What is Splitting Psychology?

What is Splitting Psychology?
Written By: Counselling Psychologist
Reviewed By: Counselling Psychologist
MA Psychology Pennsylvania State University, USA
Last Updated: 29-10-2023

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Splitting in Psychology refers to a defence mechanism wherein a person tends to possess an “all or nothing” mindset towards situations. This is a kind of defence mechanism where people see situations and circumstances in black or white terms and are unable to see the middle ground in these situations. It is a type of negative thinking pattern that is associated mostly with Borderline Personality Disorder or Depression but it can also appear among individuals without these disorders. In such cases it is important to recognise the severity of the thinking so that adequate help can be sought for. 

Splitting is a thinking pattern where a person splits every situation into binary opposites of “good” and “bad”. They don’t leave any room for a middle ground to exist and see everything as either completely good or completely bad. This is a harmful thinking pattern because such splitting in thoughts can cause extreme mood swings or can make a person feel emotionally dysregulated. 

Imagine that you are an artist and you get only two colours to paint a beautiful landscape - black and white. What would the painting look like? It would be dull and boring and the two colours will not be able to do justice to the painting. This is how splitting works in the brain as well. It taints the true reality of the situation and can paint an inaccurate picture of relationships without understanding the details in between. 

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Examples of Splitting Behaviour

There are different ways in which splitting as a defence mechanism can affect behaviour. These are some instances that highlight when someone is using splitting as a negative thought pattern, 

In Relationships-Idealisation and Devaluation  

Imagine that you develop a crush on someone and enjoy spending time with them. You find them to be “picture perfect” and don’t see them with any flaw. You believe that they will be a perfect partner and will never make a mistake. During the course of your relationship let’s say they make a small mistake that hurts you and you are immediately sent into the thought that they are the “worst” person. Thinking in such extremes can be harmful to any kind of relationship because relationships don’t exist in such extremes. There is a large part that is grey in relationships which is the middle ground that everyone must strive to reach. This is an example of splitting where there is a rise in idealisation to another person and a rapid devaluation when they show their human side and commit a flaw. 

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With Oneself - Self-esteem Swings

A person can be said to be engaging in splitting behaviour and thought with oneself when they experience extreme and rapid fluctuations in their self-esteem. For example, if someone compliments them they believe that they are the most good looking person in the world. And at the same time, if someone doesn’t compliment them or perhaps ignore them, they are likely to believe that they are the “ugliest” person in the world. 

These are only a few common instances during which splitting can come in as a defence mechanism. There are many more situations in which a person can use splitting to engage in all-or-nothing thinking. Such a kind of thinking can make it difficult to function with stability in relationships and otherwise. 

Why is Splitting such a Problem?

Splitting is a defence mechanism and so most of the times you will find that those who engage in splitting behaviour do so involuntarily. But this is an unhealthy coping mechanism and such behaviour in the long run can create significant problems psychologically, 

Unstable Relationships -

People who engage in regular splitting behaviour tend to find themselves in unstable relationships. Relationships become unstable mostly because splitting causes you to idealise and devalue relationships in extreme. When you constantly devalue and idealise your relationships, then it can cause a lot of strain on the couple which will create a lot of conflicts to arise. 

Rapid Mood Fluctuations - 

Having an all-or-nothing thinking can also cause a lot of mood fluctuations. When you think in black or white terms you are setting yourself up to experience a range of emotions. All-or-nothing thought patterns make you think in extremes. If something doesn’t work out in your favour, you are likely to see it as failure, when that is not the case. 

Low Self-Esteem - 

Splitting is seeing things in black-or-white terms. This is problematic in the long run because extreme fluctuations in mood can also cause extreme fluctuations in one’s self-esteem. This means that you are likely to experience a high sense of self-esteem over a happy event and an extremely low sense of self-esteem over a negative event. These fluctuations cause instability and on low days it can really bring down your ability to see the true nature of your worth. 

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Impact on Well-Being - 

Black or white thinking can have a very negative impact on a person’s well-being. This is because the extremes in thinking makes you more volatile to negative emotions like anxiety, and overthinking. This can aggravate over time and also cripple you to action because you are always worried about faltering. 

