Monmouth County's Ask The Doctor May - June 2021

What is Splitting Defense Mechanism? By Pam Teel

H E A L T H A R T I C L E S A N D Q & A

Splitting is a common ego defense mechanism. It can be defined as categorizing people or beliefs as either, good or bad, positive or negative. It is a black and white way of thinking. Individuals who struggle with split- ting view themselves and their lives in extremes, fail to integrate the complexities and nuances of life into one cohesive whole. Instead, they tend to polarize the world into opposites.

Splitting stems from the inability to grasp the uncer- tainties of what we encounter in day-to-day life. Instead of saying, "It is what it is," people with a splitting ego de- fense mechanism overly simplify things and believe, "It must be good or bad. There cannot be an in-between." Not all splitting is bad. It can help us make sense of the world and make predictions in seemingly out-of-con- trol environments. However, severe splitting can cause damage to not only ourselves but also our relationships. Defense mechanisms are put in place by us to protect us, but often to the detriment of our emotional well-be- ing. They ward off and defend us from unpleasant feel- ings such as unpredictability, fear and shame and any other unbearable feelings or needs we may have. They also give us a false sense of control over ourselves, other people and our surroundings. We aren't aware of how much control they can have over our lives as they can be deeply unconscious but, used frequently, it can result in unhealthy consequences for the individual. Most commonly, adolescents, teenagers, and young adults present with this coping mechanism. People who have gone through childhood trauma also tend to use splitting as a defense mechanism; as a child, they were unable to combine the nurturing aspects with the unresponsive aspects of a parent or caregiver. 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 see themselves as virtuous and admirable and those who don't hold the same beliefs or values as beneath them. Finally, this trait is found in people with borderline personality disorder, who are caught between the extremes of idealizing someone one moment and devaluing them the next. Like those with NPD, they are unable to integrate the goodness and badness of themselves and others. 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. 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 among people and groups in society, the reality is that everything and everyone possesses both good and bad qualities. Even the most detestable person will possess some positive traits. People who have a healthy under- standing of the world acknowledge the layered complexities of people and life. Being in a relationship with someone who sees the world in black and white is not easy. The habit of incessant splitting can cause chaos, damage the people involved, and ultimately destroy the relationship.

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