Splitting (psychology)

Splitting (psychology)

Splitting (also called black and white thinking or all-or-nothing thinking) is the failure in a person's thinking to bring together both positive and negative qualities of the self and others into a cohesive, realistic whole. It is a common defense mechanism used by many people.[1] The individual tends to think in extremes (i.e., an individual's actions and motivations are all good or all bad with no middle ground.)

The concept of splitting was developed by Ronald Fairbairn in his formulation of object relations theory;[2] it begins as the inability of the infant to combine the fulfilling aspects of the parents (the good object) and their unresponsive aspects (the unsatisfying object) into the same individuals, but sees the good and bad as separate. In psychoanalytic theory this functions as a defense mechanism.[3] It is a relatively common defense mechanism for people with borderline personality disorder in DSM-IV-TR.


Splitting creates instability in relationships because one person can be viewed as either personified virtue or personified vice at different times, depending on whether he or she gratifies the subject's needs or frustrates them. This along with similar oscillations in the experience and appraisal of the self lead to chaotic and unstable relationship patterns, identity diffusion, and mood swings. The therapeutic process can be greatly impeded by these oscillations, because the therapist too can become seen as all good or all bad. To attempt to overcome the negative effects on treatment outcome, constant interpretations by the therapist are needed.[4]

Splitting contributes to unstable relationships and intense emotional experiences. Splitting is not uncommon during adolescence, but is regarded as transient. Splitting has been noted especially with persons diagnosed with borderline personality disorder.[5][6] Treatment strategies have been developed for individuals and groups based on dialectical behavior therapy, and for couples.[7] There are also self-help books on related topics such as mindfulness and emotional regulation that have been helpful for individuals who struggle with the consequences of splitting.[8]

Borderline personality disorder

Splitting is a relatively common defense mechanism for people with borderline personality disorder.[6] One of the DSM IV-TR criteria for this disorder is a description of splitting: "a pattern of unstable and intense interpersonal relationships characterized by alternating between extremes of idealization and devaluation".[9][10] In psychoanalytic theory, people with borderline personality disorder are not able to integrate the good and bad images of both self and others, resulting in a bad representation which dominates the good representation.[11] This school hypothesizes that they consequently experience love and sexuality in perverse and violent qualities which they cannot integrate with the tender, intimate side of relationships.[12]

Narcissistic personality disorder

People matching the diagnostic criteria for narcissistic personality disorder also use splitting as a central defense mechanism. Most often the narcissist does this as an attempt to stabilize his/her sense of self positivity in order to preserve his/her self-esteem, by perceiving himself/herself as purely upright or admirable and others who do not conform to his/her will or values as purely wicked or contemptible. Given "the narcissist's perverse sense of entitlement and splitting ... [s]he can be equally geared, psychologically and practically, towards the promotion and towards the demise of a certain collectively beneficial project".[13]

The cognitive habit of splitting also implies the use of other related defense mechanisms, namely idealization and devaluation, which are preventative attitudes or reactions to narcissistic rage and narcissistic injury.[11]

Janet and Freud

Splitting was first described by Pierre Janet, who coined the term in his book L'Automatisme psychologique. Sigmund Freud acknowledged Janet's priority, stating that "we [Breuer and I] followed his example when we took splitting of the mind and dissociation of the personality as the centre of our position".[14] However he also differentiated "between our view and Janet's. We do not derive the psychical splitting (German: Spaltung )[15] from an innate incapacity for synthesis ... we explain it dynamically, from the conflict of opposing mental forces ... repression".[16]

With the development of the idea of repression, splitting moved to the background of Freud's thought for some years, being largely reserved for cases of double personality: "The cases described as splitting of consciousness ... might better be denoted as shifting of consciousness, that function—or whatever it may be—oscillating between two different psychical complexes which become conscious and unconscious in turn".[17]

Increasingly, however, Freud returned to an interest in how it was "possible for the ego to avoid a rupture ... by effecting a cleavage or division of itself".[18] His unfinished paper of 1938, "Splitting of the Ego in the Process of Defence" (Ichspaltung),[15] took up the same theme, and in his Outline of Psycho-Analysis (1940a [1938]) "... [he] extends the application of the idea of a splitting of the ego beyond the cases of fetishism and of the psychoses to neuroses in general".[19]

The concept had meanwhile been further defined by his daughter Anna Freud; while Fenichel summarised the previous half-century of work to the effect that "a split of the ego into a superficial part that knows the truth and a deeper part that denies it may ... be observed in every neurotic".[20]

