The Splitting Defense Mechanism - How It Can Damage Your Relationships Without You Knowing | BetterHelp (2023)

Defense mechanisms may ward off unpleasant feelings such as unpredictability, fear, and shame. They can also give us a false sense of control over ourselves, other people, and our surroundings. Often, we aren’t aware of our defense mechanisms because they can be deeply unconscious, but they can also have unhealthy consequences.

What Is The Splitting Ego Defense Mechanism?

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Splitting is a common defense mechanism. It involves categorizing people or beliefs as either good or bad, positive or negative. By its nature, it is a black-and-white way of thinking. Individuals who struggle with splitting may view themselves and others in extremes, failing to integrate the complexities and nuances of life into one cohesive whole. Instead, they tend to polarize the world into opposites. The individual who uses splitting may have an internal battle where they feel a need to maintain a separation between good and bad to safeguard themselves. This may stem from anxiety, avoidance, insecurity, or even a subconscious reaction to stress.

Splitting can stem from an inability to grasp the uncertainties of what we encounter in daily life. Instead of saying, “It is what it is,” people with a splitting defense mechanism may oversimplify things and believe, “It must be good or bad. There cannot be an in-between.” This perception is often a response to anxiety and putting objects into categories while ignoring attributes that don't fit them can be detrimental to one’s development.

But not all splitting is bad. It can help us make sense of the world and make predictions in seemingly out-of-control environments. However, severe splitting can cause damage to not only ourselves but also our relationships.

Who Is It Most Commonly Used By?

Splitting is common among adolescents and young adults. People who have gone through childhood trauma also tend to use splitting as a defense mechanism. As a child, they may have been unable to reconcile the nurturing aspects with the unresponsive aspects of a caregiver. This could potentially lead them to categorize people as either all “good” or all “bad.”

Those diagnosed with narcissistic personality disorder (NPD) also have a strong tendency to split, categorizing people into either winners or losers. To maintain their self-esteem, they may see themselves as virtuous and admirable and those who don’t hold the same beliefs or values as beneath them.

Additionally, this trait can be found in people with borderline personality disorder, who can be caught between the extremes of idealizing someone one moment and devaluing them the next. Like those with NPD, they may be unable to integrate the goodness and badness of themselves and others.

Splitting Defense Mechanism Examples

Most of us are exposed to splitting from a young age. It is rampant in fairytales and movies where there is a stark split between the “good” heroes and “bad” villains. You may have also witnessed a friend falling in love and becoming hopelessly infatuated, only to notice that they avoid acknowledging their new love interest’s unfavorable personality traits. It is the “rose-colored glasses” effect of love in its early stages.

Other examples of splitting include political parties that regard the opposing side as purely contemptible, the very religious that categorize people into the saved or damned, and children of divorce who view one parent as exemplary and the other as despicable.

While splitting is common, the reality is that everything and everyone possesses both good and bad qualities. Even the most detestable person can possess some positive traits. People who have a healthy understanding of the world can typically acknowledge the layered complexities of people and life.

How Splitting Can Damage Relationships

Being in a relationship with someone who sees the world in black and white rather than shades of gray can be challenging. The habit of splitting can damage the people involved and potentially destroy a relationship.

The individual who uses splitting as a defense mechanism may only think in extremes and can have intense emotional experiences. They may unpredictably flip between thinking their partner is an angel and a devil. They may be unable to integrate feelings and thoughts about someone into a whole, and there can be no room for gray areas. This can be exhausting for the partner of a chronic splitter and possibly create feelings of never being good enough.

Depending on their needs and desires, an individual with a splitting defense mechanism may see the actions and motivations of their partner as all good or all bad. This can lead to frustration and possibly anger. When an argument escalates, it may result in the splitter losing respect for their partner and thinking that they are not worthy. Their object of resentment is sometimes fear, but something their partner does may reinforce their belief that everyone is bad, and then they could find any representations of this belief to potentially reinforce it.

