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What is splitting in borderline personality disorder?

For people with borderline personality disorder (BPD), ‘splitting’ is a commonly used defense mechanism that is done subconsciously in an attempt to protect against intense negative feelings such as loneliness, abandonment and isolation.

Splitting causes a person to view everything and everyone in black and white, ‘absolute’ terms. It stops them from being able to recognise or accept paradoxical qualities in someone or something and doesn’t allow for any ‘grey areas’ in their thinking. Seeing and responding to the world in these extremes, through either a filter of positivity or negativity, can leave a person with BPD exhausted and emotionally drained. It can also lead to strains or fractures in their relationships as those close to the person become more and more affected by their behaviour.  

Why do people with borderline personality disorder experience splitting?

When a baby enters the world, they experience the things within it as either good or bad, or as all or nothing. As the baby develops psychologically, they begin to understand that the world isn’t just good or bad. They become able to integrate the idea that good and bad can be held in the same object. 

People with borderline personality disorder often experience overwhelming emotions and struggle to integrate the concept that good and bad can co-exist in another person. Splitting is a psychological mechanism which allows the person to tolerate difficult and overwhelming emotions by seeing someone as either good or bad, idealised or devalued.  This makes it easier to manage the emotions that they are feeling, which on the surface seem to be contradictory.

Types of splitting experienced by people with borderline personality disorder

A person with borderline personality disorder may use splitting in the following ways:

  • People will be seen as ‘perfect’ or ‘evil’
  • Something will ‘always’ or ‘never’ go right
  • Someone will ‘always’ or ‘never’ be loving

A person may hold onto these black and white views permanently. For others, their opposing views can fluctuate over time, where they switch from seeing someone or something as entirely good to entirely bad, or vice versa.  

The impact of splitting on people and relationships

A common symptom of BPD is emotional dysregulation – this is where a person is less able to manage their emotional responses than individuals who don’t struggle with a personality disorder. Therefore, when a person with the disorder splits and perceives something or someone to be entirely good or bad, they are likely to respond in a way that falls outside what would be expected. These extreme emotions can be exhausting, both to the person with BPD and those who are closest to them.

When seeing someone or something as entirely good, this can leave the person with BPD vulnerable to harm and danger as they are unable to see associated risks. Also, when believing a person is completely perfect, this can also lead to co-dependency, where they rely on that individual for all their wants and needs. This can be harmful to both parties, and a draining responsibility.

When a real or perceived slight is then experienced by the person with borderline personality disorder, this can cause them to feel disappointed, betrayed, unloved or abandoned, and view the other party as entirely bad. The individual may then become angry, or withdraw entirely. They may also become incredibly angry at themselves. There are techniques to manage anger during this time. 

Helping a loved one with borderline personality disorder and splitting  

If you are close to a person with borderline personality disorder, there are a number of ways to support them so that they are able to better manage their splitting behaviour. These include the following:

  • Remember that splitting is a symptom of borderline personality disorder - while it can be difficult not to take their words and actions personally, remember that the person is not intentionally trying to hurt you. Splitting is something that they are doing unknowingly
  • Think about how you respond to the person who is splitting - try to remain calm and if you find this difficult, give yourself an opportunity to cool down by postponing the conversation
  • Show the person that you really do care - a person with BPD is likely to be dealing with feelings of abandonment, isolation and loneliness. Therefore, try to show the person that they are cared for and that they are heard
  • Set healthy boundaries to help manage behaviours – work with the person with BPD to set limits so that they understand the behaviours that you won’t tolerate, such as throwing objects or violence. While these boundaries may be unintentionally challenged at times, make sure that you carry out the pre-determined consequence, which may include walking away from the situation

It is also important for you to encourage the person to receive the right treatment, and be an advocate of it when they do so.

Borderline personality disorder support and treatment at Priory Group

At Priory Group, our mental health experts are experienced in providing treatment to people with borderline personality disorders.

This treatment includes talking therapies and the prescription of appropriate medication to help with the ongoing management of the disorder.

Through therapeutic programmes such as dialectical behaviour therapy (DBT), we can help a person to better understand the repressed fears that are leading to their splitting behaviour. We will then work with that person to seek alternative and healthier ways of dealing with their feelings, helping them to view the world and those within it in a way that is less self-destructive.

Depending on the severity of an individual’s personality disorder and the type of treatment that is recommended, support at Priory Group can be provided on a residential, day care or outpatient basis.

Our residential treatment programmes provide people with 24-hour care and support, which can include psychotherapy sessions, rehabilitative workshops and creative classes. Day care and outpatient care can also be provided when a borderline personality disorder isn’t as severe, providing a person with the opportunity to take part in therapy sessions in a flexible and supportive environment.

Blog reviewed by Dr Liam Parsonage (BA, MBBS, MRCPsych, PGCert) Consultant Psychiatrist at Priory Hospital North London

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