Kohut would then systematize the Freudian view with his contrast between "such 'horizontal splits' as those brought about on a deeper level by repression and on a higher level by negation", and "a 'vertical split in the psyche'... the side-by-side, conscious existence of otherwise incompatible psychological attitudes".[21]

Melanie Klein

There was, however, from early on, another use of the term "splitting" in Freud, referring rather to resolving ambivalence "by splitting the contradictory feelings so that one person is only loved, another one only hated ... the good mother and the wicked stepmother in fairy tales".[22] Or, with opposing feelings of love and hate, perhaps "the two opposites should have been split apart and one of them, usually the hatred, has been repressed".[23] Such splitting was closely linked to the defense of "isolation ... The division of objects into congenial and uncongenial ones ... making 'disconnections'."[24]

It was the latter sense of the term that was predominantly adopted and exploited by Melanie Klein. After Freud, "the most important contribution has come from Melanie Klein, whose work enlightens the idea of 'splitting of the object' (Objektspaltung)[25] (in terms of 'good/bad' objects)".[26] In her object relations theory, Klein argues that "the earliest experiences of the infant are split between wholly good ones with 'good' objects and wholly bad experiences with 'bad' objects",[27] as children struggle to integrate the two primary drives, love and hate, into constructive social interaction. An important step in childhood development is the gradual depolarization of these two drives.

At what Klein called the paranoid-schizoid position, there is a stark separation of the things the child loves (good, gratifying objects) and the things the child hates (bad, frustrating objects), "because everything is polarised into extremes of love and hate, just like what the baby seems to experience and young children are still very close to."[28] Klein refers to the good breast and the bad breast as split mental entities, resulting from the way "these primitive states tend to deconstruct objects into 'good' and 'bad' bits (called 'part-objects')".[29] The child sees the breasts as opposite in nature at different times, although they actually are the same, belonging to the same mother. As the child learns that people and objects can be good and bad at the same time, he or she progresses to the next phase, the depressive position, which "entails a steady, though painful, approximation towards the reality of oneself and others":[30] integrating the splits and "being able to balance [them] out ... are tasks that continue into early childhood and indeed are never completely finished."[31]

However, Kleinians also utilize Freud's first conception of splitting, to explain the way "In a related process of splitting, the person divides his own self. This is called 'splitting of the ego'."[15][32] Indeed, Klein herself maintained that "the ego is incapable of splitting the object—internal or external—without a corresponding splitting taking place within the ego".[33] Arguably at least, by this point "the idea of splitting does not carry the same meaning for Freud and for Klein": for the former, "the ego finds itself 'passively' split, as it were. For Klein and the post-Kleinians, on the other hand, splitting is an 'active' defence mechanism".[34] As a result, by the close of the century "four kinds of splitting can be clearly identified, among many other possibilities" for post-Kleinians: "a coherent split in the object, a coherent split in the ego, a fragmentation of the object, and a fragmentation of the ego."[35]

Otto Kernberg

In the developmental model of Otto Kernberg, the overcoming of splitting is also an important developmental task.[12] The child has to learn to integrate feelings of love and hate. Kernberg distinguishes three different stages in the development of a child with respect to splitting:

  • First stage: the child does not experience the self and the object, nor the good and the bad as different entities.
  • Second stage: good and bad are viewed as different. Because the boundaries between the self and the other are not stable yet, the other as a person is viewed as either all good or all bad, depending on their actions. This also means that thinking about another person as bad implies that the self is bad as well, so it's better to think about the caregiver as a good person, so the self is viewed as good too. "Bringing together extremely opposite loving and hateful images of the self and of significant others would trigger unbearable anxiety and guilt."[36]
  • Third stage: Splitting – "the division of external objects into 'all good' or 'all bad'"[37] – begins to be resolved when the self and the other can be seen as possessing both good and bad qualities. Having hateful thoughts about the other does not mean that the self is all hateful and does not mean that the other person is all hateful either.