Low Emotional Regulation - 

Emotional regulation refers to the ability to manage your own and other’s emotions as well in an appropriate manner. It is normal to feel all the emotions, but it is important to regulate them in a healthy manner as well. Splitting does not allow you to regulate your emotions properly because you are vulnerable to thinking extremes in emotions - either extreme happiness, or extreme sadness or extreme anxiety. 

How can I Help Myself? 

Splitting is a behaviour that can be altered by self-help and consistent actions. 

Building Self-Awareness - 
The first thing you must do in order to help your splitting behaviour is to become more self-aware. This means that you must be able to identify and label the emotions you are going through every time a negative thought pops into your head. Only when you pay close attention to what you are thinking and feeling will you be able to decide how to proceed further. This will also help you become more emotionally intelligent so that you do a better job regulating the emotions next time. 

Becoming More Mindful - 
Mindfulness is the ability to focus on the present moment without any judgement influencing you from the past or about the future. It is the ability to be present in the “now”. This is a very useful skill that will help catch you in your splitting behaviour. This mindfulness can be cultivated through mindful breathing exercises, practising detachment to things and outcomes, or practising compassion meditation. These techniques will help you observe the moment, be in the moment and enjoy it. An example of how being mindful can help you in your splitting behaviour; Imagine that you get an average score on an exam. Splitting behaviour will cause you to think “I am a horrible student, I am a failure.” But if you practise mindfulness regularly, then you will only see the marks in the present tense and won’t compare it to the past or future. 

Reframe the Negative Thoughts - 
Another way in which splitting can be controlled is by reframing your negative thoughts. When you reframe your negative thoughts, the first thing you are doing is observing your thoughts and identifying them. This observation will allow you to acknowledge the emotion and the thought you have just experienced. Secondly, you are going to allow yourself to practise empathy to the thought. This means that you are going to reframe it into something practical and realistic. It doesn’t mean that the negative always has to be turned into blind positivity. It has to be reframed into a realistic thought after considerable explanation. If we take the above example, the thought, “I am a horrible student, I am a failure” should be first observed and acknowledged. After that you must evaluate if this thought is the truth. It is most likely that you have performed decently well in other subjects, and so calling yourself a horrible student and a failure then becomes untrue. So you must reframe the thought to “I did not perform well on this test, but I can do better next time because I have done better.” 
This way you will be able to practise empathy to your thoughts and be more compassionate towards yourself. You will be able to pull yourself out of negative thoughts the next time if you keep practising this. 

Work on Self-Esteem - 
A large reason why we engage in splitting behaviour or ruminate over negative thoughts is dependent on our self-esteem. When we have low self-esteem, we are going to have a poor vision of how we see ourselves. Naturally we are going to be very sensitive to negative situations or situations that are not in our favour. Building up our self-esteem through adequate self-help, self-care and psychotherapy will help us have a better vision of our worth. Our self-worth will pull us out of the dark pit of splitting thoughts the next time it arises. 

Find Healthier Coping Patterns - 
Splitting is a defence mechanism that pushes us to think and feel in extreme ways, (euphoria or depression). But a way in which you can reduce the impact of this defence mechanism on your daily behaviour is by developing healthier coping patterns. Healthy coping patterns like journaling, expression through art and craft, or even physical exercise through sports will help you identify your triggers and will serve as a toolkit that you can use in your difficult times. 

Splitting is a cognitive distortion that hinders our healthy, day-to-day functioning. It is not a fixed pattern and there are multiple ways in which you can alter this pattern. Awareness is the first step. The attempt of this blog was to help you build more awareness of this pattern and give you practical solutions on working on this pattern. We hope this serves you in your best interest!

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BetterHelp Editorial Team. (2023, September 21). What Is Splitting Psychology? BetterHelp, https://www.betterhelp.com/advice/psychologists/what-is-splitting-psychology/


Jacobson, S. (2023, May 19). What is ‘Splitting’ In Psychology? Harley Therapy, https://www.harleytherapy.co.uk/counselling/what-is-splitting-in-psychology.htm


Smith, A. D. (2021, December 26). Splitting: It’s Not Just For Borderline Personality. Psychology Today, https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/and-running/202112/splitting-it-s-not-just-borderline-personality


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