What Is Splitting in Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD)?
Splitting is a common characteristic of BPD. People with BPD are often highly manipulative and have few boundaries. They tend to take control over their environment and others’ lives. When they split, it’s usually because they feel threatened or hurt by someone else or something in life. A person with BPD may start to act out violently towards other people, then later become withdrawn from them.
A typical example of splitting would be if a person with BPD started to abuse alcohol or drugs and began abusing those substances themselves. Then after some time, they’d begin cutting up their arms or stabbing themselves in the neck. If this happens frequently, it could lead to self-harm and suicide. Other times a person might split because they’re having difficulty coping with everyday life.
For instance, a person with BPD might lose interest in work due to their moodiness. They might get into fights with family members or friends. These kinds of behaviors aren’t necessarily harmful, but they do cause problems if left unchecked.
The most dangerous kind of splitting behavior is when a person with BPD starts to harm themselves physically or emotionally without provocation. That’s called self-injury and it can lead to death if not treated immediately.
Splitting – A Defense Mechanism in Borderline Personality Disorder
As a defense mechanism, splitting is when someone sees someone as completely good or bad. It’s common for people with BPD to split other people into all good or all bad. Splitting happens when a person is overwhelmed emotionally and can’t cope with the stress of everyday life. They will start to criticize others and blame others for their problems.
They may also idealize others and become very dependent upon them. This is called the “ideal self” and it’s a way of gaining control over their own lives when they feel out of control.
A Practical Example of Splitting
People with BPD can’t handle criticism. They will split you into a horrible person if you criticize them even a little bit. For instance, if you tell them they shouldn’t drink so much, they’ll start insulting you, criticizing you, and calling you names. When they split, it’s like a second personality takes over.
They suddenly become very hostile towards others and will do anything to avoid taking responsibility for their actions.
They’ll also split in the opposite direction. If someone does something nice for them, they’ll become overly grateful. They’ll start to idealize that person and see them as a superhero. They’ll become very clingy and try to spend as much time with that person as possible.
If you try to set boundaries or don’t spend enough time with them, they will lash out and become very hostile towards you. This is called the “bad self”. As you can imagine, it’s very confusing when someone flips from idealizing you to criticizing you and vice versa. It’s even more confusing when the same person does it. This is a very dysfunctional way of relating to others and it makes everyone around them feel off balance.
Splitting can also be gender specific. For instance, splitting can be sexual in nature. A lot of people with BPD will see men as hyper-masculine and controlling. They’ll see women as submissive nurturers.
A lot of the time, they’ll have sexual fantasies about these people even if they don’t know them. This kind of behavior is also known as “transference” and it’s common in therapy. Transference happens when a patient transfers feelings they have about someone else onto their therapist. In this case, people with BPD will transfer their feelings about men onto their male therapists and feelings about women onto their female therapists. This causes the person with BPD to treat their therapists in a different way than they would otherwise. Transference also works the opposite way, people with BPD will sometimes transfer bad feelings towards their parents or other family members onto their therapists.
Splitting can be a self-defense mechanism. When a person gets rejected or criticized, they will start to hate that person. They will criticize and blame that person for their problems. This is the “bad self” taking over.
The problem is rather than overcome their problems, they’ve placed the blame on someone else. It’s easier to criticize someone else for your problems than it is to overcome them.
Dealing with Splitting
As I’ve stated before, it’s very confusing when people alternate between idealizing you and criticizing you. This is a very unhealthy way of relating to others and it’s not something you can really be “trained” out of. The best thing you can do is set boundaries and don’t tolerate the abuse.
People with BPD will criticize you for setting boundaries. They will start to idealize people who allow them to act in abusive ways. This is why it’s very important not to take their words at face value. Be sure to do your own research about proper treatment for BPD, there is a lot of misleading information out there.
There is a lot of bad advice such as buying a person with BPD a lot of gifts. This will reinforce their behavior because they get something out of it. Unfortunately, this type of reinforcement often happens unintentionally. If you take out a person with BPD, and they order an expensive dinner, you’re more likely to take them out again. Again, people with BPD are very manipulative and know how to get what they want out of others.
Splitting can be frustrating because people with BPD often don’t stick to one narrative. For instance, a person with BPD might call you a “bad boyfriend” for not taking them out to dinner, yet when you do take them out to dinner they criticize the way you’re dressed. If you try and point this out, they will say “well you shouldn’t care about what I think if you’re going to fulfill my needs”.
It’s important to remember that people with BPD are in a near-constant state of anxiety and their feelings fluctuate very rapidly. What may seem like a criticism one day may be an overwhelming amount of love the next. This is why it can be very difficult to deal with people with BPD.
Dealing with Attachment and Dependency
People with BPD often act as though everything is life or death. They may threaten suicide when something goes wrong in their lives. When this threat is made, it’s very important not to give into it. If someone threatens suicide, the best thing to do is get them help from a mental health professional.
People with BPD are very sensitive to being abandoned. This can be difficult because people with BPD can make others feel guilty for things that aren’t their fault.
Sources & references used in this article:
Splitting phenomena from a viewpoint of experiencing time: spectrum from multiple personality and hysteria to borderline personality disorder by H Shoda – Psychopathology, 1993 – karger.com
Splitting in schizophrenia and borderline personality disorder by O Pec, P Bob, J Raboch – PLoS One, 2014 – journals.plos.org
Borderline personality disorder by JG Gunderson – 1984 – nikavincenter.ir
A preliminary report on defenses and conflicts associated with borderline personality disorder by JC Perry, SH Cooper – Journal of the American …, 1986 – journals.sagepub.com
Social cognition and borderline personality disorder: splitting and trust impairment findings by EA Fertuck, S Fischer, J Beeney – Psychiatric Clinics, 2018 – psych.theclinics.com