This pattern can cause unhappiness for the splitter, as they may be unable to maintain a long-term relationship. They may be on the hunt for the perfect person and the perfect relationship. By denying the intricate layers of the human spirit, the individual may find themselves unsatisfied and always wanting more, even with a partner who loves them deeply.

Signs You Are Splitting

One of the biggest signs that you are splitting is saying that the flattering, positive qualities of yourself “are me” and the unflattering, negative qualities of yourself “are not me.” This indicates the splitting of yourself into two parts. You tend to reject and disown the content of yourself that you dislike. In reality, you likely have both positive and negative qualities. Splitting can also demonize those who are different from you while falsely reinforcing other thoughts. If you have a splitting defense mechanism, you may think:

  • You are either a success or a failure

  • Other people are all good or all bad

  • You are all good or all bad

Traits for those with a splitting defense mechanism include:

  • Intense mood swings and emotional fluctuations in a relationship

  • The tendency to idealize a partner, especially at the beginning of a relationship, then condemn them as time progresses

  • Pushing toward people and then pulling away

  • Searching for perfection in a relationship

  • Black and white thinking

  • The belief that they are right and everyone else is wrong

Ways To Overcome The Splitting Defense Mechanism

  1. Become aware of your behaviors and triggers. One way to dismantle the splitting defense mechanism is self-awareness. Realizing that you have been splitting and taking note of when you feel most triggered to split is the first step to growth.

  2. Respond, avoid reacting. Becoming mindful of how you react in certain situations may help you respond thoughtfully.

  3. Remember that people are multi-faceted. When you are tempted to judge someone, remind yourself of all the positive, negative, and neutral aspects of that person. When you think of them as being “bad,” remind yourself of the good things they do, and vice versa. Empathize and try to look beyond people’s actions into their motives. Try to avoid taking people’s actions personally.

  4. Seek help. Because splitting can be an unconscious defense mechanism, many people don’t realize they are doing it. Therapy can help uncover hidden thought patterns.

  5. Write in a journal. People who experience splitting may find it helpful to write down how they’re feeling and what they’re experiencing in a journal. Expressive writing can serve as a history of how the person is feeling and can help them process their emotions.

How BetterHelp Can Support You

Learn About Splitting And Its Impact

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If splitting is causing relationship challenges, therapy can help. Not only can therapy help you identify maladaptive defense mechanisms, but relationship counseling has been proven effective to improve relationships. While you can engage a therapist in-person, some people find it more convenient to work with an online therapist. And online therapy has been shown to be just as effective as in-person therapy. However, it can also be more affordable, as online therapists typically do not have the overhead associated with a brick-and-mortar office.

You will be able to meet from the comfort of your own home or wherever you feel most comfortable without having to deal with traffic to get to an office. You can also meet at a time that’s convenient for you to help alleviate stress. Read below for a couple of reviews of BetterHelp counselors with training in psychology.

Counselor Reviews

“I’m not sure I have the adequate words to express how much Dr. Drew has helped me. She is supportive, and has given me so many different outlets and tools to work through our therapy together. I have had therapists who have tunnel vision in where they’d like to direct the conversation, and it was a relief to not have that with Dr. Drew. She lets me organically go where I need to in the session. She also has been able to connect with my personality and direct therapy in a fashion that is conducive to my learning. I couldn’t recommend her enough.”

“I have really enjoyed working with Kim thus far. She has given me some excellent tools to manage and correct negative thought patterns in my daily life. I am so grateful for her patience, understanding, and just for her listening to me and helping me work through my thoughts.”

Takeaway

People and situations are usually not all good or all bad; they are both. And so are you. Being flawed is okay. It’s also okay that people have different beliefs and opinions. Without this, life and the people in it may not be as rich, layered, and interesting. By becoming aware of your tendency to split and finding invaluable support in therapy, you can rewire your brain so that it no longer needs to fit things into black and white categories.

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