with similar issues, while developing better communication and relationship-building skills.
Family therapy can offer support to families dealing with personality disorders as it provides a framework for navigating dynamic relationships and communication, creating a safe environment for the individual and the family as they all work together to improve the situation.
Mindfulness and meditation practices
Meditation and mindfulness practices aim to help individuals stay focused on the present moment. This helps to bring awareness to emotional responses and reduce behavioural reactivity. It also trains attention and reduces stress levels.
Yoga’s breath-work, body awareness, and release of stress can reduce anxiety, improve sleep, enhance physical well-being and improve emotional regulation.
Self-care is the practice of prioritizing an individual’s physical, psychological, and spiritual well-being. Options include physical exercise, adequate sleep, eating well, and other activities that promote relaxation and self-comfort.
Final Thoughts on Personality Disorders and Splitting
In conclusion, splitting is a phenomenon that occurs mainly in personality disorders, such as Borderline Personality Disorder, Narcissistic Personality Disorder or Histrionic Personality Disorder, and creates extreme polarization in perceptions of individuals and relationships.
While splitting can be difficult to treat, there are treatment options available that can help individuals with personality disorders to understand their condition better and develop coping strategies to manage their symptoms. Treatment options primarily involve psychotherapy, medication, self-care practices, mindfulness techniques, and group/family therapy.
It is important to recognize that people with personality disorders need empathy, understanding, and professional guidance. Family/friends should support individuals throughout the treatment, offering encouragement, and providing a safe and supportive environment where they can work on regular management of their symptoms.
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