If a person fails to accomplish this developmental task satisfactorily, borderline pathology can emerge. "In the borderline personality organization", Kernberg found 'dissociated ego states that result from the use of "splitting" defences'.[38] His therapeutic work then aimed at "the analysis of the repeated and oscillating projections of unwanted self and object representations onto the therapist" so as to produce "something more durable, complex and encompassing than the initial, split-off and polarized state of affairs".[39]


It has been suggested that interpretation of the transference "becomes effective through a sort of splitting of the ego into a reasonable, judging portion and an experiencing portion, the former recognizing the latter as not appropriate in the present and as coming from the past".[40] Clearly, "in this sense, splitting, so far from being a pathological phenomenon, is a manifestation of self-awareness".[41] Nevertheless, "it remains to be investigated how this desirable 'splitting of the ego' and 'self-observation' are to be differentiated from the pathological cleavage ... directed at preserving isolations".[40]

See also


  1. ^ The defense mechanism of splitting: developmental origins, effects on staff, recommendations for nursing care.
  2. ^ Rubens, R. L. (1996). "The unique origins of Fairbairn's Theories". Psychoanalytic Dialogues: The International Journal of Relational Perspectives 6 (3): 413–435.  
  3. ^  
  4. ^ Gould, J. R., Prentice, N. M. & Ainslie, R. C. (1996). "The splitting index: construction of a scale measuring the defense mechanism of splitting". Journal of Personality Assessment 66 (2), 414–430.
  5. ^ What is Borderline personality disorder - Splitting.
  6. ^ a b Mary C. Zanarini, Jolie L. Weingeroff, and Frances R. Frankenburg (April 2009). "Defense Mechanisms Associated with Borderline Personality Disorder". J Pers Disord 23 (2): 113–121.  
  7. ^ Siegel,J. P. Repairing Intimacy (1992) and Linehan, M. (1993).
  8. ^ Jacobs, B. 2004, Siegel, J. 2010.
  9. ^ "What is Borderline Personality Disorder?". Borderline Personality Disorder Resource Center at New York-Presbyterian Hospital. Retrieved 2013-04-27. 
  10. ^ "Diagnostic criteria for 301.83 Borderline Personality Disorder". DSM IV - TR. Retrieved 14 April 2013. 
  11. ^ a b Siegel, J. P. (2006). "Dyadic splitting in partner relational disorders". Journal of Family Psychology, 20 (3), 418–422.
  12. ^ a b  
  13. ^ Abdennur, the Narcissistic Principle of Equivalence, pp. 88–89.
  14. ^ Sigmund Freud, Five Lectures on Psycho-Analysis (London 1995) p. 25.
  15. ^ a b c  
  16. ^ Freud, Five p. 33.
  17. ^ Sigmund Freud, On Metapsychology (Middlesex 1987) pp. 53–4.
  18. ^ Sigmund Freud, On Psychopathology (Middlesex 1987) p. 217.
  19. ^ Angela Richards, "Editor's Note", Metapsychology p. 460.
  20. ^ Otto Fenichel, The Psychoanalytic Theory of Neurosis (London 1946) p. 145.
  21. ^ Heinz Kohut, The Analysis of the Self (Madison 1971) pp. 176–177.
  22. ^ Fenichel, Neurosis p. 157.
  23. ^ Sigmund Freud, Case Histories II (London 1991) p. 119.
  24. ^ Fenichel, Neurosis p. 158.
  25. ^ Laplanche, Jean; Pontalis, Jean-Bertrand (1973). "Splitting of the Object (p. 430)".
  26. ^ T. Bokanowski and S. Lewkowicz, On Freud's "Splitting of the ego in the process of defense" (London 2009) p. x.
  27. ^ Richard Appignanesi ed., Introducing Melanie Klein (Cambridge 2006) np [173].
  28. ^ Robin Skinner/John Cleese, Families and how to survive them (London 1994) p. 98.
  29. ^ Appignanesi, Klein p. 123.
  30. ^ Appignanesi, Klein p. 131.
  31. ^ Skinner, Families p. 98.
  32. ^ Appignanesi, Klein p. 125.
  33. ^ Quoted in Paul Holmes, The inner world outside (1992) p. 117.
  34. ^ Jean-Michel Quinodoz, Reading Freud (London 2005) p. 252.
  35. ^ Quoting Robert Hinshelwood, in Quinodoz, Reading Freud p. 252.
  36. ^ Otto F. Kernberg, Borderline Conditions and Pathological Narcissism (London 1990) p. 165.
  37. ^ Kernberg, Borderline p. 29
  38. ^ Paul Brinich and Christopher Shelley, The Self and Personality Structure (Buckingham 2002) p 51
  39. ^ Brinich, Self p. 51.
  40. ^ a b Fenichel, Neurosis p. 570.
  41. ^ Charles Rycroft, A Critical Dictionary of Psychoanalysis (London 1995) p. 174